What does Satan mean in Book I, line 255 when he says the mind can “make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven”? How does his speech relate to the poem’s major themes?
When he notes the mind’s ability to “make a heaven of hell,” Satan argues that the intellect is capable of overcoming the physical and emotional problems that arise every day. He contends that place or time cannot change the mind, for no matter how old or isolated he becomes, he is still in possession of the inner life he has always known. He suggests that the mind is itself a “place,” so external changes need not distance him from his own, strong intellect. On a note of optimism, he points out that his soul is the same as it was in heaven, except that now, in hell, it is free. His speech thus serves as a private pep talk, a way of reminding himself that he can use his imagination to overcome the significant spiritual and physical pain he is experiencing in hell.
Milton calls Satan’s assertions into question by including a litany of tortuous conditions that make the fallen angels feel as if they are cut off from their former selves. The fallen angels do not seem capable of making a heaven of hell while they are “under amazement of their hideous change.” Their minds are of little use to them when they recall that they are forever “blotted out” from the Books of Life. Whatever Satan’s imaginative powers may be, they cannot erase the scars of thunder that were etched into his face during the war with God. Satan himself refers to “a dire change hateful to utter,” suggesting that he is succumbing to the external torments of hell. All of these complaints cast doubt on Satan’s cheerful assertion that thought and the imagination can transform a prison into a paradise.
Yet, amazingly, the behavior of the fallen angels does support Satan’s faith in the power and resilience of the mind. Within moments of waking, a hell-bound angel refers to his “unconquerable” will, refusing to acknowledge the misery of his external surroundings. Satan observes that the thunder that scarred his face also strengthened his inner resources, for now he has a better sense of his enemy and himself. Beelzebub, too, refers to the invincibility of the mind and spirit, and he notes a sudden return of vigor to his blood. The angels agree that, in rejecting them, God has conquered only one-half of their forces (their bodies) and left unhindered the other half (their minds). The angels’ pledge to re-ascend “self-raised” to their former glories recalls Satan’s confident assertion that the mind is ultimately undefeated by physical and emotional setbacks.
By opening his remarks with an ode to the powers of the mind, Satan sets the tone for an epic poem that repeatedly celebrates man’s ability to imagine and create a better world for himself than the one in which he is currently suffering. Milton makes Satan’s claims seem dubious when he enumerates the many scars and hardships that await the fallen angels in hell. However, he offers surprising justification for Satan’s optimism by depicting the angels’ willingness to ignore external torment and envision a path toward a better life. Milton’s renowned faith in man’s intellectual capacities inspired the generation of writers known as the Romantics, who, more than any earlier school of poets, honored and probed the depths of the individual mind.