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45. Building Hell, First Essay
Paradise Lost I.670-730
There stood a Hill not far whose griesly top [ 670 ]
Belch'd fire and rowling smoak; the rest entire
Shon with a glossie scurff, undoubted sign
That in his womb was hid metallic Ore,
The work of Sulphur. Thither wing'd with speed
A numerous Brigad hasten'd. As when Bands [ 675 ]
Of Pioners with Spade and Pickax arm'd
Forerun the Royal Camp, to trench a Field,
Or cast a Rampart. Mammon led them on,
Mammon, the least erected Spirit that fell
From heav'n, for ev'n in heav'n his looks and thoughts [ 680 ]
Were always downward bent, admiring more
The riches of Heav'ns pavement, trod'n Gold,
Then aught divine or holy else enjoy'd
In vision beatific: by him first
Men also, and by his suggestion taught, [ 685 ]
Ransack'd the Center, and with impious hands
Rifl'd the bowels of thir mother Earth
For Treasures better hid. Soon had his crew
Op'nd into the Hill a spacious wound
And dig'd out ribs of Gold. Let none admire [ 690 ]
That riches grow in Hell; that soyle may best
Deserve the precious bane. And here let those
Who boast in mortal things, and wond'ring tell
Of Babel, and the works of Memphian Kings
Learn how thir greatest Monuments of Fame, [ 695 ]
And Strength and Art are easily out-done
By Spirits reprobate, and in an hour
What in an age they with incessant toyle
And hands innumerable scarce perform.
Introduction to a Building Project
The Rebel Angels respond to Satan's invigorating message by rushing off to build the massive city in Hell fit for their living and upcoming consultation. We all know the old saw that 'Rome wasn't built in a day.' Well, the Angels in Hell certainly weren't subject to those limitations; their work will go up on record time. The "Spirits reprobate" (697) can (697-99):
"in an hour [do]
What in an age they [human beings] with incessant toil
And hands innumerable scarce perform."
In this reference Milton is probably thinking of the erection of the Egyptian pyramids. Two ancient sources he no doubt read, Diodorus Siculus and Pliny, spoke of its taking 360,000 men 20 years to build one of the pyramids. Not only do the demons work with alacrity; they work with skill. The greatest (695-96):
"Monuments of Fame
And Strength and Art [of humans] are easily outdone"
by these eager infernal workers.
Thus, in this section of Book I Milton sets himself the task of describing the energy, skill and rapidity of labor of the Fallen Angels. Some readers of Milton don't think Milton is at his best in these lines. Many thoughts are derived from other sources, such as Spenser's Faerie Queene and Ovid's Metamorphoses. The work of mining and building a temple built on a Greek (Doric) model gives Milton a chance to show off knowledge, just as his description of the strength of the Rebel army allowed him space to demonstrate his knowledge of romance literature (580-87). Yet, despite some rather pedestrian language in this section, it also contains one of his most memorable descriptions of Hell's inhabitants: Mammon. Let's turn, first, to a few words that Milton uses, and then point out highlights of the mining and building process.
A Few More Words
It is Milton's language that keeps bringing us back to him. Four words/phrases he uses in interesting ways are: (1) "Pioner" (i.e., pioneer, 676); (2) "admire" (690); "precious bane" (692); and (4) "discover" (724).
(1) When we think of a pioneer we thing of one "who goes before an opens or leads or prepares the way for others coming after" (Century Dictionary, s.v. def. 2). Yet, the word is derived from the Old French peonier, a "foot soldier." This was its original meaning in English: "one of a party or company of foot-soldiers who march before or with an army, and are furnished with digging and cutting implements, to clear the way of obstructions..." Milton uses the word in its original sense here as he describes the advance guard of Fallen Angels getting to the task (675).
(2) When the Angels begin to dig, they find ribs of Gold in Hell. How could it be that this precious metal resides in such an abandoned place? Milton begins his answer: "Let none admire/ That riches grow in Hell" (690-91). "Admire" derives from two Latin words meaning to "wonder at" or "look at." When first coming into English, "admire" meant "to regard with wonder or surprise." Though it still has an element of "wonder" in it, our use of "admire" focuses more on "approbation, esteem, regard, or affection" of the person in question.
(3) One of the reasons gold is lodged in Hell is because it is, in Milton's felicitous phrase, "precious bane" (692). This oxymoron captures the biblical sense of gold's possibilities as well as its hazards. "The love of money is the root of all evils," I Timothy 6:10.
(4) I have already mentioned "discover" (724; earlier in line 64), but it is worth repeating. The original meaning was to "uncover" or "reveal." Thus, as the massive structure of Pandemonium goes up and the doors open, we have this scene: "straight the doors/ Op'ning their brazen folds discover wide/ Within, her ample spaces..." (723-25). I propose the utilization of all these words in their original senses. If the Protestant Reformation occurred because earliest leaders wanted to return to the "text" (i.e., the Bible), let's get to the "roots" of words, too, and revitalize not just our speech, but our knowledge, culture, and way of relating in the world.
Back to Hell
We are in Hell, however, and in the rest of this and the next essay I propose to review the flow of the events in lines 670-730. If there is one thing Milton knows how to do well, it is to draw a verbal picture. So, we first see a hill in Hell, from whose "grisly top" belched fire and "rolling smoke" (671). No doubt Milton derived this picture from Virgil's description of Mt. Aetna (Aeneid III.576). By the way, "grisly" means "frightful, terrible, gruesome, grim." But he is careful enough to tell us that the rest of the mountain is covered in a sheen, a "glossy scurf" or scaly or flaky matter. For Milton, and for scientific knowledge at that time, it meant that it was composed of sulphur. I don't know my seventeeth century (much less twenty first century!) chemistry, but some commentators mention that "the old chemists reduced all metals to the elements of Sulphur and Mercury," (Beeching and Bridges, PL, p. 141).
This will be the mountain that the eager Rebel Angels raid as they mine the precious bane to build their city. They go forth like "Pioners" who precede the army by digging furrows or throwing up ramparts. Then, we meet Mammon. Mammon leads them in this task. He is memorably described (678-80):
"Mammon led them on
Mammon the least erected spirit that fell
In contrast to Satan, who stood like a tower (591), Mammon is hunched over, "least erected." Why? Because Heaven's streets were paved in gold (doesn't Revelation 21:21 tell us this?--"and the street of the city is pure gold"), and he loved gold, he spent all his time hunched over examining this precious bane. Maybe other Angels in Heaven just thought this was an interesting peculiarity of Mammon. Some Angels play harps, some sing, some minister to humans and maybe some just make sure that the gold foundation stones of the city are kept in place. His looks were always "downward bent" as he admired (our sense!) the trodden gold of Heaven's pavement. In using the rare word (at the time) "trodden," Milton probably was dependent on Spenser, who talked about the "troden gras,/ In which the tract of peoples footing was" (FQ I.iii.10).