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52. The Hymn to Light, Second Essay
Paradise Lost III. 7-55
Or hear'st thou rather pure Ethereal stream,
Whose Fountain who shall tell? before the Sun,
Before the Heavens thou wert, and at the voice
Of God, as with a Mantle didst invest [ 10 ]
The rising world of waters dark and deep,
Won from the void and formless infinite.
Thee I re-visit now with bolder wing,
Escap't the Stygian Pool, though long detain'd
In that obscure sojourn, while in my flight [ 15 ]
Through utter and through middle darkness borne
With other notes then to th' Orphean Lyre
I sung of Chaos and Eternal Night,
Taught by the heav'nly Muse to venture down
The dark descent, and up to reascend, [ 20 ]
Though hard and rare: thee I revisit safe,
And feel thy sovran vital Lamp; but thou
Revisit'st not these eyes, that rowle in vain
To find thy piercing ray, and find no dawn;
So thick a drop serene hath quencht thir Orbs, [ 25 ]
Or dim suffusion veild. Yet not the more
Cease I to wander where the Muses haunt
Cleer Spring, or shadie Grove, or Sunnie Hill,
Smit with the love of sacred Song; but chief
Thee Sion and the flowrie Brooks beneath [ 30 ]
That wash thy hallowd feet, and warbling flow,
Nightly I visit: nor somtimes forget
Those other two equal'd with me in Fate,
So were I equal'd with them in renown,
Blind Thamyris and blind Mæonides, [ 35 ]
And Tiresias and Phineus Prophets old.
Then feed on thoughts, that voluntarie move
Harmonious numbers; as the wakeful Bird
Sings darkling, and in shadiest Covert hid
Tunes her nocturnal Note. Thus with the Year [ 40 ]
Seasons return, but not to me returns
Day, or the sweet approach of Ev'n or Morn,
Or sight of vernal bloom, or Summers Rose,
Or flocks, or heards, or human face divine;
But cloud in stead, and ever-during dark [ 45 ]
Surrounds me, from the chearful wayes of men
Cut off, and for the Book of knowledg fair
Presented with a Universal blanc
Of Nature's works to mee expung'd and ras'd,
And wisdome at one entrance quite shut out. [ 50 ]
So much the rather thou Celestial light
Shine inward, and the mind through all her powers
Irradiate, there plant eyes, all mist from thence
Purge and disperse, that I may see and tell
Of things invisible to mortal sight. [ 55 ]
In the previous essay we saw that the first six lines of Book III were primarily an exploration of two contrasting biblical pictures of light. Deciding on neither, Milton then moves in lines 7-12 to yet a third alternative, an alternative that is agnostic on light's origin but which deposits us back in the text of Genesis 1. Let's begin with those lines so that we, with Milton, can escape fully from Hell and be bathed in the "sovran vital Lamp" (line 22) of light.
He begins line 7 in Horatian fashion. He now addresses the light, as if it can respond. 'Would you prefer,' he asks, 'just to be called pure Ethereal stream?' The Latin behind it, as has been noted, is reminiscent of Horace's "Matutine pater seu Jane libentius audis?" Or, "Father of the morning, or Janus, if with more pleasure you hear yourself called by that name..." (Satires II.6). In the midst of his deep biblical and Christian theological reflection, he returns to classical forms. He may prefer Zion's streams to those of Mount Helicon, but he can't fully rid himself of the latter.
So there is a tertium quid here. Do you, Light, want to be called "pure Ethereal stream?" This language sounds pretty Greek to me, but I don't know where it comes from. Can anyone help? In any case, Milton tells us that he has given up the debate over the origin of light with the words from line 9: "Whose Fountain who shall tell?" That is, who really knows the origin ("Fountain") of Light? He simply moves on from that insoluble issue and moves back to his real love--the Bible. This Light was created before the Sun (line 8; yep, the sun was made on the fourth day--Genesis 1:16--while Light was made on the first day, if it was not co-eternal with God); it was before the Heavens (line 9; yep, Genesis 1:6-8 tells us that Heaven was made on the second day). Now, we return to the voice of God and Light's "investing" like a mantle a rising world of water. Commentators, such as Thomas Newton (1750) have pointed to a verse near the end of Job (38:19) as illuminating Milton here, but I don't think Job is helpful, since 38:19 appears in a section where God is creating the waters on the earth and isn't meant to suggest the formation of the earth of chaos. So, we return to Genesis 1, and the account of Light's creation out of the chaos.
