John Milton: Poet, Priest and Prophet
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 "My father", Milton wrote in 1654, "destined me in early childhood for the study of literature, for which I had so keen an appetite that from my twelfth year scarcely ever did I leave my studies for my bed before the hour of midnight." (YP, IV, i, p. 612) Twelve years earlier he had expressed his filial gratitude and described his dedication to literature in similar though more precise terms: "I must say therefore that after I had from my first yeeres by the ceaselesse diligence and care of my father, whom God recompence, bin exercis'd to the tongues, and some sciences, as my age would suffer, by sundry masters both at home and at the schools, it was found that whether ought was impos'd me by them that had the overlooking, or betak'n to of mine own choise in English, or other tongue, prosing or versing, but chiefly this latter, the stile by certain vital signes it had, was likely to live." (YP, I, pp. 808-9) This assessment, so vigorously reconfirmed by posterity, is best seen as a rare instance of Miltonic understatement.
Exactly when Milton decided to become a poet cannot with certainty be determined, but there is no reason to doubt that the decision was taken early. He was born into a cultured and accomplished family where the fine arts were given a respected place in domestic life and where, as he tells us in Ad Patrem and elsewhere, his own literary interests and talents were encouraged and applauded. His father, a scrivener by trade, earned an enviable reputation in the world of music,1 and during Milton's formative years the house in Bread Street must often have welcomed such talented visitors as the composer William Byrd; perhaps it was also at this time that the future author of Arcades and Comus was first introduced to another musician, the precocious and affable Henry Lawes. But the younger Milton's genius was to fulfil itself in poetry rather than music. Although he did not lisp in numbers from his mother's knee, his aptitude for poetry nevertheless declared itself very early according to Aubrey: "Anno Domini 1619, he was ten years old, as by his picture: &  was then a Poet."2 None of this early verse, however, has survived. The earliest pieces that have come down to us from his pen--the verse paraphrases of Psalms 114 and 136--date from 1624, his last year at St Paul's School.3 Apart from these two English paraphrases, and four.epigrams (three Latin and one Greek)4 which have tentatively been assigned to 1624, no other samples of his pre-Cambridge verse have survived.
During his four undergraduate years (February 1625-March 1629) Milton wrote a considerable amount of poetry, most of it in Latin and much of it either topical or occasional. Only two English poems (both belonging to 1628) have been preserved from these years: On the Death of a Fair Infant, occasioned by the death of his little niece in January 1628,5 and At a Vacation Exercise, composed in July or August of the same year. From a vocational point of view the Vacation Exercise is by far the most illuminating of all the poems, Latin or English, belonging to his undergraduate days at Cambridge.
Sometime shortly before the conclusion of the summer term in 1628, Milton was unexpectedly called upon to preside as "Dictator" over the festive assembly marking the end of the college year. In the Latin oration (Prolusion 6) which he composed-- not without apology6--for this occasion, he rose valiantly if somewhat awkwardly to the heights of ribaldry and coarse humour expected of him as "Dictator". However, having sustained this foreign mood for some time, he abruptly terminated the prolusio by declaring that he would "overleap the University Statutes as if they were the wall of Romulus and run off from Latin into English" (YP, I, p. 286),7 and the announcement of this innovation was followed by a hundred lines of English decasyllabic couplets--the Vacation Exercise--in which he confided to the assembly his private poetic aspirations. Eschewing "those newfangled toys, and trimming slight/Which takes our late fantastics with delight" (lines 19-20),8 he told his fellow-students how he would prefer to employ the vernacular:
- Yet I had rather, if I were to choose,
- Thy service in some graver subject use,
- Such as may make thee search thy coffers round
- Before thou clothe my fancy in fit sound:
- Such where the deep transported mind may soar
- Above the wheeling poles, and at heaven's door
-  Look in, and see each blissful deity
- How he before the thunderous throne doth lie,
- Listening to what unshorn Apollo sings
- To the touch of golden wires, while Hebe brings
- Immortal nectar to her kingly sire:
- Then passing through the spheres of watchful fire,
- And misty regions of wide air next under,
- And hills of snow and lofts of piled thunder,
- May tell at length how green-eyed Neptune raves,
- In heaven's defiance mustering all his waves;
- Then sing of secret things that came to pass
- When beldame Nature in her cradle was;
- And last of kings and queens and heroes old,
- Such as the wise Demodocus once told
- In solemn songs at king Alcinous' feast,
- While sad Ulysses' soul and all the rest
- Are held with his melodious harmony
- In willing chains and sweet captivity. (29-52)
This is the first but by no means the last time that Milton interrupts a public statement in order "to covnant with any knowing reader" on the topic of his poetic aspirations.
As Hanford has noted, the Vacation Exercise constitutes a "mature and serious meditation on his vocation as a poet".9 And the lines do tell us a good deal, not only about Milton's poetic ambitions in 1628, but also about his understanding of the poet's role. It is clear that he has decided to become a serious poet. The anomalous occasion--a festive college assembly--which he chose to announce his decision argues that he attached great importance to his advertisement of poetic calling, that he thought the decision in some sense momentous and that it was, perhaps, a recent one which he was simply unable to keep to himself. He had, of course, written a considerable amount of verse already, much of it very fine from one so young; but there is nothing in this earlier poetry to indicate a sense of mission and commitment. However, that is precisely the sense imparted by the Vacation Exercise: it is a manifesto, a public declaration of poetic calling. Moreover, the patriotic announcement that he will write in the vernacular is significant. Not only does this declaration oppose the humanist emphasis on composition in Latin or at least in  imitation of Latin models (both of which he rejects), but it also marks an important change in Milton's poetic career, for in 1628 he had written only three English poems (the two Psalm paraphrases and Fair Infant), as compared with well over a dozen in Latin. Nevertheless, the decision was taken in earnest. To the decade following 1628 only three Latin poems (Elegy 5, Elegy 6, Ad Patrem) may be assigned with any certainty; the remainder, apart from the Italian sonnets, are in English. Clearly Milton did have an important announcement to make in the Vacation Exercise: he had determined to become a serious poet and he had elected to follow Spenser and Sidney rather than Virgil and Buchanan.
