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                                  46. Building Hell, Second Essay

                              Paradise Lost I.670-730; Beginning with Mammon 

Nigh on the Plain in many cells prepar'd, [ 700 ]
That underneath had veins of liquid fire
Sluc'd from the Lake, a second multitude
With wondrous Art found out the massie Ore,
Severing each kind, and scum'd the Bullion dross:
A third as soon had form'd within the ground [ 705 ]
A various mould, and from the boyling cells
By strange conveyance fill'd each hollow nook,
As in an Organ from one blast of wind
To many a row of Pipes the sound-board breaths.
Anon out of the earth a Fabrick huge [ 710 ]
Rose like an Exhalation, with the sound
Of Dulcet Symphonies and voices sweet,
Built like a Temple, where Pilasters round
Were set, and Doric pillars overlaid
With Golden Architrave; nor did there want [ 715 ]
Cornice or Freeze, with bossy Sculptures grav'n,
The Roof was fretted Gold. Not Babilon,
Nor great Alcairo such magnificence
Equal'd in all thir glories, to inshrine
Belus or Serapis thir Gods, or seat [ 720 ]
Thir Kings, when Ægypt with Assyria strove
In wealth and luxurie. Th' ascending pile
Stood fixt her stately highth, and strait the dores
Op'ning thir brazen foulds discover wide
Within, her ample spaces, o're the smooth [ 725 ]
And level pavement: from the arched roof
Pendant by suttle Magic many a row
Of Starry Lamps and blazing Cressets fed
With Naphtha and Asphaltus yeilded light
As from a sky. 

There is an implicit criticism of Mammon in these lines. Instead of this downward examintion activity, he ought to have been contemplating the "vision beatific" (684) which the Angels and saints in Heaven have of God. Christian theologians have, since the Patristic period, held out as a hope for redeemed humanity the promise first articulated by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount--that the pure in heart will "see God" (Matthew 5:8). This vision isn't possible in this life because "no one has seen God at any time" (John 1:18). Not content with this biblical limitation, the Christian mystical tradition tried to cultivate such a sense of divine presence that it was as if the believer had a proleptic vision of God--a vision without full sight, a foretaste, a down payment, an earnest of the real thing. But Mammon never spent the time contemplating God even though he was in a situation to do so. 

Mammon's focus, as mentioned, was downward. Some literalistic-minded commentators think that since the pre-Angelic Fall life in Heaven consisted of perfect obedience, that Mammon's focus on gold must only have happened after the time Satan recruited him and before the actual revolt, but this kind of wooden exegesis of Milton robs the alluring image of its fun. In any case, Mammon led the way. Then Milton decides he has to "show off" a bit, and he rushes forward to historical time to say how Mammon also was behind human efforts to mine precious metals (684-88). Is there a tradition suggesting that mining is not just messing with the "lower spaces" of the earth but is, in some sense, an infernal or demonic activity? I don't know of it, even though some sources I read point to a mid-16th century text, Georgii Agricolae's de Animantibus Subterraneis Liber as supporting the notion.

                                         Drawing Out the Precious Metals

Three groups of workers made the building of Hell an efficient activity. The first went right into the bowels of the mountain to remove the precious material. In Milton's language they "Op'n'd into the Hill a spacious wound/ And digg'd out ribs of Gold," 699-700. A second "multitude/ With wondrous Art founded the massy Ore" (702-03). In other words, these were the ones who took the unshaped material and boiled it down, separating the dross from the pure material. Milton's language becomes difficult here (they "scumm'd the Bullion dross"--704), but the task should be pretty clear. They were aided in this by the scalding heat of the Lake of Fire, for heat helps separate metals from dross. Resourceful of the Rebel Angels, wasn't it? Then there was a third group "had form'd within the ground/ A various mold" (705-06) into which the boiling, liquid ore now flowed. These molds, then, became the template or forms to build the walls of the temple in Hell. Milton has spent time observing construction crews in his life, and that observation gives him precision in describing the infernal work.

And then, in a matter of two lines, he drops in a very pleasant simile which actually opens up a mini-world of its own. He likens the flow of the boiling massy ore into the molds to the flow of wind into the bellows of a pipe organ, before the various sounds are emitted (708-09).

     "As in an organ from one blast of wind
     To many a row of Pipes the sound-board breathes"

And this image provides a wonderful occasion to speak of music in Hell. The ancients, going back to Pythagoras in the 5th century BCE, talked about the music of the celestial spheres, but Milton here suggest that the Fallen Angels worked to the "dulcet" strains of "voices sweet" in Hell. Were they singing as they worked? Where, else, could the music have come from? Some commentators mention that Milton loved music and was quite proficient at the organ, and perhaps he could really imagine no society, human or divine, without music. You wonder what they were playing....

                                           The Temple Takes Shape

Twelve words capture the rapidity of the work (710-11):


     "Anon out of the earth a fabric (i.e., product of skilled workmanship) huge

    Rose like an exhalation"

What might Milton have had in mind as he penned these words? Until I studied this section, I hadn't heard of the work of Inigo Jones (1573-1652), a significant British architect and genius at stage design. Beeching and Bridges give the following words describing a Sunday Masque during the days of Charles I (1637). See how some of the words neatly overlap Milton's words in 713-30:

     "In the further part of the scene, the earth open'd; and there rose up a richly adorned         palace, seeming all of goldsmith's work, with porticos vaulted, on pillasters of rustick         work; their bases and capitels of gold. Above these ran an architrave, frese, and                 coronis of the same; the freese enriched with jewels. When this palace was arriv'd to         the hight, the whole scene was chang'd into a peristilium of two orders, Dorick and             Ionick.."

Thus Milton, probably shaped by the stage scenes of Jones and his learning about ancient Greek temples, spun out the elaborate scene in 713-30, where pilasters, Doric pillars, an architrave, cornice and frieze characterize the outside of the building. But then, we go inside, and we are delighted with cressets (bowl use to hold light/fire) suspended as if by magic, and the lamps, the latter fed by naphtha (liquid bitumen) and the former by asphaltus (solid bitumen). As the doors open, we enter, and our eyes are drawn upwards to see the starry lamps. Perhaps Milton is trying to depict a sort of "heavenly" roof to this most "hellish" temple. Perhaps the demons can only imitate the place they have previously seen. Their longing is still for Heaven. We have already heard Satan say that (254-55):

     "The mind is its own place, and in itself 
     Can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven"

Perhaps their minds, hooked on Heaven, want to instantiate as much of that region as they can in Hell so as better to make their infernal dwelling a sort of Heaven.


Hell takes shape right before our eyes. The "ascending pile" quickly rose (722). Though the word "pile" generally stands for something pointed or sharp, or a series of narrow stakes rammed into the ground for the support of a superstructure, it can also signify a tower or castle or large building. That is its signification here. Milton has just about prepared us for the beginning of the demonic conclave, but still we must meet the architect; we must name the place; and we must see the scurrying hordes of Rebel Angels crowd around their brilliant creation...

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