[Milton-L]: "that sure was worse"

Horace Jeffery Hodges jefferyhodges at yahoo.com
Sat May 20 06:23:18 EDT 2006

I've recently posted an entry on my blog that I'll
reproduce here since it concerns Milton:


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

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."

For a continuation of this theme on another blog
entry, see:


All comments are welcome.

Jeffery Hodges

University Degrees:

Ph.D., History, U.C. Berkeley
(Doctoral Thesis: "Food as Synecdoche in John's Gospel and Gnostic Texts")
M.A., History of Science, U.C. Berkeley
B.A., English Language and Literature, Baylor University

Email Address:

jefferyhodges at yahoo.com



Office Address:

Assistant Professor Horace Jeffery Hodges
Department of English Language and Literature
Korea University
136-701 Anam-dong, Seongbuk-gu
South Korea

Home Address:

Dr. Sun-Ae Hwang and Dr. Horace Jeffery Hodges
Sehan Apt. 102-2302
Sinnae-dong 795
Seoul 131-770
South Korea

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