If it is clear from the Vacation Exercise that Milton is firmly resolved to become an English poet, it is equally clear that he is not certain of how to fulfil that resolve. He will not, he says, write in empty phrases or with conceit-ridden artificiality; rather, he proposes to clothe decorous thoughts in inspired imagery, using his native language to adorn "some graver subject". But the precise nature of the "graver subject" remains as yet unsettled and so too does the poetic form in which to cast it. He does, however, offer some suggestions: perhaps he will compose inspired odes like Pindar; perhaps, like Hesiod or Du Bartas, he will sing the mysteries of the foundation of the universe; or perhaps he will choose, as Homer and Spenser had done, to embroider a heroic theme "of kings and queens and heroes old". These are all possibilities, but it is too soon yet to commit himself.10
There is one further point that needs to be made here about the Vacation Exercise: it shows Milton already moving toward that lofty view of the poetic function set out in the autobiographical sections of the 1641-2 pamphlets and the later poetry. The true poet is an inspired creature; his "deep transported mind" soars aloft beyond the "wheeling poles" of the Ptolemaic universe to the courts of celestial Apollo. As well as penetrating the inmost sanctuaries of deity, he can also disclose the mysteries of the natura naturata, revealing those "secret things that come to pass/ When beldame Nature in her cradle was". But the true poet is more even than this, more than an exalted visionary; he is also a persuasive teacher whose words, like the "melodious harmony" of the Phaeacian bard, hold his auditors rapt in "willing chains and sweet captivity". Here in a rudimentary form, perhaps more implicit than explicit, is the foundation of the elevated Miltonic conception of the poet's role: he is the spokesman of the gods, the  interpreter of divine mysteries and of the secrets of the created universe, whose inspired utterance serves as a mode of continuing revelation. This outline of the poetic function, although sharpened in detail in later statements, remains conceptually unaltered from the Vacation Exercise of 1628 all the way to Paradise Lost where the "celestial patroness" of God's blind poet-priest "deigns Her nightly visitation unimplored" (IX, 21-2) to sing into his slumbering ear the story of heaven and earth and deeds more than heroic.
Nine months after the Vacation Exercise, when he returned momentarily to Latin verse in Elegy 5 (April-May 1629), Milton did not forget the promises made the previous summer. Elegy 5 is a poem about poetry and poetic insight.11 With the return of spring has come also a renewal of inspiration and a restoration of the power of song; and the mysterious impulse of vernal and imaginative rebirth has given the poet a theme to celebrate--namely, Spring herself:
- Concitaque arcano fervent mihi pectora motu,
- Et furor, et sonitus me sacer intus agit.
- Delius ipse venit, video Peneide lauro
- Implicitos crines, Delius ipse venit.
- Iam mihi mens liquidi raptatur in ardua coeli,
- Perque vagas nubes corpore liber eo.
- Perque umbras, perque antra feror penetralia vatum,
- Et mihi fana patent interiora Deum.
- Intuiturque animus toto quid agatur Olympo,
- Nec fugiunt oculos Tartara caeca meos.
- Quid tam grande sonat distento spiritus ore?
- Quid parit haec rabies, quid sacer iste furor?
- Ver mihi, quod dedit ingenium, cantabitur illo;
- Profuerint isto reddita dona modo. (11-24)
My soul is deeply stirred and glows with its mysterious impulse, and I am driven on by poetic frenzy and the sacred sound which fills my brain. Apollo himself is coming--I can see his hair wreathed in Penean laurel--Apollo himself is coming. Now my mind is whirled up to the heights of the bright, clear sky: freed from my body, I move among the wandering clouds. I am carried through shadows and caves, the secret haunts of the  poets, and the innermost sanctuaries of the gods are open to me. I see in my mind's eye what is going on all over Olympus, and the unseen depths of Tartarus do not escape my eyes. What song is my spirit singing so loudly with wide-open mouth? What is being born of this madness, this sacred frenzy? The spring, which gave me inspiration, shall be the theme of the song it inspires: in this way her gifts will be repaid with interest. (PM, p. 86)
This description of poetic afflatus, except that it is presented as actual (a conventional fiction) rather than simply imagined, is not fundamentally different from that in lines 33-44 of the Vacation Exercise. Both are couched in pagan imagery and both imply more a yearning after than an attainment of visionary experience: Quid parit haec rabies, quid sacer iste furor? Taken together, however, these two poems mark the first definite stage in Milton's gradually maturing awareness of poetic destiny and form a prelude to the deepened sense of calling shortly to come.
The composition of the Nativity Ode and Elegy 6 in December 1629 marks the second stage of Milton's sense of poetic vocation, and here for the first time he imposes a firm direction on his literary career. The vague ambitions of the earlier poems become sharply focused and the adumbrations of a poetic destiny are made explicit and precise. Elegy 6, which was apparently composed at the same time as the Nativity Ode,12 is an answer to a letter from Diodati who had sent Milton some verses but apologised for their quality since Christmas festivities had left him little time for poetry. In his reply Milton contrasts his friend's intemperance with his own self-discipline and outlines the types of verse best suited to their separate temperaments and activities. For Diodati, there is "light elegy" (elegia levis) whose patron deities are Bacchus, Erato, Ceres, Venus and Cupid; and it is not surprising with advocates such as these that Diodati should be led to indulge in feasting and immoderate drinking. But for the poet who has dedicated himself to more serious pursuits and who, as Jove's priest, aspires to sing of wars and heroes half-divine, life must be both abstemious and chaste:
- Ille quidem parce Samii pro more magistri
- Vivat, et innocuos praebeat herba cibos;
- Stet prope fagineo pellucida lympha catillo,
-  Sobriaque e puro pocula fonte bibat.
- Additur huic scelerisque vacans, et casta iuventus,
- Et rigidi mores, et sine labe manus.
