This post rests nowhere. Its only excuse is its theme.

The first extended simile in Paradise Lost compares Satan to

                                          that Sea-beast
Leviathan, which God of all his works
Created hugest that swim th’ Ocean stream:
Him haply slumb’ring on the Norway foam
The Pilot of some small night-founder’d Skiff,
Deeming some Island, oft, as Seamen tell,
With fixed Anchor in his scaly rind
Moors by his side under the Lee, while Night
Invests the Sea, and wished Morn delays:
So stretcht out huge in length the Arch-fiend lay
Chain’d on the burning Lake….

As first the passage deserves special attention. “Of Man’s First Disobedience,” the poem begins, and it aims to establish itself as first—before what Homer tells, before every classical myth. When we reach Leviathan there has already been speech (In the beginning was the Word), but action is now heralded by the incidental tale of the Pilot’s error; the adventures of Sinbad the Sailor commence with a like story. What does it signify here? It is obliquely cautionary: a reader seduced by the fallen angel will but repeat the experience of Eve; no stability is in Satan, the leviathan that the Lord will punish.[1]

Nor has the author escaped the peril unimpaired, according to Blake (or his Devil):

The reason Milton wrote in fetters when he wrote of Angels & God, and at liberty when of Devils & Hell, is because he was a true Poet and of the Devil’s party without knowing it.

That is very clever, even if we cannot quite accept the second half of the conclusion, especially the claim of naivety. Would a sailor be free when anchored to the unstable scaly rind, but in fetters if anchored to the rock that is God? Milton and many another thinker would say the opposite, that only the will that is securely in harmony with God’s will, or with reason, is free. The devil enchains.[2]

Perhaps Milton is warning himself as well as us. Reflective writers hesitate to trust themselves, for

La vanité est si ancrée dans le cœur de l’homme qu’un soldat, un goujat, un cuisinier, un crocheteur se vante et veut avoir ses admirateurs et les philosophes mêmes en veulent, et ceux qui écrivent contre veulent avoir la gloire d’avoir bien écrit, et ceux qui les lisent veulent avoir la gloire de les avoir lus, et moi qui écris ceci ai peut-être cette envie, et peut-être que ceux qui le liront…

Vanity is so anchored in the heart of man that a soldier, a varlet, a cook, a porter boasts and wants to have his admirers and even philosophers want them, and those who write in opposition want to have the glory of having written well, and those who read them want to have the glory of having read them, and I who am writing this perhaps have that desire, and perhaps those will who read it…

So one thing, at least, will not lose anchorage. The very confidence of a seaman manifests his vanity; not even the trust we place in another is free of it. Unwisely Babar and Céleste put their faith in a whale, who strands them through sheer forgetfulness: they had not reckoned with the possibility that a mighty leviathan could be une étourdie—“a giddy, thoughtless creature,” as the English version has it.[3]

What always threatens is to be iactati undis et turbine, “tossed by waves and whirlwind” like Dido’s Phoenicians—“the sport and prey / of racking whirlwinds,” as Belial fears—on an ocean of water, or fire, or air. To Dante, Paolo and Francesca in their suffering “seem to be so light upon the wind” (paion sì al vento esser leggieri) as they are driven around a place “which bellows like a sea in tempest when it is assailed by warring winds” (che mugghia come fa mar per tempesta, / se da contrari venti è combattuto). At least they are together, not “Alone, alone, all, all alone, / Alone on a wide wide sea!” We apostles, says Paul, are in similar case (though for another reason): ἀστατοῦμεν, we have no place to stand, are unstable, unsettled, never at rest, like the rough sea (cf. ἀστατούσης χειμῶσι θαλάσσης, “the sea rough with winter storms”); we have “no fixed abode.” Of course they rely on an anchorage not of this world.[4]

In the absence of a fixed point nothing decisive is possible. To Descartes beset by doubts “it feels as if I have fallen unexpectedly into a deep whirlpool which tumbles me around so (ita turbatus sum) that I can neither stand on the bottom nor swim up to the top.” He will persevere, he says, “until I recognize something certain (aliquid certi), or, if nothing else, until I at least recognize for certain that there is no certainty (nihil esse certi). Archimedes used to demand just one firm and immovable point in order to shift the entire earth; so I too can hope for great things if I manage to find just one thing, however slight, that is certain and unshakeable.”[5]

In order to be certain and unshakeable, the one thing must be clear and distinct, terms borrowed from visible form, an aspect in which Satan shows inconstancy. Already darkened by his fall, he assumes a series of shapes: “stripling Cherub,” soon “disfigur’d” by passion; “now one, / Now other” beast, Lion, Tiger; then he is “squat like a Toad”; finally a “Mere serpent in appearance.” But in indeterminacy his child Death surpasses him, having no definite form at all:

                                      The other shape,
If shape it might be call’d that shape had none
Distinguishable in member, joint, or limb,
Or substance might be call’d that shadow seem’d,
For each seem’d either….[6]

Lamartine asks,

Ainsi, toujours poussés vers de nouveaux rivages,
Dans la nuit éternelle emportés sans retour,
Ne pourrons-nous jamais sur l’océan des âges
Jeter l’ancre un seul jour?

So, always driven toward new shores,
into eternal night borne off with no returning,
will we never be able, on the ocean of the ages,
to cast anchor one single day?

