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The Invocations--to book 1, 3, 7, 9

Milton I

Reading Paradise Lost is very different from reading Homer and Virgil, isn’t it. For some of you, you will be feeling a thrill of recognition—this at last is English Literature, this is what I came to university to do. Others will be finding reading seventeenth-century poetry, as opposed to translationese, rather challenging. Last year I was rather discouraged when my very bright Epic seminar came to their first Milton session in a very strange mood. Their uncharacteristic grumpiness lasted until the Easter holidays, after which their attitude to Milton suddenly changed—when I asked them why they admitted that it was because they had actually read Paradise Lost. I am not going to ask how many of you have even started reading Milton just in case I don’t like the answer. Suffice it to say that I am not assuming any previous knowledge of Paradise Lost in this lecture. OK? You do not have to read any Milton for this…..

All the texts I want to talk about are on the handout in front of you. This will not be the case after Reading Week. I am expecting you to have read the books I am dealing with in advance, and to bring a copy of the text with you. I want to save a few trees.

So—the first session after Reading Week will be Heaven and Hell—books 1, 2, 3

Then it will be Did She Fall or Was She Pushed—books 4 and 9

And the last lecture is tentatively called Sex in Paradise.

On that subject, (books not sex) if you have not bought your text yet, consider, particularly if you are an Eng Lit student, buying a proper copy of Milton and not just Paradise Lost: an Oxford Complete Poems would be good, if you have not bought a copy already. At this point I will do my usual plug for the Longman edition, which is now available in the second edition—it has not been available for ages. It is by far the best edition if you can afford it.

Apart from the fact that it is in English not a classical language, there are other ways in which PL is different, aren’t there. We saw a bit of this in the transition from Homer to Virgil: Virgil had obviously studied Homer, and consciously imitated his epic poems. We get even more of that in Milton of course. At school, and at university, Milton would have studied Literature. In fact he would have studied very little else. Not English literature of course—there was nothing worth studying in this rather barbaric language (that Shakespeare fellow who died when Milton was 8 wrote popular plays and any old Tom Dick and Harry could buy his cheap writings). Only the Classics were worth studying--Virgil and Homer (in the original of course—he had to know Latin and Greek very well). During his education he would have been encouraged to imitate what he read in Latin and in Greek: and Milton seems to have had the ambition to write something in English that was worthy of comparison with the classical authors. This was a huge ambition in the seventeenth century (English Literature wasn’t considered worth studying as a subject until the end of the nineteenth century). I have to say quickly that Milton knew how good Shakespeare was—there are echoes of Shakespeare throughout Milton, and Milton’s first published poem was a sonnet on Shakespeare included in the 1632 volume of Shakespeare’s Works.

Anyway, in writing Paradise Lost Milton was very aware of his predecessors. So much so that he tells us how he feels about them—or at least how he thinks his epic relates to theirs. He does this in the very famous passages in PL called the Invocations. At the beginning of books 1,3,7,9. Just to remind you, the Invocation is a classical thing. It is assumed that to write an epic—the highest human poetry—the poet will need divine help. So the classic epic poet always INVOKES the muses, as Homer and Virgil did—remember when there was a particularly important bit coming up Homer would put ‘Say, muse—how many psychopathic chieftains accompanied Achilles on his ridiculous voyage to Troy.’

Look at the first passage on your handout. As usual, we get the basic subject of the epic in its very first lines: ‘the wrath of Achilles’, ‘arms and the man’.

This is a rather longer subject.

F Mans First Disobedience, and the Fruit
Of that Forbidden Tree.

I hope we know all about that—Adam and Eve eating the apple in Paradise (except that is isn’t an apple its a FRUIT)

But what is really interesting is what Milton is doing to the classical Muses. He’s ignoring them—all NINE of them—and going for a Heavenly Muse, the same one that inspired Genesis thank you very much.

Sing Heav'nly Muse, that on the secret top
Of Oreb, or of Sinai, didst inspire
That Shepherd, who first taught the chosen Seed,
In the Beginning how the Heav'ns and Earth


Rose out of Chaos.

And he is replacing the Muses’ furniture—you know, they live on Mount Helicon, (th’Aonian mount here) where the spring of Parnassus flows because the hoof of Pegasus the winged horse struck the ground there—Milton’s muse prefers to live on Biblical mountains (Mount Oreb, Sinai, Sion) and the holy spring is Siloa’s brook. It becomes obvious WHY Milton wants to replace the Muses of Homer and Milton—he wants to do BETTER than them.