- Qualis veste nitens sacra, et lustralibus undis
- Surgis ad infensos augur iture deos.
- . . . . . . . .
- Diis etenim sacer est vates, divumque sacerdos,
- Spirat et occultum pectus, et ora Iovem. (59-66, 77-8)
Let this poet live frugally, like the philosopher from Samos, and let herbs provide his harmless diet. Let a bowl of beech-wood, filled with clear water, stand by him, and may he drink soberly from a pure spring. In addition his youth must be chaste and free from crime, his morals strict and his hand unstained. He must be like you, priest, when, bathed in holy water and gleaming in your sacred vestment, you rise to go and face the angry gods . . . . For the poet is sacred to the gods: he is their priest: his innermost heart and his mouth are both full of Jove. (PM, pp. 118-19)
These lines tell us much about Milton's poetic self-dedication of 1629. Here for the first time he articulates his conviction of the necessary correlation between a poet's moral nature and the quality of his poetic achievements. For the religious poet, poetry is a form of priesthood and inner purity is the precondition of divine inspiration.13 The poet whose heart and lips breathe Jove must himself conform inwardly to the purity of the deity whom he invokes to inspire his song. Abstemiousness alone is inadequate: "In addition his youth must be chaste and free from crime, his morals strict and his hand unstained." Henceforward Milton's commitment to the correlatives of personal rectitude and inspired creativity is an unshakeable tenet of his poetic creed: "how he should be truly eloquent who is not withall a good man, I see not." (YP, I, p. 874) It leads to the doctrine of chastity in Comus and also to the famous statement in the Apology for Smectymnuus that "he who would not be frustrate of his hope to write well hereafter in laudable things, ought him selfe to bee a true Poem, that is, a composition, and patterne of the best and honourablest things; not presuming to sing high praises of heroick men, or famous Cities, unlesse he have in himselfe the experience and practice of  all that which is praiseworthy." (YP, I, p. 890) And the conviction that noble poetry springs only from "the upright heart and pure" leads him in Paradise Lost to follow his invocation for inspiration with a prayer for inner purity:
- what in me is dark
- Illumine, what is low raise and support;
- That to the highth of this great argument
- I may assert eternal providence,
- And justify the ways of God to men. (I, 22-6)
There is another aspect of Milton's poetic self-dedication which, although it is not specifically mentioned in Elegy 6, requires brief notice here. Very early in life Milton came not only to the belief that poetic ability was "the inspired guift of God rarely bestow'd" (YP, I, p. 816) but also to the belief that this divine gift had to be developed by human industry, for "God even to a strictnesse requires the improvement of these his entrusted gifts" (YP, I, p. 801). The old adage orator fit, poeta nascitur is only a partial truth. "For who", he asks in Prolusion 7, "can worthily gaze upon and contemplate the Ideas of things human or divine, unless he possesses a mind trained and ennobled by Learning and study, without which he can know practically nothing of them?" (YP, I, p. 291) Indeed, there have been few men who have laboured as earnestly as John Milton to fulfil that command in the twenty-fifth chapter of Matthew's Gospel "set out by the terrible seasing of him that hid the talent" (YP, I, p. 320). When he speaks in The Reason of Church-Government of that "labour and intent study which I take to be my portion in this life" (YP, I, p. 810), he is describing a lifelong habit of disciplined preparation which can be documented from Diodati's early reproof that he did not know "the proper limit of labour" (YP, I, p. 377), to the rigorous programme of study pursued at Hammersmith and Horton, to Aubrey's description of him in old age.14
It is no accident that immediately after the statement of poetic priesthood in Elegy 6 Milton announces that he is writing a poem to celebrate the Nativity; it is (he says) his gift to the Christ-child--a theme inspired by the first rays of the sun on Christmas morning. The sudden transition to the Nativity Ode at the end of Elegy 6 teaches us, as Woodhouse suggests, "to read the contrast  between the elegiac vein and the heroic [in Elegy 6] as a repudiation of the former, [and] to transliterate the description of the heroic poet into Christian terms as the account of a dedicated spirit divinely inspired".15 Thus, the Nativity Ode is Milton's formal dedication of his poetic talent to God's service and the first-fruits of his pledge to become a specifically Christian poet. The newly acquired sense of mission and purpose is clearly stated in the prelude to the ode where, having fixed the season and the occasion, the poet addresses his Muse:
- Say heavenly Muse, shall not thy sacred vein
- Afford a present to the infant God?
- Hast thou no verse, no hymn, or solemn strain,
- To welcome him to this his new abode,
- Now while the heaven by the sun's team untrod,
- Hath took no print of the approaching light,
- And all the spangled host keep watch in squadrons bright?
- See how from far upon the eastern road
- The star-led wizards haste with odours sweet,
- O run, prevent them with thy humble ode,
- And lay it lowly at his blessed feet;
- Have thou the honour first, thy Lord to greet,
- And join thy voice unto the angel quire,
- From out his secret altar touched with hallowed fire. (15-28)
Beneath the fiction of a competition in gift-giving between the Muse with her "humble ode" and the Magi hasting toward Bethlehem with their more sumptuous offerings runs a deeper current of great vocational importance. The prelude describes the hymn which follows it as the work of the "heavenly Muse". The inspiration, that is, is declared to be both actual and productive, rather than fictive and merely conventional as it had been in the Vacation Exercise and Elegy 5. In the Nativity Ode Milton thinks of himself as a stylus Dei, an amanuensis of deity. And while it is true that this stance, like the pagan afflatus of the earlier pieces, is sanctioned by a long tradition, the sincere and confident tone of the Nativity Ode makes it plain that the inspiration to which it lays claim is far from being a conventional literary topos.
