Poetry Corner: O for that warning voice

With excuses to my Jesuit confessor, Fr. de Casuist, I would like to impose on my vow of restricting my posts to Friday in order to hear a quote from the devil.

Here is the Mount Niphates monologue in Milton’s PARADISE LOST. This is that speech which those in the camp of William Blake, who say that Milton unbeknownst was of the Devil’s party, have trouble to explain. (For those of you who are fans of THE INCREDIBLES, this is the first example of ‘monologing’, a practice many a lesser super-villain in after times was fain to copy.)

O for that warning voice, which he who saw

The Apocalypse heard cry in Heaven aloud,

Then when the Dragon, put to second rout,

Came furious down to be revenged on men,

Woe to the inhabitants on Earth! that now,

While time was, our first parents had been warned

The coming of their secret Foe, and scaped,

Haply so scaped, his mortal snare! For now

Satan, now first inflamed with rage, came down,

The tempter, ere the accuser, of mankind,

To wreak on innocent frail Man his loss

Of that first battle, and his flight to Hell.

Yet not rejoicing in his speed, though bold

Far off and fearless, nor with cause to boast,

Begins his dire attempt; which, nigh the birth

Now rowling, boils in his tumultuous breast,

And like a devilish engine back recoils

Upon himself. Horror and doubt distract

His troubled thoughts, and from the bottom stir

The hell within him; for within him Hell

He brings, and round about him, nor from Hell

One step, no more than from Himself, can fly

By change of place. Now conscience wakes despair

That slumbered; wakes the bitter memory

Of what he was, what is, and what must be

Worse; of worse deeds worse sufferings must ensue!

Sometimes towards Eden, which now in his view

Lay pleasant, his grieved look he fixes sad;

Sometimes towards Heaven and the full-blazing Sun,

Which now sat high in his meridian tower:

Then, much revolving, thus in sighs began:—

"O thou that, with surpassing glory crowned,

Look’st from thy sole dominion like the god

Of this new World—at whose sight all the stars

Hide their diminished heads—to thee I call,

But with no friendly voice, and add thy name,

O Sun, to tell thee how I hate thy beams,

That bring to my remembrance from what state

I fell, how glorious once above thy sphere,

Till pride and worse ambition threw me down,

Warring in Heaven against Heaven’s matchless King!

Ah, wherefore? He deserved no such return

From me, whom he created what I was

In that bright eminence, and with his good

Upbraided none; nor was his service hard.

What could be less than to afford him praise,

The easiest recompense, and pay him thanks,

How due? Yet all his good proved ill in me,

And wrought but malice. Lifted up so high,

I ’sdained subjection, and thought one step higher

Would set me highest, and in a moment quit

The debt immense of endless gratitude,

So burthensome, still paying, still to owe;

Forgetful what from him I still received;

And understood not that a grateful mind

By owing owes not, but still pays, at once

Indebted and discharged—what burden then?

Oh, had his powerful destiny ordained

Me some inferior Angel, I had stood

Then happy; no unbounded hope had raised

Ambition. Yet why not? Some other Power

As great might have aspired, and me, though mean,

Drawn to his part. But other Powers as great

Fell not, but stand unshaken, from within

Or from without to all temptations armed!

Hadst thou the same free will and power to stand?

Thou hadst. Whom has thou then, or what, to accuse,

But Heaven’s free love dealt equally to all?

Be then his love accursed, since, love or hate,

To me alike it deals eternal woe.

Nay, cursed be thou; since against his thy will

Chose freely what it now so justly rues.

Me miserable! which way shall I fly

Infinite wrath and infinite despair?

Which way I fly is Hell; myself am Hell;

And, in the lowest deep, a lower deep

Still threatening to devour me opens wide,

To which the Hell I suffer seems a Heaven.

O, then, at last relent! Is there no place

Left for repentence, none for pardon left?

None left but by submission; and that word

Disdain forbids me, and my dread of shame

Among the Spirits beneath, whom I seduced

With other promises and other vaunts

Than to submit, boasting I could subdue

The Omnipotent. Aye me! they little know

How dearly I abide that boast so vain,

Under what torments inwardly I groan.

While they adore me on the throne of Hell,

With diadem and sceptre high advanced,

The lower still I fall, only supreme

In misery: such joy ambition finds!

But say I could repent, and could obtain,

By act of grace, my former state; how soon

Would highth recal high thoughts, how soon unsay

What feigned submission swore! Ease would recant

Vows made in pain, as violent and void

(For never can true reconcilement grow

Where wounds of deadly hate have pierced so deep)

Which would but lead me to a worse relapse

And heavier fall: so should I purchase dear

Short intermission, bought with double smart.

This knows my Punisher; therefore as far

From granting he, as I from begging, peace.

All hope excluded thus, behold, instead

Of us, outcast, exiled, his new delight,

Mankind, created, and for him this World!

So farewell hope, and, with hope, farewell fear,

Farewell remorse! All good to me is lost;

Evil, be thou my Good…”

My comment: I have been reflecting on this passage several times in recent weeks, seeing examples (in myself and, unfortunately, in others) of the progression the poet here depicts of how sin (in the famous words of Mark Shea) makes you stupid.

Human psychology is bent toward self-aggrandizement, so when the whispers of conscience sound, it is in the nature of the Sons of Adam to smother that whisper by any makeshift that comes to hand, and one makeshift always ready at hand is to distort the reason, that is, to make up a justification: love itself, divinest love, can be accursed if it deals woe. And besides, to sue for pardon is impossible, as vows made in the duress of pain are void.

This justification become part and parcel of one’s pride, and ergo cannot be questioned by yourself or by others, without it seeming to you a personal attack, unjust and outrageous and belittling. From there it is easy enough to say the accusations merit not merely a personal attack in return, but any violation of manners, justice, or logic–or in the case of the devil given above, of fealty. Borrowing an image from Socrates, once ego supplants logic, emotion throws reason from the chariot of the soul and takes the reins, whipping the steeds of passion and appetite into a lather. Since it offends the pride, submission is a word disdain forbids, and fear of shame.

But reason always wins in the end, if only by retaliation when it is defied: one excuse necessitates others, and justifications need justifications in turn, until every part of the soul is bent away from good. In order to be consistent, the reason, once you have accepted the wicked axiom, drives you step by step to the wicked conclusion. Except the nature of sin is pain, and wordy excuses offer no balm: myself am hell, which way I fly is hell.

The final step in a process of disordered reason is when evil itself becomes (in your eyes) a virtue, and goodness becomes vice, and all your conclusions have been corrupted into the opposite of where reason would place them. Hence the last line in the quote: Evil, be thou my good.

The passage opens with the wish that a warning voice would tell us when the enemy of God and Man makes ready to descend: a nice metaphor for the conscience, which, if properly ordered, would warn us of our pride about to strike like a cormorant, and rend us.