Universal Chaos in Paradise Lost Book 2

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      The theme of Paradise Lost is stated by Milton in the opening lines of the first Book to be:

Of Man’s first disobedience, and the fruit
Of that forbidden tree whose mortal taste
Brought death into the world, and all our woe,
With loss of Eden.

      But it is not so simple as these lines define it. The disobedience of man is brought about through Satan; as an indirect agent: he seduces man in revenge for the punishment inflicted on him and his crew for their disobedience to God. Therefore, the action of the poem takes place not in one spot, but in three different places separated by an infinity of distances: the Material Universe, Hell and Heaven, and between all of them lies Chaos. The vast comprehension of the story, both in space and in time leading up to the point of Man’s first disobedience makes Paradise Lost unique among epics, and entitles Milton to speak of it as involving “things yet unattempted in prose and rhyme.” Milton was confronted with the problem of rendering all this incomprehensible infinity plausible and credible, and he did it by presenting it symbolically in terms of human experience. The poet himself is careful to stress the point that he has been obliged to place the spiritual on the material plane, and that his pictures are purely symbolical, not literal, since human language must be employed to describe what is beyond human understanding. Once he has thus excused and explained himself, he is quite clear in his mind as to the divisions of Infinite Space. He proceeds about his business with mathematical precision even. His pictures therefore are well-defined.

Description of Heaven

      Milton divides Infinite Space roughly into two regions, the “upper” being a region of light, Heaven or the Empyrean, and the “lower” being a region of darkness, Chaos. The impression we get of Heaven from Book II is that it is “undetermined square or round, with opal towers and battlements adorned, of living sapphire.” It is the bright and boundless region of Light, Freedom, Happiness, and Glory, which the fallen angels regret having lost altogether. It is fortified by impregnable walls, which are closely guarded by ever-wakeful sentries; yet the sacred influence of its light diffuses on the verge of Chaos, so that Satan arriving here in his flight to the world finds it more easy to traverse. In the midst of this region the Deity, though omnipresent, has His immediate and visible dwelling. ‘He is surrounded by a vast population of beings, “the Angels” or the “Sons of God”, who draw near to His throne in worship, derive thence their nurture and their delight, and yet live dispersed through all the ranges and recesses of the region, leading severally their mighty lives and performing the behests of God, but organized into companies, orders, and hierarchies. But Heaven at large, or portions of it, are figured as tracts of a celestial Earth, with plain, hill, and valley, wherein the myriads of the Sons of God expatriate, in their two orders of Seraphim and Cherubim, and in their descending ranks as Archangels or Chiefs, Princes of various degrees, and individual Intelligence.’

      Book II gives the fullest picture of the deep of Chaos the “lower” part of Infinitude, but in words which are at best symbolical. Its appearance is struck off in about half-a-dozen lines of the most beautiful poetry. It is ‘a huge, limitless ocean, abyss, or quagmire, of universal darkness and lifelessness, wherein are jumbled in blustering confusion the elements of all matter, or rather the crude embryos of all the elements, ere as yet they are distinguishable. There is no light there, nor properly Earth, Water Air, or Fire, but only a vast pulp or welter of unformed matter, in which all these lies tempestuously intermixed.’

      It is the hoariest in Infinite Time, having existed coeval with Heaven. From it other worlds have come into being - first Hell, later the Material Universe. Thus it is the womb of Nature and, when these worlds shall again be destroyed, her grave as well. Being illimitable and unbuttoned, the way through it is described as long and hard. The turbulence of the elements in their embryonic state is so fierce that there is the danger of an object being crushed and reduced to its atoms, if caught in their welter. Satan fears as much when he describes the difficulties of the adventure in the assembly:

These past, if any pass the void profound
Of unessential Night receives him next,
Wide-gaping, and with utter loss of being
Threatens him, plunged in that abortive gulf.

      Satan’s experience does not belie his fears. He is environed around on all sides with these fighting elements. He is harder “beset than when Argo passed through Bosporus, betwixt the justling rocks, or when Ulysses on the larboard shunned Charybdis, and by the other whirlpool steered.”

      The atoms being in a perpetual state of war, their collisions fill the atmosphere with loud noises. Satan’s ears are pealed “with noises loud and ruinous,” more clamorous than those made by the battering engines of Bellona bent on raising a city, or by the Earth when she is tom from her axle by the fall of Heaven. As he approaches the throne of Chaos his ears are assailed by “a universal hubbub wild of stunning sounds and voices all confused.” These noises become still only in the confines of Heaven.