The implications of this view of inspiration in terms of Milton's  awareness of poetic calling are revealed in the image which concludes the prelude: "And join thy voice unto the angel quire/ From out his secret altar touched with hallowed fire". The allusion here is to Isaiah 6: 3-8 where the prophet receives his divine commission:
Then said I, Woe is me! for I am undone; because I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips: for mine eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts. Then flew one of the seraphims [sic] unto me, having a live coal in his hand, which he had taken with the tongs from off the altar: And he laid it upon my mouth, and said, Lo, this hath touched thy lips; and thine iniquity is taken away, and thy sin purged. Also I heard the voice of the Lord, saying, Whom shall I send, and who will go for us? Then said I, Here am I; send me. And he said, Go . . . .
In connecting his poetic calling with the election of Isaiah, Milton is declaring that he, too, has been marked out for special service, that he has been summoned to a poetic as well as a literal priesthood. Significantly, the same image recurs over a decade later in The Reason of Church-Government where Milton informs his reader that the great poem he is meditating will be accomplished "by devout prayer to that eternall Spirit who can enrich with all utterance and knowledge, and sends out his Seraphim with the hallow'd fire of his Altar to touch and purify the lips of whom he pleases" (YP, I, pp. 820-1). And when that great poem finally came to be written, the anonymous "heavenly Muse" of the Nativity Ode had been identified as Urania, the blind poet's
- celestial patroness, who deigns
- Her nightly visitation unimplored,
- And dictates to me slumbering, or inspires
- Easy my unpremeditated verse. (IX, 21-4)
For Milton, inspiration is neither the anti-rational afflatus of the Corybantic priests in Plato's Ion 534a nor (at the other extreme) is it merely an empty rhetorical trope; it is rather, as it was for Isaiah, the operation of a sanctifying grace that continuously nourishes and sustains those whom God has marked as His  special servants. And, while Milton's sense of poetic calling deepens and sharpens considerably in the years separating the Nativity Ode from Paradise Lost, the image of the live coal laid by the seraph on Isaiah's lips remains the constant symbol (in a Coleridgean sense),16 of his poetic vocation.
For his poetic as for his ministerial calling Milton envisaged a long period of training. No doubt he had himself in mind when in 1630 he distinguished between "slow-endeavouring art" on the one hand and Shakespeare's "easy numbers" and animated "Delphic lines" on the other hand (On Shakespeare, lines 9-12). And given Milton's belief in the necessity of intellectual and spiritual preparation, it is significant that the Nativity Ode, which opens with a declaration of divine inspiration and then ranges through all time and space from the Creation to the Last Judgment in inspired vision, should close with the hushed, motionless image of a traditional Nativity scene:
- But see the virgin blest,
- Hath laid her babe to rest.
- Time is our tedious song should here have ending:
- Heaven's youngest teemed star,
- Hath fixed her polished car,
- Her sleeping Lord with handmaid lamp attending:
- And all about the courtly stable,
- Bright-harnessed angels sit in order serviceable. (237-44)
The mission described in the prelude, that of presenting his "humble ode" to the new-bom Christ, is here completed; and the poet ends his song and withdraws to join the angelic host sitting "in.order serviceable" about the stable. Like the angels, he is a dedicated spirit; like them, he is framed for active service. But the time for active service has not yet come, either for Milton in an actual sense or for the Christ child in a retrospective sense:
- But wisest fate says no,
- This must not yet be so,
- The babe lies yet in smiling infancy,
- That on the bitter cross
- Must redeem our loss . . . . (149-53)
 As a poet Milton must first prepare and render himself more fit to serve, for only then can his "tedious song" be fully and finally transformed into the earthly counterpart of that harmony of spheres and the angelic diapason described in lines 93-140. The Nativity Ode, then, is both his announcement of election as a religious poet and, at the same time, his admission that much preparation and growth are necessary before that calling can be fully achieved. His first-fruits are "humble" and "tedious", but the Nativity Ode is merely a beginning. The emblematic stasis of the final stanza implies an active purpose and contains the promise of future achievement. As B. Rajan succinctly expresses it: "the bright-hamessed angels are the energy of light, mobilized and held ready for a creative purpose . . . . For Milton, too, a serviceable order has been created and the instruments are at hand for the greater work ahead."17
From a vocational standpoint, the most striking feature of Milton's early poetry is its reiterated protestation of unpreparedness, coupled with its firm belief in a future of promise and achievement. In a very real sense the vocational emphasis of every serious poem Milton wrote from 1629 to 1637 may be said to have been summed up in the relaxed and picturesque conclusion of Il Penseroso:
- But let my due feet never fail,
- To walk the studious cloister's pale,
- And love the high embowed roof,
- With antique pillars' massy proof,
- And storied windows richly dight,
- Casting a dim religious light.
- There let the pealing organ blow,
- To the full-voiced choir below,
- In service high, and anthems clear,
- As may with sweetness, through mine ear,
- Dissolve me into ecstasies,
- And bring all heaven before mine eyes.
- And may at last my weary age
- Find out the peaceful hermitage,
- The hairy gown and mossy cell,
- Where I may sit and rightly spell
- Of every star that heaven doth shew,
-  And every herb that sips the dew;
- Till old experience do attain
- To something like prophetic strain. (155-74)
As a poet, Milton has a very clear idea of where he is going; but he knows also that he has a long way to go before he arrives. Like Bunyan's pilgrim, he sees his goal in the distance but is aware that the road leading to it is winding and arduous. The passage is composed of three sentences, each beginning with a verb in the subjunctive mood; and these verbs control the tone of the lines. The search for the "prophetic strain" (the poet's goal) is conditioned by "old experience" which is the end result of an educative process where common, intellectual, and poetic experience are met and re-experienced over and over again.18 In other words, it is vision felt as process or as evolving insight. And for this reason the poetic aspirations in Il Penseroso are tempered by the recognition that experience, of which Milton has little, is the precondition of achievement.
The vocational antithesis of a sense of present unreadiness set against an assurance of future accomplishment is reasserted at the end of 1632 in the quest for "inward ripenes" in Sonnet 7 (Chap. 1, above, pp. 34-6), and the same antithesis is carried into At a Solemn Music which was probably written in January or February 1633. Developing the musical analogies so prominent in the early poetry, At a Solemn Music enlarges on the prophetic and visionary nature of the poetry that Milton aspires to write:
- Blest pair of sirens, pledges of heaven's joy,
- Sphere-born harmonious sisters, Voice, and Verse,
- Wed your divine sounds,
- . . . . . . . .
