Paradise Lost Book 2: Line 898-900 - Explanation

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Line. 898-900: For Hot, Cold.....embryon atoms.

      When Sin opened the gates of Hell to Satan, he beheld a dark and illimitable ocean, without bound and without dimension. There was a great ferment of atoms, which strove each for mastery over the other, as they attached themselves now to one prime quality, and then to another. Four such qualities may be distinguished therein, if at all they could be distinguished, viz., Hot, Cold Moist and Dry. Milton compares them to four mediaeval champions in perpetual struggle with one another, each bringing to the fray his own body of atoms. Such was the great ferment which confronted the vision of Satan as he looked out of Hell.

      Hot, Cold, Moist and Dry are the four elementary qualities according to ancient physics, which combine in pairs to form the elements. Thus fire is composed of hot and dry, air of hot and moist, water of cold and moist, and earth of cold and dry. Milton makes use of his knowledge of mediaeval physics in describing the realm of Chaos.

      He further makes an allusion to the atomic theory then prevalent. According to this theory, 'the universe is composed of an infinite number of atoms varying in shape and weight. The atomic philosophers thought that the fortuitous concourse of these atoms sufficiently explained this origin of the universe, while Milton of course represents them as arranged by the wisdom and power of the Creator.'

      Herein we see proof of what Dr. Johnson had said that Milton brought to the composition of the epic a volume of knowledge almost encyclopaedic.

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