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John Milton in Paradise Lost: Poet, Author, Muse

By Edited Aug 18, 2016 0 2

Of many crises of character present in John Milton’s Paradise Lost, perhaps the most compelling are those creation stories of Adam and Eve as told by the narrator. However, when speaking of transmutation of character, the greatest feat is accomplished by Milton’s representative poet in the poem -- one narrator whose credibility and influence is amplified by the invocation of several muses and the summoning of seemingly immortal powers of interpretation. That the decisions of individual characters within the epic are so well-wrought gives intention and motive to Milton’s endeavors in writing a modern epic, as well as seeking some sort of eternal truth that Ovid and Homer never attempted to seek. These decisions and resulting actions are told through the eyes of the Miltonic narrator and are to be accepted as truthful within the social confines of the epic. Milton, to satisfy his role as poet, maintains a delicate balance of divine purpose and humble human curiosity in order to establish trust with the reader and credence within the story.


One fundamental role of this poet is to acknowledge his ties to humanity but simultaneously reveal his knowledge of the world’s creation using his divine voice. This is as much to create a physical “fallen” distance between himself and God or the divine as it is to deconstruct the temporal or spiritual distance readers believe exist between themselves and the time of the Bible, namely Genesis and the Old Testament. He doesn’t want readers to create barriers to God as humans, but rather to understand divine hierarchy and justice in human terms such as war. Milton might be testifying as to his own divine gift of interpretation, but he reveals his gift with grace, not pomp or arrogance:

 
 
“Sing, Heav’nly Muse, that on the secret top / Of Oreb, or of Sinai, didst inspire / That shepherd, who first taught the chosen seed, / In the beginning how the heav’ns and earth / Rose out of Chaos… I thence / Invoke thy aid to my advent’rous song, / That with no middle flight intends to soar / Above th’Aonian mount, while it pursues / Things unattempted in prose or rhyme.” (Book I, 6-16)

 

Milton could describe his song as many other things besides the humble “advent’rous”, (Book I, 13) but he does not. This could be seen as a parallel to the free will that God bestows upon Adam and Eve as authors of their own lives: they couldn’t have fallen, only to realize that obeying God’s law no matter the power of temptation or curiosity is the key to salvation, without the individual power of free will. In many ways, Milton as the poet in the proem to Book I is akin to God’s omniscience in knowing the story before it happens, insomuch as revealing only what is necessary in order to finally understand one’s role in life through the biblical story of Adam and Eve.

While he does “[intend] to soar / Above” great poets of distant generations, Milton as the poet does acknowledge that, just like the beginnings of heaven and earth, so does his celestial work manifest through life forces such as chaos and order, not necessarily physical creation. (I, 15-16) Milton invokes the image of the Holy Spirit as the “Heav’nly Muse” in order to guide his epic with a divine truth as well as an overarching sense of forces both divine and destructive. He also mentions that in order to explain man’s role on earth, he must, through his muse, invoke “Eternal Providence, / And justify the ways of God to men.” (I, 25-26) So we see different forms of Milton along a visible spectrum of light, that he is as seemingly physical as the biblical forces he is trying to justify.

At the beginning of Book III, the poet describes why divine light and even physical light can be misleading or paradoxical. As Milton himself was physically blind at the time of publication of the epic, readers who are aware of this can draw conclusions from the proem based on both the poet and Milton’s context. The poet here seems more philosophical, urgent and closer to eternal truth than his counterpart from Book I. He asks of holy light,

 

 

“May I express thee unblamed? Since God is… / …unapproached light / Dwelt from eternity, dwelt then in thee, / Bright effluence of bright essence increate. / Or hear’st thou rather pure ethereal steam, / Whose fountain who shall tell? / Before the sun, before the heavens thou wert… / Won from the void and formless infinite.” (II, 3-12)

 

In order to bridge the gap between the fall of Satan and the eventual rise of humans, the poet again turns to life forces to explain why faith, though apart from reason, can still govern our moral decisions. In the increasingly legal context of England in the late 17th century, it’s hard to bring God’s law in juxtaposition with Man’s law, and even harder to bring morality into the realm of justice today. Thus, in order to characterize his function, which in between the books is basically an impartial messenger from both heaven and hell, Milton relies on the resonance of light as a source of positive growth and a potential for understanding the world. This is indeed a continuing thread from Book I, when the poet asked his Heavn’ly Muse to “[illuminate] what in me is dark, / … what is low raise and support.” (I, 22-23)