- And to our high-raised phantasy present,
- That undisturbed song of pure concent,
- Ay sung before the sapphire-coloured throne
- To him that sits thereon
- . . . . . . . .
- That we on earth with undiscording voice
- May rightly answer that melodious noise;
- As once we did, till disproportioned sin
-  Jarred against nature's chime, and with harsh din
- Broke the fair music that all creatures made
- To their great Lord . . . . (1-3,5-8,17-22)
These lines contain the clearest early statement of Milton's elevated conception of the nature and role of the religious poet. Like the musician, he imitates and interprets for fallen man the celestial harmony that sin has rendered inaudible; he is a priestly intermediary between God and men, whose function and aim is the spiritual re-education of postlapsarian mankind. But the poet who aspires to become such an inspired teacher must be fitted to his task; he requires both visionary experience (grace) and, as well, all the experience with which life and learning (nature) can provide him. It is therefore significant that the statement of poetic function in At a Solemn Music is followed by a prayer for enlightenment:
- O may we soon again renew that song,
- And keep in tune with heaven, till God ere long
- To his celestial consort us unite,
- To live with him, and sing in endless morn of light. (25-8)
But this all lies in the future. And, while there is little doubt that Milton imagines himself the prospective scribe of that renewed "song of pure concent", it is equally clear that he recognises himself to be still unfit to serve as the sacred instrument through whom these prophetic strains can find utterance.
In the years 1634-8 Milton wrote little poetry. Indeed, only three poems may be assigned with confidence to this period: Comus, Lycidas, and a Greek translation of Psalm 114. To this list I would add Ad Patrem, dating it late 1637 or early 1638. In none of these poems is there any indication that Milton has come to think of himself as a mature poet. On the contrary, the same combination of unreadiness and expectation characteristic of the pre-1634 verse reappears in these later poems. It is explicit in Lycidas and implied in the bibliographical history of Comus.
Comus, composed and performed in 1634, was not finally published until 1637. Even then it was Henry Lawes, not Milton, who arranged for the printing: "Although not openly  acknowledg'd by the Author, yet it is a legitimate off-spring, so lovely, and so much desired, that the often Copying of it hath tir'd my Pen to give my severall friends satisfaction, and brought me to a necessity of producing it to the publike view." (SM, p. 44)19 Moreover, it appeared to the public view without Milton's name; and the title-page bears, as a motto, lines 58-9 of Virgil's second eclogue: Eheu quid volui misero mihi! floribus austrum Perditus ("Alas! what harm did I wish upon my wretched self by allowing the south wind to blow upon my flowers?"). There is no reason to think that Milton did not supply this motto and, while its significance has been variously interpreted, one aspect of its meaning is beyond doubt: even after submitting the masque to extensive revision, Milton was still reluctant to see it published.
It is not known why, despite his hesitation and doubts, Milton allowed Lawes to publish Comus. I suspect, however, that his reasons were similar to those of Keats, who in sending his Endymion to press asked his reader to judge more the attempt than the result and to expect more in the future than the present had succeeded in producing: "It is just that this youngster should die away: a sad thought for me, if I had not some hope that while it is dwindling I may be plotting and fitting myself for verses fit to live."20 As Keats in 1818 was fitting himself for "verses fit to live", so Milton in 1637 was contemplating "an immortality of fame" and preparing himself for works that later generations would not willingly let die: "You ask", he wrote to Diodati in November 1637, "what I am thinking of? So help me God, an immortality of fame. What am I doing? Growing my wings and practising flight. But my Pegasus still raises himself on very tender wings." (YP, I, p. 327)21 Despite the bantering good-humour of this letter Milton undoubtedly meant what he said. Practising flight is the dominant vocational note of the early poetry--poetry which reveals a young man learning his craft, experimenting with various subjects, poetic forms and metres, and growing more self-assured with every effort. Since the Vacation Exercise he has known himself to have a poetic calling, and in the Nativity Ode he announced his election as a Christian poet; moreover, in both the Nativity Ode and At a Solemn Music he set out his lofty conception of the religious poet he was destined to become: not only a divinely-inspired teacher, but also an instrument of regeneration whose mimetic recreations of celestial harmony constitute a mode of continuing revelation, a means by which God continues to speak and to manifest His will  to men in this world. Paraphrasing Plato's Republic x 616-17, he had delineated his role as interpreter and mediator between God and man in lines 62-73 of Arcades (1633?):
- then listen I
- To the celestial sirens' harmony,
- That sit upon the nine enfolded spheres,
- And sing to those that hold the vital shears,
- And turn the adamantine spindle round,
- On which the fate of gods and men is wound.
- Such sweet compulsion doth in music lie,
- To lull the daughters of Necessity,
- And keep unsteady Nature to her law,
- And the low world in measured motion draw
- After the heavenly tune, which none can hear
- Of human mould with gross unpurged ear.
Nevertheless, while his poetic achievements and his conviction of calling give him every reason to believe that "an immortality of fame" will indeed be his in the course of time, it is equally clear from Il Penseroso, Sonnet 7 and Comus that there is still much to learn both about himself and about poetry. But his assurance is well-founded; he has been called to serve as God's poet-priest and, with personal application and the aid of grace, all is as ever in his great Taskmaster's eye.
The protestation of unreadiness and the reluctance to commit himself to print before due season implied in the publishing history of Comus is made explicit in the opening lines of Lycidas (where the first words, "Yet once more", perhaps refer to the recently published masque):
- Yet once more, O ye laurels, and once more
- Ye myrtles brown, with ivy never sere,
- I come to pluck your berries harsh and crude,
- And with forced fingers rude,
- Shatter your leaves before the mellowing year.