And Baudelaire, having looked upon an intolerable multiplicity, at length is cast utterly adrift:

Exaspéré comme un ivrogne qui voit double,
Je rentrai, je fermai ma porte, épouvanté,
Malade et morfondu, l’esprit fiévreux et trouble,
Blessé par le mystère et par l’absurdité!

Vainement ma raison voulait prendre la barre;
La tempête en jouant déroutait ses efforts,
Et mon âme dansait, dansait, vieille gabarre
Sans mâts, sur une mer monstrueuse et sans bords!

Exasperated like a drunkard seeing double,
I went back, I shut my door, terrified,
chilled and sick, troubled and feverish in mind,
wounded by mystery and absurdity!

In vain my reason wished to take the helm;
the storm at play baffled its efforts,
and my soul danced, danced, old barge
with no masts, upon a monstrous sea with no shores!

He dances hopelessly, like La Fontaine’s cicada, blasted by the wind from which it has no refuge, no harbor, not even the bit of seed from which another season of life might grow. Lightweight, as uncertain as any luftmentsh, but without the sustaining optimism of a Nehemiah Silvermann, who

was not an earth-man in gross contact with solidities. He was an air-man, floating on facile wings through the æther. … And what airy courage in his mundane affairs, what invincible resilience! … having nothing, [he] glided ever buoyantly between two gilded horizons.[7]

The airy dead in Virgil, who cannot be embraced, enjoy a charming landscape, but live nowhere in particular within it: nulli certa domus, explains Musaeus, “none has a fixed abode.” For they have lost the substance to anchor them. It is that way with the poor bucket rider who has not a single particle of coal (kein einziges Kohlenstäubchen—the cicada has Pas un seul petit morceau / De mouche ou de vermisseau, “not a single little morsel / of fly or worm”): without the weight that keeps up the fire of life, he cannot hold down the bucket that carries him, and (he laments), steige ich in die Regionen der Eisgebirge und verliere mich auf Nimmerwiedersehen, “I ascend into the regions of the ice mountains and am lost, never to be seen again.”[8]

A different lightness belongs to Odradek, the queer little creature that may be unable to die for very want of the purposeful activity that wears the living away. His name yields no meaning, only uncertainty (Unsicherheit); and asked where he lives,

»Unbestimmter Wohnsitz«, sagt er und lacht; es ist aber nur ein Lachen, wie man es ohne Lungen hervorbringen kann. Es klingt etwa so, wie das Rascheln in gefallenen Blättern.

“No fixed abode,” says he and laughs; but it is only a laugh such as can be produced without lungs. It sounds rather like the rustling of fallen leaves.

His dwelling-place is “indeterminate” (unbestimmter). He is “extraordinarily nimble and can never be laid hold of”’; now he is here, now there in the house; now gone, presumably to other houses. He has a definite shape, but not one visibly “suited to any purpose” (zweckmäßige); he merely persists, he reveals nothing.[9]

Yet the sound of Odradek’s laugh returns me to Virgil: the Sibyl of Averna sonantia silvis, “Avernus sounding with (by means of) woods”—sounding how?

This is the forest primeval. The murmuring pines and the hemlocks,
Bearded with moss, and in garments green, indistinct in the twilight,
Stand like Druids of eld, with voices sad and prophetic,
Stand like harpers hoar, with beards that rest on their bosoms.
Loud from its rocky caverns, the deep-voiced neighboring ocean
Speaks, and in accents disconsolate answers the wail of the forest.

Longfellow’s forest murmurs, and it wails too, for those who lived beneath it are

Scattered like dust and leaves, when the mighty blasts of October
Seize them, and whirl them aloft, and sprinkle them far o’er the ocean.

That is what happens to the Sibyl’s leaves, so you must beseech her,

                      foliis tantum ne carmina manda
ne turbata volent rapidis ludibria ventis

                      only trust not thy verses to leaves,
lest they fly in disorder, the sport of rushing winds

—leaves that remind us of the dead, the throng (turba) “many as the leaves in the forest…” (quam multa in silvis…/ folia) a simile that has not rested from Homer to the present day.[10]


[1] that Sea-beast: 1.200; establish itself as first: John Hollander; leviathan: Isaiah 27.1

[2] Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell: The Voice of the Devil

[3] Pascal, Pensées 627 (Lafuma), 150 (Brunschvicg); Jean de Brunhoff, Le Voyage de Babar

[4] Phoenicians: Aeneid 1.442; Belial: Paradise Lost 2.181; Dante, Inferno 5 (trans. Singleton); Coleridge, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner 4; Paul, 1 Cor 4.11; “no fixed abode”: Douay-Rheims Bible; sea: Plutarch, Crassus (half a century or so later)

[5] Meditations 2 (trans. John Cottingham)

[6] Paradise Lost: Satan: 3.636, 4.114ff, 397ff, 800, 9.413; Death: 2.666

[7] Lamartine, Le Lac; Baudelaire, Les sept Vieillards; cicada: La Fontaine, La Cigale et la Fourmi, Fables 1.1; Zangwill, The Luftmensch, in Ghetto Comedies

[8] Aeneid 6.673; Kafka, The Bucket Rider (Der Kübelreiter), in A Country Doctor

[9] Odradek: Kafka, The Cares of a Family Man (Die Sorge des Hausvaters, in part trans. W & E. Muir), in A Country Doctor

[10] Aeneid 3.442; Longfellow, Evangeline 1.1.1; Aeneid 6.74 (trans. Fairclough); 6.309