After they conclude their parliamentary debate about whether or not to wage another war against God, the rebel angels make plans to scout the cosmos out to see if the rumor they’ve heard about the creation of mankind is true. Their plan is to torment Man as a way of tormenting God, since the rumor they’ve heard is that God loves Man more than he loves the angels. Satan was silent during the first half of Book II, but now he takes charge and gives a speech about leadership. He refers to the other angels as “Peers” (II.445) – another reference to English parliamentary nomenclature – but also seems to take for granted that he is the leader of the group. The general idea of his speech is that leaders have to accept a greater share of risk than followers do, so he volunteers to be the one to do the reconnaissance on Man:
Wherefore do I assume
These royalties, and not refuse to reign,
Refusing to accept so great a share
Of hazard as of honor, due alike
To him who reigns, and so much to him doe
Of hazard more, as he above the rest
High honored sits? (II. 450-456)
It’s hard to tell whether to take Satan seriously here, and it’s also hard to tell how ironic Milton wants these lines to seem. On the one hand, this is a familiar idea – the captain going down with the ship, the expressions “above my paygrade” and “they don’t pay me enough to [insert disgusting job responsibility here]” – but it becomes a bit troubling when we remember Milton’s political leanings. Satan is acting an awful lot like Cromwell here. Like the Lord Protector, Satan leads a rebellion against a tyrant but almost immediately begins to speak of himself in regal terms. As far as we know, no election has placed Satan in charge; he simply assumes the role of leader because he was in charge of the revolution. Since Milton was a supporter of Cromwell’s revolution against Charles I, it’s hard to know how to interpret his choices here. Milton is pro-rebellion, but he also believes in democratic rule. But what’s noteworthy here is that the fallen angels are mimicking human behavior here – overthrowing a tyrant in order to become tyrants themselves.
Satan gives the other angels instructions to stay in hell and spiff up the place (“render Hell / More tolerable” [II.459-460]) while also keeping an eye out for enemies (“intermit no watch / Against a wakeful foe” [II.462-4]). He doesn’t allow debate about who should take the fact-finding mission because that kind of discussion might result in a larger group taking the trip and would thereby compromise Satan’s opportunity to claim all the glory, allowing other angels to “[win] cheap the high repute / Which he through hazard huge must earn” (II.472-3) – and, again, he is acting an awful lot like any number of power-hungry human beings I could name. I suppose the point is that Satan is characterized by a refusal to obey or defer to anyone, and when human beings behave this way, it is because Satan has compelled them to do so. In this scene, the other angels immediately defer to Satan: “Towards him they bend / With awful reverence prone; and as a god / Extol him equal to the highest in Heav’n” (II.477-9).
A moment later, Satan ends his speech and the omniscient narrator of the poem inserts some commentary about human beings (human beings of Milton’s time, of course, since the idea of Man is only a rumor in the timeline of the poem):
O shame to men! Devil with devil damned
Firm concord holds, men only disagree
Of creatures rational, though under hope
Of heavenly grace: and God proclaiming peace,
Yet live in hatred, enmity, and strife
Among themselves, and levy cruel wars,
Wasting the earth, each other to destroy:
As if (which might induce us to accord)
Man had not hellish foe besides,
That day and night for his destruction wait. (II.496-505)
In other words, human beings tend to forget that we have a common enemy in Satan and the other fallen angels, and we should band together to fight our common enemy instead of constantly fighting each other. Are you hearing this, Kim Jung Un?
OK. Let’s flash forward a little bit here. Satan takes off on his recon mission, and it soon becomes clear that Milton’s cosmos is very, very confusing. I’ve always been a fan of Dante’s model of the universe, in which Hell was created when God picked Satan up and hurled him out of heaven. For Dante, hell is the pit created by the enormous force of Satan’s body striking earth, and the huge mountain of earth that was displaced by the creation of Hell is Purgatory – and of course we like Purgatory an awful lot around here. Dante’s model doesn’t completely stand up to scrutiny either, namely because Mount Purgatory leads a person to heaven, and it’s hard to imagine how heaven could be on both the hell side and the Purgatory side of earth. For example, if Heaven is California, and God threw Satan toward Earth, which is in Nebraska, and the hole Satan’s body created caused a huge mountain to pop out of earth, emerging somewhere around New Jersey, and we climb the mountain, how exactly are we in California again? This incongruity has always bothered me when I’ve read and taught Dante, but ultimately the fact that Dante’s cosmology is simple almost to the point of being cartoonish (it’s always struck me as something that Wily Coyote and the Road Runner ought to be involved in) is OK, because the ideas in his Divine Comedy are not simple, and the simplicity of his cosmos makes it easy to visualize the events of his poem taking place.
