I want to begin with a minor detour: Milton’s language.
Previously, it was remarked that Milton’s Greek and Latin impaired readers’ ability to properly understand the text, as the mechanics of those languages did not lend themselves to certain aspects of his poetry. Whether or not this is true, I feel that his knowledge of these languages also extends to the narrative structure of Paradise Lost, for as we shall see in the beginning, the action starts off not only epic-ly, but egotistically.
On page 176, hughes comments via footnote that […]
The most interesting surmise about Milton’s additions to his original design is the suggestion that he added the first two books somewhere late in the process of composing his poem in order to provide it with a standard epic beginning—a plunge into the midst of the action at the start. (176)
And this certainly makes sense as the reader is indeed “plunged” into the action headfirst; with rebel angels presented in hell moping about like petulant teenagers who only become roused thanks to Satan’s caffeine infused voice– forgive the unorthodox reading—we are to remember well that Milton’s tale is universal in that it tackles all aspects of the human condition.
But, let’s get to the actual text: after the opening invocation—more on that later— we are plunged into Hell with Satan and Beelzebub debating their failure to overthrow God; Beelzebub is dispirited but Satan rouses him via discourse: it is not that they “failed”, per se, but that they were momentarily deceived by God’s hidden powers. Now that they know, however, God’s supposed limits, they have the upper hand, and so Satan waxes eloquently on how it is God’s fault for imbuing the angels with envy and so it is better to rule in hell than serve in heaven. After this, Beelzebub is cured of his pessimism, so Satan then rallies all the other fallen angels. MEANWHILE, Pagan Gods, “demons”, from all history are assembled (eleven in all). Naturally, this being Milton’s militant quasi-nationalistic Protestantism, all are related as Sinfully cultured barbarians (this occurs from page 221-224). Brought together, these demons are described as a massed army. Satan implores them to wage a new war while Mammon, another demon-pagan-God in Satan’s ragtag collection of misfits, leads a different detachment to forge Pandӕmonium, Satan’s capital, from the raw materials of hell (of which, there is evidently much to choose from). Finally, the book ends with Satan and company holding council.
So that is the summary. Interesting? Yes! It is everything a great yarn needs to keep you up at night, not including the textual density. But, the most amazing thing about this book isn’t Satan, but Milton’s opening invocation.
[read opening invocation; lines 1-26]
<<Superficially, what is this invocation about? How does Milton imagine the poem?>> (Discussion Point)
On one hand, it is Milton introducing Paradise Lost. On the other hand, it is boasting Milton up as a writer, justifying Paradise Lost; an act, which, it should be noted, was the reverse of secular medieval writers who would often preface or end their books with a lengthy apology for the ill-suited content and beg God forgiveness for writing in the first place. What this tells us about Milton is that he believes in his work, as he should considering the study he has under his belt at this point in his life. But this also tells us that Milton is not exactly conservative. This anti-conservatism emerges in the fact of Milton’s larger-than-life de-valuing of the church founders.
<<Textually, how does this devaluing manifest?>> (Discussion Point)
Through blank verse. Odd, you say? Well, buckle up, because it is going to get even odder.
Upon publication of Paradise Lost, Milton’s contemporaries were shocked. But they were not shocked at Milton’s content—how Satan is treated as a sort of fallen hero. No, they were shocked at his verse. For, in the entirety of English poetry up to that point, poetry had a rhyme to it. Paradise Lost’s verse, though, lacks any such notion because of Milton, believing that rhyme was the “invention of a barbarous age, to set off wretched matter and lame meter” (210), thought ‘English Heroic Meter’ was superior.
Here begins a thread which will occur all throughout the opening invocation. <<Why does Milton reject rhyme>> (Discussion Point)
Yes, because he has his own poetic elitism, but also because he views himself as reclaiming a piece of “ancient liberty”. The history here matters because, as we will see in the opening invocation, Milton views his epic poem as something much more than mere writing.
Ultimately, this invocation is Milton preaching the alleged record of Satan’s fall but without the theological authority of the Church Founders, those “ancient fathers” in which the Argument refers; when Milton speaks “Fast by the oracle of God; I thence / Invoke thy aid to my advent’rous Song” he is superseding the Church Founders and directly saying that God himself is assisting him with his “song”, i.e., poem. This stance culminates when he says “I may assert eternal providence, / And justify the ways of God to men”, thus, Milton sets himself up as the penultimate authority when it comes to the divine—he alone is extrapolating God’s will, the logical inference being that he and God, at least when it comes to knowability, are one-in-the-same—that God is working through him, like a prophet.
We see this belief realized via Milton’s repeated usage of the word “first”. Not only is it repeated ad nausea (six times alone in the first three dozen lines), but it is repeated so in order to force a connection—a brazen one, that Milton’s use of “First” not only throws the Iambic Pentameter off track—thus creating this uneven musical score—but forges a connection to Milton being the first to talk about the fall. Yale professor John Rogers calls this “retrospective anticipation”, and Milton uses it to startling ends.
Why it’s startling is, of course, because it is a fiction—Milton could not have been at the Creation, yet he is talking as though he was there. Why this is, is because Milton is usurping “that Shepard” (i.e., Moses’s), place, or in the very minimum, trying to steal some of his thunder: the passage beginning with “And chiefly Thou O spirit” and runs through “Instruct me, for Thou Know’st” claims that the Holy Spirit—that which instructed Moses, was present AT the Creation. Thus, since Milton is writing about the Creation, and claims to be being moved by this same spirit which was there, he is not only making a bold theological claim—one with radical connotations for his Monism—but saying that his authority is on par with that of Moses himself. So, if there is any ‘first’ which is most important in this blank versed invocation, it is undoubtedly this one.
Well, all of this is an accordingly epic pose for an epic writer to take. Also, one that is a wee bit heretical, depending on your theological orientation. In the end, Milton’s open invocation is a case study in how to be both self-aggrandizing as well as almost divine. If there is anything more transcendentally over-the-top, then I have not heard of it.
But, that being said, I have only scratched the surface of what this invocation is about. And because I have waxed eloquently enough on my own, probably to the point where I am in danger of usurping Satan’s throne, I should pass the torch to you people, who probably have more interesting things to say anyway.