Monday, June 06, 2005

Milton's "great Argument"

Milton's poem begins with an invocation of the Holy Spirit, invoking aid in his attempt to "justifie the wayes of God to men."

No, that's not quite right. The poem actually begins with an "Argument," a prose preface summarizing the theme of the first book.

Well, no, that's not precisely right either. The poem first begins with prefatory 'Front Matter,' a couple of poems intent on justifying the ways of John Milton to other men.

First is a Latin poem, "In Paradisum Amissam Summi Poetæ Johannis Miltoni," written by a certain "S.B.," the initials probably standing for "Dr. Samuel Barrow, a friend of Milton's and physician to Charles II." Milton needed 'justification' through friends like Barrow, who had such very close connections to the king, for with the Restoration of the monarchy in 1660, men who had espoused the Puritan cause found their lives in danger, especially a man like Milton, who had written a defense of the beheading of Charles I, had served as a Secretary to the Puritan leader Oliver Cromwell, and had written a published defense of the Puritan republic only one month before Charles II's ascension to the throne.

Second is an English poem by a certain "A.M.," the initials certainly standing for Andrew Marvell, who, drawing on his own poetic reputation, uses rhyming couplets to 'justify' Milton's "Verse . . . [which] needs not Rhime."

Marvell's poem is immediately followed by Milton's prose defense of "The Verse," in which he injudiciously informs us that he has used "English Heroic Verse without Rime" because rhyme is "but the Invention of a barbarous Age." These are not words calculated to please other poets, and one wonders how his own 'defender' Marvell felt at being lumped with the barbarians.

After all this -- the Latin poem, the English poem, the prose defense, the prose summary -- we finally enter the world of Milton's epic:

Of Mans First Disobedience, and the Fruit
Of that Forbidden Tree, whose mortal tast
Brought Death into the World, and all our woe,
With loss of Eden, till one greater Man
Restore us, and regain the blissful Seat, [ 5 ]
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: Or if Sion Hill [ 10 ]
Delight thee more, and Siloa's Brook that flow'd
Fast by the Oracle of God; I thence
Invoke thy aid to my adventrous Song,
That with no middle flight intends to soar
Above th' Aonian Mount, while it pursues [ 15 ]
Things unattempted yet in Prose or Rhime.
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 [ 20 ]
Dove-like satst brooding on the vast Abyss
And mad'st it pregnant: What in me is dark
Illumin, what is low raise and support;
That to the highth of this great Argument
I may assert Eternal Providence, [ 25 ]
And justifie the wayes of God to men.


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