- Bitter constraint, and sad occasion dear,
- Compels me to disturb your season due:
- For Lycidas is dead, dead ere his prime,
- Young Lycidas, and hath not left his peer:
- Who would not sing for Lycidas? he knew
-  Himself to sing, and build the lofty rhyme.
- He must not float upon his watery bier
- Unwept, and welter to the parching wind,
- Without the meed of some melodious tear. (1-14)
These lines are a forceful assertion of artistic unripeness. The "sad occasion" of Edward King's death has constrained him to gather prematurely the plants symbolic of the poet's garland. His reluctance is not mere posturing. It is perfectly consonant with all that we know of his early literary activity: before Lycidas he published only two poems--On Shakespeare (1632) and Comus (1637)--and both appeared anonymously; Lycidas itself in the Justa Eduardo King naufrago (1638) is signed simply "J.M.", although many of the other contributors to the volume signed their names in full. Moreover, Lycidas is an occasional poem which Milton was invited to compose; there is no reason to assume that it would have been written or that Milton would have sought to publish it had there not been an invitation to contribute to the Cambridge volume in memory of Edward King.22 Indeed, given his reluctance to hurry into print, it may well be (as Rinehart suggests)23 that the fourteen-line prelude in Lycidas is a "broken sonnet" designed as a technical illustration of the fact that premature song has caused Milton to force his Muse.
At the end of Lycidas the note of artistic unreadiness is sounded again; but it is here coupled, in a union familiar from the poetry of 1629-33, with the promise of future achievement. In line 185 the poet re-enters his poem as an "uncouth swain", rude but full of promise, who
- touched the tender stops of various quills,
- With eager thought warbling his Doric lay:
- And now the sun had stretched out all the hills,
- And now was dropped into the western bay;
- At last he rose, and twitched his mantle blue:
- Tomorrow to fresh woods and pastures new. (188-93)
In striking contrast to the hesitancy and reluctance of the fourteen-line prelude, it is now with "eager thought" that he fingers the responsive, yet still frail, stops of his pastoral pipe. The composition  of the monody has given him additional confidence and experience. Like the day dying in the western bay, the long period of experimentation and preparation is drawing also to a close. Pulling around his shoulders the bardic mantle of blue--the colour symbolic of his hope and his election24--he rises confidently to greet the new dawn of poetic promise. But the "fresh woods, and pastures new" of poetic achievement lie still in the future, albeit the proximate future. Rather than the first product of the long-anticipated new day, Lycidas is but its harbinger.
The rousing motions of Lycidas, however, the premonition of a new and exciting period in his poetic development gave rise, not to an immediate increase in poetic activity, but to a voyage--in a sense a literary pilgrimage--to Italy, with the further intention of visiting Sicily and Greece, the homelands of Theocritus and of Homer, Euripides and Plato. In terms of Milton's poetic vocation the importance of this journey abroad can scarcely be overstressed, for it strongly confirmed his belief in his abilities and calling and, as well, it opened new dimensions and imposed new directions on his aspirations. His own account in The Reason of Church-Government is central to an understanding of the vocational significance of his Italian experience:
I must say therefore that after I had from my first yeeres by the ceaselesse diligence and care of my father, whom God recompence, bin exercis'd to the tongues, and some sciences, as my age would suffer, by sundry masters and teachers both at home and at the schools, it was found that whether ought was impos'd me by them that had the overlooking, or betak'n to of mine own choise in English, or other tongue, prosing or versing, but chiefly this latter, the stile by certain vital signes it had, was likely to live. But much latelier in the privat Academies of Italy whither I was favor'd to resort, perceiving that some trifles which I had in memory, compos'd at under twenty or thereabout (for the manner is that every one must give some proof of his wit and reading there) met with acceptance above what was lookt for, and other things which I had shifted in scarsity of books and conveniences to patch up amongst them, were receiv'd with written Encomiums, which the Italian is not forward to bestow on men of this side the Alps, I began thus farre to assent both to them and divers of my friends here at home, and not lesse to an inward prompting which now grew daily upon  me, that by labour and intent study (which I take to be my portion in this life) joyn'd with the strong propensity of nature, I might perhaps leave something so written to aftertimes, as they should not willingly let it die. These thoughts at once possest me, and these other. That if I were certain to write as men buy Leases, for three lives and downward, there ought no regard be sooner had, then to Gods glory by the honour and instruction of my country. For which cause, and not only for that I knew it would be hard to arrive at the second rank among the Latines, I apply'd my selfe to that resolution which Ariosto follow'd against the perswasions of Bembo, to fix all the industry and art I could unite to the adorning of my native tongue; not to make verbal curiosities the end, that were a toylsom vanity, but to be an interpreter & relater of the best and sagest things among mine own Citizens throughout this Iland in the mother dialect. That what the greatest and choycest wits of Athens, Rome, or modern Italy, and those Hebrews of old did for their country, I in my proportion with this over and above of being a Christian, might doe for mine: not caring to be once nam'd abroad, though perhaps I could attaine to that, but content with these British Ilands as my world, whose fortune hath hitherto bin [to have had] . . . her noble atchievments made small by the unskilful handling of monks and mechanicks. (YP, I, pp. 808-12)
Much that Milton says here about his poetic calling is already familiar from earlier statements; but there is in this passage a greater sense of control and a more precise sense of direction. Although he has by no means forgotten his long apprenticeship or the poetic aspirations he has harboured since the Vacation Exercise of 1628, he makes it very clear that he believes his Italian experience to have been the catalyst which confirmed him in the knowledge of his aptitude and ability, and which gave him as well at least a possible subject for the great poem for which he had been preparing himself. He remembers with gratitude, of course, his debt to his father, and he remembers his early training at the hands of tutors like Thomas Young and also at St Paul's School and Christ's College. But it was pre-eminently, he says, the warm reception of his poetic gifts by the intellectual and artistic elite of Italy--corroborated by the "inward prompting" of God which increased almost daily after his return to England--that led him  to acknowledge and act upon the praise of friends at home and upon his own natural inclination for poetry. It was Italy that finally convinced him that he "might perhaps leave something so written to aftertimes, as they should not willingly let it die".
