“Thir Song Was Partial”: Milton and Partisan Political Discourse

Thir Song was partial, but the harmony
(What could it less when Spirits immortal sing?)
Suspended Hell, and took with ravishment
The thronging audience.

With the end of semester rush, my musings have been more occasional than I intended. Granted, it has been a slow week or two in Milton news since the 3D-printed gun bonanza. True, Husker Du’s Grant Hart is releasing an album based on Paradise Lost, but that doesn’t merit a blog post until I can review it. Seriously – who can get too much of Husker Du or Paradise Lost? (Shhh… quiet there @DrSamuelJohnson!)

But this week, as I’ve watched the partisan rhetoric heat up once again in my social media feeds, I have found myself reflecting on the passage from Paradise Lost, Book 2 (552-5), above. Here, the fallen rebel angels pass their time in Hell singing of their deeds in Heaven’s recently concluded civil war, complaining bitterly against that “fate” that caused their “free vertue” to fall to “force or chance.” The fallen host is clearly confused or in denial about both their virtues and the reason for their defeat. As the Miltonic narrator says, the song was… partial. It was sung in parts, but it was also partisan.

Milton knew a thing or two about partisan politics. As Claude Salmasius found out to his chagrin, Milton could take partisan rhetoric to new levels in his political pamphlets. It is sometimes easy for us to forget this Milton, Milton the mud-slinging propagandist. Although it hasn’t always been forgettable for many critics. The bite of Milton’s political prose prompted good Dr. Johnson for one to snort that Milton of all people shouldn’t complain of “evil tongues.”

It is important to note that even though Milton acknowledges that the song of the fallen angels is partial, he also is able to appreciate the harmony. The song “suspends Hell” – holds the entire audience of fallen angels in rapt attention, and also gives them reprieve from their torment. The argument of the rebel host is, of course, inadmissible. But Milton requires that we admire the Orphic power of the harmony. They may be in the wrong, but that jam – it is worth listening to.

Devil Went Down to GeorgiaRemember that Charlie Daniels Band song, “The Devil Went Down to Georgia”? We are meant to appreciate the fiddler’s folksy “Chicken in the bread pan,” but you have to admit the demonic band conjured up by Satan can play a mean electric fiddle too. They hold their own, in my opinion.

At this moment, I wonder if Milton’s appreciation of even the fallen angels’ song isn’t a model for civilized political discourse. Partisan, yes. But harmonious still. Areopagitica, written long before Paradise Lost, long before Milton’s ultimate disappointment upon the Restoration, allows for just such toleration. Indeed, toleration is critical if one means to find truth.  Milton’s metaphor here is that of building a temple.

And when every stone is laid artfully together, it cannot be united into a continuity, it can but be contiguous in this world; neither can every peece of the building be of one form; nay rather the perfection consists in this, that out of many moderat varieties and brotherly dissimilitudes that are not vastly disproportionall arises the goodly and the gracefull symmetry that commends the whole pile and structure.

True, Milton is concerned primarily with religious toleration, and the qualifiers here give pause. Milton allows for “moderate varieties,” “brotherly dissimiltudes” “not vastly disproportional.” But the scope of what is allowed becomes clear on reading Areopagitica. The groups and sects that some were calling “schismatics” were apparently still to be considered “brotherly.” Only those who would argue against toleration itself could not be included because intoleration itself would end all progress. Thus, Milton excludes very few from the contiguous society he envisions (sorry, Catholics).

Throughout Milton’s poetry and prose, the key power of toleration is that it allows the vital exchange of ideas necessary to exercise virtue by demanding the development of choice and reason. To the pure all things may be pure, but one cannot be pure unless there is the possibility of not being so (a key doctrine that Milton develops in both Christian Doctrine and Paradise Lost).  Essentially, for a republic to succeed, an educated populace has to navigate conflict through reason and choice. If there were no partial songs, there could be no true harmony.

I wonder. Can political discourse today recognize contiguousness without demanding continuity? Can we find our way to harmony even if our songs are clearly partial?

After all, even in Georgia, the Devil admitted defeat:

The devil bowed his head because he knew that he’d been beat.
He laid that golden fiddle on the ground at Johnny’s feet.
Johnny said: “Devil just come on back if you ever want to try again.
cause I told you once, you son of a gun, I’m the best there’s ever been.” 

“The Devil Went Down to Georgia”


-21 May 13

Image by Giulianobrocani.

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