Paradise Lost and the Acoustics of Hell
Matthew Steggle
Sheffield Hallam University

Steggle, Matthew. "Paradise Lost and the Acoustics of Hell." Early Modern Literary Studies 7.1/Special Issue 8 (May, 2001): 9.1-17<URL:


I cannot feel that my appreciation of Milton leads anywhere outside the mazes of sound.

- T.S. Eliot[1]


1. What does Hell sound like?  As a rule, modern fictional depictions of it depict it as unbearably, chaotically, and incessantly noisy.  In this, they are in accordance both with Biblical and classical sources, as well as with almost all the medieval and Renaissance beliefs about Hell. There is, however, one striking exception to this general rule - Paradise Lost. Milton's epic has a hell in which sound works in quite different, quite unexpected ways: and while the poem's hell has been studied extensively in terms of its visual and iconographic significances, and while individual sounds there have been considered in detail, the home of Milton's Satan has not often been thought of in terms of a complete acoustic environment. This article will explore the soundscapes of Hell in the hope of establishing that they are almost unique in Renaissance literature: of relating them to the more widely studied sounds of the rest of the poem’s universe, and of suggesting a new approach to the difficult question of how far Paradise Lost can be considered as an acoustic artefact.[2]


2. Hell, whether classical or Christian, has always been perceived as an exceptionally loud place.  St. Matthew's allusions to an "outer darkness", where "there shall be weeping [or 'wailing'] and gnashing of teeth" are among the most useful Biblical quotations in developing an idea of Hell, and this acoustic image was given a prominent position in many Renaissance discussions of the place, including the probably Miltonic De Doctrina Christiana.[3]  In the classical tradition, similarly, Aeneas' first perception of Hell is an aural one: "From here are to be heard sighs, and savage blows resound: then the scrape of iron, and dragged chains. Aeneas, stopped, terrified, and drank in the din."[4]  Later Christian epics followed the lead of Virgil and St. Matthew, as in Dante's first experience of Hell:

       Here sighs and cries and shrieks of lamentation
         echoed through the starless air of Hell;
         at first these sounds resounding made me weep:
       tongues confused, a language strained in anguish
         with cadences of anger, shrill outcries
         and raucous groans that joined with sounds of hands,
       raising a whirling storm that turns itself
         forever through that air of endless black,
         like grains of sand swirling when a whirlwind blows.[5]

What is interesting about Dante's hell is the endlessness of the sound: it contains human voices and human non-vocal sounds blended together and made so continuous as to become almost an atmospheric condition. For Dante, as for Aeneas, the sheer level of sound is physically shocking. In this, Dante was in accordance with popular medieval belief, since as Eileen Gardner notes, medieval dream-visions of Hell generally mention the "horrendous noise" there as one of its most prominent features.[6] 

3. Nor was this exclusively a medieval phenomenon, since Renaissance discussions of Hell also stressed the acoustic aspects in the context of a belief that all senses would be perpetually tortured there. For instance, William Sharrock dwells on "the variety of noises that shall be found in the howlings and drummings of Tophet", while Christopher Love states that "the ear shall be tormented with the yellings and hideous outcries of the damned", and John Bunyan predicts that the devils themselves will be "howling and roaring, screeching and yelling in such a hideous manner, that thou wilt be even at thy wits' end".[7]  Similarly, Renaissance literary treatments of Hell almost always consider Hell's incessant, multifarious noisiness part of its horror. This tradition is very widespread: to pick a few representative examples, poets including Ariosto, Tasso, Marini, Spenser, Phineas Fletcher, and Joseph Beaumont included noisiness as part of the terror of hell or hell's gate.[8]  The same motif can be found in Elizabethan drama (Kyd), Caroline poetry (Thomas Heywood), and Restoration prose allegory (Bunyan).[9]  In short, descriptions of Hell before and indeed after Paradise Lost tend to stress the intensity, variety, and continuousness of background noise going on there. So well established is this trope, indeed, that Abraham Cowley's Davideis, a comparatively close relative of Paradise Lost, seeks to make poetic capital out of the absurd idea that the noise in Hell could ever be interrupted.  When Satan finds out about David, he gnashes his iron teeth, and howls in fury:

