The Landscape of Hell
Bill Long 12/2/09
As we move to a description of Hell itself in these lines, the first thing that we experience is a rush of emotions. We can feel the heat; we can see the desolation; we can hear moans of torture even though the text just mentions the fact of torture; we can smell the "Sulphur unconsum'd." There is a sensuous immediacy or intensity to Hell that almost overwhelms the reader, as it does the Rebel Angels and their head, Satan. Milton's writing here is unusually intense, forceful, relentless, surging, vigorous, robust, energetic.
It is made especially intense because, for the first of many times in PL, we see Hell as an interior as well as exterior landscape. Satan will "throw his baleful eyes" around as he is "mixt with obdurate pride and steadfast hate" (58). Not until Book IV do we have the line "I..myself am hell" (IV.75), but the groundwork for that perspective is laid here. Thus we see an increasingly "interior" Satan living in torment and inner despair. The major problem is that even though he landed on his head ("Hurl'd headlong flaming"--45), his memory is intact, and it is a very good memory. He recalls the former times in the realms of light, the privileged position he enjoyed, the cost, and perhaps the impossibility, of returning to that position. He now knows he has nothing to look forward to but "lasting pain" (55).
We, the reader, see the landscape of Hell through Satan's eyes. Up until line 56 we were treated to the sovereign narrator's take on life. But now, once Satan throws his baleful, or hate-filled and vengeance-driven, eyes around he "views/ The dismal Situation waste and wild" (59-60). We are brought into that close, desperate, awful region and we see the glowing but dark landscape as Satan himself sees it.
Paradox and Hell
The first image that greets us is of a place that is surrounded by flames but plunged in darkness. Go slowly on the language: "from those flames/ No light." Odd. And then, just so we don't miss the image, "but rather darkness visible" (62-63). Milton was raised in a theological context that honored propositional, linear affirmations. Puritan theology was distinctive because of its coherent, logical structure. Things flowed from first principles, from the Scriptures and the divine decrees, through the person of God, through creation and providence, through the creation of humans, etc. The organic and logical architecture of Puritan theology would have made Frank Lloyd Wright proud. An example of this perfectly refined architecture is in the Ch.II of the Westminster (i.e., Puritan/Reformed) Confession of 1647. See how we have linear categories to describe "I am who I am."
"There is but one only living and true God, who is infinite in being and perfection, a most pure spirit, invisible, without body, parts, or passions; immutable, immense, eternal, incomprehensible, almightly, most wise, most holy, most free, most absolute, working all things according to the counsel of His own immutable and most righteous will... (on and on it goes)"
This is certainly a "proposition-happy" God. Every theological doctrine or issue could, for the Puritan, be reduced to linear, declarative, propositional statements. But Milton, as he rebelled against this theology in so many points, also rebels here. Hell is the place of paradox. The paradox touches on light and darkness. Hell flames but is in gloom. It fires but remains in darkness. We see not as through a glass darkly, but we are blind as with a gray covering--hm...maybe even like Milton's description of his own blindness.
The Relentless Charge of Language in I.60-69
What is most impressive about these lines, especially 60-69, is the way that Milton relentlessly piles up images of horror as he describes what Satan sees. With each new image comes a deeper sense of oppression. Let's hear him:
"Regions of sorrow, doleful shades, where peace
And rest can never dwell, hope never comes
That comes to all" (65-67).
If Hell is "darkness visible," it is also "hopelessness visible." What moves Milton's burdensome, constrictive, stiflling narrative are well-placed verbs. As Satan looks around at the "dismal Situation," he sees the encircling flames, like a hedge, surrounding Hell. But then, just as that image ends, Milton renews it, so to speak, with a well-placed verb that continues the action--"Serv'd" (64). Just like the continuing and eternal pain of Hell, so Milton manufactures a continuous and eternally painful sentence through the robust verb "serv'd." It isn't just the darkness visible that is "there." This only "serv'd" to discover or reveal more scenes of horror. It is as if one has, in the language of Amos the Prophet, run from a lion only to encounter a bear. Or, to change the image, the verbs function as a narrow door to the next chamber of horrors just down the hallway. Now we see these "regions of sorrow," et al., that take away all hope. But when that hope is taken away, we feel we are at the end of the thought. Yet, Milton presses on--with a reference to torture. It is
"torture without end/ Still urges" (67-68).
The words "still urges" mean "constantly incites." Thus, we have one more layer of one more level of torment. It isn't enough to see the flames invisible or even to abandon all hope. We must also be brought into the realm of torture without end. And then, just for good measure, he concludes the thought with another paradox, a "fiery Deluge." But he just can't stop there. This fiery Deluge is "fed" by ever-burning Sulphur (69). Like a rolling fire, that pillows up and flattens trees with its very heat, so the narrative rolls along, consuming everything in its sight yet, to use a Miltonian paradox, leaving everything quite intact. Unlike the blessed burning bush of Moses, which was "burning but not consumed," here we have the cursed burning Hell of Satan, where it is "burning but not consumed." Welcome, indeed, to Hell.
Conclusion--Memorization is the Only Way
The only way to experience the horror of this place through study is to memorize and then recite these lines, especially 60-69. Memorization has fallen out of fashion in the last 40 years, but there really is no substitute for it--in learning music, in learning one's "plays" or "moves" and, as here, in mastering compelling language. Here what the 19th century polymath Matthew Arnold says about learning poetry, in The Study of Poetry:
"There can be no more useful help for discovering what poetry belongs to the class of the truly excellent, and can therefore do us most good, than to have always in one's mind lines and expressions of the great master, and apply them as a touchstone to other poetry."
These lines, especially, deserve that kind of attention. You won't regret it.
Now that Satan has looked around, he notices a companion rolling around on the fiery lake with him, Beelzebub, whom he will address. The next essay treats that speech.