Henry Fuseli: The Shepherd’s Dream, from “Paradise Lost” (1793)
The “shepherd’s dream” in Paradise Lost (1667) is an extended simile that Milton uses at the end of Book I after Satan and his fallen angels have lost in their first rebellion against God, been cast into the Lake of Fire, and have gathered on its shore to consider their situation. The are mighty and grotesque, still clad in their battle armor; one is “Moloch, horrid king, besmeared with blood / Of human sacrifice, and parents’ tears.”
Satan speaks, proposing they gather to consider whether they should mount another attack against God’s forces. Immediately, the demons mine into the Earth for gold and construct a great temple called Pandemonium in which the summit can take place. The demons, then—hundreds of thousands of them—swarm around it like bees around a hive. As they enter Pandemonium, Milton, says, they need to magically shrink themselves so they can all fit ; those who seemed like giants now appear smaller and smaller, like “faery elves” in a peasant’s dream. The most powerful demons stay their original size, “in their own dimensions like themselves.” There is a short silence, and the great discussion begins.
Behold a wonder! They but now who seemed
In bigness to surpass Earth’s giant sons,
Now less than smallest dwarfs, in narrow room
Throng numberless—like that pigmean race
Beyond the Indian mount; or faery elves,
Whose midnight revels, by a forest-side
Or fountain, some belated peasant sees,
Or dreams he sees, while overhead the Moon
Sits arbitress, and nearer to the Earth
Wheels her pale course: they, on their mirth and dance
Intent, with jocund music charm his ear;
At once with joy and fear his heart rebounds.
Thus incorporeal Spirits to smallest forms
Reduced their shapes immense, and were at large,
Though without number still, amidst the hall
Of that infernal court. But far within,
And in their own dimensions like themselves,
The great Seraphic Lords and Cherubim
In close recess and secret conclave sat,
A thousand demi-gods on golden seats,
Frequent and full. After short silence then,
And summons read, the great consult began.
Here is a little more on John Milton:
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Have you read Christopher Hill?
I have read some of it.
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