Milton’s cosmos, on the other hand, is nuts. First of all, the epic takes place somewhere during the time period described in the first few verses of Genesis, when God is supposedly creating the heavens and the earth. Yet earth and its inhabitants are only a rumor at this point. Book I begins with the fallen angels lying in a heap, suggesting that they were also thrown from some kind of height. Here in Book II, Satan does a lot of flying around (yet is consistently described using nautical imagery), and the implication is that he is flying through lots of darkness and empty space, except whoops! There are some rivers there – four of them – and also some continents. All this this confusion becomes even stranger – but also more interesting – by the fact that, according to the introduction in my text, Milton knew and respected Galileo and might have actually looked into space with Galileo’s very own telescope (this matter is apparently still undecided by scholars, but still – doesn’t it give you goosebumps? It gives me goosebumps), and apparently – again, according to my introduction – Milton said on several occasions that he considered it impossible for us ever to know whether the earth revolved around the sun or vice versa.
We get some quick descriptions of the fallen angels exploring Hell, but most of the rest of Book II involves Satan’s first encounters with Sin and Death, who live right at the entrance to hell. These passages seem to borrow a bit from medieval mystery plays and other similar allegories, with actors who are named after abstract concepts. Sin is apparently half woman and half snake. Satan ruffles his feathers up a bit and hopes to intimidate Sin into letting him out of hell. Sin replies with a monologue of her own, asserting her own authority over Hell and calling Satan out as an arrogant upstart. She provides some interesting demographics here: apparently one-third of God’s angels were involved in Satan’s rebellion. So, in other words, two-thirds of the angels remain in heaven, and, by extension, the good angels still outnumber the even ones in the cosmos.
Sin, of course, is not intimidated by Satan, and they circle around like the Bloods and the Crips for a while. The problem for Satan here is that Sin possesses the key to the gates of Hell, and unless he defeats her, he’ll never be able to leave hell. Unsure of what to do, Sin addresses God and makes some references to God’s “only son” (II.728). These references seem to refer to Satan, but they really shouldn’t, since the phrase so clearly refers to Christ – and I remember that within another book or two, God and Christ will be conversing in heaven. The best I can do here is to posit that Sin uses this phrase to reflect the fact that Satan was God’s most beloved angel before he rebelled.
Another option is that Sin is not actually addressing God here. Satan later asks, “What thing thou art, thus double-formed, and why / In this infernal vale first met thou call’st / Me father, and that phantasm call’st my son / I know thee not, nor ever saw till now / Sight more detestable than him and thee” (II.741-5).
Are you thinking what I’m thinking – that this sounds like a great premise for an episode of Maury Povich? Is Maury Povich even still around, and still conducting paternity tests? If not, this whole God-Christ-Satan-Sin conundrum would be a great excuse to come out of retirement.
Next Sin makes another long speech about how Satan used to think she was beautiful and then makes reference to the fact that apparently Sin came into being by springing fully-formed out of his head, and then Satan took one look at Sin and fell in love with her – Narcissus-style, I guess. Then Sin recalls that “such joy thou took’st / With me in secret, that my womb conceived / A growing burden” (II.765-7).
(How can Satan possibly not remember this? Hey Jill – this is like Satan’s version of the Missing Day!)
So – pregnant with Satan’s baby – Sin was also cast out to heaven, but for her this relocation was not a punishment but a job offer: Sin guards the gates of hell. So she’s sitting around getting used to her new job when her labor pains start: “til my womb / Pregnant by thee, and now excessive grown / Prodigious motion felt and rueful throes” (778-780).