       A dreadful Silence filled the hollow place,
       Doubling the native terror of Hell's face;
       Rivers of flaming brimstone, which before
       So loudly rag'd, crept softly by the shore;
       No hiss of Snakes, no clanck of Chaines was known;
       The Souls amidst their Tortures durst not groan.[10]

This is characteristic of Renaissance presentations of Hell in the variety of the noise, which includes not just products of the vocal cords - howling and groaning - but a range of other more environmental noises, such as the continuous, non-linguistic raging of rivers of brimstone.  Cowley's paradoxical presentation of a moment of silence in Hell neatly reveals the assumption about the 'normal' acoustic of hell.

4. Milton, however, has other ideas.  The narration proper of Paradise Lost opens on a lake of fire, covered with the forms of fallen angels 'rolling in the fiery gulf' of "ever-burning sulphur" (1.55, 69).  Thus, the first auditory indication of the poem might seem a little surprising: Satan "with bold words / Breaking the horrid silence thus began." (1.82-3). There are two effects here. One is the small surprise involved in adjusting our mental model of this scene - no groaning from the devils or crackling from the flames.  On the other hand, "horrid silence" is an oxymoron, and a bold one, to judge from the derision suffered by John Dryden after his use in 1660 of the phrase "horrid stillness".[11]  How can the mere absence of noise be considered horrid? Clearly the phrase is in some sense analogous to "darkness visible", but the true force of Milton's use of it here takes a long time to emerge through the poem.

5. As for silence, a prominent motif in A Masque, Paradise Lost, Paradise Regained, and Samson Agonistes, it has been the subject of a good deal of recent Milton criticism.  By and large, these articles are concerned with the semiotics of silence: silence as a conscious decision not to speak, or silence as an element within or marking the edge of a linguistic system.  Jean E. Graham, and Fran Sendbuehler, have examined how silence for Milton is inflected in terms of gender: Ken Simpson has considered problems of ineffability in Paradise Regained relative to Quaker ideas of silence.[12]  Shirley Sharon-Zisser argues that in Paradise Lost an Augustinian model applies: language is the province of humans, and that silence is therefore either a "suprahuman form of nonverbal signification" or "the signification of entities at the other end of the Great Chain of Being". Thus silence is not in itself morally evil, unless it is the result of humans failing to fulfil their duty to praise God in speech, and silence can represent the ineffably divine as well as the subhumanly inarticulate.[13]  These approaches work very well as commentaries on language, but they all depend to some extent on the axiom articulated by Derrida that all speech is a subset of writing and "writing in general covers the entire domain of linguistic signs".[14]  As a result, they run the risk of implying that all sound that matters is language and that all silence should be considered as an opposite of language. An "acoustic" approach offers greater conceptual freedom because it can offer a broader, less prescriptive definition of what the silence is not.

6. Throughout the rest of Book I, for instance, the devils set about making a huge variety of noises, sounds, and music. They talk, shout, create "the warlike sound / Of trumpets loud and clarions... Sonorous metal blowing martial sounds" (1.531-2, 540). They then march in silence "To the Dorian mood / Of flutes and soft recorders: such as raised / To height of noblest temper heroes old" (1.550-2). They even create sounds using less conventional instruments: they "fierce with graspèd arms / Clashed on their sounding shields the din of war, / Hurling defiance toward the vault of heaven." (1.667-9). They build Pandemonium, famously, to the accompaniment of "sound / of dulcet symphonies and voices sweet" (1.711-2), and the reader hears their "hiss of rustling wings" (1.768) as they squeeze inside it.  Book I closes with a moment of what it began with - silence: "After short silence then / And summons read, the great consult began" (1.797-8). A reader (or hearer) of Book I, struck by the devils' liking for sounds of all sorts, might well further be struck by other references to this liking contained in the catalogue of devils, and one in particular placed prominently at the start:

       First Moloch, horrid king besmeared with blood
       Of human sacrifice, and parents' tears,
       Though for the noise of drums and timbrels loud
       Their children's cries unheard...[15]

This misuse of one sound to drown out another invites application back to the devils in the main narrative. What, exactly, is it that they are trying so hard not to hear?

