Paradise Lost I & II: Highlights

1. Philip Pullman epiphany

Unless th’Almighty Maker them ordain / His dark materials to create more worlds –

2. Ovid’s Echo

(This is Sin’s account of the time she gave birth to Death and he raped her. Obviously.)

I fled, and cried out, Death! / Hell trembled at the hideous name, and sighed / From all her caves, and back resounded Death!

Echo is the nymph cursed by Juno so that she cannot speak of her own volition but is compelled to repeat the last bit of what anyone else says. In Ovid’s Metapmorphoses, she falls in love with Narcissus, who later falls in love with his own reflection as a punishment for his vanity. (Here’s a translation (not mine) of the relevant bit – it’s very very good and not very long.)

John_William_Waterhouse_-_Echo_and_Narcissus
Echo and Narcissus – John William Waterhouse – 1903

Narcissus has lost his companions while out hunting and is calling for them. He
shouts, “huc coeamus”, “let’s meet here” and Echo, watching him, responds, “coeamus”, which can mean “let’s meet” or “let’s come together” – OR “let’s have sex”. She emerges from the woods and tries to embrace him (bit weird, I know) but Narcissus backs away, saying, “ante emoriar quam sit tibi copia nostri”, “May I die before power over me is yours.” (Bit harsh, I know.) And she echoes, “sit tibi copia nostri”, “Let power over me be yours!” Wholly embarrassed, Echo hides in “lonely caves” (“solis…antris”) and wastes away until only her voice is left.

Sin’s narrative reminded me of this not just because of the caves and the echo but because of how Milton doesn’t just describe the echo; he plays it out in the poem by actually repeating “Death”. It’s no Metamorphoses but it’s pretty cool.

3. War Imagery and Isolation

(These are my favourite lines in Books I and II.)

…the superior Fiend / Was moving toward the shore; his ponderous shield, / Ethereal temper, massy, large, and round, / Behind him cast. The broad circumference / Hung on his shoulders like the moon…

Oh gosh – it’s just so pretty. I’ve even drawn a little heart next to it in my copy. I initially fell in love with the simile and that’s what I’m going to focus on but I like the whole thing: the way “was moving” is right near the start, identifying the moment, and then Milton just languishes in it – turns it into a piece of cinema. I love that the word “ponderous” even sounds heavy and I love that this massive object is “cast” behind Satan, like a shadow. Then it’s the moon – the MOON! The moon can symbolise so much!

Screenshot 2016-06-25 at 23.39.40.png
The video is from Nerdwriter1 – I encourage you to have a look at the channel if you’re so inclined.

(E.E. Cummings uses it as a symbol a lot, according to this video you absolutely should watch if you like analysing poems and you like feeling warm and fuzzy inside.)

Anyway, the moon: pale, deathly, solitary – often described as lonely – it’s perfect here. Really bloody big, too, which ties in nicely with the motif of scale I mentioned over here. I think the isolation thing is most poignant, though, since the shield is a symbol of the conflict which saw Satan and his companions cast out of Heaven. In choosing to start a war, they chose isolation from God. That loneliness now hangs on Satan’s shoulders like the weight of the world – or THE MOON!!! (You should know that I am not flippant about my use of punctuation; if I put three exclamation marks, I mean it.) Milton continually reminds us of it, like when he says of the angels, “Their rising all at once was like the sound / Of thunder heard remote” – the image is mainly about looming, inexorable danger but the last word emphasises distance.

It seems that, in general, Milton likes to emphasise that war is bad: he follows up the
shield image with, “His spear…He walked with, to support uneasy steps”. I couldn’t help but mention this because it’s such a neat little subversion of the way conflict had traditionally been glorified in Epic poetry – from the Iliad (8th cen

aeneasandturnus
The Fight between Aeneas and King Turnus, from Virgil’s Aeneid – Giacomo del Po – circa 1700

tury BC) to Spenser’s The Faerie Queene (published 1590-96). In Paradise Lost IX, Milton openly derides works which “dissect / With long and tedious havoc fabled knights / In battles feigned”, favouring instead “the better fortitude / Of patience and heroic martyrdom /Unsung” – even though his poem is heavily influenced by this genre. He’s managed to appropriate all the clout of the Epic tradition while constantly inverting its trappings. That is why Milton is so fucking amazing.

Goodnight.

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