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8. The Muse and The Spirit
Introducing the Prologue (I.1-26) of Paradise Lost
Paradise Lost ("PL") is a late epic, late in almost every way. First, it came at the end of that tradition of heroic writing which stretched back to the 8th century BCE, describing the exploits of men and gods. Second, it came late in Milton's life (published first in 1667, with a second edition in 1674; Milton was born in 1608, dying in 1674), a life shaped by immersion in Classical and Christian literature but also plunged into the bracing waters of revolt, regicide, Puritan government and Restoration of the Stuart monarchy. Finally, it came too late to do any good for the very revolutionaries who wanted to shape a society on republican rather than monarchical principles. Milton himself recognizes the lateness of the work (IX.25-26):
"Since first this Subject for Heroic Song/ Pleas'd me long choosing, and beginning late."
But even though we have a confession and the reality of lateness, the alert reader will recognize this as a possible literary device that really accentuates the timeliness, rather than lateness, of the effort. Recall St. Augustine's Confessions. When thinking of the long road he took to come to the life of faith, he says (X.27):
"Late have I loved you, beauty so old and so new. Late have I loved you...You were with me, and I was not with you."
From one perspective, Augustine's first love of the Christian God happened "late" to him--when he was 33. But, from the perspective of the long stretch of time, and even the events of his life, it wasn't too "late."
Milton's work may have been "late," but he more than makes up for whatever felt deficiency in this way by a six-fold use of the word first in the initial 33 lines of the poem. Though late, he will be bringing us to first things. And, since his work is the first of its kind ("Things unattempted yet in Prose or Rhyme," I.16), he may actually be the very first to tell the old story, late as he believes he is in relating it.
Paradox and Complexity in the Prologue
In telling the story of "Man's First Disobedience" and its results, Milton relies on his knowledge of epic tradition and biblical and classical learning, but he also leans on sources of heavenly inspiration, without which he would have nothing to say. The sources of inspiration include, here, the "Muse" and the "Spirit," though he doesn't tell us if these are meant to be the same or different figures.
Paradoxes and contrasts pile up in the prologue. For example, Milton will tell a story using epic conventions, but what he has in PL is a sort of anti-epic. In those ancient stories, beginning with Homer and Virgil and contuining through the late medieval Tasso and Ariosto, we have great deeds of noble heroes. To use Milton's words, these are stories of (IX.32-37):
"Patience and Heroic Martyrdom
Unsung..or..Races and Games,
Or tilting Furniture, emblazon'd Shields,
Impresses quaint, Caparisons and Steeds;
Bases and tinsel Trappings, gorgeous Knights
At Joust and Tournament."
But Milton confesses he can't do this. He isn't "sedulous by Nature to indite/ Wars...," (IX.27-28), even though he ably describes a pretty nasty scrum in Heaven in Book VI. He will talk about ideas, such as sin and death, rather than the noble manly pursuits of battle. Again, instead of describing a person who becomes a national hero, such as Aeneas, he will describe a universal man, a person who represents all of us. Rather than describing great events, he will eventually focus on "Man's First Disobedience." PL is a story of devolution rather than national evolution. The book ends with our first ancestors being thrown out of their original place of blessing rather than coming home (Odysseus) or founding the predecessor place of a great civilization (Aeneas).
Then, to add to our paradoxes or complexities, the spirits inspiring PL seem to be two, not one, and the identity of one of the two isn't at all clear. Milton wants inspiration from the "Heavenly Muse" (I.6) that inspired Moses, the Shepherd of the people (I.8). Who is this? Certainly it isn't to be equated with the Muses of classical mythology which nestled around the streams at the foot of Mount Helicon. But how is the Muse different from the Spirit, to whom Milton looks for guidance and teaching in I.17? Some commentators point to the Muse as identical to Urania, the Muse mentioned at the beginning of Book VII, but Milton doesn't help us. Yet the paradox isn't really which Muse or Spirit is inspiring but how Milton correlates the concepts of art and inspiration. Art derives from knowledge, skill and experience; inspiration is at the whim of heavenly forces. Milton wants to place himself as an inspired person in the line of Moses, but he could only have been "inspired" if he knew so, so much and could recall it with apparent ease in his blindness. Perhaps we can paraphrase a sentiment of Thomas Jefferson here. He was reorted to have said: "I am a great believer in luck, and I find that the harder I work, the more I have of it." Maybe we can say that Milton is a great believer in the inspiration of the Muse or the Spirt, and the more he studies and retains, the more he feels this inspiration.
The paradoxes and contrasts continue in the prologue. We have the first Man, who is the disobedient one, but he will be trumped by, or at least overshadowed by "one greater Man" (I.4) who will restore us. And, even though the condition in which our first ancestors found themselves was idyllic, ah, even Edenic (!), their latter condition will be even better (XII.463-65):
"for then the Earth
Shall all be Paradise, far happier place
Than this of Eden, and far happier days."
And, what is the basic attitude of our poet towards all this? He is both humble and terribly proud. His pride comes out in the ironic, and paradoxical, assertion that he will attempt things "unattempted yet in Prose or Rhyme" (I.16). The events he describes might well have been unattempted and new, but the line just quoted is lifted verbatim from a 16th century epic by the Italian Ariosto. The Italian is:
"Cosa not detta in prosa mai, ne in rima.."
How does one evaluate a claim to originality and higher accomplishment than any before him, when the very words that make this claim are borrowed, word for word? Is he poking fun at his own ambition? That doesn't sound like Milton, in whom the flames of overriding ambition seemed never to have been quenched.
Yet then, when he asks for the Spirtis' guidance, he offers this most humble entreaty (I.17-19):
"And chiefly Thou O Spirit, that dost prefer
Before all temples th' upright heart and pure,
Instruct me, for Thou knows't."
Maybe, as in the Nativity Ode, he can afford to be humble once the competition (with the Magi in that Ode; with other epic writers in this one) is out of the way.
Thus, from the sonorous nobility of the inverted word order in the first line (Who else begins the first lines of a book with the word "Of"?), we know we are in for a complex work. It may be so complex because of the churning mind of the great poet. His ambition, insight, and heterodox theology which are all reflected in a work of paradox and precision make us go slowly, lest we miss a morsel of his thoughts. The next essay tells us a little more about the style in which he wrote this epic.