Journey through Chaos

      It is possible to distinguish, though symbolically, some of the regions of this vast abrupt from the description that Milton gives of Satan’s voyage through it. The resistance of this nameless consistency is felt less by Satan in the first stage of his adventure when he seems carried upward effortlessly, as in a cloud chair, buoyed up by the surging smoke from the furnace mouth of Hell. But soon he comes upon a region which appears to be a complete vacuity, for “all unawares, fluttering his pennons vain, plumb-down he drops ten thousand fathom deep, and to this hour had been falling,” were it not for an unexpected accident. In this region where Chance rules as governor, he alights upon a “tumultuous cloud,” charged with fire and saltpetre and singed by it, he is shot upward till another accident drops him in a boggy Syrtis, where the frame which seemed to consume him is quenched. Thence it is neither sea, nor good dry land, but bog and cliff, an atmosphere which is at once “strait, rough, dense or rare, and Satan is obliged to use all his limbs to keep himself adrift. Here are the frontiers of Chaos, but they are yet so far removed from Heaven that it is darkness all round. The last lap of Satan’s journey has yet to be passed through the warring elements, before the extremity verging on Heaven is reached. In this farthest verge, dimly lit by Heaven’s brightness, Chaos has retired, “as from her outmost words, a broken foe, with tumult less, and with less hostile din.” Resistance here is very little, and Satan can waft himself as it were on a calmer wave in dubious light till he reaches the outermost shell of the Material Universe.

      The ruler of this infinite Abyss is Chaos. ‘Though the presence of God is there potentially too, it is still, as it were, actually retracted thence, as from a realm unorganized and left to Night and Anarchy; nor do any of the angels wing down into its repulsive obscurities. The crystal floor or wall of Heaven divides them from it; underneath which, and unvisited of light, save what may glimmer through upon its nearer strata, it howls and rages and staggers eternally.’

      Such is the stupendous picture that Milton gives us of this hoary deep. Heaven and Chaos divided the Infinitude of Space between them at the beginning of time: but soon a need arose for the creation of more worlds. Chaos, the Anarch himself, refers with regret to it, when he speaks of God having made inroads into his domain, and first scooped off a space called Hell, and later “another world hung o’er my realm, linked in a golden chain to that side of Heaven from whence Satan and his legions fell.”

Description of Hell

      Hell is described in the book as stretching far and wide beneath Chaos. It is a kind of Antarctic region, distinct from the body of Chaos proper. It is a vast region of fire, sulfurous lake, plain and mountain, and of all forms of fiery and icy torment. In the midst is the bottomless lake of fire on which Satan and his crew were hurled down on their fall. Into it pour the four rivers - “Abhorred Styx, the flood of deadly hate; Sad Acheron of sorrow, black and deep; Cocytus, named of lamentations loud heard on the rueful stream; fierce Phlegethon, whose waves of torrent fire inflame with rage.” Around the lake, a vast space of dry land extends, formed of solid fire, with mountains, fens and bogs, full of mineral wealth. On one of these hills Pandemonium has been built entire, which rose out of it, when formed, like an exhalation. The City of Hell is afterward built round Pandemonium on this dry ground of fire, and the country round the city is broken with rock, and valley, and hill, and plain. Further on, in another concentric band, we catch a glimpse of a desert land, “a frozen continent”, “beat with perpetual storms of whirlwind and dire hail, which on firm land thaws not, but gathers heap, and ruin seems of ancient pile.” The damned are brought hither by “harpy-footed Furies,” and they are made to feel “by turns the bitter change of fierce extremes, extremes by change more fierce, from beds of raging fire to starve in ice their soft ethereal warmth, and there to pine immoveable, infixed, and frozen round, periods of time, thence hurried back to fire.” Lethe, the river of oblivion, flows round this region, and rolls eternally her watery labyrinth. The damned, on their way to and from the region of solid and liquid fire and this icy desert, have to cross this sound, and, parched and dry as their throats are, the moment they stoop to drink of its waters, they roll back from their lips. Medusa with Gorgonian terror guards the ford, and prevents the sufferers from allaying their thirst

The Contours

      Hell is pictured as a region shut in by a “convex of fire” and barred by thrice three-folded gates, guarded by two Shapes - Sin and Death. The gates are described in some detail. Three folds are of brass, three of iron, and three of adamantine rock. They are impaled with circling fire and protected by a portcullis, which none but Sin could draw up. The gates are fastened by bolts and bars and secured by a lock of a very intricate pattern. Sin has to tum all the intricate wards with her key, and then “on a sudden open fly, with impetuous recoil and jarring sound the infernal doors, and on their hinges grate harsh thunder that the lowest bottom of Erebus shook.” The wide-open gates can give passage to a whole bannered host with its extended wings, horse and chariots ranked in loose array. Out of the mouth of Hell, as from a furnace belch forth “redounding smoke and ruddy flame.”

      The contours of this region are thus defined by Milton - “dark and dreary vale”, “region dolorous”, “frozen and fiery Alp”, “rocks, caves, lakes, fens, bogs, dens, and shades of death”,

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,
Gorgons, and hydras, and chimaeras dire.
The Universe of Man.

      Of the other world, the Material Universe, there is not much of a description in Book II. The rumor of its creation was long current in Heaven, before it actually came into existence. The moment of its creation arrived when a void was created in Heaven by the fall of Satan and his crew. God then sent His Son forth, and with his golden compasses, he centred one point of them where he stood and turned the other through the obscure profundity around (VII,224-23 l). Thus were marked out, or cut out through the body of Chaos, the limits of the new Universe of Man, - the Starry Universe which to us seems measureless, and the same as infinity itself, but which is really only a beautiful azure sphere or drop, insulated in Chaos, and hung at its topmost point or zenith from the Empyrean. Chaos mentions it as hung by a golden chain from that side of Heaven whence Satan and his legions fell.

