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11. The Language of I.1-26, First Essay
Of man's first disobedience, and the fruit
Of that Forbidden Tree, whose mortal tast
Brought Death into the World, and all our woe,
With loss of Eden, till one greater Man
Restore us, and regain the blissful Seat, [ 5 ]
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: Or if Sion Hill [ 10 ]
Delight thee more, and Siloah's Brook that flow'd
Fast by the Oracle of God; I thence
Invoke thy aid to my adventrous Song,
That with no middle flight intends to soar
Above th' Aonian Mount, while it pursues [ 15 ]
Things unattempted yet in Prose or Rhime.
And chiefly Thou O Spirit, that dost prefer
Before all Temples th' upright heart and pure,
Instruct me, for Thou know'st; Thou from the first
Wast present, and with mighty wings outspread [ 20 ]
Dove-like satst brooding on the vast Abyss
And mad'st it pregnant: What in me is dark
Illumin, what is low raise and support;
That to the highth of this great Argument
I may assert Eternal Providence, [ 25 ]
And justifie the wayes of God to men.
The purpose of this and the next essay is to highlight several features of Milton's language/content in I.1-26, even though some of the ideas have already been noted in the preceding two essays. My real purpose, however, is to get you to ruminate, mull, and pause over Milton's language and images so that they will fill your mind and stimulate your own quest for good and solid words to describe the world as you see it.
1. Milton begins with a heavy Latinism, which itself may repel. "Of Man's First Disobedience" functions as an ablative absolute; "of the forbidden Tree" is a genitive (possessive). We don't use those grammatical terms much in English, but they describe the relations of nouns and prepositions in Latin. Well, that doesn't get us very far, but it helps explain how Milton can link so many clauses before getting to the main verb of the thought in the 39th word of PL ("Sing"--line 6). The first lines of the poem reflect his compositional method that is so well documented by Barbara Lewalski (The Life of John Milton, p. 448). There she quotes John Richardson, an 18th century reader of Milton, who reported that Milton was:
"perpetually Asking One Friend or Another who Visited him to Write a Quantity of Verse he had ready in his Mind or what should Then occur..." Milton would dictate "perhaps 40 Lines as it were in a Breath..."
Thus, imagine the first six lines of PL written "as it were in a Breath." The image of holding in the lines of his beautiful composition until he had a reliable person to take them down reminds me of Jeremiah's weariness in holding in the Word of God (Jeremiah 20:9). That word became a "burning furnace" for Jeremiah; he was weary of holding it in. Indeed, he could not. So, let's look at the first sixteen lines (before he reaches his first period) as a kind of breathless bursting of Milton as he finally felt he could let the words come out for all to hear.
We were taught to write sentences "subject, verb, object," interspersed with conditional or temporal clauses to give variety, because we haven't had to live with a few lines for days, until a suitable amanuensis comes by to take our dictation. Milton knows and does better. Maybe we could learn from him.
2. Now, let's turn to the words themselves. Milton is placing himself in the ancient epic tradition in the first line of the sentence (I.1) and the "modern" (i.e., 15th-16th century) epic tradition in the last line of the sentence (I.16). Thus, his first sentence, labored and long as it appears to be, is sandwiched or encased by the tradition in which he wants to nestle. Homer began the Iliad with "menin aide thea..." or "Sing, o Godess, the wrath.." In this fountainhead of the epic tradition, a muse is invoked and the wrath of Achilles is the subject. The first words of the Odyssey are "andra moi ennepe," or "tell me about the man.." Finally, the initial words of Virgil's Aeneid are "arma virumque cano," or "I sing of arms and a man." Note that the subject of these great epics is captured in these lines. They cover great subjects, powerful men, huge forces. Milton's subject likewise will be great, though unlike the earlier epics, he doesn't actually get to his focus, the act of human disobedience, until Book IX (!) of PL. If you think Germans are noted for their endless Prolegomena, try Milton! He has to lay a deep, deep, foundation for the act of disobedience. And, he ends his first sentence, about 100 words later, by a direct quotation of Ariosto, the 16th century Italian epic/romance writer ("things unattempted yet. . .). Like the shahadah (the Muslim profession of faith in one God), which should be whispered into the baby's as well as the dying person's ear, thus surrounding the person's life with the Oneness and care of Allah, so the first and last thoughts in Milton's whole universe of ideas in his first sentence are taken from the epic tradition. That tradition "breathes" into him. Yet he is, paradoxically, also fully "inspired" by the Christian muse. Thus, he is both fully defined by a great literary tradition, but he is also fully independent of that tradition because of the inbreathing activity of the Spirit of God and the Christian Muse.