Paradise Lost III. 10-12 are Milton's rich, creative midrash on the first few verses of Genesis. In Genesis 1: 3, God says, "Let there be light." And light appeared. The text just goes on to say that God then separated the light from the darkness, calling the first, Day and the second, Night. But the clean categories and neat, unmiry account of Gen. 1 isn't quite satisfactory to Milton, and so he returns to the text and imagines. Light isn't simply created and separated, but now it covers, invests, mantles, or envelops the deep. The biblical account in Genesis 1, popularly known today as the Priestly account, wants nice simple, separate compartments for life, just as the priest has to keep separate the knives, blood, vessels, altars and other things so that ritual contamination isn't communicated to holy things. But Milton isn't necessarily determined by the priestly view of life, even though he is defined by the Scriptures. They will provide him his basic categories and flow, but he will also reach deeper into the text and his imagination to complete the story told there. Thus, these three + lines (9-12):
"and at the voice
Of God, as with a Mantle didst invest
The rising world of waters dark and deep
Won from the void and formless infinite"
The light is the mantle which covered that rising world of waters. Perhaps there is, after all, a slight nod to Job 38 in line 11, though not 38:19. Rather, Milton may be thinking of God's stern command to the waters, "Thus far shall you go and no farther, and here shall thy proud waves be stayed" in 38:11. But I think there are also loads of other passages in the Bible which deal with the "chaos" of Chaos more eloquently than Genesis 1, that may have been on his mind when he penned line 11. And, then, as commentators note, he may simply (and this is more probably right) have lifted some lines from Spenser's Fairy Queen (Canto 1, Stanza 39):
"And through the world of waters wide and deep."
Line 12 is just Milton's own creative way of characterizing the chaos of Genesis 1:1-2. The "won from" is arresting, as if there was an agony, a contest, a struggle of light emerging from and becoming victorious over the darkness. It is a common method of Milton, beginning a line with a powerful verb of action, a verb that then brings alive his subject more than one might otherwise expect.
Getting the Hell out of. . .Hmm. . .Hell
So, the poet moves from Hell towards the Light, even as Satan is moving on a parallel track towards the upper world in Book II, and will reach the Garden of Eden in Book IV. Satan and Milton, move in parallel ways and, according to Prof. Rogers, are parallel in depiction. Satan, in fact, may be a type of Milton himself or, better said, the portrait of Satan may be strongly shaped by Milton's own experience as a kind of radical or "outcast" in mid-17th century England.
Each line of Milton's subsequent "escape" into safety is precious but for the remainder of this essay I will simply point out the repeated use of the word "revisit" or "visit" to aid Milton's movement. He first says he will "revisit" Light now that he has "Escap'd" the Stygian Pool (lines 13-14). Again, a few lines later he says, "Thee I revisit safe...." (line 21). But then the word takes on a note of pathos as he says, "but thou/ Revisit'st not these eyes" (lines 22-23). Milton is, as it were, walking the second mile for light, for God, but in return what does God give? This question, already posed in these lines, will be behind the tremendously ambitious claim and prayer in lines 51-55, at the end of the hymn. In any case, even though Light visits Milton no more, since he lives in the darkness of blindness, he says that he Nightly "visit[s]" the streams that wash the hallowed feet of Sion (line 32). Though he may not yet have a reciprocal visitation from light, Milton is faithfully trying to keep up his end of the "bargain" by visiting the realm of light literarily and by visiting the Scriptures nightly.
There is more to say about the hymn. Suffice it here to say, however, that he is now safely out of the deepest pits of Hell and on his way to describe the beauties of the upper world. Thus it is now the time to speak of light, since that is the realm where he now is. It would not have been appropriate to speak of light or his blindness earlier. But now, when light is the subject, his own "darkness" is also to the point. And he will play with that, and pray about that, in the remainder of the Hymn.