Home on the Plain
Bill Long 12/7/09
Satan and Beelzebub Speak, PL 1.242-281
Satan has some of the most memorable lines in PL. Earlier in Book I we recall him saying in defiance (106-109):
"What though the field be lost?
All is not lost; the unconquerable Will,
And study of revenge, immortal hate,
And courage never to submit or yield..."
"To do aught good never will be our task,
But ever to do ill our sole delight..."
Now, in this brief colloquy between our two leading Rebels, Satan gives us more memorable lines (254-55):
"The mind it its own place, and in itself
Can make a Heav'n of Hell, a Hell of Heav'n."
Or the oft-quoted line 263:
"Better to reign in Hell, than serve in Heav'n."
These epigrammatic lines capture Satan's flinty opposition to God. They also reflect his pride stemming from the "injur'd merit" (98) at being passed over, in favor of the Son, for a heavenly promotion. That opposition, and that pride, are also evident in this interchange of great resolve between Satan and Beelzebub, an interchange taking place before they join the other huddled, injured, stunned Rebel Angels to decide what to do. Seven things about the exchange call for comment.
1. Note Satan's first lines and the four-fold repetition of the place where he finds himself:
"Is this the Region, this the Soil, the Clime,
.....this the seat," 242-43.
One might be tempted to see these words functioning as a "funnel-like" construction, from broadest to narrowest, from the huge expanse of "Region" to the narrow focus of "seat," but that doesn't seem to be right. "Clime," for example, can be as all-encompassing as "Region." Perhaps his fourfold repetition of words for "place" suggests a psychological difficulty Satan is having in coming to grips with his confinement in such a dreadful place. In a word, he might be "in denial" that he is actually cast out from Heaven into this desolate region. If so, these lines give a nice twist to some of the most famous words of Satan in PL a few lines later: "The mind is its own place, and in itself/ Can make a Heav'n of Hell, a Hell of Heav'n" (254-55). Anyone who can say the latter lines is one who isn't quite situated "in his place" yet. Or, to put it differently, the words in 254-55 function as a sort of wish, a longing for an escape, a confused yearning for a different situation even as he is denying the constriction of the present.
Though scholars have for decades tried to scour classical and medieval works for literary parallels to lines 254-55 (either in medieval heresy or in Stoic philosophy. I think a line from Horace's Epistles is actually is behind--11.27), I think a more fruitful intratextual connection is between lines 242-43 and 254-55. The onewho spent his time in Heaven obsessed about his place among the Angels, now in Hell is obsessing about the relevance of place to his current longings. Confusion about place overwhelms Satan.
2. Then there is the content of the early lines. Satan's major point is that force alone makes God supreme. In fact, reason makes others (i.e., Satan) equal to God; God was just able to pull rank because of his "dire Arms" (94). Note the double use of "equal" in 248-49. Satan truly has a "submission" problem; he simply cannot abide the fact that any other force in the universe may be superior to him, except in force. His statement that "fardest from him [i.e., God] is best" (247) echoes a classical Greek line expressing desire to be "far off from Zeus and his thunder." Satan is valiantly trying to claim victory out of defeat.
3. The alliteration of lines 249-251 is breathtaking. As in IV.108-110, Satan bids farewell to the happy life he once knew. Then he greets a new place, with four "h's" getting us started: "Hail horrors, hail.....Hell." It takes a lot of energy to say these consecutive "h's."
4. Speaking of words and word choice, Satan also uses two phrases that really don't make much literal sense, but whose sense is clear form context (I suppose the words "The mind is its own place" is likewise fuzzy, even though the context makes the meaning clear). First he says, "And what I should be, all but less than hee/ Whom Thunder hath made greater?" (257-58). "All but less than hee" must mean "In no way [but force] less than God." Then, later he says, "th' Almighty hath not built/ Here for his envy, will not drive us hence" (259-60). The meaning has to be that God does not envy the place He cast the Rebel Angels--thus He won't harry them further, but the words don't make that crystal clear. Perhaps these unclear lines mirror some of Satan's psychological confusion mentioned already.
5. The overriding theme of Satan's speech is freedom. Life has given him a bowl of pits to eat; he claims to see the cherries still surrounding the pits. "Here at least/ We shall be free" is his mantra. The words that follow remind me of the line earlier, which said that Satan was "vaunting loud, but rackt with deep despair" (126). He now vaunts the benefits of security and how much better it was to have ambition [and land in Hell] than simply to be a servile flatterer in Heaven [the latter thought is implied]. Then, he sums it up with the maxim (263):
"Better to reign in Hell, than serve in Heav'n."
Several literary prototypes for this statement have been suggested. Since Milton has used Aeschylus portrait of Prometheus in describing Satan earlier, I am inclined to see this line in Prometheus Bound as underlying line 263: "Yet be assured that I would never change my stormy lot for thy smooth servitude" (965; Prometheus is speaking to Hermes). All that a creative mind needs is the barest hint or suggestion of an idea; then that mind will play with it, mull it over, and apply it to the world s/he is describing. That is, I think, what Milton did here.
6. Now is the time to gather the Rebel Angels, who are scattered in disarray across the wide desolation of Hell. They are lying "astonished" (i.e., stunned) on the "oblivious" pool (266). Though this refers to the River Lethe in Hades, a river which induces forgetfulness, Milton's use of it is surprising, since one of the realities for Satan and the Rebel Angels is that they just can't forget their former state. Indeed, there is no mention in the Bible of any forgetfulness in Hell.
7. Beelzebub has little to add to Satan's words (271-282), even though he takes 12 lines to say nothing. He is the "yes man" in Hell, as (I will argue in my comments on Book III) the Son is the "yes man" in Heaven. Hell and Heaven will be parallel universes in a number of ways. Beelzebub says, in effect, 'All you have to do, boss, is say the word, and they will spring into action.' We can scarcely wait.
But before we get to that action, we have a rich description of the scene on plains of Hell, with similes that "work" this time. The next essay considers this passage.