08 November, 2002

Milton’s Description of Hell in Paradise Lost

The following is an assigned essay which was completed for a grade. Unfortunately, some formatting has been lost in the transition to LJ.

Author: Eric J. Herboso
Class: ENG 121.02 (Composition I), for Dr. Schaub
Assignment: Paper 4 Analyzation of Milton’s Description of Hell in Paradise Lost (PL)

Milton’s description of Hell in Paradise Lost appears to be more than just mere empty poetry; rather, Milton made a serious statement in depicting Hell in the particular way that he did. From the very beginning, Milton describes hell as “A Dungeon horrible, on all sides round / As one great Furnace flam’d, yet from those flames / No light, but rather darkness visible / Serv’d only to discover sights of woe, / Regions of sorrow, doleful shades,” (PL I 61-5) and other horrors that are at first quite hard to imagine. But truly, Milton does an excellent job of explaining the content of hell; it is obviously important to him to show that place “where peace / And rest can never dwell, hope never comes / That comes to all; but torture without end / Still urges, and a fiery Deluge, fed / With ever burning Sulphur unconsum’d” (PL I 65-9). Even when an opposing view is shared by Milton, the speaker (Belial) is described as “false and hollow” (PL I 112) when he says “This horror will grow mild, this darkness light” (PL I 220). Milton is definitely entirely consumed with the idea of making hell as hellish as possible.

But it is not so much the physical aspect of hell that Milton loves to hate so very much. While Milton does indeed write much about contemporary views of hell like fire and everlasting pain, his book only covers such material because he is repeating previous authors. Because Milton is devout, he actually does believe in the existence of hell, and thus feels obligated to write of hell as it is commonly described, despite his many additions. Fire and other obvious parts of hell are not important in Milton’s narrative simply because he did not make those parts up when he wrote the fiction of his story. From the perspective of a true Christian like the author, Paradise Lost is closer to historical fiction than pure imagination. This is why the additions he made to hell deserve more attention than the contemporary ideas he repeats.

But despite this limitation on relevance in Milton’s description of hell, Milton becomes harsher and harsher of his description with each passing verse. At one point, Beezlebub notes that whatever the reason that their rebellion failed, “Whether upheld by stength, or Chance, or Fate, / too well I see and rue he dire event, / That with sad overthrow and foul defeat / Hath lost us Heav’n” (PL I 133-6), an obvious injustice from their perspective, but not one that they are able to truly rally against, because of simple fear. And later, as Satan flies towards the gates of Hell, he notices more of his compatriots sitting “on a Hill retir’d, / In thoughts more elevate, and reason’d high / Of Providence, Foreknowledge, Will, and Fate, / Fixt Fate, free will, foreknowledge absolute, / And found no end, in wandering mazes lost” (PL I 557-61). Milton is here describing Hell in terms of the bible itself, “For in much wisdom is much grief, And he who increases knowledge, increases sorrow” (Ecclesiates 1:18).

Milton even appears to feel that the presence of Hell itself is cause to create ‘bad logic’ from its denizens; as Satan himself attested, “to be weak is miserable / Doing or Suffering: but of this be sure, / To do aught good never will be our task, / But ever to do ill our sole delight” (PL I 158-60). But although his logic here is clearly flawed, no one of his fellow ‘hellmates’ notices it. He is deciding to do evil just for the sake of making his rebellion against God apply to each and every aspect of his life – this is angst solely for angst’s sake, and yet nobody sees it. Milton is surely making this a key feature of hell, such that any who reside there are unable to reason effectively. Why else would Satan be applauded for remarking “What reinforcement we may gain from Hope, / If not what resolution from despair” (PL I 191)?

No other feature of Hell is scarier than this aspect, and yet when taken in aggregate, Milton’s description of Hell is worse than any one of its constituent features. One finds it staggering that Milton should write so harshly of this place, and yet it is understandable – Milton was quite devout, and he had good reason to describe Hell in the way that he did. The concept of a pure, falsely reasoned evil in hell glorifies the truth and logically flawless version of God in heaven. To use anything less in his diction or imagery would do nothing but make Hell seem an easier place to reside in, and that would be inimical to Milton’s purpose, to “justify the ways of God to men” (PL I 26).

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