Supernatural Treatment in Paradise Lost Book 2

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      The element of the supernatural has always been an important constituent of poetry. It strikes that note of mystery and wonder which true poetry always tries to evoke. The film of familiarity and the coating of custom always blur our vision and so things of everyday experience often fail to excite that sense of wonder in us. Of course it must be admitted that great poetry with the help of that light which is "the consecration and the poet’s dream" can illuminate an ordinary thing into something extraordinary and direct our mind's attention to the loveliness and the wonders of the world before us by awakening it from the lethargy of custom; but it is a fact that a supernatural subject, if properly treated, can more easily and directly create that mental attitude.

      The subject matter of Paradise Lost itself is supernatural. Milton deals here with beings and events which transcend the limitations of our poor human experience. The bowery loneliness and blissful innocence of Paradise, the sapphire throne and holy light of Heaven, the icy torments and fiery horrors of Hell, the inconceivable monstrosities and tremendous confusions of Chaos, angels, devils, Gorgons, Hydras, Chimaeras, Sin and Death, all are far from our thoughts. But still Milton has achieved signal success among all those poets who have introduced into their work the agency of supernatural beings. This success of his, if carefully analyzed, will be found to depend on two main factors. First he has tried, as far as it is practicable and consonant with our fundamental conception of the supernatural, to create a human interest in the speeches and actions of his characters and secondly, he has been wise enough to avoid all exact details, thus leaving on our minds only a mysterious impressionistic picture. It is very difficult to handle supernatural beings in poetry whose main function is to deal with images. But poetry which relates to the beings of another world ought to be mysterious as well. So the success of a poem on a supernatural subject depends on the happy combination of these two elements. Dante in going to make his Divine Comedy picturesque has divested it of mystery. His "angels are good men with wings. His devils are spiteful ugly executioners. His dead men are merely living men in strange situations." But Milton has achieved singular success in combining the picturesque with the mysterious in the great epic of his life. But in going to do it he had to stand guilty before the bar of logic and metaphysics. His spirits are both material and immaterial at the same time. Macaulay in his celebrated Essay on Milton rightly remarks: "The spirits of Milton are unlike those of almost all other writers. His friends, in particular, are wonderful creations. They are not metaphysical abstractions. They are not wicked men. They are not ugly beasts. They have no horns, no tails, none of the fee-faw-fum of Tasso and Klopstock. They have just enough in common with human nature to be intelligible to human beings. Their characters are like their forms, marked by a certain dim resemblance to those of men, but exaggerated to gigantic dimensions, and veiled in mysterious gloom."

      In his descriptions of Hell and Chaos, Sin and Death, Milton achieves wonderful effects with the help of his "dim intimations". Remote suggestions and not direct and definite descriptions are alone effective in impressing on our minds things and beings that are supernatural and therefore transcend our sense experiences. Any attempt at lucidity and plain business-like description would certainly have spoiled some of his finest effects in Paradise Lost by divesting them of the element of mystery. He does not vulgarise Hell like Dante by measuring it with ruler and compass, but throws over it a far more mysterious and powerful fascination when he calls it:

"A Universe of death, which God by curse
Created evil, for evil only good,
Where all life dies, death lives, and Nature breeds
Perverse, all monstrous, all prodigious things,
Abominable, inutterable and worse
Than fables yet have feigned, or fear conceived,
Grogons and Hydras, and Chimaeras dire"

      What a dreadful region of gloom, suffering, horror, and annihilation is this! The presentation of Chaos is even more powerful. When the Hell-gates are opened, Satan, Sin and Death are amazed, because-

"Before their eyes in sudden view appear
The secrets of the hoary deep, a dark
Illimitable ocean, without bound
Without dimension; where length, breadth, and height,
And time, and place, are lost; where eldest Night
and Chaos, ancestors of Nature, hold
Eternal anarchy, amidst the noise
Of endless wars, and by confusion stand".

      The description of Death is a wonderful achievement of Milton. It is a bundle of vagueness, incongruities and contradictions. Any attempt at definiteness would have at once spoiled that monstrous intangibility. The poet writes:

"The other shape-
If shape if might be called that shape had none
Distinguishable in member, joint, or limb;
Or substance might be called that shadow seemed,
For each seemed either-black it stood as Night,
Fierece as ten Furies, terrible as Hell
And shook a dreadful dart"

      In describing the companions of the hoary Anarch of Chaos, Milton says:

"With him enthroned
Sat sable-vested Night, eldest of things,
The consort of his reign; and by them stood
Orcus and Ades, and the dreaded name
Of Demogorgon; Rumour next and Chance
And Tumult and Confusion all embroiled
And Discord with a thousand various mouths"

      What a strange administers of metaphysical abstraction and mythological personalities! Here concrete persons thin away into vague abstractions and vague abstractions shape themselves into concrete realities.

      But Dr. Johnson finds fault with Milton for his inconsistency in the treatment of supernatural agents who are sometimes material bodies and sometimes immaterial conceptions. But Milton was too great a poet not to know that poetry is no philosophy and what is bad philosophy may be quite good poetry. He was not ready to court disgraceful failure in going to affect metaphysical accuracy. So with a rare genius and true poetical insight he has achieved great success in his treatment of the supernatural - a task in which even a great poet like Dante proved a failure.

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