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54. Milton's Ambition, Second Essay
Ambition in Paradise Lost Book III
Milton's ambition to be an unequalled epic poet comes to fruition in PL. Rather than seeing ambition fulfilled or thirst slaked in the production of this masterpiece, he yet adds fuel to his sizzling desire in the piece. The prologue to the whole mentions his consciousness that he is engaging in "no middle flight" in his work, but is attempting to soar "Above th' Aonian Mount" as he attempts to do "Things unattempted yet in Prose or Rhyme," (I. 16). Wow. Doesn't sound like a diminution of ambition. He must think that his work is yet unattempted because no one has yet skillfully told the epical (and epochal) Christian story of the Fall of Man. Torquato Tasso had, about a century before Milton, told the epic story of the Crusaders' capture of Jerusalem at the end of the First Crusade; Dante had spoken of life in hell, purgatory and paradise, but had not really focused on the great loss brought on us by our first parents. Thus, it is a yet unattempted subject, and Milton prays that he might be equal to the task.
The Concept of Equality
It is this notion of being "equal" to a task which lies behind his most powerful and blatant statement of ambition in PL--in Book III. There, after singing the beauty and power of light, and remaining mum on light's origin (see here and here), he finds a way to bring his own experience of darkness into the story. He "revisits" light by coming out of Hell into the upper regions, but light "revisit'st" him not. Thus, his eyes "roll" in his head, unable to see, unable to take in the delectable "vernal bloom" or "Summer's rose," unable to partake of the "cheerful ways" of men, but quite alone in his blindness. Yet, blindness doesn't curb ambition. In lines 32-36 he explains his longing to be like the blind bards of old:
"Nightly I visit: nor sometimes forget
Those other two equall'd with me in Fate,
So were I equall'd with them in renown,
Blind Thamyris and Blind Maeonides,
And Tiresias and Phineus Prophets old.
This is the poetic equivalent of coming around a corner while climbing a mountain and seeing a dramatic vista sweeping away for miles in the distance. That is what he sees for himself. He expresses a desire, a desire that almost functions as a sort of command, to be equal with the great bards of the past: especially Thamyris and Homer (Maeonides). The reason I suggest there is almost a sort of command here is the principle of balance or compensation that is in view. Milton will especially explore this principle in lines 51-55, but here it is as if he is saying: 'well, I am equal to some in fate (i.e., with my blindness); I should also be equal to them in fame.'
There is a slight confusion here. We are expecting to see a list of two who were equalled with him in Fate, while in fact four names are given. No satisfactory solution has been given for the discrepancy; the least unsatisfactory is that he especially meant the first two, with the latter following currente calamo, that is, when his stream of inspiration was flowing so quickly as to include them without "cleaning up" the discrepancy. Milton would be of same Fate with Thamyris and Homer because he was both a writer and prophet, while Tiresias and Phineus only were the latter. Thamyris isn't well known to us today, but what Milton may have had in mind was a classical reference to him challenging the Muses to a contest of poetic inspiration, which he lost and for which he was punished with blindness. Another ancient source, Plutarch, and an early medieval source, the Suda, say that he had the finest voice of any of his time, that he wrote a poem of the war fo Titans with the Gods, and also composed a poem of the generation of the world. Thus, his mention.
Deserving Inner Sight
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 ]
Though Milton appears to be a suppliant in lines 51-55, the final lines of the Hymn to Light, he really is making a demand on God. When asking for what we might call replacement inner eyes to compenate for the loss of external vision, in fact he is not simply requesting them; he is imperatively requiring them. We see these final lines as demand if we carefully read lines 41-50, his catalogue of loss. Not only does he "remind" the reader, and God, of the fact of his blindness, but he stresses all the things that he will or can no longer see. No longer will he see "Day, or the sweet approach of Ev'n, or Morn." No longer does the sight of vernal bloom or rose, or of flock, herd or the "human face divine" fill him. He is, instead, in the cloud, in an "ever-during dark." We know this. We have known this for 30 lines. But Milton keeps harping on it. Why? Because he is ultimately driven by his out-sized ambition, and feels, in fact, that his is "owed" the spiritual sight for which he seemingly prays in 51-55, as a sort of compensation for blindness, to "balance" his inner books.
He is asking that God would give him spiritual insight, would "irradiate" his mind. But, in fact, his ambition for success, for becoming of equal renown with the great Homer and Thamyris, means that he must have the kind of spiritual insight that compensates for the fact that he can't see the beauties of nature. He must now describe his vision of invisible things or, otherwise said, of things invisible to mortal sight.
Conclusion--Milton's Ambition and Our Ambition
I used to think, having been brought up in the confusing and often noxious airs of the late 1960s and early 1970s, that any ambition in spiritual things was anathema to the example of Christ and the pattern of Christian truth. I lived under that shadow for three decades. No longer. As long as I live, I am instructed by Milton, and I seek the heights that he aspired to. One could do a lot worse...