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13. Welcome to Hell! First Essay
Paradise Lost I.27-83
Say first, for Heav'n hides nothing from thy view
Nor the deep Tract of Hell, say first what cause
Mov'd our Grand Parents in that happy State,
Favour'd of Heav'n so highly, to fall off [ 30 ]
From thir Creator, and transgress his Will
For one restraint, Lords of the World besides?
Who first seduc'd them to that foul revolt?
Th' infernal Serpent; he it was, whose guile
Stird up with Envy and Revenge, deceiv'd [ 35 ]
The Mother of Mankind, what time his Pride
Had cast him out from Heav'n, with all his Host
Of Rebel Angels, by whose aid aspiring
To set himself in Glory above his Peers,
He trusted to have equal'd the most High, [ 40 ]
If he oppos'd; and with ambitious aim
Against the Throne and Monarchy of God
Rais'd impious War in Heav'n and Battel proud
With vain attempt. Him the Almighty Power
These three essays on Hell will focus on Milton's vocabulary in I.27-83, the sense of "falling" that Satan and the reader have as the story develops, and the relentless, sensuous immediacy of Milton's description of Hell. Let's begin with a few introductory words about lines 27-44.
Milton is writing as one inspired by the Christian Muse while, at the same time, defined by the classical epic tradition. This is nowhere more evident than in the opening lines of our text. He begins with a question of the Muse: 'Tell me,' he says (paraphrased), 'what cause moved our first parents to transgress the one commandment of God in the Garden of Eden?' (27-33) The idea behind this question is "lifted" directly from 1.8 of the Iliad. "And which of the Gods was it that set them (Achilles and Agamemnon) to quarrel?" It is the means of allowing the reader to enter the story in medias res, in the middle of things. For Homer that meant that we joined the Achaians in the middle of their generation-long battle against Troy. For Milton that means we will join Satan in Hell after he has experienced a signal defeat. The rest of the narrative will drop hints here and there of what happened "before" Book I, but this is epic convention. Drop you right into the action in the second quarter, with the narrator bringing you up to speed during breaks in the action.
But notice how quickly Milton advances from the initial question to the place he wants to take us. He has to begin line 27 with a reference to "man's first disobedience," because that is what he said the entire epic was about (line 1), but he doesn't want to tell us about that disobedience yet. In fact, he won't reach it until Book IX! Yet, he has to dig a deep foundation, and that foundation is placed, so to speak, in the bottom of Hell, the very Marianas Trench of the whole spiritual world. So, he swiftly and skillfully whisks us through the story of Satan's deception of our first parents through the instrumentality of the serpent (27-35) and Satan's revolt in Heaven against God (35-44) so that we can join the action, as it were, falling with Satan into Hell in line 44. That is where he wants us to begin our journey.
Milton can move us incredibly quickly when he wants, but he also can slow down the action, as he will do beginning in line 44, to a crawl. As it is, the two leading figures in Hell, Satan and Beelzebub, are chained to the lake of fire; Milton, too, will "chain" us and make us slow down in order to descry the horrid sights before us and them. But before we get to the sense of falling and the reality of enchainment, let's look at a few of Milton's words in this part.
A Word on Milton's Words
I am not talking here about Milton's style in general; here I will just focus on how he uses some memorable words.
(1) Satan was flung down from heaven "With hideous ruin" (46). Ruin is derived from the Latin ruere, which means "to fall," and so originally and in this passage means "the act of giving way and falling down.." Only later did it develope the meaning familiar to us today: the result of falling down, such as damage or severe injury. This original sense is also captured by a contemporary of Milton: "The death of the Duke of Britaine, slaine by the ruine of a wall." So, Satan is hurtling through the air with frightful, dreadful, terrible or horrible falling. The word "hideous" can also connote the idea of something ugly, unpleasing, repulsive or revolting (OED, s.v.).
(2) Horrid is a term dear to Milton's heart. Satan with his "horrid crew" lies vanquished in Hell (51); later he will break the "horrid silence" and speak (83). Horrid originally meant "bristling, shaggy, rough," derived as it was from the Latin horridus, which meant the same thing. Burton's famous 1621 Anatomy of Melancholy has this line: "A rugged attire, hirsute head, horrid beard." But Shakespeare, as was his wont, decided to broaden the meaning of the word in Twelfth Night (1601) to our current usage: "causing horror or aversion; revolting to sight or hearing; terrible, dreadful.." Milton uses horrid here in the Shakespearean sense of "inspiring horror" or "causing aversion." There is nothing attractive at all about Hell, even though many readers have found Milton's Satan to be a bewitching figure.
(3) Confounded in line 53 ("Confounded though immortal") means to be defeated utterly, brought to destruction, discomfited. Its original meaning, which Milton uses, is much stronger than our current usage of being thrown into confusion of mind or feelings.
(4) Milton also uses discover in line 64 ("Serv'd only to discover sights of woe") in its original sense of "uncover" or "reveal." Indeed, if disrobe means to "take clothes off," why shouldn't discover mean to "remove the cover" or "uncover" or disclose? Only with European exploration of the world in the sixteenth century did discover take on its current meaning, of being the first to obtain sight or knowledge of. But if we think about it for a second, all those who claim to be liberals and affirming of distressed peoples around the world ought to object, yes to stand and object, to the current and popular use of discover. To use the language of today, it is so "hegemonic." By using the word discover in our current popular usage we, as it were, privilege the European-descended way of defining life. Were the people of remotest Africa there before the Europeans came on the scene? Of course. So, our current use of discover just has to be eliminated. Milton helps us recapture a better sense of discover.
(5) I conclude with a brief mention of weltering in line 78 ("and welt'ring by his side") to describe what Beelzebub is doing next to Satan. We don't use the word much today but there really is no good reason to abandon it. It means "to roll or twist the body; to turn or tumble about; to lie and roll about; to writhe, to wriggle." This definition lies behind all the modern usages, and the word has also taken on a figurative use. For example, one can speak figuratively of "weltering emotions" or literaly of people who were "weltering in their own blood." It is a good, solid, sturdy word. Use it in your conversation. See if anyone stops you and asks you what you mean...
Let's now get to the flow of ideas in I.27-83.