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  • "How cam'st thou speakable of mute":Satanic Acoustics in Paradise Lost
  • Katherine Cox

In his 1936 essay, "A Note on the Verse of John Milton," T. S. Eliot claims that Milton's blindness "helped him to concentrate on what he could do best." This was, in Eliot's opinion, Milton's ability to write superbly musical poetry.1 But for Eliot the genius of his sound is also the sign of his poetic limitation. In his zeal for the aural, Milton neglects the other senses, producing imbalanced poetry in which "the inner meaning is separated from the surface."2 Eliot's backhanded praise of Milton's "auditory imagination" thus begins by echoing traditional acclaim for the "organ music" of Milton's blank verse before joining in the complaint of F. R. Leavis and Ezra Pound, who equated Milton's "orotundity" with mediocre poetry.3

Controversy over Milton's imposing sound effects has abated since Eliot's time. But we can still learn from his contention that Milton's blindness and musical inclination produced poetry that is, above all, acoustically imaginative. Scholars have often noted the play of sounds in Milton's lines—their syntactical arrangement, rhythm, alliteration, repetition, and so on—but comparatively few [End Page 233] have sought evidence of Milton's aural imagination in the figuration, characters, and larger narrative structures of Paradise Lost, which, along with his style of versification, reflect the poet's distinctive aural concerns. The studies that do cover this terrain tend to look at the political or cultural meanings of Milton's music in early modern England.4 As Matthew Steggle and Beverley Sherry suggest, the acoustical as well as semantic and musical qualities of Miltonic sounds warrant further critical attention.5 Milton's wariness of sensuous sound, often attributed to a Puritan bias against polyphony or verbally impoverished forms of music, may be more definitely explained by Milton's metaphysical understanding of the fallen atmosphere and its satanic acoustics.6

Of all the notable acoustical features of Milton's epic, satanic aurality stands apart for its centrality in the episode on which the narrative crisis depends. For the Fall to occur, the serpent must speak. Before Eve eats the forbidden fruit, her innocence is threatened by the sound of the serpent's speech, which "into her heart too easy entrance won."7 The penetrating character of this acoustical attack can be attributed to the fact that "sound . . . for Milton . . . is unmistakably corporeal."8 Satan's identity as an aerial being who has a powerful sway over the atmosphere is certainly also at play. I argue elsewhere that Milton associates Satan with the "prince of the power of the aire" mentioned in Ephesians 2:2 and uses this doctrinal point and its traditional elaborations to characterize the fallen angels throughout his epic poetry as powers of air and weather.9 Milton's depiction of the devils in Paradise Lost as elementally similar to, and manipulators of, the atmosphere anticipates their role in Paradise Regained as rulers of the postlapsarian middle air.10

Despite the basic physical connection between sound and atmosphere, scholars have failed to recognize the co-dependence in Milton's poetry of acoustical and meteorological representation.11 The paradisal airs that carry endlessly mutable praise to the Creator and move tunefully through the garden's leaves illustrate the fundamentally acoustical condition of the atmosphere (PL 5.180–84 and 4.264–66). Satan, the prospective "Prince of the [End Page 234] air" (10.185), radically exploits this atmospheric condition. His success with Eve and, indeed, his whole office in the fallen world as man's deceiver, may be attributed to the cultivation of a studied acoustics that capitalizes on his pneumatic being. I will argue that the mechanical and magical instruments Satan uses to produce deadly sounds prior to the temptation prefigure the method he employs to produce the serpent's voice and that these technologies arise directly from his meteorological agency.

Several insights emerge from a reading of the technical means of production and material basis of satanic sound in Paradise Lost. Taking a global view of diabolical acoustics, rather than focusing on the devils' fallen music, allows for...


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