3. Note the movement and energy of the first four lines of the poem. We have a series of interlocking phrases, each of which functions to show the growing desperation of the "man" whose first act of disobedience will be sung in PL. I get the feeling of a downward action. Down, down, down we go, from the fruit of the tree, whose taste brought us death and, oops, and not only death but also all our woe and, oops, not just all those things but loss of Eden besides. Down we fall, like the rebel angels who fell down, down, down, for more than a day after God threw them out of Heaven, until they came to rest in the solid world of Hell. In that connection, the double meaning of "fruit" functions very powerfully here. It has its literal meaning--the actual food that was consumed in disobedience to God. But the word also refers to the result of an action. Thus, line 1 speaks of the action and the result or "fall out" or "fruit" of the action. Humans continue to spiral downwards towards the abyss until they/we are drawn out of our free fall. The little word "till" in line 4, then, carries a lot of weight. It stops our fall as we scream downward, and it and prepares us to be exalted to an even higher location than that from which we fell.
After we have lost Eden, there is a distinctively upward movement in the next few lines. The words "till one greater Man/ Restore us" (lI.4-5) stop the downward plunge and lead us upward. Indeed, within a line or two we are talking about inspiration on mountain tops. Just as the Son in Milton's later description (especially the conversation with the Father in III.225ff.) will choose to leave the safe confines of Heaven and descend to earth, where he suffers, and then go down to Hell to rescue those dead in sin before reascending to glory, so the narrative of PL, in the first sentence, takes us down, down, down until we are brought upward.
4. Lines 7-16 introduce us to two different places of inspiration within the sacred (Christian) tradition. All Milton says here in nodding recognition to classical (Greek and Roman) inspiration is that his song will soar high above the "Aonian Mount" (15), the mountain range in Boeotia (ancient Greece) which was noted for being the place of the Muses. Thus, the only sources of inspiration here are rooted in the history of Israel. We ought to pause for a moment on these two sources. They are the "secret top/ Of Oreb, or of Sinai" (6-7) and "Siloa's Brook that flow'd/ Fast by the Oracle of God" (11-12). Milton reflects the two different Biblical traditions here. The first is the law-giving tradition, which narrated how Moses ascended Mount Sinai to receive the Ten Commandments from God (Exodus 20). Thus, Sinai/Horeb, accepted by most to refer to the same mountain, is one place of inspiration, one place where the Heav'nly Muse resided during the Wilderness period of Israel's history. But we also have a tradition from the settled, rather than wandering, people of Israel, to the effect that Mount Zion in Jerusalem is the place where God's revelation is known. It was there that Isaiah saw the Lord "high and lifted up" (Isaiah 6), in a passage beloved of Milton. The Psalms reflect this tradition: "Out of Zion, the perfection of beauty, God shines forth," (Psalm 50:2). Milton is ever alert to all the details of Scripture, because he mentions "Siloa's Brook" rather than the Mount Zion itself as the place of inspiration, a sort of parallel sacred spring (parallel to Aganippe or Hippocrene of the classical tradition). But this "Siloa's Brook" is only mentioned once in Scripture (Isaiah 8), even though it might be related to the pool of Siloam in John's Gospel.
In any case, Milton has stated without equivocation that it is the Heavenly Muse, wherever she may reside, that is his source of inspiration. Two points follow. First, I think Milton's mention of these two loci of biblical inspiration, while being supported by Scripture, gives him a chance to "show off" his knowledge a bit. Be prepared to see that in PL. It never is quite clear where relevant and helpful knowledge leaves off and showmanship begins, but that will be Milton's temptation. But Milton is like a combined LeBron James and Roger Federer, for example. They, too, play a very "serious" game, but they are also known to show their "stuff" when they want. If you think of deep scriptural and lassical knowledge as Milton's special skill, you will not be surprised if he shows you some real zingers.
Second, the reference only to biblical sources of inspiration here needs to be balanced with Milton's clear dependence and love of classical sources. The interplay between the two is seen most helpfully in the Hymn to Holy Light which opens Book III. There Milton (III. 27-29), reflecting on his blindness, says that his condition doesn't make him "Cease" to
"wander where the Muses haunt/ Clear Spring, or Shady Grove, or Sunny Hill/ Smit with the love of sacred Song."
He loves that classical song, and he wanders there to be with those Muses. But even in Book III the priority of the biblical sources of inspiration is stressed (III.29-32):
"but chief/ Thee Sion, and the flow'ry Brooks beneath/ That wash thy hallowed feet, and warbling flow/ Nightly I visit."
In Book III the Scriptures are the "chief" source of his inspiration; in Book I we get the impression that the Scriptures are the only source of inspiration. Perhaps this reflects some inner tension in Milton's own mind. Certainly the classical learning was deeply imbedded in him, perhaps even deeper than biblical learning (because earlier and more intense). But he may consciously be trying to limit the effect of that learning because of the overriding importance of biblical truth for him in his last days.