[Milton-L] Abdiel and Treason law
Alice Crawford Berghof
aberghof at uci.edu
Fri Jun 27 12:03:10 EDT 2008
"Dark with excessive bright thy skirts appear" comes to mind. I am
wondering about the problem of treason in what I am taking to be a
subtle echo of the simile of eclipse. What do you and others think?
(Is this, in III, also a gesture toward the necessity of the guide,
Beatrice, in Dante?)
(An aside on what is motivating my posting, in a broader sense: the
conundrum Satan as king / God as king... How does the reader
distinguish between political and theological allegories?)
Although there is a world of difference between a sun eclipsed and
clouded, there is a connection between these two passages, I believe.
Satan is likened to the sun in your example, God with the sun in mine.
Is the eclipse of the sun as a mock-heroic Satan perhaps less an icon
of regicide than it might be a comment on the failures and injustices
of the oppressive rule that follows regicide? I am thinking of this in
general, but also have in mind parallels in the Levellers' petitions
regarding Cromwell's failure produce a writ of habeas corpus, or its
like, in arresting and imprisoning his opponents.
How would you and others on the list reconcile treason in its aspect as
mock-epic and militaristic with its theological dimension? I am
thinking of Augustine's influence on Milton, particularly the crisis at
the midpoint of the Confessions as well as passages in the City of God,
where salvation can depend on the manner of contemplation. (I see that
your immediately relevant reference to Augustine would be "The fallen
angels are those who turned away from God to everlasting night" - p.
109 of your book - a phrase that unites my two lines of inquiry.) I am
wondering what you and others, particularly Richard Strier, Michael
Gillum, Carol Barton, Peter Herman, Jameela Lares, Jim Rovira and the
admirably concise and ingenious Kim Maxwell think about Augustine and
contemplation in relation to theological treason. Particularly
Augustinian, in my opinion, is Milton's view of the necessity to plead
for grace in order to have the strength to align one's will with God's.
In this sense it is theological treason to take matters into one's own
hands without first consulting divine authority. Are divine and
secular authority at odds, then, finally?
Although I believe this next comment is easily resolved on page 97 and
pages 248-250 of your book, I will note it anyway; I can see that there
are moments when the imagery has double meanings. Fowler's footnote to
V 700-714, for example has:
"The passage partly depends on our knowledge of a long-established
symbolism whereby the morning star represented both Satan and
Christ..." - is Milton's perhaps not a reference to Christ but an
objection to church hierarchies? I see, of course, that you touch on
this in saying "Satan's crime is that he declares for night when the
Son is about to rise" (p. 107 of your book).
Please forgive the fragmentary quality of this response. I am sending
it unedited for fear of going on too long and in an exceedingly
I cannot say strongly enough how enriching it has been reading the
postings on treason, from the political references to the painstakingly
transcribed passages from CD. What fun, this list!
On Jun 27, 2008, at 7:22 AM, John Leonard wrote:
> .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
> Milton-L mailing list
> Milton-L at lists.richmond.edu
> Manage your list membership and access list archives at
More information about the Milton-L