7. Book 2 provides more clues to answer this question as the devils continue this intense auditory activity with applause (2.290), with rising to their feet en masse ("their rising all at once was as the sound / Of thunder heard remote", 2.476-7), and with "trumpets' regal sound":

       Toward the four winds four speedy cherubim
       Put to their mouths the sounding alchemy
       By herald's voice explained: the hollow abyss
       Heard far and wide, and all the host of hell
       With deafening shout returned them loud acclaim. (2.515, 516-20)
While Satan is away, some of the devils vandalize mountains: "Hell scarce holds the wild uproar" (2.541). But others even play music - though the terms in which this activity is phrased repay attention:
Others more mild,
Retreated in a silent valley, sing
With notes angelical to many a harp
Their own heroic deeds...
       Their song was partial, but the harmony
       (What could it less when spirits immortal sing?)
       Suspended hell...       (2.547-554)

The question of the devils' music has received much critical attention, since Milton has always and rightly been considered a poet obsessed with music.[16]  Throughout Milton's career, but especially in Paradise Lost, he uses music as a synecdoche for the divine in all its forms, and thus the appearance of music in hell is particularly disturbing. The technical musical pun on "suspended" has been widely discussed, as has the question of in what sense the devils' song is "partial": possible overtones of the word include "biased", "incomplete", or, intriguingly, "polyphonic".[17]  But what has escaped notice is the fact that the valley in question is not merely quiet but actually "silent". 'Quiet' would suggest a pleasant pastoral retreat, and while 'silent' appears at first to offer merely a clumsy variation on that, it actually reminds the attentive reader that the underlying condition of hell is not bucolic peacefulness but blank silence.

8. On the basis of these episodes, and Satan's adventures as he makes his way past Sin and Death, certain generalizations can be made about the acoustic properties of Hell.  Firstly, the background condition of Hell is silence: "horrid silence", containing "silent" locations, run through by the "slow and silent stream" of Lethe.[18]  Secondly, what sound there is is created by the damned. Hell itself, when personified as a geographical location, is actually rather frightened by noise, and its fabric is figured as vulnerable to and threatened by it, as the following catalogue of examples shows:

       At which the universal host upsent
       A shout that tore hell's concave, and beyond
       Frighted the reign of Chaos and old Night. (1.541-3)
       Hell trembled as he strode. (2. 676)
       I fled, and cried out Death:
       Hell trembled at the hideous name, and sighed
       Through all her caves, and back resounded Death. (2.788-9)
       Hell heard the unsufferable noise, hell saw
       Heav'n ruining from Heav'n and would have fled
       Affrighted. (6.867-9).
Thirdly, Hell is a very echoing space: as we have seen, it reflects the word 'Death' back to Sin, while Satan makes it echo: "He called so loud, that all the hollow deep / Of hell resounded" (1.315). "All hell had rung", at least hypothetically, of the projected fight between Satan and Death (2. 723), and Hell shakes at the opening its gate.

       On a sudden open fly
       With impetuous recoil and jarring sound
       The infernal doors, and on their hinges grate
       Harsh thunder, that the lowest bottom shook
       Of Erebus.      (2.880)

While Earth (4.681, 10.861), Heaven (3.347), and indeed the whole universe (7.257, 562) are also resonant, none of them responds to sound as often or with quite the same intensity. The echoes in Hell are unusually prominent, and what they bring back to the damned is only the sound of their own activity.[19]  Fourthly, and in distinct contradiction of the third property, the illusion of a single acoustic community is just that - an illusion. The "cry" of Sin's hellhounds, although appalling to her, appears not to be audible to Satan at any distance (2.654). In Book 10, "dreadful... din" inside the council chamber goes unnoticed by those outside (10.537). Impossibly, the "wild uproar" threatening the whole fabric of hell is simultaneous with the "silent valley" and with the music that "suspends" hell.