The poet later relates his own autobiographical tale of falling, further aligning himself and the reader with Satan -- not necessarily his cause, but his initial spiritual fate. The poet says, “Thee I revisit now with bolder wing, / Escaped the Stygian pool, though long detained / in that obscure sojourn.” (III, 13-14) Here the reader can infer that the poet has both authority and experience with both God and Satan as forces, and is in a trustworthy position to present them as human-like characters. He preaches of the salvation of following the Holy Spirit, saying, “I sung of Chaos and eternal Night, / Taught by the Heav’nly Muse to venture down / the dark descent, and up to reascend.” (III, 18-20) That the Holy Spirit never directly speaks in the epic is powerful because it places the reader yet again in the real position of power -- the seat of interpreter. However, we as readers see that if the Holy Spirit’s motive is to rescue us from our fall, and the poet is channeling the Holy Spirit, by correlation, the poet must be a force of good. Some readers may question how the poet, who is blind as Milton is, can see or sense anything without the physical gift of sight. (III, 23-25) This raises a viable question: Are foresight and hindsight spiritual gifts? Of course, Milton and the presence of the poet argue yes. In fact, Milton places himself in history by comparing himself to the blind prophets Thamyris, Maeonides, Tiresias and Phineus. (III, 35-36) The poet, though without the ability to see direction, describes his tendency to walk among the muses on a sunny hill or shady grove, meanwhile being “smit with the love of sacred song.” (27-30) Perhaps alone, these characterizations wouldn’t be enough to define the poet or his motives, but when put together, we see fragments of Milton, the poet, and prophecy forming a trustworthy biblical storyteller.

Finally, in Book IX, the poet seems to wake up to his legacy. He must impart the tale of disobedience and ensuing tragedy. He makes no mention of hope to come, but rather begins by personifying Satan’s offspring, Sin and Death. The task of getting this tale right, in his eyes, is “not less but more heroic than the wrath / of stern Achilles on his foe pursued.” (IX, 13-14) Milton is now warning the reader of the greatness of the tale, and by doing so, the danger of misinterpretation on the part of the reader. Also, he is setting the poet up for greatness as the purposeful messenger of the tale. While Milton doesn’t relay this with arrogance, he is definitely cognizant of his potential role in philosophical thought. Eventually, the poet reveals the intent of his war analogy:

 

“Wars, hitherto the only argument / Heroic deemed, chief mast’ry to dissect / With long and tedious havoc fabled knights / in battles feigned; / the better fortitude of patience and heroic martyrdom / Unsung;… / The skill of artifice or office mean, / Not that which justly gives heroic name / To person or to poem.” (IX, 28-41)

 

 

In other words, some of the most heroic actions can and will go unsung. Not only that, heroes are made, not merely born into legacy. This distances the poet and Milton from the poem yet again, that its lessons should speak for themselves. Effectively removing Milton from the foreground of the epic, these words place the reader one last time in the seat of judge and jury. By comparison to his earlier proems, Milton uses the poet here with much more conviction, force and finality than his previous invocations.

These variances in testimony and motive must remind us of the social and religious context of our individual worlds. One particular notion Milton the poet hammers is similar to the idea of the “Golden Rule of Hearsay” in the courtroom. That is, when one is trying to establish through hearsay the character of a witness, good or bad, about anything not personal to the speaker himself, sometimes what is overheard is seemingly malicious or good-hearted. We as the jury have to interpret whether the one who overheard the hearsay is telling the truth, not whether what was said is actually true. When objected to on the grounds of hearsay, lawyers defending the authorship of their witnesses should always tell a judge, “Your Honor, we enter this hearsay into evidence not for the truth of the matter asserted, but to tell the jury why he (the accused or the witness) may have done what he did.” That is to say, is it possible that Adam and Eve never existed? Is the myth of Noah from the past, future, or non-existent time? According to Milton, it doesn’t matter. This great epic myth is one of explanation founded on eternal truth. Whether or not the force of God created physical miracles or spiritual ones, we shouldn’t shun lessons of virtue and obedience for a life of sin, however temporarily coated in reason it seems to be.

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Comments

Apr 2, 2012 12:26am
hillloyd
Great points. I wonder if you would concur that of all the characters, Satan is the most "unsung." He is a hero in the truest sense of Greek tragedies as he knows he is doomed and yet continues on. A fact that Milton made abundantly clear. It is perhaps odd point but I feel certain that Milton meant him as an sympathetic creature. Regards
Apr 2, 2012 12:26am
hillloyd
This comment has been deleted.
Apr 2, 2012 2:44am
GregorMendel
I agree that Milton felt that Satan was another fallen angel whose initial mistake had perhaps been having a mind of his own. Without Satan, the Heavenly Father would not exist or be good. Along moral lines of course I can't say I agree with other depictions of Satan and certainly not the public connotation of Satan's character. But here, when the only way to personify the ultimate two forces, good and evil, is through battle, and having a "winner" and a "loser," it's hard not to root for the underdog or at least admire some of Satan's actions. If there is good and evil in all of us, perhaps this is the religious equivalent of that: A bit of God and Satan both lives within us. I think that's the quintessence of humanity.
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