As his Italian visit confirmed him in the belief that he was "certain to write" and that his poetry would survive him and live in future ages ("as men buy Leases, for three lives and downward"), it also ratified his early determination to employ his native language in the adornment and elaboration of "some graver subject". England might be honoured in Latin, but she could be instructed only in English; and for this reason he resolved to be "an interpreter & relater of the best and sagest things among mine own Citizens throughout this Iland in the mother dialect". The importance which Milton placed on the decision to be "content with these British Ilands as my world" is indicated again by his declaration in lines 171-8 of Epitaphium Damonis (a poem composed within a few months of his return from Italy) that he was resolved to abandon international in favour of domestic fame:
- omnia non licet uni
- Non sperasse uni licet omnia, mi satis ampla
- Merces, et mihi grande decus (sim ignotus in aevum
- Tum licet, externo penitusque inglorius orbi)
- Si me flava comas legat Usa, et potor Alauni,
- Vorticibusque frequens Abra, et nemus omne Treantae,
- Et Thamesis meus ante omnes, et fusca metallis
- Tamara, et extremis me discant Orcades undis.
But after all, one man cannot do everything, or even hope to do everything. I shall have ample reward, and shall think it great glory, although I be forever unknown and utterly without fame in the world outside, if only yellow-haired Usa reads my poems, and he who drinks from the Alan, and Humber, full of whirling eddies, and every grove of Trent, and above all my native Thames and the Tamar, stained with metals, and if the Orkneys among their distant waves will learn my song. (PM, p. 282)
From the determination taken here to write only in English he did not waver or retreat until over a decade later Salmasius forced him to defend his nation, in Latin, in the international forum.
In order to achieve the end of instructing his countrymen in  virtue and righteousness in the vernacular, Milton again renewed his "interrupted studies" shortly after returning from Italy in August or September 1639. The programme of private reading, as demanding as that of the Hammersmith and Horton years, was now centred, however, not on ecclesiastical history or the Church Fathers, but on English history. As we know from the Commonplace Book, he spent 1639-41 studiously immersed in the works of such writers as Bede, Malmesbury, Gildas, Stow, and Holinshed. The primary aim of this reading was to gather materials for his magnum opus. At first, he planned that this work should be an "Arthuriad", a subject perhaps suggested by his Italian friends, for he mentions it in the two Latin poems which express his gratitude for their kindness and hospitality to him. In Mansus, he writes:
- O mihi si mea sors talem concedat amicum
- Phoebaeos decorasse viros qui tam bene norit,
- Si quando indigenas revocabo in carmina reges,
- Arturumque etiam sub terris bella moventem;
- Aut dicam invictae sociali foedere mensae,
- Magnanimos heroas, et (O modo spiritus ad sit)
- Frangam Saxonicas Britonum sub Marte phalanges. (78-84)
O may it be my good luck to find such a friend [as you, Manso], who knows so well how to honour Phoebus' followers, if ever I bring back to life in my songs the kings of my native land and Arthur, who set wars raging even under the earth, or tell of the great-hearted heroes of the round table, which their fellowship made invincible, and--if only the inspiration would come--smash the Saxon phalanxes beneath the impact of the British charge. (PM, p. 266)
And the same heroic subject recurs in the Epitaphium Damonis:
- Tum gravidam Arturo fatali fraude Iogernen
- Mendaces vultus, assumptaque Gorlois arma,
- Merlini dolus. (166-8)
Then I shall tell of Igraine, pregnant with Arthur as a result of fatal deception: I shall tell of the lying features which misled  her, and of the borrowing of Gorlois's armour, Merlin's trick. (PM, p.282)
After the Epitaphium Damonis nothing more is heard of an Arthuriad, and Milton seems to have turned his attention from mythic to historical figures, combing the chronicles for "what K[ing] or Knight before the conquest might be chosen in whom to lay the pattern of a Christian Heroe" (YP, I, pp. 813-4). Between 1640 and 1642 he recorded in the Trinity Manuscript about a hundred possible dramatic subjects from British history and the Bible. Of particular interest among these subjects, in view of what he was later to do, are the four drafts or outlines for a play on the Fall, and the brief suggestion for a drama on "Samson marriing or in Ramath Lechi", along with another simply called "Dagonalia". The length and detail of many of the biblical outlines makes it highly probable that in 1640-2 he had virtually settled on a scriptural theme, although he continued to canvass historical subjects as well. The quite fully developed outlines entitled "Paradise Lost" and "Adam unparadiz'd" suggest the further possibility that his interest was even then centring on the story of the Fall; and this possibility is supported by Edward Phillips' claim that about this time he was shown ten lines which were later incorporated into Satan's address to the sun in Book IV of Paradise Lost.25
In terms of Milton's poetic vocation, the significant point is that it was only after the Italian experience that his expectation of a poetic destiny in the form of a great work issued in concrete planning in the subjects for plays recorded in the Trinity Manuscript. Moreover, in pointed contrast to his reluctance in Comus and Lycidas to appear in print, he arranged after he returned from Italy for a private printing of the Epitaphium Damonis (probably in 1640),26 copies of which were sent to friends at home and in Italy; and in this same year his tribute On Shakespeare was reprinted, this time with his initials. Milton, then, returned from the Continent in late 1639 assured of his poetic ability and imbued with a firm sense of artistic direction. Much study was still necessary, of course, but with promulgation of the Laudian Canons in June 1640 and the consequent determination to abandon a career in the church, he was left free to devote all of his energies to a continued poetic preparation. And while he prepared his Pegasus for flight he solved the immediate economic problem, that of earning a living, by opening a private  school and taking in pupils, beginning with his two young nephews, John and Edward Phillips.
