John Milton, Paradise Lost: An Analysis of Hell

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2003

18 Pages, Grade: 1,3 (A)



1. Introduction

2. Main part
2.1 Hell as a place / an outer state
2.1.1 Placement of hell within the universe
2.1.2 Description of hell
2.1.3 Military / Hierarchical structure (in contrast to heaven)
2.2 Hell as an inner state
2.2.1 Hell as a place of punishment
2.2.2 Feelings / Emotions in hell
2.2.3 Feelings / Emotions in Satan
2.3 Hell transferred to earth

3. Conclusion

4. Bibliography

1. Introduction

Hell has a long history, even before Christianity the idea of a hell was mentioned in many cultures. During the centuries this idea has developed and changed (cf. Minois, p. 13).

In order to characterize John Milton's description of hell in "Paradise Lost" it may be of interest to find out what the common European idea of hell was before and during the 17th century.

During the Middle Ages hell was thought to be in the center of the earth, it was a place that could be located geographically and was thought to be inhabitated by sinners:

In die Hölle kommt, wer im Stand der Todsünde stirbt. [...] Die Todsünde ist ein willentlicher Akt der Verachtung Gottes, wissentlich und mit vollem Einverständ-

nis begangen (Minois, p. 229).

The end of the Middle Ages and the beginning of the modern age (14th to 16th century) were characterized by horrible living conditions in Europe: there were famines, wars, a colder climate (cf. Minois, p. 255). Earth became a hell:

Die Welt zwischen dem 14. und dem 16. Jahrhundert steht der Hölle in vieler Hinsicht in nichts nach, man könnte glauben, sie sei eine Zweigniederlassung. Die Hölle greift auf Europa über, wo sich Satan ergeht, als sei er zu Hause. Nie

hatte man ihn so oft gesehen (Minois, p. 258).

John Milton published his poem "Paradise Lost" in 1667, the century of the Enlightenment and Descartes. Hell was explained in detail and used to teach people morals:

Die Hölle wird in den großen Heilsplan der Menschen eingefügt und wird zu einem bedeutenden Rad im moralischen Triebwerk. Ihr Gebiet jedoch verkleinert sich, und die Grenze ist fortan klar erkenntlich: Es ist der Tod, eine Grenze, die man nur in einer Richtung überschreiten kann, er ist ohne

Wiederkehr (Minois, 286).

The following text deals with Milton's description of hell: as a place and as a state, and if Milton's concept of hell does not go beyond the usual ideas of his time.

1. Main part

1.1 Hell as a place / an outer state

1.1.1 Placement of hell within the universe

Milton's hell is placed underneath heaven and earth and "not in the center" (Milton, p.7) (as for example Dante suggested in his "Divine Comedy") with a "dark unbottomed infinite abyss" (Milton, p.43) between them. It is repeatedly described as being the lowest part of the universe: "the lowest deep" (Milton, p.43), "the bottomless pit" (Milton, p.161), "As far removed from God and light of heav'n / As from the center thrice to th' utmost pole" (Milton, p.11), "deep tract of hell" (Milton, p.9). The measures used to describe the distances are of an infinite or at least superlative quality: "unbottomed", "infinite", "lowest", "bottomless", "utmost". Once a distance is multiplied by three; a symbolic number which is recurrently used in "Paradise Lost" (see 2.1.2, 2.2.3). This description suggests that no human being can imagine how far away from heaven hell is. According to this arrangement, the direct way from heaven to hell leads downwards, the fastest in a fall. This fall, a recurrent motif in "Paradise Lost", takes place in a local or geographic dimension as well as in a moral sense. Therefore the words "height" and "depth" convey two meanings, a local and a moral one: "into what pit thou seest / From what highth fall'n" (Milton, p.11), "headlong themselves they threw / Down from the verge of heav'n, eternal wrath / Burnt after them to the bottomless pit" (Milton, p.161). The nine days the fall lasts again give an idea of the unimaginable distance: "Nine times the space that measures day and night / To mortal men" (Milton, p.10).

1.1.2 Description of hell

Two main features of hell are those of darkness and fire: "a place of utter darkness" (Milton, p.7), "fierce heat" (Milton, p.38), "huge convex of fire" (Milton, p.44), "vaulted with fire" (Milton, p.17), which sounds quite paradox, because fire usually is a source of light. However, the impression given here is rather the opposite: "on all sides round / As one great furnace flamed, yet from those flames / No light, but rather darkness visible" (Milton, p.10).

Hell's environment shows some similarities to earth, there are plains, hills, rivers and lakes, although they are of a completely different quality than on earth:

The lake and four of the described rivers contain no water, but liquid fire: "burning lake", "the tossing of these fiery waves", "on the beach / Of that inflamed sea", "four infernal rivers that disgorge / Into the burning lake their baleful streams" (Milton, p.7, p.13, p.17, p.48).

The plains give a similarly uncomfortable impression: "yon dreary plain, forlorn and wild, / The seat of desolation, void of light" (Milton, p.13), "dry land [...] if it were land that ever burned / With solid, as the lake with liquid fire" (Milton, p.15).

