All Hell

By Ashleigh Brilliant   |   May 14, 2020

Warning: I am (in all likelihood) about to change your life. Not in any big significant way, but in the same slight, but probably permanent, way that mine was changed when, not long ago, I made the discovery which I am going to share with you here.

First, a little background: Somehow, I had managed to live to an advanced age without ever reading “Paradise Lost.” Of course, I knew that John Milton is supposed to be one of the greatest English poets, and that “Paradise Lost” is supposed to be his greatest work. I knew that he was blind when he wrote it, and that he had to dictate it to his three daughters. But exposure many years ago at school to some of his other work had been more than enough for me. Nevertheless, I recently decided to give it a try.

It turns out to be a phenomenally long epic (275 pages in my edition), giving Milton’s version of the Biblical story of Adam and Eve and the Garden of Eden. There is no rhyme (it is in blank verse), far too little punctuation, and the entire format is so dense that, if you lose your place, you’re in real trouble.

But one thing encouraged me to keep on wading through this mass of verbiage – the thought that, since it is such a famous work, there must be, buried in it, many expressions which, as with Shakespeare, are so often quoted that they have become part of our language.

You have probably heard about the lady, who, after attending a performance of Hamlet for the first time, complained that it was “just a lot of old quotations strung together.” So, I naturally expected to be able to make some similar observation about “Paradise Lost.”

But I have to report that, in this whole saga, I have found only one passage which the world in general might recognize. But that singular find has impressed me so much that I felt I had to tell you about it.

The one (and possibly only) original piece of “Paradise Lost” which you and I would immediately acknowledge to be familiar in everyday speech is to be found on line 918 of Book IV. It consists of just four one-syllable words:


How do I know that this originated in “Paradise Lost,” and wasn’t said by somebody else maybe centuries earlier? Well, you needn’t take my word for it. After making this stupendous discovery, I of course rushed to consult my online reference works, and soon found the Milton origin confirmed by one and all.

But what seems most remarkable to me is the fact that Milton used those words in a very special way, which has nothing to do with the way they are commonly used today. They are part of one of many lengthy dialogues in the book, this one between Satan and the Angel Gabriel, after Satan has escaped from the nether regions, to which he was supposed to have been confined, and has been caught attempting to sneak into the Garden of Eden. Gabriel wants to know why Satan escaped by himself, rather than at the head of all his infernal followers. He therefore asks:

“But wherefore thou alone? Wherefore with thee came not all Hell broke loose?”

(“Wherefore,” here, means “why” – as you know from Romeo and Juliet, in which Juliet’s “Wherefore art thou Romeo?” means “Why must you have that name [i.e. belong to that family]?”)

So, you see that a funny thing happened to those four words on their way into colloquial speech. Milton was using them in a quite literal sense. His “broke loose” was a descriptive adjective, not the powerful verb we’ve long assumed it to be. If he’d been writing prose rather than poetry, he would probably have said “broken loose” – which of course would have completely spoiled our usage today. Poor Milton would no doubt be aghast at the way we’ve removed his expression from all its context, and bandy it about today.

I will bet whatever you like that hardly anyone who today says, “that’s when all hell broke loose,” realizes that they are quoting Milton. But from now on, you will know – and it’s such an odd piece of information that you may never forget it. So, to that extent (and I hope for better rather than for worse) I will here and now take credit for having changed your life.


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