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53. Milton's Ambition, First Essay
The Nativity Ode; Paradise Lost Book III.33-36, 51-55
Ever since his youthful days Milton aspired to be a poet of renown. His father laid out the money enabling him to have a stellar secondary and collegiate education (Cambridge), and he spent nearly six years after college (1632-38) in the primary task of studying and perfecting his knowledge and writing skills. In those days, he often referred to his ambition to produce works of stunning scope and originality. This and the next essay will focus on how ambition still lives in his later work (PL), though I will begin with a very early statement on ambition, from his 1639 "On the Morning of Christ's Nativity."(1)
(1) I am indebted to Prof. John Rogers' excellent lecture in the Open Yale Project on the Ode for this insight.
In that singular poem, written on his 21st birthday, Milton launched himself into the firmament of British poets. Previous to writing that poem (which wasn't published until his 1645 volume of poetry), Milton had written extensive Latin verses and some English prose and poetry, but the Nativity Ode was his self-introduction to literary society. But why did he, who was consumed with ambition (as we will see in a moment), wait until 1645 to let his work be known? Perhaps he wanted to have a sense that his complete "act" was together, that he was a well-shaped man in mind and verse, before exposing the work of his comparative youth, however excellent it was. Milton gives us a lesson in delayed gratification, even while the fire of ambition is burning strongly--wait not until you have just written a stunning work; wait until factors of knowledge and other mastery have so come together for you that you will be able to stand against the wiles and direct frontal attacks of opponents, driven as they are either by legitimate criticism or by jealousy.
In his Nativity Ode, a 244-line poem consisting of a four stanza Introduction and then a much longer Hymn, Milton first lays out his reasons for writing before describing the cosmic scale of Christ's coming to the earth. Stanza IV of the Introduction expresses his hopes for his ode. He speaks of the Wise Men, the "Star-led Wisards" (line 22) who are bringing gifts to the "Infant God" (line 16). Here are lines 22-28.
"See how from far upon the Eastern rode
The Star-led Wisards haste with odours sweet;
O run, prevent them with thy humble ode,
And lay it lowly at his blessed feet 
Have thou the honour first, thy Lord to greet,
And joyn the voice unto the Angel Quire,
From out his secret Altar toucht with hallow'd fire."
Let's begin by looking at the word "prevent" in line 24. Most commentators say that the original meaning of the term, to "come before" or "arrive before" is in view. In this reading, then, Milton would be asking that his ode, in some way, would arrive at the Christ child first, even before the Wisards came. This, in and of itself, is striking, since the Wise Men delivered their gifts more than 1600 years before Milton's birth. Yet, so strong is his ambition, and so alive the poetic drive within, that it is as if he thinks that his words can turn back time and thus intercept those loping magi of yore. The thought is even stronger if we take the more contemporary meaning of "prevent"--i.e., to forestall or prohibit. If we adopt this meaning, Milton would be expressing his desire that his ode would keep them from giving their gifts to the Christ child. Milton not only, then, wants to be first to give the gift; he wants to make sure that his is the only gift. What chutzpah! And then, as if to cover his naked ambition, he talks about his ode as his "humble ode." Right. It may be offered on his knees before the Infant God, but it is offered after trying to eliminate all others from presenting their special gifts.
Two Other Reflections on Ambition
But there are two other things happening in the Introduction to this ode relating to ambition which call for comment. First, in Stanza III, is a not-so-gentle upbraiding of the Muse for being silent so long in inspiring an adequate ode to the Infant God. Milton inquires (17-18):
"Hast thou no vers, no hymn, or solemn strein
To welcome him to this new abode.."
What??? Is Milton trying to suggest that the entire Christian tradition before him is barren in inspiration and has not yet properly sung the praise of the Infant God? Hundreds, if not thousands of efforts to sing the coming of the Christ child had been written; it was as standard a trope for writers as the Madonna and Child was for painters. Milton is showing the arrogance of highly talented youth. No one, really, has adequately sung the birth of Christ. 'Well, then, let me, the brash 21 year-old Cantabrigian, fill in the gap. And, I will do so in my humble production here.'
Milton wasn't the first to demonstrate this confidence/chutzpah. Hadn't Christ himself said, at least in John's memory, "All who come before me are thieves and robbers" (John 10:8)? Milton reflects that same youthful exuberance and confidence. No one has ever quite experienced life the way that he has. Though we are put off by the claim, might there be some way in which this kind of confidence is necessary in order to drive oneself to the ways of greatness?
Finally, let's return to Stanza IV. Not only does Milton want to lay his humble ode at the feet of the Infant God, but he also wants his piece to join the other angelic voices since his voice came "From out his secret Altar toucht with hallow'd fire" (line 28). The reference here, as all commentators note, is to Isaiah's vision of God in the temple (Isaiah 6), and of his lips being touched by the seraph with a burning coal. The coal both purged and empowered Isaiah to speak of judgment and grace. So will Milton, the poet, be likewise "touched."
Even though ambition burned brightly in 1629, it waited for several years to show itself. In the meantime Milton not only immersed himself yet deeper in learning, but he engaged in some of the crucial issues of his day. Thus, when he released his poetry in 1645, he was a man in full, ready to speak to the world. It still would be 22 more years before the first edition (in 10 books) of PL would be published. Let's turn to the next essay see if his thirsty ambition is still evident in PL.