The Language of I.1-26 (II)
Bill Long 11/29/09
5. Two quick biblical notes smooth our interpretation of lines 8-10. Moses was primarily known in biblical tradition as the lawgiver, but before "Moses was Moses," so to speak, he was a simple shepherd watching the flocks of his father-in-law (Ex. 3:1). Just as the "one greater Man" (4) is superior to Adam in his bringing of salvation rather than woe, so Christ will be a greater shepherd than Moses. The New Testament is filled with references to Christ's being the good shepherd (e.g., John 10:11; Hebrews 13:20).
6. Then there is the reference to Moses' creation story in Genesis: "In the Beginning how the Heav'ns and Earth/ Rose out of Chaos" (9-10). Ah, Milton's heterodoxy shows through here, and it relates to a tension between Greek philosophy and orthodox Christian faith at this point. Christian faith had, since at least the 4th or 5th century, spoken about creation happening ex nihilo, that is "from nothing." Augustine, the prolific Father of the Church, refined that doctrine in order to have an effective polemic against the Manicheans, who believed in the eternal co-existence of two material forces, good and evil. But, as with almost all doctrines/beliefs developed in a polemical context, its development came with a cost. The cost? The doctrine, which asserted God's creative power from a word or decree alone, was absolutely unrecognizable from the perspective of Greek philosophy. Ever since Plato's day, in the 5th-4th century BCE, the Greeks had believed in creation in which a kind of matter was impressed with form in order to result in the world we see. There is always a pre-existing stuff or underlying matter in Greek philosophy; one simply can't create "from nothing." Milton, by saying that the Heavens and Earth "Rose out of Chaos." is allying himself more with the Greek than the Christian tradition on this one. Chaos will be a place for Milton, the place between Heaven and Hell, through which the rebel angels fell and through which Satan must climb in order to get back to Heaven. So Chaos is some kind of undefined, formless, underlying stuff out of which creation happened for Milton. There is more than a bit of irony here (as there is in line 16, as I argued here) in that Milton is in the midst of emphasizing how important and exclusive the biblical sources of inspiration were for him. Right in the middle, then, a nod to pagan wisdom.
7. As we move to the second sentence of the Prologue, three points come out. First is an oblique reference to Milton's blindness. He deals with his blindness in a more complete and moving fashion in Book III; all he says here is "what in me is dark/ Illumine" (22-23). The prayer could have been said by the most eagle-eyed sighted person but, because we know Milton, we area aware of the blindness that is his ever-present reality.
8. Then there is the final line of the Prologue, where he mentions that his goal is to "justify" the ways of God to men" (26). Prof. John Rogers, in his Yale lectures on Milton, makes the helpful point that Milton seemed to spend most of his life writing justifications, or defenses, for various things: for his comparative lateness in blooming as a poet, for the right to publish freely on controversial topics (such as grounds for divorce), for the shocking regicide that occurred when the Puritans came into power in the late 1640s. Now he is just going back to the well and developing yet another apologia, this time for God. As Rogers mentions, what we have here is more of a "justification" or explanation as to why God is just than a "vindication" or a attempt to clear God from allegations of blame, even though the two concepts shade into each other pretty easily.
9. Finally, and most shocking, is what Milton does in the rhythm and language of lines 19-22, where he is talks about the gestational work of the Spirit in creation. Listen to the words:
"Thou from the first
Wast present, and with mighty wings outspread
Dove-like satst brooding on the vast Abyss
And mad'st it pregnant," I.19-22.
The Spirit, whom Milton identifies with the Holy Spirit of Christian doctrine, is likened to a dove. That is standard biblical doctrine, derived from the descent of the Holy Spirit like a dove onto Jesus at his baptism (Matt 3; Luke 3; Mark 1). The the Spirit "satst brooding..." The syllables are long, very long, as if we can feel and ought to take our time watching the Spirit as it broooooods... It took a while for creation to "hatch." This line is meant to give life to Gen. 1:2, where the Spirit of God is moving (incubabat or "incubating" according to the Vulgate) over the face of the waters. But then the image changes. Rather than brooding and giving birth, the Spirit broods and makes pregnant. One would have thought that the brooding Spirit is like a mother dove nurturing her young. But how does the female dove impregnate the Abyss? Who is the male/who the female? Or is the Spirit perceived by Milton to be a transgendered or hermaphroditic agent? Because Milton has adopted a Greek philosophical view of creation, he sees creation happening like a birth, rather than like a response to a command.
The prologue to PL is a hard beginning. It has little mercy for the reader as it plunges us immediately into a 16-line sentence that doesn't come up for "verb air" until the 39th word. It isn't as eloquent, in my judgment, as the Hymn which opens Book III. Yet it covers important topics of the epic tradition, even as it claims to be solely inspired by the biblical faith. These tensions, and this demanding beauty, will be characteristic of the whole. Let's enter, then, in medias res, in the middle of things, where the epic tradition always begins...in the next essay.