9. But even after Satan leaves hell - starting, indeed, immediately as he does so - the poem continues to feed us acoustic information that changes our interpretation of the Hell episode.  The loud noises in hell have seemed extremely loud by local standards ("deafening", indeed) but as Satan leaves into Chaos, we learn what real noisiness is.  Immediately Satan is discomfited by the "noise / Of endless wars" (2.896-7):

       Nor was his ear less pealed
       With noises loud and ruinous (To compare
       Great things with small) than when Bellona storms... 2.920-3
        A universal hubbub wild
       Of stunning sounds and voices all confused
       Borne through the hollow dark assaults his ear
       With loudest vehemence. 2.951-4

This is much more the contemporary interpretation of what Hell ought to sound like, a continuous acoustic assault: and indeed, when Satan has fought his way through Chaos, one of the signs that he has reached the edge of Chaos is the "less hostile din" (2.1040). Milton has displaced onto Chaos the sort of acoustic effect normally associated with hell. On the one hand the stress on this intimidating wall of noise informs us about Chaos, on the other it sets up a noticeable contrast with the acoustically disappointing Hell he has just left - the Devils may think the sounds of hell are loud, but they are as nothing to the noise outside.[20]  Indeed, as we shall see, both Earth and Heaven are always accompanied by sounds of some description, which though less overpowering than those of chaos, are equally continuous and ever-present.  It is worth discussing the sounds of Earth and Heaven here, because they strengthen our impression of the acoustic barrenness of hell.

10. An interesting thing about Eden is that there is a constant low-intensity background noise.  In Truax's terms (cited Smith, 51), Eden offers a much richer acoustic ecology than hell - a larger number of co-existing, quiet sounds, set against Hell's few but 'deafening' ones. Adam and Eve both independently claim that sounds have been part of their consciousness since their very first moments:  for Eve, a "murmuring sound / Of waters" (4.453-4), for Adam, the sound of waters and the "warbling" (8.265) of birds.  The birds and the waters are also mentioned together with the noises made by vegetation in the opening description of Eden: "vernal airs... attune / The trembling leaves" (4.263-66): a further programmatic description of Eden again mentions the trio of sounds (5.5-8). As well as the natural sounds which occur round the clock, Adam notes the songs sung apparently by patrolling angels at night (4.682-687). On top of this background, Adam and Eve pray in a spontaneous register between prose and song (5.150) which includes a promise never to be silent in God's praise (5.202).  Each of the numerous times complete silence seems about to occur, we are told, belatedly, of something breaking it: "Silence... all but the waking nightingale; / She all night long her amorous descant sung".[21]  Pre-lapsarian Eden is never empty of sounds, and repeatedly our expectation that it might ever be silent is raised only to be denied. If we restrict ourselves to the question of environmental sounds, it remains true to say that there is no such thing as a moment in Eden when nothing can be heard.

11. As for Heaven, it, of course, is never silent. Or rather, on its very first appearance in the poem, "silence was in heaven" (3.218), as the Son volunteers to die for Mankind, a moment the uniqueness of which only becomes apparent as we learn more about Heaven in the rest of the poem.  From that moment on, Heaven is always full of notably noise, starting with a "shout/Loud": "Heaven rung / With jubilee, and loud hosannas filled/ The eternal regions" as the angels "Their happy hours in joy and hymning spent" (3.345-9, 417).  Music in Heaven continues throughout the Sabbath as well (7.595), sung and played on a wide variety of instrumentation (7.594-600), and even if Heaven's night is "friendliest to sleep and silence", the singing does not stop (6.657, 668).  During the war in heaven, that remarkably noisy contest settled (according to Satan) by a sonic superweapon, normal rules seem suspended and less stress is placed on the idea of continuous noise.[22]  But otherwise, it is emphatically Heaven, and not Hell, that we find filled with continuous sound.

12. The implications of this music in heaven have again received critical attention, and again, the tendency has been to think in "logocentric" terms, as if there were language, and then as a separate and unrelated category, non-linguistic sound: using, for instance, Milan Kundera's formulation that music is the anti-Word.[23]  What an "acoustic approach" can bring to this discussion, though, is the observation that Paradise Lost confounds language and music with all other sorts of noise into a continuum of just the sort theorized by Bruce Smith elsewhere in this issue: a continuing round from sound to music to speech to sound.[24]  In Paradise Lost, imagery blurs the line between sound and music. The gates of Heaven move with "harmonious sound" (7.206): even the singing of birds is a "charm" (4.651): even leaves have been attuned: there is a continual pun between the musical and atmospheric senses of "air" (4.263: 8.515).[25]  Adam and Eve's prayer is both music and speech (5.150), and there is no clear dividing line between the two before the Fall. And speech is confounded with the most ambient of ambient sounds within that very prayer: the three main noises of Eden, the birdsong, the noise of running water, and the sound of the wind, are reconstituted as language, "praise" of God by the winds and the rivers and the birds (5.193-9). Paradise Lost blurs harmonious sound and music and speech together, and they are all a synecdoche for the divine.