      The new universe does not consist merely of the Earth, but the entire firmament of planets, stars, etc. In mapping it, Milton adopts the unscientific conception of the universe then current, which had been propounded by the Greek astronomer, Ptolemy, in the second century A.D., and later expanded by Alphonso X King of Castile in the thirteenth century. According to this teaching the Earth was fixed in the center of the Universe. It was also the center of a system of concentric Spheres, not solid, but of transparent space, each of which carried with it one of the seven planets, in the following order - the Moon, Mercury, Venus, the Sun, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn. Beyond these seven Spheres was an eighth Sphere, containing the Firmament of the fixed Stars. The Crystalline Sphere was a ninth Sphere that was invented to account for the very slow “precession of the equinoxes,” one revolution of which occupied over 25,000 years; and beyond this was the last and tenth Sphere, the only one that was material, being absolutely opaque and impenetrable. This outer shell was called the Primum Mobile, the first moved, because it was believed to be the first created Sphere to be set in motion.

      There prevailed at the time, indeed, a more accurate conception of the Material Universe, which was formulated by Copernicus, a Polish monk and astronomer of the fifteenth century. It taught that the Earth and the other planets revolve about the Sun. Milton was familiar with it also, through his acquaintance with Galileo. But in mapping his universe in Paradise Lost, he preferred the Ptolemaic to the Copernican system, because it was more generally known and universally adopted. Yet as to the proportions of this world to the total map Milton dares to be exact. The distance from its nadir or lowest point to the upper boss of Hell is exactly equal to its own radius; or in other words, the distance of Hellgate from Heaven-gate is exactly three radii of the Human or Material Universe.

The Cosmography

      Milton’s daring conception is yet further revealed in linking the Material Universe with Hell. Satan had to wing his way through the abortive gulf and run through many risks in doing so. But to facilitate the passage to and fro of the human race, on the one hand, and the devils, on the other, a bridge was built across Chaos between Hell and the Material Universe by Sin and Death soon after Man’s fall. It is “of wondrous length,” writes Milton, “from Hell continued, reaching the utmost orb, of this frail world.”

      Milton’s cosmography is not entirely imaginary. ‘For the material data which he found necessary to his representation he resorted to all manner of sources and to his own invention, employing Scriptural suggestions wherever possible and taking pains to add nothing which would be directly contrary to Holy Writ. It is not to be thought that he offered such details as the causeway from Hell to Earth, the chain by which the visible universe depended from Heaven, or the spheres themselves which encircled the earth and carried the planets and the fixed stars, as obligatory to the understanding. They were simply imaginative representations which might or might not correspond to actuality. Sometimes he is deliberately vague, as when he says that Heaven is “undetermined square or round.” Often his concrete detail or measurement is useful only for the moment and defies adoption into the general scheme, as where he says that the distance from Hell to Heaven was three times the distance from the center of the Earth to the pole of the uttermost encircling sphere.’

Concept of Infinite Space

      For these reasons it is misleading to consider the plan of Milton’s Infinite Space as one of his deliberate convictions. One wonders how he would have arranged his ideas in the light of modem discoveries. Distances in the Universe (according to these discoveries) are so enormous that the mile must be discarded entirely as the unit of distance, its place being taken by the light-year, i.e., the distance, through which a ray of light, traveling at 186,000 miles a second, is propagated in a year. Yet this vast unit (not far short of six billion miles) is scarcely large enough, for star systems and nebulae have been discovered by the camera at the inconceivable distance of 100,000 light-years, and there are others st beyond, supposed by some astronomers to be separate universes, but still within the limits of the material creation. What would Milton have thought had he known this? Would not Raphael’s words to Adam (VIII,110-114) have taken on a new meaning?

Me thou think’st not slow,
Who since the morning-hour set out from Heaven
Where God resides, and ere mid-day arrived
In Eden - distance inexpressible
By numbers that have name.

      And how would the Ptolemaic theory stand? In the light of this knowing how much more absurd it would be that their Stellar Firmament with its immeasurable radius of over 100,000 light-years “turns about once every twice twelve hours.” And if they found it difficult to believe this of the “great round Earthly Ball,” how would they take to the discovery that the planet Jupiter, over 1300 times as large, turns round in ten hours?

      These are some of the stunning discoveries made by modem astronomy even of that Material Universe, which Milton planned with such perfect simplicity. If these take our breath away, then what must be those undiscovered bourns, Heaven, Chaos and Hell, about which modem science is yet skeptical? Milton’s scheme looks insignificant and incoherent before all this knowledge. Yet what a staggering and stupendous conception he has given it all! The imagination is properly impressed by the infiniteness of the conception, and, with Theseus, in Shakespeare’s play, we are prepared to sympathize with him, and to regard “the best in this kind” to be no more than a shadow, “and the worst no worse, if imagination amends them.”

University Questions

Give a description of the entire Universe as described by Milton in Paradise Lost, Book II, and consider it in the light of modern science.
Write a note on the picture of the deep of Chaos which Milton presents in the poem.

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