One of the hills obviously is a volcano, fitting perfectly into this environment, because even on earth volcanoes are known for producing some sort of liquid fire and their destructive activity. Milton succeeds in enhancing this already frightening image of volcanoes by using rather disgusting words and personifying the hill:

There stood a hill not far whose grisly top

Belched fire and rolling smoke; the rest entire

Shone with a glossy scurf, undoubted sign

That in his womb was hid metallic ore,

The work of sulphur (Milton, p.28).

The European volcano Etna is mentioned as well, but in the function of describing the plain:

as when [...]

thund'ring Etna, whose combustible

And fueled entrails thence conceiving fire,

Sublimed with mineral fury, aid the winds,

And leave a singed bottom all involved

With stench and smoke (Milton, p.15).

This description also shows a personification; in both cases the volcano shows female features, namely those of fertility, pregnancy and birth.

Hell does not only show the extreme of fire, but also the opposite extreme, cold:

Beyond this flood a frozen continent

Lies dark and wild, beat with perpetual storms

Of whirlwind and dire hail, which on firm land

Thaws not, but gather heap, and ruin seems

Of ancient pile; all else deep snow and ice (Milton, p.49).

However, the function of this cold is the same as that of fire; it does not offer any easing or relief, but " the parching air / Burns frore, and cold performs th' effect of fire" (Milton, p.49). The local vicinity of fire and ice and the combination of the contrary words "burn" and "frore" appears to be paradox; but as everybody will have experienced both sensual impressions, Milton evokes a realistic idea of this place and by using both extremes together presents it in a way even worse than anything on earth.

This way of describing hell gives the reader a vivid impression of what it is like; by combining well-known elements of earth's environment with fire, destruction and negative words Milton evokes a clearly visible picture in the reader's mind and appeals to the emotional imagination as well. The horror evoked obviously serves a deterrent purpose.

Hell is also described in contrast to heaven: "O how unlike the place from whence they fell!" (Milton, p.11). This can be observed in terms of environment (light – darkness), but also concerning mood and emotions of the inhabitants: "in the happy realms of light" (Milton, p.11) describing heaven and "now misery hath joined / In equal ruin" (Milton, p.11) describing hell.

Another similarity to earth is the existence of metal ("massy ore"), "ribs of gold" and other valuable things: "riches grow in hell" (all Milton, p.29). This is rather surprising at a first glance, but Milton clearly points out that objects of value should not be pursued: "treasures better hid" (Milton, p.29). They lead to one of the deadly sins, greed. (This topic will be discussed in detail later, see 2.2.2.) In addition, the ore is used by the fallen angels to produce new weapons, which is a negative consequence of its existence. Milton draws a parallel between the production of weapons on earth and in hell, that reminds the reader of heavy industry and / or the production of weapons on earth:

Nigh on the plain in many cells prepared,

That underneath had veins of liquid fire

Sluiced from the lake, a second multitude

With wondrous art founded the massy ore,

Severing each kind, and scummed the bullion dross:

A third as soon had formed within the ground

A various mold [...] (Milton, p.29).

The fallen angels also build a palace for Satan, Pandemonium. The act of building it is very different from the construction on earth: "Anon out of the earth a fabric huge / Rose like an exhalation" (Milton, p.29/30). The outer appearance of that palace is compared to religious buildings ("Built like a temple", p.30) and described in detail; it shows great wealth: "Doric pillars overlaid / With golden architrave; nor did there want / Cornice or friece, with bossy sculptures grav'n; / The roof was fretted gold", " (Milton, p.30). In his comparisons to legendary buildings Milton points out that Satan's palace is similar to them, but more striking concerning all of its qualities: "Not Babylon, / Nor great Alcairo such magnificence / Equaled in all their glories" (Milton, p.30). This combination of wealth with the comparison to Babylon and the description of the place as "Pandemonium, city and proud seat / of Lucifer" (Milton, p.241) reflect the Christian idea that wealth and treasures are the source of greed and pride, two of the deadly sins. In addition, choosing Babylon for this comparison characterizes Satan and his crew, as "Babylon is an image of a fallen and corrupt existence – the opposite of the Heavenly Jerusalem and of Paradise" (Cirlot, p.22). Another description of the "Whore of Babylon" clearly shows similarities to Pandemonium:

The Woman is rich, for she is "bedecked with gold and jewels and pearls, holding in her hand a golden cup." (5) She has committed some kind of fornication, which in Scripture is often a symbol of false religion – lack of fidelity to the God who created heaven and earth. (6) She is symbolically known as Babylon (, 12th


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John Milton, Paradise Lost: An Analysis of Hell
Ruhr-University of Bochum  (Anglistics Seminar)
1,3 (A)
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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John, Milton, Paradise, Lost, Analysis, Hell
Quote paper
Stella Asch (Author), 2003, John Milton, Paradise Lost: An Analysis of Hell, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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