13. By corollary, then, separation from the divine is figured as a lack of harmony, or, even worse, as silence.  We may note in passing that the Fall affects Eden's soundscape in interesting ways, "muttering thunder" (9.1002, 10.666) and loud new winds (10.699, 705) changing the nature of the background noise while Adam and Eve are "strucken mute" (9.1064), but the more interesting use of sound comes on Satan’s return to a Hell defamiliarised by the events and the soundscapes of Books 3-9. Once again, Hell fails to fulfil the acoustic expectations raised by almost all other Renaissance depictions of it. Once again, Satan enters not a noisy environment but a deserted, empty hell much quieter than the chaos he has come through: even the acoustic inventiveness of the singers and rioters seems to have run out.  While Chaos at least was exclaiming and surging, Hell is "desert... many a dark league" (10.416-7, 437-8: Satan in his oration again remarks on this difference in levels of sound, 10.479). When he gets to the council chamber, where the devils are consulting, he provokes "loud... acclaim" (455), commands silence (459), and gives his speech. 

       A while he stood, expecting
       Their universal shout and high applause
       To fill his ear... (10.505-6)

But this silence is not broken by shouting, clapping, speech, or music - indeed, within the poem's hell, it is never broken by any of these things, since the devils in Paradise Lost make no more acoustic interventions apart from one.  Instead, there is only one sound left that the devils can make: a mere "dismal universal hiss" (10.508) and "spattering noise" (10.567). "Dreadful was the din / Of hissing..." (521-2), and the last presentation of the devils within Paradise Lost sees them restricted to a "dire hiss" (543), a "long and ceaseless hiss" (573). Just as the moral horizons of Satan and of the devils seem to shrink in the course of the poem, so the rich range of acoustic activities seen in Books 1 and 2 narrows down in Book 10 to hardly more than a single monotonous state, what a twenty-first century reader might describe as nothing more than a background hiss. Milton's hell is unlike almost all other representations of the place in that it is not, as one might expect, noisy - it is, in a literal sense, deathly quiet - and the full implications of this echoing, ambienceless chamber only become apparent on our second visit to it. Such silence, one might argue, has an allegorical significance, reflecting the poena damni, the pain of being separated from God.[26]  In Milton's Hell, the poena sensus  - the cramming of every sense with agonizing stimuli  - is suspended as far as hearing goes, in order to create a continuing and elegant reminder of the poena damni. In a variant of Moloch's predicted later behaviour, the devils at this stage are only using sound to cover up what otherwise might be terrifyingly inaudible. In this connection, the force of the original "horrid silence" becomes more evident, as does the effect of Milton's almost unique presentation of hell in terms of an absence rather than an excess of ambient sound. Raphael's prophecy of the devils' long-term fate applies not merely to their fame, but to their acoustic environment: "Eternal silence be their doom" (6.385).[27]
14. Thus, an acoustic approach does open up interesting perspectives on the fictional world of Paradise Lost.  But a true “historical phenomenology” of sound – the challenge outlined by Bruce Smith elsewhere in this issue – would invite us to consider the question more widely and to look at Paradise Lost itself as an acoustic artefact, and consider how it relates to the historicized human body. In some ways, this is a much more difficult proposition, and I would like briefly to outline some possible ways forward.


