Welcome to Hell! I
Bill Long 12/1/09
As I turn to expositing the huge text of this epic, I do so with a mingled sense of gratitude and eagerness. It is an unexampled pleasure for me to be able to spend hours in the delicious surge of Miltonian language and then to make enough sense of the language so that your way will be eased as you study the text. The challenge is immense, and sometimes I feel like I am using a flashlight to illumine the sun. Yet, paradoxically at first glance, there is no task that, in my judgment, will help people cope with the complexity and teeming profusion of knowledge "out there" than to become proficient at close interpretation of discrete units of a lofty and challenging text.
To that end, these three essays 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 I.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 world. So, he swiftly and skillfully whisks us through the corridor 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 select 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 meant "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 injury. This original sense is 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. 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 16th 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. Can you imagine--by using the word discover in our current popular usage you, as it were, privilege the European-descended eyes. 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; it is like not objecting to the nickname of the University of North Dakota. 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.