So Sin gives birth, and immediately after her baby is born she calls it her “inbred enemy” (II.785). Apparently she has a slight case of postpartum depression. Sin screams “Death!” at this point, and because Hell is apparently a bit of an echo chamber, she hears echoes of her own yell coming back to her, and somehow in all this mayhem, Death became the name of the baby. Shortly after being born, Death rapes his mother, and the resultant offspring are the hellhounds, who every so often jump back into Sin’s womb and gnaw on her intestines.
I don’t think Milton was paying very close attention in his genetics class. But I digress.
Sin summarizes her relationship with her wayward infant rapist son and her canine children (who are also her canine grandchildren) in these words:
Before mine eyes in opposition sits
Grim Death my son and foe, who sets them on,
And me his parent will full soon devour
For want of other prey, but that he knows that I
Should prove a bitter morsel, and his bane,
Whenever that shall be” (II.804-9)
In other words, the only taboo that restrains Death is the taboo that says THOU SHALT NOT EAT YOUR MOTHER WHO IS ALSO YOUR RAPE VICTIM. It’s sort of a “Neither can live while the other survives” situation à la Voldemort, I guess.
Oh, and one more thing: Death is starving, because no one has died yet. I guess that makes sense, since God hasn’t created humans yet (or has only just recently created them, if Beelzebub’s rumor proves true). When Satan gives a speech to both Sin and Death, he accepts them as his offspring and turns on his seductive charm, offering to set Sin and Death free if they pledge their loyalty to him – an ironic offer, since it is Sin, not Satan, who holds the key to hell. Sin considers the offer, questioning her loyalty to God, who cast her out of heaven simply because she popped out of Satan’s head, which totally wasn’t her fault and could happen to anyone. She finally does pledge her loyalty to Satan and opens the gates of hell, but apparently the gates of hell are so heavy that she uses up all of her strength opening them and then is completely exhausted and can’t close them again. Oops.
Next we are briefly introduced to Night and Chaos, two more allegorical figures who are apparently “ancestors of Nature” (II.895) (I’m not sure I want to know how that coupling happened – give me a nice staid Leda and the swan any day). Chaos is apparently an “umpire” (II.907), which surely meant something different in 1667 than it does today, and the region around the gates of hell – now that they are opened – is described as a “wild abyss” (II.910) and “the womb of Nature and perhaps her grave” (911). And then Satan leaves hell and flies around and is described as a ship, which seems confusing until you remember that the idea that humans would one day fly in planes and other contraptions probably never occurred to Milton, so the movement of a ship being tossed about by wind and waves was probably the closest analogy he could think of. Fair enough.
Next, there’s an explosion. The footnote in my text reads, “Satan’s escape from oblivion owes to the rebuff (counterblast) of a cloud instinct with (moved or impelled by) fire and niter, ingredients of gunpowder, Satan’s signature invention from chaotic materials” (Notes to II.935-8). This note is confusing to say the least, but the point is that the explosion prompts him to move much more quickly than he would have moved otherwise; in fact, Milton claims that if not for the explosion Satan would still be falling (“still” meaning in 1667, I guess). That’s some serious gunpowder.
Next we learn a little more about Chaos and Night, namely that Chaos is a boy and Night is a girl, and then we meet some more allegorical figures – Orcus, Ades, Demogorgon, Rumor, Chance, Tumult, Confusion, and Discord – and then finally we meet someone called “the Anarch” (II.988), who confirms for Satan that Earth does in fact exist and explains that Earth hangs from heaven on “a golden chain” (II.1005). And from here not much more happens, except that Sin and Death follow Satan through Chaos (which is also a place as well as an umpire) and there’s some alliteration and more nautical imagery, and then Satan gets his first glimpse of Earth, which sort of gave me the shivers even though I know full well that it’s all going to be downhill from here.
Next comes Book III, of course, but I’m also planning to write a couple of posts within the next week or so about some strategies for dealing with Milton’s language, which is just so hard. I also want to reread the introduction to my text – I haven’t read it in over two years, and when I skimmed through it to find the information about Galileo, I remembered how fascinating it was. More soon!