15. The first such historicized body, then, is that of John Milton himself. It has kinetic memory of how to play the organ and the "Bas-Viol".[28]  The bass viol, in particular, is more than just a matter of the fingers, but rather of cradling the instrument with the whole body. Harmony for Milton is not merely an intellectual idea, or even just a matter of the ears, but something that resonates up and down the entire bodily frame.  Milton's body is also, of course, famous for its damaged eyes: the eyes which are directly described in the poem at 3.23-6.  According to one early biographer, "his Ears now were eyes to him".[29]  Thus all the use of aural indications to establish place are open to reading in perhaps simplistic biographical terms. In this condition, "horrid silence" does have a particular importance: it becomes, even more precisely, an analogue of darkness visible, reason shut out at another entrance. Another consequence of the damage to Milton's eyes is that the poem leaves his body not through his hands onto paper, but through his mouth to an amanuensis.  In an important sense, Paradise Lost is an oral artefact. Of course, Milton is eager to stress just how oral his project is: he is singing (1.21, 3.18); accompanying himself on the harp (3.414); behaving like a nightingale (3.39); not "hoarse" (7.24); making musical "notes" as much as words (9.6); wishing to possess the "warning voice" heard by St. John (4.1); reporting the Muse's song (1.6) or her voice (7.2) or her dictation (9.23), at any rate something which he perceives through his ears (9.47); in opposition to the "barbarous dissonance" of Bacchanals (7.32).  These tropes are to some extent conventional and by no means unique to Milton, but his forceful repetition of them establishes the poem as very obviously and literally a matter of hearing.[30]

16. Paradise Lost is also, of course, filled with mimetic sound effects, onomatopoeia and mimetic syntax, which only work if the poem is sounded.  As such, it needs a second body to sound it and read it out aloud. And the poem is very interested in the processes of voicing, of what it means to voice someone else's words (Milton reports the Muse: anyone reading the poem aloud reports Milton: when the speaker asks to borrow the voice heard by John, it is momentarily unclear whether the person doing the wishing is Milton or the person reading the poem aloud). Hence, perhaps, Milton's interest in Babel, and the thin line separating speech as a vehicle for language from speech as as "jangling noise" and "hideous gabble" (12.55-6): and in the contemporary debate about exactly how Satan created his speech when tempting Eve, "with serpent tongue / Organic, or impulse of vocal air" (9.529-30) - did he directly commandeer the snake's larynx to create speech, or did he use some more magical power? Paradise Lost is interested in this problem of physics because it bears on the exact interfaces between the mind and sound waves and the mind again, and because it thus replicates the conditions under which the poem itself is transmitted.

17. Some of the terms of this debate, though, are strangely familiar. T.S. Eliot, whose essay on Milton gave this article its epigraph, characterized Milton’s work, together with Joyce, in convenient, perhaps over-convenient, biographical terms: love of music and defective vision. His account of Milton’s “auditory imagination” (263), while persuasive, clearly also invites neglect of Milton’s rigorous approach to literal meanings. In undertaking an acoustic approach, one must be careful not to be drawn into merely making appreciative remarks about melodiousness.
However, it is clear that an approach that privileges sound offers great possibilities for investigation, not only of texts with a very obvious relation to performance and acoustics, but even for an apparently strongly 'literary' text like Paradise Lost.  Paradise Lost is indeed a read-aloud acoustic artefact, a set of noises.  Itself a "speech act" (Sharon-Zisser 209) - could we coin the phrase "sound act"? - it is intended as a contribution to the cosmic symphony (3.413-5). But it is also an invitation to listen differently, to listen to the sounds that compose that symphony: and it starts this by exploring the nightmarish possibilities of Hell, a place where all you can hear is yourself.


[1] T.S. Eliot, “Milton I”, The Selected Prose of T.S.Eliot ed. Frank Kermode (London: Faber, & Faber, 1975) 263.

[2]John Milton, Paradise Lost ed. Alastair Fowler, Second Edition (London: Longman, 1998).  Citations of the poem will be from this edition. For the idea of an "acoustic" approach, see Bruce R. Smith, The Acoustic World of Early Modern England: Attending to the O-Factor (Chicago: Chicago UP, 1999).  Smith does not mention Milton.  On the iconographical traditions, with further bibliography, see Estella Schonberg, "Picturing Satan for the 1688 Paradise Lost", in Albert C. Labriola and Edward Sichi, jr., eds., Milton's Legacy in the Arts  (University Park: Pennsylvania State UP, 1988) 1-20.

