Wednesday, May 17, 2006

"that sure was worse"

Gustave Doré, Plate 2:
"Forthwith upright he rears from off the pool
His mighty stature" (Book 1. 221-222)
From Doré's "Illustrations"
in John Milton's Paradise Lost
(London: Cassell and Co., 1882)
Borrowed from George Klawitter's online selection of
of the University of Texas at Austin, Summer, 1995"
I've previously mentioned that my nine-year-old daughter and I are reading Milton's Paradise Lost together ... slowly.

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.

Belial is right, and because he is right, he makes hell seem less terrible and God seem more lenient than might justifiably have been.

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."


At 9:23 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"I've previously mentioned that my nine-year-old daughter and I are reading Milton's Paradise Lost together ... slowly"

What a great sentence. Lots of laughs hidden in that one.

At 12:12 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Probably in part due to my having partly italicized the wrong part.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 12:37 PM, Blogger Sir G said...


A word of advice (if i may): your photos (all of which are beautiful and interesting) may be a trifle to large? your page takes a while to load and i have a fast connection, and there are people with dial-ups out there!


At 1:07 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Gawain, thanks for letting me know. Oddly, they seem to come out rather large even when I select small. I don't know why. Today, I selected medium but got an image that appears rather large to me.

Perhaps I'll go for small from now on anyway ... if that will make a difference.

(By the way, my name has an unusual spelling that confuses everyone, so you might want to look more closely at it.)

Jeffery Hodges

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At 4:43 PM, Blogger Wonderdog said...


I think Belial is not helping Milton's (or God's) cause at all. To hear him tell it, Hell ain't so bad so...Maybe I will do that dirty deed after all. So I'll be damned to eternal consultation and conversation! He undermines our motivation to do good and attain paradise by pointing out that there are worse things than hell.

Moloch seems a better motivator to mankind to stay on the right path because he portrays hell as mankind envisions it -- "nothing worse".

By the way, lest you think your daughter more erudite than my son, we just moved on from Mother Goose to Dr. Seuss. So there...

At 9:42 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Wonderdog, you're right to be proud of your son. Anybody who can understand Mother Goose and Dr. Seuss is already far beyond Milton!

Interesting argument on Belial vs. Moloch, but even a Belialian hell is no picnic and already a great deterrent to sin. No matter how you slice it, damnation to hell is an eternity of death due to separation from God, and we all know how you lawyers like to appeal to the death penalty as a deterrent to murder.

Or is it Stewdog who's the lawyer?

Jeffery Hodges

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At 12:27 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yup, it was the italics. Thought it was intentional.

At 12:47 AM, Blogger Wonderdog said...

We're both lawyers. Or as we like to say, "attorneys". Don't like that "L" word. It's connotation portends a Belialian and Molochian fate for us.

As for Mother Goose and Seuss vs. Milton, you're of course correct. Try pondering the subtext theodicy in "Green Eggs and Ham". How can there be a God when one is subjected to constant hectoring to consume obviously spoiled food?

At 10:55 AM, Blogger mal said...

I had to work to catch the humour in Shakespeare. I totally missed it with Milton. I think I do better with more low brow stuff like Foxworthy. mmmmm now I wonder, could Rush Limbaugh be a closet comedian?

Your 9 year old is working on Milton? Now I am intimidated, I found it slow going as an undergrad. (hey! what do you expect from an engineering geek?) *G*

At 2:02 PM, Blogger Sir G said...

Your name is HELL on us dislexics! ;)

One way to make the pictures smaller is to resize them first using ACDsee or photoshop. this is not an option if you are just quoting other people's photos (which i do a lot). in that case you just have to use different ones... :(



At 3:02 PM, Blogger Kate Marie said...

So could we say Belial is of God's (or Milton's) party without knowing it?

At 8:48 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Mallory, you're an engineer? You have my respect.

Gawain, I'm sorry about my name -- imagine how it has plagued me all these years!

KM, good one. Maybe I'll make it the theme of an article.

Jeffery Hodges

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