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14. Welcome to Hell! Second Essay
The Action of I.44-83
. . . . . Him the Almighty Power
Hurld headlong flaming from th' Ethereal Skie [ 45 ]
With hideous ruine and combustion down
To bottomless perdition, there to dwell
In Adamantine Chains and penal Fire,
Who durst defie th' Omnipotent to Arms.
Nine times the Space that measures Day and Night [ 50 ]
To mortal men, he with his horrid crew
Lay vanquisht, rowling in the fiery Gulfe
Confounded though immortal: But his doom
Reserv'd him to more wrath; for now the thought
Both of lost happiness and lasting pain [ 55 ]
Torments him; round he throws his baleful eyes
That witness'd huge affliction and dismay
Mixt with obdurate pride and stedfast hate:
Let's meet Satan now in mid-flight, as he is being cast out of Heaven to land in Hell. We begin with Milton's own language (44-48):
"Him the Almighty Power
Hurl'd headlong flaming from th' Ethereal Sky
With hideous ruin and combustion down
To bottomless perdition, there to dwell
In Adamantine Chains and penal fire,"
The sense of pulsating action is palpable. Note the alliteration: Him..Hurl'd headlong..hideous. As the breath expels from our lungs, we see Satan likewise expelled. Most strong acts of explusion in English include an "h" or "j" sound. We get a lot out of Milton by reading him aloud. Take a moment to do so and see how he "hears."
But we don't just have a "fall" of Satan. We have a deliberate casting out, a plunging, a plummeting. Satan is flying head-first, flaming as he goes. Like a shooting star creasing the firmament, so Satan plunges, hurtling his way towards Hell. The biblical foundation is laid in Isaiah 14:12, "How you are fallen from heaven, O Lucifer, son of the morning!" Then, we have a reference to Jude 6 (New Testament), where the disobedient angels are said to be "kept in eternal chains in deepest darkness for the judgment of the great day."
We face the first of a few paradoxes in the passage just quoted. Satan will "land" on the lake of fire, an image taken from Revelation 19 and 20, but he is said here to be heading towards "bottomless perdition" (47). If we massage the paradox we see it gently opening into the notion of Hell as not just a geographical location but a psychological reality. It is a place you land, but a pool in which you swim which has no bottom. Like the psyche. Later Satan will lament that he cannot get away from Hell because, as he eloquently says, "I... myself am Hell" (IV.75). Again, another paradox pops up. Satan hurtles headlong from Heaven but is chained on the lake in Hell. How does that happen? Is he just on an extremely long leash as God hurls him? But that can't be, since then he would be tied to something in Heaven, but Milton's narrative has him manacled to Hell. No matter. Paradoxes abound here. After all, what is "darkness visible" (63)?
A Brief Interlude
Between the hurtling down and the description of Hell in 55-80 come a few lines (50-55) which describe Satan's stunned silence and pain as he gradually wakes up to find himself in Hell. Three comments can be made regarding the language of these lines. First, the reference in 50-51 to,
"Nine times the Space that measures Day and Night/ To mortal men.."
The text does not indicate how long it took him to fall to Hell; rather it stresses how long he rolled around, weltered if you will, on the "fiery Gulf" until he came to his senses enough to speak. [Though a later passage, VI.871, will talk about a nine-day fall.] Later in Book I, when God casts Mulciber out of Heaven, it takes about a day or so for him to fall to earth (I.740ff.) We can assume a much longer fall for Satan, since he ends up in Hell, but there is no indication, unless the bolded words are meant to reach backwards and forwards (Milton can do this, but I don't believe he does so here), that this passage says took Satan nine days to fall.
A reference to the Bible and a near contemporary theologian also peak at us through lines 50-55. Satan is described as follows: "But his doom/ Reserv'd him to more wrath" (53-54). This echoes St. Paul's words describing sinful humanity: "By your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself..." (Romans 2:5). Then, when Milton begins to describe Satan's mental condition, he says (54-56):
"for now the thought/ Both of lost happiness and lasting pain/ Torments him."
A fascinating little article by John Steadman, entitled "Milton and Wolleb Again," Harvard Theological Review 53 (1960), 155-56, discusses the following passage in the writings of the Dutch theologian John Wollebius, whose book The Abridgement of Christian Divinitie had been translated into English in the 1650s. When discussing the fate of the fallen angels, Wollebius writes: "Their punishment consisteth partly in the memory of their happiness lost irrecoverably, partly in the perpetual sense of their misery and torments."
Is there evidence that Milton knew Wollebius' work? Well, he seemed to know just about everything from his day and earlier, but a precious reference from his nephew, Edward Phillips, about Milton's teaching method (he taught students for a few years in the early 1640s), has it that the Sunday duties of Milton's pupils included "writing from his own dictation, some part of a tractate which he thought fit to collect from the ablest of divines who had written on that subject: Amesius, Wollebius, etc" (quoted in Steadman, Op. cit., p. 155, n. 1). Bingo.
A valuable insight into Milton's compositional method thus leaps into view. In just the first twenty five or thirty lines of the action of PL, we already see him at work. His framework is derived from epic. His content, with Satan plummeting through the universe to land in Hell, is also shaped by deep epic background. Yet, Scripture infuses almost every thought; at least three verses stand behind lines 44-55. In addition, we see his adoption, and perhaps even improvement, of Wollebius' lines when dealing with Satan's inner state. Though Wollebius and other Reformed theologians who wrote about the punishment meted out to the fallen angels wrote with a kind of dispassion and near omniscience that makes you wonder how they know what they affirmed, Milton has taken his/their insights and personalized them. Rather than just asserting that Satan had irrecoverably lost happiness, which he still remembers, Milton has Satan moan, complain, and appear deeply moved that this is now his condition. It becomes part of the mystery of Satan's personality, a personality which has been the focus of Milton scholarship for three centuries.
I close, then, with a self-exhortation, as well as one to readers. Never imagine that things you study closely and learn deeply will be "finished" when you have written them on the test or finished the course. Like shards lying around an archaeological site or like bricks strewn around a building going up, so our memories and the texts that give us words to describe these memories are there, lying around in our consciousness, able to be vivified and brought to use in hitherto undiscovered ways. Who knew that when Milton was dealing with his possibly unruly or bored students on Sundays in the early 1640s that he would come across precious thoughts that would become instrumental in describing his lead character in his major work 25 years later? Thus, learn and remember as if your life depends on it because, actually, it does.