John Milton's Paradise Lost


In 1665 John Milton dodged the Great Plague in London by moving to a small house in Chalfont St Giles, near Amersham. He’d had a varied career, agitating against the Monarchy and then supporting Cromwell’s Parliament in several capacities, including as the gloriously named “Secretary for Foreign Tongues”! 

 The cottage is still there. You can visit. Link:

Milton's Cottage

The plague was not his only problem. The demise of Cromwell and the restoration of Charles II to the throne, effectively finished his career and, to make it worse, he was going blind. Opting for a quieter life, he dedicated himself to finishing his epic poem ‘Paradise Lost’, a retelling in ten short books of the biblical account of the fall of man;  the Adam & Eve stuff, Eden, apples and serpents.

The First Edition 

The first two books cover the descent of Satan and his ‘horrid crew’ into Hell and the plotting of their own restoration. I love them. His account of the deliberations neatly skewers enduring political dilemmas, but what grabbed me was his vivid picture of hell in contrast to the vapidity of heaven. Many have remarked on this and I am not going to rehearse the literary and psychological arguments about it. Rather, because this blog is about real and imagined places, I will confine myself to how Milton envisages this world beyond his world.

My reaction to it is coloured by the work of John Martin, a very popular painter, who got the job of illustrating a new edition of Milton’s epic in the early 1800s. He probably shared Milton's intense but rather unconventional religious sensibilities. 

In this post, I want to mash up some thoughts on Milton's word-pictures with Martin's visual imagining, to frame a vision of hell. 

Martin's job was not straightforward. He had made his reputation painting vast and fantastic vistas rather than figures whose scale and colour, didn't lend themselves to reproduction in a book. His solution was to mezzotints, a popular technique at the time, which used lines, dots and hatching to differentiate shades and tones in monochrome illustrations. 

The Rivers Of Bliss: Mezzotint

I know they are too small to be seen properly, but many can be expanded. You can see some of them in Tate Britain. (If you want to see some illustrations focused on the characters, take a look at the work of John Gustav Doré instead. Link : Doré for Paradise Lost). 

Hell is defined as the antithesis of heaven. When I was a kid, suffering a permanently aversive indoctrination in Catholic schools, we were fed medieval visions of heaven and hell. On one hand, there was eternal torture with fire and brimstone, weeping and gnashing of teeth.

On the other, nothing really. If there was a vision of a reward in the afterlife, it was a milquetoast eternity of drifting around the clouds in a white nightie with only sanctimonious seraphim and chubby cherubs for company, nibbling a packet of Manna Pringles while singing the praises of the Lord and yearning for a go on the trumpet. 

Earlier depictions sometimes saw it as a glorified version of one of the Arcadian landscapes in the mould of Capability Brown, with maybe an odd unicorn added for otherworldly colour. Martin didn’t quite follow that pattern but his ground-bound vision in ‘The Plains of Heaven’ offered a few additional hiking and waterside activities, but not much more. 

JM : The Plains of Heaven 

In contrast, the hell depicted by Milton and Martin was anything but boring. In his first episode, he describes the manacled denizens of hell lounging about in a burning lake before turning their hand to building a new HQ, Pandemonium. The designer was Mulciber, the demon architect who had been tossed over the crystal battlements of heaven and ‘sent with his industrious crew, to build in Hell’. In what follows I have copied and compressed part of Milton's text, to give the flavour of it all, without requiring you to finish the entire dish. 

JM : Lucifer on the Burning Lake 

His creation was a ‘fabric huge’, built like a temple. As you might expect. it didn’t want for golden architraves, Doric pillars or bossy sculptures graven. The arched roof was fretted gold, from which hung (by subtle magic) starry lamps and blazing cressets, fed by naptha and asphaltus. It was apparently built to host a throng of Demons AND their steeds, many times larger than the average Wembley crowd AND the posh seats were made of gold. The whole shebang apparently "rose like an exhalation with the sound of dulcet symphonies and voices sweet".

JM: Pandemonium

In short, concerns about emissions could take a hike and no effort was made to limit the noise emanating from the building site. I would bet that he didn’t have planning permission. Was there an accountant, a cost consultant or miserabilist engineer? Surely hell had some of those? Was the interior décor specified by Carrie Johnson? Was there a shrubbery?

Although this highlights that the denizens of hell knew how to party, the focus on the building seems very focused on the lighting and heating arrangements and the several discomforts revealed in customer reviews. I want to see the Abyss.

Thankfully, The second book starts with a bang, placing Satan as the star of the show, ‘high on a throne of royal state, which far ‘outshone the wealth or Ormus and of Ind’. No less than he deserved I think. In what follows, as a backdrop to the conclusion of the demonic debate and its implementation strategy, Milton goes in for a bit of ethereal geography. Keep in mind that he was a man of his time and that lens of the classics and the bible, coloured and distorted an understanding augmented by early science and sorcery, myth and magic. Much of Milton’s world was only known through the sketchy tales of travellers like March Polo or Magellan, with the remaining voids filled by rumour and guesswork. ‘Here be dragons’. What lay beyond the earthly domain was a realm of even more fevered imagination.