I thence
Invoke thy aid to my adventrous Song,
That with no middle flight intends to soar
Above th' Aonian Mount, while it pursues
Things unattempted yet in Prose or Rhime.

Quite a claim.

Let’s skip to the last invocation on your handout—the invocation to Book 9. Book 9 is where the dreaded apple (fruit)gets eaten, which explains the doomy tones at the beginning of the book. But I want to look at Milton’s claims for the epic status of his poem beginning line 13. Argument

Not less but more Heroic then the wrauth
Of stern Achilles on his Foe pursu'd
Thrice Fugitive about Troy Wall; or rage
Of Turnus for Lavinia disespous'd,
Or Neptun's ire or Juno's, that so long
Perplex'd the Greek and Cytherea's Son.

Well, the three epics you have done are ticked off here—presumably Milton thought them the three most famous epics—The Aeneid twice!

He has certainly nailed his colours to the mast. And all we can say straightaway is that Milton must be redefining heroism in some way. He helpfully tells us in what way. He doesn’t like war: he is

Not sedulous by Nature to indite
Warrs, hitherto the onely Argument
Heroic deem'd, chief maistrie [mastery, skill] to dissect
With long and tedious havoc fabl'd Knights


In Battels feign'd; the better fortitude
Of Patience and Heroic Martyrdom
Unsung. or to describe Races and Games,
Or tilting Furniture

[by the way we are not talking about unsteady tables here but the kind of stuff you need for jousting at ‘the tilts’]

Well parts of The Iliad may have seemed to you like ‘long and tedious havoc’ but

there does not seem to be much room for kleos in ‘the better fortitude Of Patience and Heroic Martyrdom.’

Heroism is something completely different from that which Achilles shows. Milton denounces such warlike poets as being obsessed with a particular tradition.

The skill of Artifice or Office mean,


Not that which justly gives Heroic name
To Person or to Poem.

In other words, Homer and Virgil are just hacks: doing the epic thing with battles and trips to hell and all that stuff. Milton says he doesn’t study them (although he obviously knows them back to front.) The name of hero is going to be given more status in this poem by the nature of the subject matter: ‘Higher argument remains’. The Invocation to Book 7 tells us where he got it from. Line 10. His epic story is the real thing because he is inspired by a real God, and his epic is superior to the rest because it is TRUE.

Now of course he is talking to a uniformly Christian audience in 1667 but even so it is pretty audacious to say your epic is better than The Iliad, The Odyssey and The Aeneid in seventeenth-century England, where everyone knows and adores these poems.

It is particularly audacious for Milton. His confidence should not be particularly high in 1667. For a start, he has been blind for about 15 years. The invocation to the third book tells us about that. He is about to describe heaven and needs special help for that from his heavenly muse, obviously (and some of you might feel, after reading Book 3, that he was not getting much help from his Muse). But it is harder for him to talk about somewhere that is characteristically LIGHT because his world is DARK. He tells us about that rather movingly—line 40.

Thus with the Year
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 herds, or human face divine;
But cloud in stead, and ever-during dark
Surrounds me, from the chearful waies of men
Cut off, and for the book of knowledg fair
Presented with a Universal blanc
Of Natures works to mee expung'd and ras'd,


And wisdome at one entrance quite shut out.

But he rallies—because in his weakness he is dependent on a heavenly Muse who is more likely to come to his aid because he needs her.

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.

And there are some precedents for blind poets! Line 32. There is a tradition of blind men who were gifted by God with a kind of second sight. They are all prophets. Thamyris is a blind prophet apparently mentioned in Book 2 of the Iliad (although I don’t remember him). You may remember Tiresias who cropped up at the entrance to Hell in The Odyssey (he was the one with rather dodgy gender-bending properties) Phineus is some other blind dude who had prophetic powers, and Mæonides is interesting because this is another name for Homer himself. It’s as if Milton is saying that it’s OK if he’s blind—some other very good poets were blind—and he backs this up with another idea in the invocation to book 3. line 26.

Yet not the more
Cease I to wander where the Muses haunt

He is very familiar with the Muses, and with the holy Muse in particular, and visits them every night—and what goes on every night? Lines 37 and 38.

Then feed on thoughts, that voluntarie move
Harmonious numbers;

Apparently, Paradise Lost just comes to him, ready made in poetry (‘numbers’ are metre, which is all about numbers of course—this poem doesn’t rhyme, you knew that. Do you know what metre Paradise Lost is in? Yep—good old iambic pentameter (much less complicated than dactylic hexameter) This startling claim—that he doesn’t have to work at PL, it just ‘comes’ to him—is backed up by stories of how Milton wrote PL—that every morning he would get his daughters to write down what had been given to him in the night. Personally I don’t believe this for a minute, but it’s a great way to heighten your mystique and improve your reputation as a poet inspired by God.

