Hell in Paradise Lost: Description & Concept

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  • 0:01 Milton's Description of Hell
  • 3:04 Pandemonium: Hell's Capital
  • 6:41 The Gates of Hell
  • 7:34 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Richard Davis

Richard teaches college writing and has a master's degree in creative writing.

''Paradise Lost'' also offers us one of the most vivid (and disturbing) visions of Hell in existence. In this lesson, we'll explore Milton's depiction of Hell, examining its impact on both the characters and readers.

Milton's Description of Hell

First published in 1667, John Milton's Paradise Lost recreates the biblical story of mankind's fall, covering everything from Satan's rebellion against Heaven to his manipulation of Adam and Eve. In addition to being one of the most memorable epic poems (which are long narrative poems, usually split into parts or 'books') in English literature, Paradise Lost also gave us one of the most enduring depictions of Hell since Dante's Inferno. Let's jump right into Milton's first description of Hell, as seen through the eyes of Satan in the first book:

At once, as far as Angels ken, he views
The dismal situation waste and wild.
A dungeon horrible, on all sides round,
As one great furnace flamed; yet from those flames
No light; but rather darkness visible
Served only to discover sights of woe,
Regions of sorrow, doleful shades, 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 unconsumed.
Such place Eternal Justice has prepared
For those rebellious; here their prison ordained
In utter darkness, and their portion set,
As far removed from God and light of Heaven
As from the centre thrice to th' utmost pole.
Oh how unlike the place from whence they fell!

If this is your first time reading Milton, don't worry if you have some trouble navigating these lines. By modern standards, Milton's language is incredibly dense. Fortunately, by breaking down Milton's description into three main points, we can grasp the meaning of this passage.

The first point that Milton presents is that there is no real light in Hell, even though there is more than enough flame to go around. Instead of giving off light, the fires of Hell only give off 'darkness visible' that allows its prisoners ''only to discover sights of woe.'' In a sense, Milton's description of hellfire is a paradox, which is a combination of two things that seem to cancel each other out, such as 'darkness visible'.

The second point in Milton's description also has to do with hellfire. Instead of consuming whatever material is burned and eventually going out, the fires of Hell feed on ''ever-burning sulphur'' that doesn't disintegrate in the flames. So, as we continue to explore the nature of Hell and its inhabitants, keep in mind that, the entire time, Satan and his fellow fallen angels are constantly being burned.

The third (and perhaps most important) point that Milton raises is that Hell is as far from Heaven as possible:

As far removed from God and light of Heaven
As from the centre thrice to th' utmost pole.

Milton doesn't just mean that Hell is physically far from heaven, however: Hell is the polar opposite of Heaven in every way (darkness instead of light, eternal torture instead or eternal peace, etc.). Interestingly enough, Milton also comes to reveal that God has no control over what happens in Hell, which makes it possible for Satan and his cohorts to build their kingdom in Hell.

Pandemonium: Hell's Capital

Although it's significant that the first two books of Paradise Lost are set in Hell, it's also important to note that a large portion of the action takes place in a specific part of Hell. This specific part is the (appropriately named) city of Pandemonium, which Milton refers to as the ''high capital'' of Hell. However, Pandemonium wasn't just sitting there when Satan and the other fallen angels arrived. Rather, Satan and company had to build it themselves (burning in hellfire all the while). Fortunately, as Milton reveals, the fallen angels still possess a tremendous amount of strength and ingenuity, which they pour into their construction of Pandemonium:

Learn how their greatest monuments of fame
And strength, and art, are easily outdone
By Spirits reprobate, and in an hour
What in an age they, with incessant toil
And hands innumerable, scarce perform.
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 mould, and from the boiling cells
By strange conveyance filled each hollow nook;
As in an organ, from one blast of wind,
To many a row of pipes the sound-board breathes.
Anon out of the earth a fabric huge
Rose like an exhalation, with the sound
Of dulcet symphonies and voices sweet--
Built like a temple, where pilasters round
Were set, and Doric pillars overlaid
With golden architrave; nor did there want
Cornice or frieze, with bossy sculptures graven;
The roof was fretted gold.

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