(to return to PL Table of Contents, click here)
51. The Hymn To Light, First Essay
Paradise Lost III.1-6
Hail holy light, ofspring of Heav'n first-born,
Or of th' Eternal Coeternal beam
May I express thee unblam'd? since God is light,
And never but in unapproached light
Dwelt from Eternitie, dwelt then in thee, [ 5 ]
Bright effluence of bright essence increate.
Milton's Hymn to Light, properly speaking, includes the first 55 lines of Book III of PL, but this essay will only concern the first six lines, lines which Yale professor John Rogers calls not simply the most difficult lines of Milton's poetry but perhaps "of all poetry." (He makes this comment in his online video lectures). I believe, in contrast, that there is a rather simple key to these lines which, if understood, makes them accessible and, as with most of Milton, incredibly eloquent and powerful.
The Basic Insight
The basic insight is that in the first six lines of Book III Milton is rolling over in his mind two apparently contrasting biblical images of light but without deciding which of the two he prefers. He will, in my mind, go on to suggest a third alternative (lines 7-12; discussed in the next essay) that actually allows him to escape the theological conundrum that the first two present. Thus, just as in the Hymn to Light he "Escap't the Stygian pool" (l. 14) and came into the realm of light, so he will "escape" a theological dilemma he poses for himself regarding the origin of light.
The two images of light are: (1) light as a created thing, following Genesis 1:3 (line 1) , and (2) light as a co-eternal principle, side by side with God, following I John 1:5 (lines 2-6). Let's consider each in turn.
In the majestic Genesis story we have a clear differentiation between God and the world. God is the creator who speaks and then things come to be. The first act of the divine creation is light--on the first day. Thus, light is, in Milton's words, "offspring of Heav'n first-born" (line 1). It is the first-born act of God's creative work. Clear, clear, clear. Milton greets this light, the light he will once again join after his long sojourn in Hell, where we only have "darkness visible."
But then, he wrestles with another biblical presentation of light in lines 2-6, from I John 1:5: "God is light, and in him is no darkness at all." Here the text suggests that God and light are to be identified; they are the same and, therefore, they may be co-eternal partners in creation. The difference between Gen. 1 and I John 1 is the difference between God's creating and God's being light. The latter identification may get one into theological trouble, however, if you stay with the idea too long, for it suggests that there might be a fourth something (is there a phrase such as quartum quid?) in the eternal Godhead; the Father, Son, Spirit and Light. This is almost too blasphemous to suggest, yet the literal language of I John 1 seems to give Milton good grounds on which to stand for this position. Yes, light IS co-eternal with God. The Scriptures teach it. But by clinging to that notion, he courts theological trouble.
Which shall it be? The New Testament or the unanimous witness of orthodox theological tradition? That is why line 3 makes perfect sense: "If I may express thee blameless"--that is, "if I am without fault in making the rather novel and heretical suggestion that Light is co-eternal with you, the Father." And then he goes on to defend his radically biblical suggestion by quoting I John 1:5 and, for good measure, in line 4, connecting it with a text from the Pastoral Epistles describing God, who "dwells in unapproachable light," I Timothy 6:16.
Lines 5-6, then, finish Milton's reflections on the possibility that God IS light. First, as we have seen, the Scriptures teach it. Second, as I Timothy teaches, God dwells in "unapproachable Light." But now he does two additional things. First, line 5 is epexegetic or explanatory. Since God IS light and dwells in what he calls "unapproached" light, God dwelt this way from eternity and dwelt then IN light (line 5). God is bathed in the co-eternal light, according to this view. But then, second, in line 6, Milton may be doing something else--making reference to the fourth century Nicene Creed. In that classic creedal affirmation the authors were struggling with how to come up with a way of describing how the first two Persons in the Trinity (Father and Son) were related. How can they both be co-eternal? Jesus is the "only begotten of the Father, God from God." Yes, that is the theological truth which the orthodox Christian tradition wants to affirm. But then we have three more words dropped into the creed: "Light from light." These words are put in as an illustration. Just as we can't really separate the source of the light from its beams, so we can't really separate the Son from the Father. The Son is "light from light."
Now if we return to line 6 of Milton's Hymn to Light, we are on secure ground. He is continuing his thought, beginning in line 2, of light's co-eternal existence with the Father. Now it is "bright effluence of bright essence increate." It is the outflow of the essence; it is "light from light" and the Nicene Creed has perhaps given him a way of explaining it.
Both of these options (line 1 and lines 2-6) are legitimate theological options. I think that Milton is, to an extent, just "showing off" his great knowledge here. He knows the fine movements of theology; he knows the text of Scripture well. He knows how to weave opposing views together and put them in the most burnished, brief and potent poetic words. He astonishes us, educates us and entertains us in these first six lines. All he is doing is "making the case" for two different biblical emphases about light. And, he doesn't even make a decision between the two! Unlike the comparison between sipping at the springs of the Muses or at the brooks flowing at the foot of Mount Zion (see I. 25ff.), where he definitely choses the latter as his source of inspiration ("but chief Thee Zion," lines 29-30), he doesn't feel the need to choose between theological options here. Why not? Because PL ultimately is not a work of systematic or polemical theology. So, he shows he is "current" on the debate but then doesn't feel the need to take sides.
What he actually gives us is a third alternative in lines 7-12, which he also won't "choose." Let's move to that image, and then see how he rises to meet the brilliant light, when his eyes are, in reality, dark