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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Thursday, February 6, 2020

The 2 Remarkable Sources for the ‘Irreconcilable’ Comma in Satan’s 1st Speech in Paradise Lost

[Since I wrote the below post, I've written a followup that makes the Calvin allusion even more certain: ]

In the Milton-L group last Saturday, Carl Bellinger asked, “Why the middle comma” in the defiant speech by Satan, immediately after the precipitous descent down to Hell at the beginning of Book 1 of Paradise Lost

Satan, replying to Beelzebub, expresses his fierce resolution to deny God the “glory” of having Satan beg for forgiveness, and urges his diabolical crew to resist the temptation to cave, but instead to hang tough and continue to resist God’s “tyranny”:

That glory never shall his wrath or might
Extort from me. To bow and sue for grace
With suppliant knee, and deify his power
Who, from the terror of this arm, so late
Doubted his empire—that were low indeed;
That were an ignominy and shame beneath
This downfall; since, by fate, the strength of Gods,
And this empyreal substance, cannot fail;
Since, through experience of this great event,
In arms not worse, in foresight much advanced,
We may with more successful hope resolve
To wage by force or guile eternal war,
Who now triumphs, and in th' excess of joy
Sole reigning holds the tyranny of Heaven."
  So spake th' apostate Angel, though in pain,
Vaunting aloud, but racked with deep despair…

I read all of the interesting replies in Milton-L to this question the past few days, and saw merit in them all, but my intuition whispered to me that there had to be some other, deeper reason for that comma, beyond those already proffered. From my recent delvings into Milton’s acrostics and related wordplay, and also into the recently identified marginalia in his personal First Folio, I knew that even a comma could potentially be intentional and highly significant.

All the explanations given so far seem to assume that the adjective “irreconcilable” must be a modifier of the initial “We” (i.e., Satan and his fellow fallen angels) two lines above it. That assumption is what makes the comma seem disruptive of the grammar and flow of the entire sentence, while not evidencing any purpose of Milton to alter the meaning of the sentence sans comma.

So…. what if Milton intended for “irreconcilable” to modify some other word in that sentence? As I asked this, the answer popped out at me --- it must the word immediately preceding it – i.e., “war”. That would be perfectly grammatical, and, what’s more, it’d make the meter of the two lines work. I.e., if the line beginning with “To wage” ended with “eternal, irreconcilable war”, there’d be too many syllables in the line, and too few in the next line. But, by bracketing “irreconcilable” within two commas, Milton had his iambic pentametric cake and ate it too.

What exactly is “irreconcilable war”? Nothing more than a bit of poetic condensation -- meaning, Satan refers to a war waged in lieu of reconciliation between the warring parties. It makes sense. But, you may also object, that we wage war “against”, not “to”, a foe. I acknowledge I’m on shakier ground when I go to that same poetic well again, and suggest that normal rules of which preposition is used with a particular verb are often bent for poetic effect. Or maybe in Milton’s day, some folks did use the preposition “to” with “wage war”, but that practice ceased a while ago?

Either way, I still felt that I was onto something, so I Googled “irreconcilable war”, hoping to find some contemporary usage of “irreconcilable war” which would support my intuition. And boy, did I get lucky, because Google ultimately provided me with not one, but two magic keys, which reveal a complex matrix of meaning, hidden in plain sight, via that extra enigmatic comma. Get a load of these Miltonian apples (ha ha). Can you guess the two sources I quote from below?:


Chapter 13: “Of Sanctification”:
1. They who are united to Christ, effectually called, and regenerated, having a new heart and a new spirit created in them through the virtue of Christ's death and resurrection, are also farther sanctified, really and personally, through the same virtue, by His Word and Spirit dwelling in them; the dominion of the whole body of sin is destroyed, and the several lusts thereof are more and more weakened and mortified, and they more and more quickened and strengthened in all saving graces, to the practice of all true holiness, without which no man shall see the Lord.
2. This sanctification is throughout, in the whole man; yet imperfect in this life, there abiding still some remnants of corruption in every part: whence arises a continual, and IRRECONCILABLE WAR; the flesh lusting against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh. 
3. In which war, although the remaining corruption, for a time, may much prevail; yet, through the continual supply of strength from the sanctifying Spirit of Christ, the regenerate part does overcome: and so, the saints grow in GRACE, perfecting holiness in the fear of God. 


“David’s example should teach us to rise with a lofty and bold spirit above all regard to the enmity of the wicked, when the question concerns the honor of God, and rather to renounce all earthly friendships than falsely pander with flattery to the favor of those who do everything to draw down upon themselves the divine displeasure. We have the more need to attend to this, because the keen sense we have of what concerns our private interest, honor, and convenience, makes us never hesitate to engage in contest when any one injures ourselves, while we are abundantly timid and cowardly in defending the glory of God. Thus, as each of us studies his own interest and advantage, the only thing which incites us to contention, strife, and war, is a desire to avenge our private wrongs; none is affected when the majesty of God is outraged.
On the other hand, it is a proof of our having a fervent zeal for God when we have the magnanimity to declare IRRECONCILABLE WAR with the wicked and them who hate God, rather than court their favor at the expense of alienating the divine layout. We are to observe, however, that the hatred of which the Psalmist speaks is directed to the sins rather than the persons of the wicked. We are, so far as lies in us, to study peace with all men; we are to seek the good of all, and, if possible, they are to be reclaimed by kindness and good offices: only so far as they are enemies to God we must strenuously confront their resentment.”

Did you guess either one? 