[3]Matt. 8.12, 13.42, 22.13, 25.30, cited from the Authorized Version; De Doctrina Christiana in The Works of John Milton gen. ed. Frank Allen Patterson, 18 vols in 21 (New York: Columbia UP, 1931-38) 15.33-5. See Gordon Cambell, Thomas N. Corns, John K. Hale, David Holmes and Fiona Tweedie, "Milton and De Doctrina Christiana", Milton Quarterly 31 (1997): 67-121, and published by the University of Bangor online at http://www.bangor.ac.uk/english/publicat/ddc/ddc.htm.

[4]Virgil, Aeneid 6.557-9, in The Aeneid of Virgil ed. T.E. Page, 2 vols (London: Macmillan, 1931): hinc exaudiri gemitus, et saeva sonare / verbera: tum stridor ferri, tractaeque catenae. / constitit Aeneas strepitumque exterritus hausit. My translation.

[5]Dante, Inferno 3.22-30 in The Divine Comedy Volume I: Inferno tr. Mark Musa (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1984). Quivi sospiri, pianti e alti guai / risonavan per l'aere sanza stelle, / per ch'io al cominciar ne lagrimai./ Diverse lingue, orribili favelle,/ parole di dolore, accenti d'ira, / voci alte e fioche, e suon di man con elle / facevano un tumulto, il qual s'aggira / sempre in quell'aura sanza tempo tinta, / come la rena quando turbo spira. Italian text online at http://www.divinecomedy.org.

[6]Eileen Gardner, Medieval Visions of Heaven and Hell: A Sourcebook (New York: Garland, 1993) xxviii. My discussion of Renaissance views of Hell is based on Philip C. Almond, ed., Heaven and Hell in Enlightenment England  (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1994), esp. 81-88; C.A. Patrides, "Renaissance and Modern Views on Hell", Harvard Theological Review 57 (1964) 217-236; D.P. Walker, The Decline of Hell: Seventeenth-Century Discussions of Eternal Torment  (London: RKP, 1964).

[7]Love, Bunyan, and Sharrock are cited from Almond, 84-5. Richard Younge (cited p. 93) even expects "yelling like Dragons".

[8]See Watson Kirkconnell, The Celestial Cycle: The Theme of 'Paradise Lost' in World Literature with translations of the major Analogues (1952; New York: Gordon Press, 1967) for Marini (220-1), Fletcher (274), and Beaumont (350),  Ariosto, Orlando Furioso  34.4.7. Tasso, Gerusalemme Liberata 4.7. Spenser, The Faerie Queene  2.7.23.

[9]Thomas Kyd, The Spanish Tragedy  1.1.65-70 in Four Revenge Tragedies  ed. Katharine Eisman Maus (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1995) imagines shaken whips, choking, snakes, groans, and boiling lead. Heywood (cited in Patrides, 219) expects "Ejulation, Clamor, Weeping, Wailing, / Cries, Yels, Howles, Gnashes, Curses (never failing) / Sighes and Suspires, Woe, and vnpittied Mones".  John Bunyan, The Pilgrim's Progress ed. N.H. Keeble (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1984) 52 imagines that Hell's mouth perpetually issues "hideous noises... doleful voices, and rushings too and fro... dreadfull noises..." and evil whisperings.

[10]Cowley, Davideis cited from Kirkconnell, 245-6.

[11]John Dryden, Astraea Redux, l.7 in The Works of John Dryden ed. H.T. Swedenborg et al., 20 vols (Berkeley: California UP, 1956- ); see commentary at I.220 for references to four detractors of Dryden's line and a defence by Samuel Johnson. Cowley, interestingly, had used a similar effect with the phrase "dreadful Silence" (quoted above).

[12]Ken Simpson, "Lingering Voices, Telling Silences: Silence and the Word in Paradise Regained", Milton Studies  35 (1997) 179-95; Jean E. Graham, "'Virgin Ears': Silence, Deafness, and Chastity in Milton's Maske", Milton Studies  36 (1999) 1-17; Fran Sendbuehler, "Silence as Discourse in Paradise Lost", <http://www.mouton-noir.org/writings/silence.html>.

[13]Shirley Sharon-Zisser, "Darkness and Silence in Paradise Lost", Milton Studies 25 (1989) 191-212: quotations from 208.

[14]Cited from Smith (11). Smith reviews in more detail theoretical problems with Derrida's formulation.