The plans for a prolonged period of artistic preparation were interrupted by Milton's entry into the controversy then raging over episcopacy. The pamphlets of 1641-2, however, far from constituting an unfortunate setback for the poetic plans, are in actuality the fulfilment, in prose rather than in poetry, of his decision to serve God and work for His glory "by the honour and instruction of my country". Important as Italy and all that preceded it were to his artistic development, it was only the experience of ecclesiastical controversy that finally formed Milton into the religious poet whom we know in the later poems. In the six antiprelatical pamphlets (including A Postscript), he learned what it meant to be God's spokesman, the prophet of the divine will; and these pamphlets are, in fact, the school in which he first was taught to justify God's ways to men. Political events aside, Paradise Lost and the last poems of 1671 might have been composed anytime after 1642; before that date, no such poetry would have been possible.
The decision to fight for the establishment of the English New Jerusalem and the experience of active service in God's cause are the final stages in Milton's maturing awareness of a poetic vocation. Although for many years he was to serve as a prophet in prose of national liberty and reformation, it is clear from the first of the antiprelatical pamphlets that once God's Presbyterian will for England has been fully achieved in the destruction of the bishops, Milton aspires to be the poet of that new and pacific age:
Then amidst the Hymns, and Halleluiahs of Saints some one may perhaps bee heard offering at high strains in new and lofty Measures to sing and celebrate thy divine Mercies, and marvelous Judgements in this Land throughout all Ages; whereby this great and Warlike Nation instructed and inur'd to the fervent and continuall practice of Truth and Righteousnesse, and casting farre from her the rags of her old vices may presse on hard to that high and happy emulation to be found the soberest, wisest, and most Christian People at that day when thou the Eternall and shortly-expected King shalt open the Clouds to judge the severall Kingdomes of the World . . . . (YP, I, p. 616)
The "prophetic strain" for which he had longed ten years before in Il Penseroso is here, in contrast to the unspecified and vague hopes  of the early poem, centred on a definite theme: the praise of divine mercy for the special favour bestowed on the English nation and the exhortation to his countrymen to live in virtue and righteousness in preparation for the imminent Parousia. What is most interesting about this passage from Of Refomation, however, is that Milton treats his private poetic vocation as but an extension of his public role as the prose prophet of reformation; his poetic calling is both defined by and subsumed into the national mission of self-regeneration and carrying reformation to the world.
Two months later in Animadversions upon the Remonstrant's Defence (July 1641) he reasserts his function and calling as God's English poet in almost identical terms:
When thou hast settl'd peace in the Church, and righteous judgement in the Kingdome, then shall all thy Saints addresse their voyces of joy, and triumph to thee, standing on the shoare of that Red Sea into which our enemies had almost driven us. And he that now for haste snatches up a plain ungarnish't present as a thanke-offering to thee, which could not bee deferr'd in regard of thy so many late deliverances wrought for us one upon another, may then perhaps take up a Harp, and sing thee an elaborate Song to Generations. (YP, I, p. 706)
Here again Milton's poetic aspirations are tied to the rebirth of his country. Nevertheless, he has every expectation that in the near future the tarnished offering of his left hand will be fulfilled more perfectly in the "elaborate Song to Generations" that will mark him as the bard of the coming reign of God's victorious English saints.
Some seven months after the Animadversions, he returned once more to the subject of his poetic calling in The Reason of Church-Government. In the famous preface to the second section of this pamphlet he publicly declares himself to be a serious national poet and he sets down in considerable detail both his poetic creed and the types and nature of the poetry he is planning to write. As in Elegy 6 and At a Solemn Music, he stresses the didactic function of all high poetry and emphasises the sacerdotal role of the religious poet. The ability to compose the epic, tragedy and lyric, he asserts (YP, I, pp. 816-18), is
the inspired guift of God rarely bestow'd but yet to some  (though most abuse) in every Nation: and [is] of power beside the office of a pulpit, to imbreed and cherish in a great people the seeds of vertu, and publick civility, to allay the perturbations of the mind, and set the affections in right tune, to celebrate in glorious and lofty Hymns the throne and equipage of Gods Almightinesse, and what he works, and what he suffers to be wrought with high providence in his Church, . . . teaching over the whole book of sanctity and vertu through all the instances of example with such delight to those especially of soft and delicious temper who will not so much as look upon Truth herselfe, unlesse they see her elegantly drest.
Almost immediately after this general assessment of the poetic function Milton covenants with his "knowing reader" about the nature of the great poem which he is meditating, which indeed he has already begun, as being "a work not to be rays'd from the heat of youth, or the vapours of wine, like that which flows at wast from the pen of some vulgar Amorist, or the trencher fury of a riming parasite, nor to be obtain'd by the invocation of Dame Memory and her Siren daughters, but by devout prayer to that eternall Spirit who can enrich with all utterance and knowledge, and sends out his Seraphim with the hallow'd fire of his Altar to touch and purify the lips of whom he pleases" (YP, I, pp. 820-1). Here, again drawing on the image of purification and dedication from Isaiah 6 that he had used twelve years earlier in the Nativity Ode to announce his calling as a religious poet, Milton proclaims that the divinely-inspired hymn of personal and public thanksgiving is but "some few yeers" from completion. And although those few years were to be protracted by political events far beyond anything he anticipated in 1642, the great poem was destined nevertheless to procure for him that "immortality of fame" which he had confided to Diodati was his ultimate goal.
It is no accident that, having defined at length the sacredness of the poetic office and set before the reader his own literary plans, Milton concludes the preface in The Reason of Church-Government by declaring that he has been "Church-outed by the Prelats". The man who now aspires to be the poet-priest of his nation has not so much rejected a calling into the church--except as the bishops would define such a calling--as he has extended the notion of ministerial vocation to embrace a call to serve as God's spokesman and interpreter through poetry. As early as Prolusion 7 and  Elegy 6 Milton had articulated his belief that the functions and aims of the two offices--poetry and the ministry--overlap; but this conviction was not actively confirmed until participation in ecclesiastical dispute led him to embrace a literary vocation, at first in prose, but always looking forward to that time when he would write a great poem that would be "doctrinal and exemplary" to his nation.
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