And this is all confirmed in the invocation to Book 9, where he emphasises again the divinely-inspired nature of his epic, and how it comes to him ready-written:

l.21 my Celestial Patroness, who deignes
Her nightly visitation unimplor'd,
And dictates to me slumbring, or inspires
Easie my unpremeditated Verse:

In the invocation to Book 7 we find out a bit more about the Celestial Patroness. He gives her a name==Urania. Actually he is not too sure that IS her name.

Escend from Heav'n Urania, by that name
If rightly thou art call'd,

The reason he is not too sure about this name is that Urania was actually a rather unusual one of the nine Muses. Interestingly she was not one of the muses of poetry: not Calliope, the muse of epic poetry, whom Virgil invokes, or Erato, the muse of love poetry, or even Polyhymnia, the muse of sacred poetry.

But Urania is the muse of astronomy; and Milton was not the first one to adopt her as a specifically Christian muse. King James, who wrote poetry, and was King for the first 17 years of Milton’ life, had done it, for his own (rather bad) poems. I suppose it is the heavenly nature of astronomy that suggested this identification. But Milton is really NOT sure about this name as he continues with his invocation, which means ‘calling’. In book7:

The meaning, not the Name I call: for thou
Nor of the Muses nine, nor on the top
Of old Olympus dwell'st, but Heav'nlie borne,
Before the Hills appeerd, or Fountain flow'd,
Thou with Eternal wisdom didst converse,


Wisdom thy Sister, and with her didst play
In presence of th' Almightie Father, pleas'd
With thy Celestial Song.

The Muse he calls Urania is definitely NOT one of the classical muses: she was with God from before the beginning of the world. In that case she can’t be the Urania who was the muse of astronomy. She is beginning to sound a bit divine: and in fact we may remember that at the very beginning of his epic in book 1 Milton offered an alternative identity for his ‘heavenly Muse’, the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit definitely was there at the creation of the world.

And chiefly Thou O Spirit, that dost prefer
Before all Temples th' upright heart and pure,
Instruct me, for Thou know'st; Thou from the first


Wast present, and with mighty wings outspread
Dove-like satst brooding on the vast Abyss
And mad'st it pregnant:

And interestingly, the word for Spirit in the Old Testament is gendered female, like the Muses, the word ‘ruach’, breath. Milton seems content to use the word Urania as a kind of shorthand for a rather large and complex concept; a divine agency that directly inspires his poem, and protects it.

Line 30 of Book 7

still govern thou my Song,
Urania, and fit audience find, though few.

‘fit audience find, though few’—could be any poet’s anxiety about finding sensitive and understanding readers (By the way I would hope that he would find them amongst people doing an English degree at Warwick). But then he gets a touch paranoid.

7, 32
But drive farr off the barbarous dissonance
Of Bacchus and his Revellers, the Race
Of that wilde Rout that tore the Thracian Bard
In Rhodope, where Woods and Rocks had Eares
To rapture, till the savage clamor dround
Both Harp and Voice; nor could the Muse defend
Her Son. So fail not thou, who thee implores:
For thou art Heav'nlie, shee an empty dreame.

What on earth is that all about? For someone who at some points appears so confident in the status of what he is doing, he seems a tad paranoid here. But why does he want Urania to protect him from drunken mobs? The answer is in Milton’s total identification with the mythical figure, Orpheus. You remember Orpheus—the one who went down to the Underworld and sang to the God of the Underworld, Hades, and was allowed to bring his wife Eurydice back from death AS LONG AS HE DID NOT LOOK ROUND BEFORE SHE CAME OUT INTO THE UPPER WORLD? No prizes for guessing what happened next….

Milton compares himself to Orpheus in line 18 at the beginning of Book Three, when he has safely negotiated hell—‘Escapt the Stygian pool’ as he puts it. But almost every major poem Milton writes features Orpheus. And here he is again in Book 7—he is the Thracian Bard in line 34. This story is about the death of Orpheus, and it is a good one. Orpheus was this brilliant singer, the son of Calliope, Muse of epic poetry, who could sing so beautifully that he could move rocks and trees, let alone the Prince of Hell. Interestingly Orpheus was often equated with Christ by Christians because he too could make things happen in the natural world when he spoke. I think that factor increased Milton’s identification with Orpheus. But Orpheus made the mistake of mocking Bacchus. You remember Bacchus—god of wine, nice body, beautiful curly locks—well, he was insulted. He got some of his female followers completely intoxicated and inspired them to tear Orpheus to pieces.

