[Milton-L] Abdiel and Treason law

John Leonard jleonard at uwo.ca
Fri Jun 27 10:22:00 EDT 2008


.The crime of "imaginary treason" has immediate relevance to John Toland's 
story of how Paradise Lost was very nearly destroyed at birth because the 
licenser (Thomas Tomkins) suspected teason in Milton's simile likening Satan 
to the sun in eclipse.  Toland writes:

"I must not forget that we had like to be eternally depriv'd of this 
Treasure by the Ignorance or Malice of the Licenser; who, among other 
frivolous Exceptions, would needs suppress the whole Poem for imaginary 
Treason in the following lines [quotes 1.594-99]" (Darbishire, *Early Lives* 
180)

"Imaginary" there  (despite "frivolous") does not mean "frivolously 
imagined"; Toland is referring to the specific crime of "imaginary Treason" 
(the crime of imagining or compassing the death of the king).  The 
licenser's suspicions may not have been frivolous at all.  It is highly 
likely that Milton's simile alludes  to the solar eclipse of 29 May 1630 
(the date of Charles II's birth) which had caused great fear at the time, 
and was recalled at the Restoration when it was interpreted retrospectively 
as a portent of the Interregnum.  I cite sources in my Naming in Paradise 
(1990) 113f.

Now to Abdiel:  I think that Richard Strier is right to insist on the 
innocence of his motives in marching to the north of heaven.  Abdiel thinks 
he is going to "prepare fit entertainment" for the Messiah.  But Ann Coiro 
is also right to detect some danger here (though it matters that Abdiel 
escapes the danger).  The angels march northwards in response to the 
"Ambiguous words" (5.703) that  Satan disseminates through his "next 
subordinate" (not yet called Beelzebub).  These words are indeed ambiguous: 
Critics as well as angels have heard them very differently:

Tell them that by command, ere yet dim Night
Her shadowie cloud withdraws, I am to haste,
And all who under me their banners wave,
Homeward with flying march where we possess
The quarters of the North, there to prepare
Fit entertainment to receive our King
The great Messiah and his new commands
Who speedily through all the hierarchies
Intends to pass triumphant and give laws. (5.685-93)

Abdiel hears this innocently (as if "fit entertainment"consisted of 
cucumber sandwiches) and so does John Peter, who in 1960 cried foul when 
Raphael goes on to say that the angels are "banded to oppose" God's decree. 
Peter: "they are only going to prepare fit entertainment!"  Peter, 
projecting his own innocence onto the angels, concludes that Milton is 
"cheating", but it is more likely that the angels (with the exception of 
Abdiel) have attuned themselves to Satan's darker sense and so hear "fit 
entertainment" as a call to arms.  "Entertain" was in fact a military term 
meaning "engage an enemy" (OED 9c) and Satan will pun on this sense in the 
war ("To entertain them fair with open front", 6.611).  So yes, Abdiel is 
innocent.  .He gives "Ambiguous words" their pure meaning, but his actions, 
however briefly, accord (however superficially) with the behaviour of those 
angels who are not innocent and who do in fact commit the treason of 
imagining and compassing God's deposition.  Abdiel finds treason 
unimaginable (he does not even suspect that the march has a treasonous 
purpose) until Satan's great call to arms disambiguates the order to 
withdraw, revealing (and even then only gradually revealing) his real 
motives.  At that moment Abdiel vehemently protests, revealing his 
innocence.   I discuss this whole episode at more length in chapter 3 of 
Naming in Paradise.

John Leonard







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