17th c. A world opening up

From this Milton concocts a rich brew of allusions and a baroque road trip through wild and exotic landscapes of exploration and trade, classical and biblical history, in a world that was immense, wide, colourful, dangerous, ill-defined and ill-understood, wielding metaphor and simile like Dervish knives. Marvellous stuff. ‘Ind’ you can guess. ‘Ormus’ was a Portuguese entrepôt. It is now Hormuz which, frankly, we hear too much of. Overall it is dense, lurid and simply marvellous. I can sense the place in my mind's eye, a Jacobean version of the opening scene's of Blade Runner. Into the cocked hat go Middle Earth, Narnia and Westeros. 

Ormus in the 1600s

Back to the book. The scene is set for the Devil’s exchange of views on what to do next. The civilised tone and careful arguments would put our Parliament to shame. Some preferred a direct approach; steam back up to heaven and sock it to the man. Some counselled cunning. One, Belial, pointed out that God might possibly be competent as well as omnipotent and the outcome of an assault on heaven could be a return to the burning lake again. 

Satan enthroned in Council 

Mammon simply wanted to stick to digging up stuff like gold. Basically, an Australian strategy. His argument went down well. We are told that: "He scarce had finished, when such murmur filled / Th’ assembly as when hollow rocks retain / The sound of blustering winds, which all night long / Had roused the sea, now with hoarse cadence lull / Seafaring men o'er watched, whose bark by chance/ Or pinnace, anchors in a craggy bay". Then "After the tempest. Such applause was heard /As Mammon ended’Mulciber had clearly thought about the acoustics.

Satan in Council : (John Gustav Dore)

It wasn’t enough to win the day though. As Beelzebub pointed out, hell might now be a gilded cage, but a cage it was, and no self-respecting demon should have to put up with that. So the session closed with Satan heading to Earth, the newly minted home of mankind, through the realm of Chaos. The idea was that he should confound the Almighty by mucking up his new creation. Cue the Book Of Genesis.

While he was away, devils would do a bit of exploring. There was lots to see in that ‘dismal world’. Milton mentions infernal rivers and rueful streams, burning lakes, waves of torrent fire, frozen continents, the Serbonian bog, raging fire, many a region dolorous and fiery alps. Fun for all the family. The pic below is actually Martin's take on the destruction of Pompeii, but you will get the idea. I had never heard of the Serbonian Bog before. Apparently it is first mentioned by Herodotus as a stretch of sand bars, quicksand, asphalt in a saline lagoon on the Sinai Peninsula. So, now you know. It is these details that engage my inner nerd!

JM : The Destruction of Pompeii 

 Satan’s journey doesn’t sound much more alluring. On emerging from the no-man’s land beyond hell he encounters a ‘hoary Deep, a dark, illimitable ocean, without bound (where) time, and place, are lost (and) eldest night and Chaos, ancestors of Nature, hold eternal anarchy, amidst the noise of endless wars’. That’s clear, isn’t it? It has a nice quantum vibe and sounds like a physicist’s paradise, offering networking opportunities with Chaos, up there in his ‘dark pavilion’ along with sable-vested Night, the Demogorgon; tumult, confusion, discord and many others. What a crew.  

JM : Bridge Over Chaos

What to make of all this? Milton was a master of painting pictures with words but for me, he somehow conjures up more of a mood and an atmosphere than a place. But what a mood! What an atmosphere! Maybe it would have ruined the spell if he had served up a more delineated and solid vision. The imagination needs space to play. In any event, John Martin fills the visual gaps wonderfully.

JM: The Great Day of His Wrath

By the time Milton arrived in Chalfont, he was entirely blind and had resorted to dictating his manuscript. I rather like to think that Milton's own view of hell was nonetheless influenced by the place. It would have been a poorer then but nowadays, for me, It ticks several of hell’s boxes; all pickled pretension and bourgeois boozers with the required quota of ageing rock stars. Nick Clegg was born there and left. Even HS2 prefers to tunnel underneath it, just leaving a vent shaft nearby as its very own portal to hell, later to be disguised as a barn!

Chalfont HS2 Vent 

In any event, Milton clearly didn’t value the place that much. After the plague dissipated, he returned to London where he died some seven years later. His burial is marked by a floor plaque and statuary in St Giles Cripplegate in the Barbican, ironically amid the City’s Temples of Mammon, where he had lived for most of his life. Oliver Cromwell had been married there some decades earlier and, given Milton’s fascination with the unwrapping world, it is fitting that Martin Frobisher, the early explorer of the North West Passage, lies nearby. John Martin lived in Marylebone and also went blind towards the end of his life.

Milton at St Giles 


There is an online gallery of John Martin's paintings here: (Link)  John Martin paintings

If you want to see more early depictions of hell take a look here: Link:


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