"that sure was worse"
His mighty stature" (Book 1. 221-222)
Currently, we're in Book II, reading what advice the various fallen angels have to offer on what they ought to do now that they've lost the war in heaven and been cast into hell.
The fearsome Moloch has just counseled for another war, arguing that even if the fallen angels lose again, they have little to fear:
Th' event is fear'd; should we again provoke
Our stronger, some worse way his wrath may find
To our destruction: if there be in Hell
Fear to be worse destroy'd: what can be worse
Then to dwell here, driv'n out from bliss, condemn'd
In this abhorred deep to utter woe;
Where pain of unextinguishable fire
Must exercise us without hope of end
The Vassals of his anger, when the Scourge
Inexorably, and the torturing hour
Calls us to Penance? (PL 2.82-92)
Graceful Belial responds:
What can we suffer worse? is this then worst,
Thus sitting, thus consulting, thus in Arms?
What when we fled amain, pursu'd and strook
With Heav'ns afflicting Thunder, and besought
The Deep to shelter us? this Hell then seem'd
A refuge from those wounds: or when we lay
Chain'd on the burning Lake? that sure was worse. (PL 2.163-169)
When Sa-Rah had finished reading "that sure was worse," she laughed. So did I -- and I seem to recall having chuckled to myself when I first read that line some years ago.
And that raises for me a question: Did Milton intend humor here? If he did, then why? Perhaps laughter at Belial's 'dark humor' tends to lessen our horror of the hellish punishment inflicted upon the rebellious angels. If so, then might this not be part of Milton's attempt at theodicy? God must be lenient, for he has not inflicted the worst possible torments upon the fallen angels, as Belial himself notes, and has even left them free to improve their conditions. They've escaped from the burning lake, where they had previously lain in chains. No longer bound, they are now sitting in their battle gear, consulting about war. Things, Belial cautions, could be worse.
Thus does Belial unknowingly imp upon the wing of his small argument Milton's greater argument to "assert the eternal providence, / And justify the ways of God to men."