[15]1.392-5.  Also, Astoreth (441) encourages "songs": Thammuz (449) "amorous ditties": and Belial (498-9) "noise of riot".

[16]Diane Kelsey McColley, Poetry and Music in Seventeenth-Century England (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997) 175-217. For another discussion with further primary and secondary references, see Nan C. Carpenter, "Music, Milton and", in William B. Hunter gen. ed., A Milton Encyclopedia, 9 vols (Lewisburg: Bucknell UP, 1978-83) 5.165-73.

[17]Stephen M. Buhler, "Counterpoint and Controversy: Milton and the Critiques of Polyphonic Music", Milton Studies 36 (1999) 1-17.  For "suspended", see Fowler's note ad loc., Christopher Ricks, Milton’s Grand Style (Oxford: Clarendon Pr, 1963) 79.

[18]1.83, 2.547, 2.582: note the submerged pun in the idea of Lethe as a silent "sound" (2.604). However, there are two problems with the idea that hell is naturally silent.  One is Cocytus, named, we are told, for the "lamentation loud" heard there: the tense does, however, leave it ambiguous whether this is an environmental property of the river, or what will be heard there later, when the damned souls arrive (2.579-80: cf. 2.597). Secondly, Raphael, posted outside Hell on Day 19 of the poem's action, hears "Noise... torment, and loud lament, and furious rage" (8.243-4). Fowler ad loc. notes the numerous difficulties that this throws up in terms of consistency and chronology.

[19]Cf. the echoing acoustic of Hell according to Dante and Virgil quoted above.

[20]There is a profitable connection here with the "chaos theory" analyses of Milton, such as Catherine Gimelli Martin, "Fire, Ice, and Epic Entropy: The Physics and Metaphysics of Milton's Reformed Chaos", Milton Studies 35 (1997) 73-113. Martin notes Milton's presentation of randomness as morally neutral rather than actively evil.  For Martin, Chaos is "noisy" not merely in terms of acoustics but in terms of information theory (100),  Extending her argument from thermodynamics to acoustics, we might say that Hell's silence is far more evil than Chaos' white noise.

[21]4.602; cf. 4.647, 4.654-5, 5.40, 7.435. Sharon-Zisser (201) notes the same effect in regard to darkness, which is never allowed to be total in Eden.

[22]For instance, just in 6.200-219 we have specifically acoustic descriptions of shouts, trumpets, hosannas, "clamour", arms on armour braying discord, and the hiss of fiery darts, making all heaven resound.

[23]Eleanor Cook, "Melos versus Logos, or why doesn't God sing: Some thoughts on Milton's Wisdom", in Mary Nyquist and Margaret W. Ferguson, eds., Re-membering Milton: Essays on the Texts and Traditions (New York: Methuen, 1987) 197-210 cites Kundera but argues that the distinction is untenable.

[24]Smith, The Acoustic World, 46.

[25]Ricks, Milton’s Grand Style, 106.

[26]See C.A. Patrides, Milton and the Christian Tradition (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1966) 279-283.

[27]As well as the obvious eternal failure to be talked about, Sharon-Zisser (209) reads this line as suggesting an eternal failure to speak: I suggest it can also imply, an eternal lack of anything to hear.

[28]Carpenter, 165.

[29]Cited by Carpenter, 166.

[30] Elizabeth Sauer, Barbarous Dissonance and Images of Voice in Milton's Epics  (Montreal: McGill-Queens UP, 1996) discusses voice in Milton, again within the theoretical framework of linguistics. In a chapter devoted to study of auditory images in Books 7 and 8, Shumaker argues that "Milton has done as much as anyone could fairly expect to create in his readers an awareness that the whole substance of this part of the poem is speech which has the quality of song... If we forget that the description is oral, the fault is not his": Wayne Shumaker, Unpremeditated Verse: Feeling and Perception in 'Paradise Lost' (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1967) 138. Smith, The Acoustic World, 261-9 argues that Renaissance Protestant preaching privileged "the physically sounded word of God" over visual spectacle.

Works cited

Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at L.M.Hopkins@shu.ac.uk.

© 2001-, Lisa Hopkins (Editor, EMLS).