The first source, published in 1643 when Milton was 35 years old, is the Westminster Confession of Faith. The significance of that source vis a vis Paradise Lost will be immediately apparent from the following summary in Wikipedia:

“The Westminster Confession of Faith is a Reformed confession of faith. Drawn up by the 1646 Westminster Assembly as part of the Westminster Standards to be a confession of the Church of England... In 1643, the English Parliament called upon "learned, godly and judicious Divines" to meet at Westminster Abbey in order to provide advice on issues of worship, doctrine, government and discipline of the Church of England....For more than 300 years, various churches around the world have adopted the confession and the catechisms as their standards of doctrine, subordinate to the Bible....
During the English Civil War (1642–1649), the English Parliament raised armies in an alliance with the Covenanters who by then were the de facto government of Scotland, against the forces of Charles I, King of England, Scotland and Ireland. The purpose of the Westminster Assembly, in which 121 Puritan clergymen participated, was to provide official documents for the reformation of the Church of England ....The Confession and Catechisms were produced to secure the help of the Scots against the king.
…The Church of Scotland adopted the document, without amendment, in 1647. In England, the House of Commons returned the document to the Assembly with the requirement to compile a list of proof texts from Scripture. After vigorous debate, the Confession was then in part adopted as the Articles of Christian Religion in 1648...The next year, the Scottish parliament ratified the Confession without amendment.
In 1660, the Restoration of the British monarchy and Anglican episcopacy resulted in the nullification of these acts of the two parliaments. However, when William of Orange replaced the Roman Catholic King James VIII of Scotland and II of England on the thrones of Scotland, England and Ireland, he gave royal assent to the Scottish parliament's ratification of the Confession, again without change, in 1690…

I noted that Google result first on Saturday, and then spent an enjoyable several hours tracking down every scholarly discussion I could find that bore in some way on the rich intertextual connectivity which, I’ve now learned, exists between The Confession of Faith (including, but far from limited to the above quoted Chapter 13 thereof), on the one hand, and Milton’s writings (including but by no means limited to, Paradise Lost), on the other.

But then, I recalled that in my excitement at finding Source One, I had neglected to look at all the Google results for “irreconcilable war”. When I went back to them yesterday, I learned that Source One was actually derived in no small part from Source Two, which is John Calvin’s Commentary on Psalm 139:22, part of his monumental, uber-famous and influential Institutes of the Christian Religion written in 1536!
As further evidence that Milton had Psalms 139 on his radar screen as he wrote Satan’s speech about waging “war, irreconcilable, to” God, we see, in the lines which introduce Satan’s speech, the following:

Instruct me, for thou know'st; thou from the first
Wast present, and, with mighty wings outspread,
Dove-like sat'st brooding on the vast Abyss,
And mad'st it pregnant: what in me is dark
Illumine, what is low raise and support;
That, to the height of this great argument,
I may assert Eternal Providence,
And justify the ways of God to men.
  Say first—for Heaven hides nothing from thy view,
Nor the deep tract of Hell—say first what cause
Moved our grand parents, in that happy state,
Favoured of Heaven so highly, to fall off
From their Creator, and transgress his will
For one restraint, lords of the World besides.
Who first seduced them to that foul revolt?

“for Heaven hides nothing from thy view” is an unmistakable echo of Psalms 139:11-12, in which the Psalmist notes that there’s no hiding from the all-seeing God:

11 If I say, Yet the darkness shall hide me, even the night shall be light about me.
12 Yea, the darkness hideth not from thee: but the night shineth as the day: the darkness and light are both alike.


The web of intertextuality reaches dizzying complexity, when we consider that Source Two, Calvin, was a huge influence on Source One, the Westminster Confession written a century later. But, for starters, it appears to me, from my preliminary research over the past few days, that no scholar has previously noted Milton’s allusion, in Satan’s ‘war, irreconcilable”, as referring to either Calvin or the Confession.

Isn’t that very strange? From my initial recent dabblings in Calvin, it seems obvious, with 20:20 hindsight, that Calvin’s well-recognized love of martial metaphors to describe the spiritual battle with evil, would’ve made him a prime allusive source and inspiration for Milton, who obviously was familiar with Calvin.

And consider the monumental irony that Satan, in his very first speech, turns Calvin’s martial rhetoric on its head, referring to his own irreconcilable war on God, instead of Calvin’s and the Westminster Assembly’s irreconcilable war against Satan! Is this an example of Milton being of the devil’s party…..and knowing it very well indeed?!  ;)

Based on this prima facie evidence, and all the material I’ve quickly mined from online databases, I’ve decided to take on the task, over the next few weeks, of making a comprehensive argument about how and why Milton chose, in this most prominent portion of Paradise Lost, to allude, covertly and yet in the plain sight of his knowing readers –probably more than a few -- to those two highly influential sources.

At the risk of gross oversimplification, I will go out on one short limb already. To wit: I am highly confident that another word, besides “irreconcilable” and war”, will turn out to be very important in both The Confession of Faith and Calvin’s Biblical commentaries, and also, repeatedly, in Paradise Lost, which holds the key to great meaning in Milton’s allusion: “GRACE”.

Included in my promised discussion will be consideration of two additional interesting facts:

ONE: The word “reconcilement” occurs 3 other times in Paradise Lost, along with 1 usage of “reconciled”, and the comparison of them all to Satan’s usage of their antonym is rich with significance.

TWO: The word “reconcilement” and its variants appears a relatively small number of times in Shakespeare’s plays, but at least some of them appear significant. In particular, in light of Milton’s extraordinary interest in Romeo and Juliet reflected in his own personal First Folio marginalia (as I predicted before seeing the actual marginalia -- see my post of 4 months ago in this regard, here: ), it is remarkable that one of the passages in R&J is a speech in Act 3, Scene 3, by Friar Laurence that Milton glossed.

And so, with reconcilement and grace, I will now sign off.

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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