7, 32

But drive farr off the barbarous dissonance
Of Bacchus and his Revellers, the Race
Of that wilde Rout that tore the Thracian Bard
In Rhodope, where Woods and Rocks had Eares
To rapture, till the savage clamor dround
Both Harp and Voice; nor could the Muse defend
Her Son.

A very sticky end for Orpheus but why should Milton feel threatened by this kind of ‘barbarous dissonance’?

There is a kind of code here that you need to know some history to interpret.

Milton was a Puritan, in every sense. He had thoroughly supported Cromwell in the Civil War. You know about the English Civil War in the 1640s? Roundheads—right but revolting—against Cavaliers (wrong but Romantic) By the time Milton published PL in 1667 that had happened over 20 years ago—in fact he had worked for Cromwell in the 1650s, when England was, briefly, a Republic, after they executed Charles I. In some ways Republican England was not a fun place to be. No plays—they had closed down the theatres. No sex outside marriage—it was illegal. No Christmas—they abolished Christmas in 1645. Milton of course approved of all this.

By the time Paradise Lost was published, Cromwell was dead. Worse, in Milton’s eyes, the English people had welcomed back, as King in 1660, the son of the man they had executed in 1649, Charles II. When Charles II was crowned King, his long carnival procession included one float with a filthy great statue of Bacchus on it. And what did that say to the people of England? Get lost Puritans, the boys are back in town.

There ensued one of the most decadent, self-indulgent, sexually promiscuous, regimes that England has ever had. And if that actually all sounds a bit jolly, it was also extremely repressive. It was extremely repressive of people like Milton—Puritans who had supported the republican regime. The fear of the drunken revelling mob in the invocation to Book 7 is not entirely paranoid—a number of people were out to get Milton, who was not yet the great English poet. Why?

In line 26 of book 9, Milton says that he began to write his epic very late in his life. It was published when he was 59. What had he been doing in the prime of his life, between the ages of 32 and 52?

He had been writing on behalf of the Puritan party—first of all in opposition to the King, and then when Cromwell was in power, he was his main spin-doctor. He had some difficult events to try to spin. He was the one who wrote to heads of state across Europe, (in Latin) justifying to them the fact that the English had executed their King. This was long before the French Revolution, so this was hard. It is not surprising therefore that when Charles II came back, Milton was in trouble. He had to go into hiding. Charles II executed quite a lot of people; Milton escaped because some important people, including the poet Andrew Marvell, lobbied for him. But even the dead Cromwell was dug up, decapitated and his head stuck on London Bridge, and quite a few living ones were executed: the fear of being torn apart like Orpheus must have haunted Milton. Execution was not pretty in those days—it involved being hanged, drawn and quartered. In the 1660s Milton’s reputation was still appalling: he was known as the Grand Rebel, which is perhaps a good way of describing Satan in this poem. And he certainly could not publish anything—Charles II’s censorship was pretty strict. It eased up a bit in 1667 which is why PL was probably published then.

This was why Milton needed to improve his reputation, and why he insists on the fact that God is with him, even if so many are against him. He bravely insists that he has not in fact changed his opinions.

Book 7.

More safe I Sing with mortal voice, unchang'd
To hoarce or mute, though fall'n on evil dayes,
On evil dayes though fall'n, and evil tongues;
In darkness, and with dangers compast rou[n]d,
And solitude; yet not alone, while thou
Visit'st my slumbers Nightly, or when Morn


Purples the East: still govern thou my Song,
Urania, and fit audience find, though few.

This repressive society is why he asks for protection against the kind of dismembering that Orpheus suffered. And there is a specific reason why he insists at the end of the invocation to Book 3 that his physical blindness in fact gives him spiritual insight—his enemies argued that Milton’s blindness was a punishment from God. Not for the usual thing you are supposed to go blind for. They thought God was punishing him for supporting the execution of Charles I in 1649. His counter-argument is that God is illuminating him in a supernatural way to see truth that is not visible to ordinary people.

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.

III, 51

The first readers of Paradise Lost, some fit, some perhaps not, read it as a poem of protest against the regime of Charles II, and it is hard to now see why that should be. But I will try to point out just how radical Paradise Lost is the week after Reading Week in the lecture on Heaven and Hell.