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Argument and form in Milton's First Prolusion.

Well before he entered on his wide-ranging publicist career in 1641, Milton had already demonstrated his impressive rhetorical talents in the group of seven academic exercises, or Prolusions, which he wrote in Latin for public declamation at Cambridge between 1625 and 1632, although they only emerged in print for the first time in 1674. (1) The importance of this first group of Milton's prose compositions has usually been conceded, at least at the level of biographical and intellectual content. As formal and rhetorical performances, however, the Prolusions have rarely been discussed. Yet they have much to tell us about the techniques and strategies of Milton's early prose oratory, a subject of importance not only in relation to the subsequent pamphlets, but also in connection with the poetry, especially the longer poems, which, as narratives and debates, share with the prose tracts common aspects of structure.

The Prolusions treat a variety of mythological, metaphysical and humanist topics, generally defending the broad Renaissance concept of learning while opposing the narrower scholastic syllabus still partly followed at Cambridge when Milton was a student. In presenting his arguments, Milton displays eloquence in advocacy, but also irony, wit and a certain irreverence at times towards sections of his audience or the university syllabus. The scorn which he employs when criticizing the medieval traditions of learning anticipates the sarcastic tone he later uses in his pamphlets when attacking allegedly narrow-minded and censorious opponents, be they prelatical or Presbyterian.

In these exercises, one senses that language, order and structure are sometimes used to evoke, express and represent, as well as to speak about, the content. The organization and expression at times suggest harmonies of form and content that go beyond not only the needs of the literal and discursive but of rhetorical embellishment, as usually understood. Sometimes we are aware of more implicit, symbolic and mimetic modes and structures besides the usual methods of argument and debate.

That Milton's pamphlets often employ expressive and poetic techniques has been documented, since the 1950s by a number of critics notably Kester Svendsen, Thomas Kranidas, Keith Stavely and Stanley Fish. (2) A concern with the poetics of Milton's prose, especially of his pamphlets, has recently been expressed again in the volume of essays assembled or contributed by David Loewenstein and James Grantham Taylor. (3) Several essays argue that it is mistaken to compartmentalize Milton's works into the poetic and the polemical, the creative-poetic right hand versus the merely literal, functionalist left, thus drawing "a firm line between what we traditionally call Milton's literary writings and his 'non-literary' discourses," mistakenly suggesting "that the prose works lack the imaginative dimensions of his poems." (4) Svendsen had earlier pointed out the inner structure of imagery and symbol in The Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce and Milton's use of mock-heroic narrative in the Pro Se Defensio. Kranidas showed that, in the antiprelatical pamphlets, Milton's vehement style invokes a prophetic, scriptural and Puritan sanction: style is precisely alligned with argument. Stavely found that Milton's prose style in the tracts generally harnesses the expressive effects of syntax, rhythm, diction, imagery, tone and register to dramatize the specific subject and to define an appropriate polemical voice, whether it be an apocalyptic, urgent, or more urbanely rational spokesman of the particular cause.

In this context, however, the place of the Prolusions has not been defined. Yet they precede the pamphlets, anticipate some of their organizational patterns and, as I shall argue, their extra-discursive, poetic techniques. Prolusion One, the immediate focus of this essay, actually declares that its subject-matter has a poetic character, thus providing an important clue to its structure, which is at once rhetorical and poetic.

Before coming to the prolusion directly, it is worth widening the literary context a little by saying something further about the formal organization of the tracts. The literary structure of a Miltonic pamphlet is determined in the first place by the arrangement of the arguments (dispositio). Having said this, one should also note that in many cases the wider form must often be seen to depend just as much upon style, metaphor and various local or larger-scale mimetic strategies which link structure to theme--techniques more to be expected in poetry and fiction. One can often detect metaphoric, poetic, narrative or mimetic elements over and above the logical proofs and (narrowly conceived) rhetorical methods, reinforcing and extending the discursive arguments. The tracts, moreover, do not conform to any single, stable and definite genre. On the contrary, many of them, especially the earlier pamphlets, are hybrid, and extremely diverse in form, as Lieb observes. (5) They incorporate different, often contrasting, modes of discourse and combine both symbolic and discursive patterns. The problem is one of genre and mode, of how to determine the balance, or relationship, between the functional rhetoric and the mimetic or symbolic extensions. A Miltonic comment on his own method may be helpful here, namely the description of his divorce pamphlet Tetrachordon (in Sonnet 11) as "wov'n close, both matter, form and style." The summary names the first three divisions of Aristotelian-Ciceronean rhetoric (invention, disposition, elocution) in their traditional order. Through the use of the metaphor "wov'n," Milton seems to imply, in addition, that though the work gives due attention to expository argument, it also intends some kind of unifying, poetic integration of an expressive style and form with literal, argumentative content. Understood in this way, the statement could be applied more generally to the method of the tracts.

A frequent element in the structure of the pamphlets is the Ciceronean oratorical paradigm or some derivative arrangement such as the epistolary form of the Tractate on Education. Yet a tract cast wholly in the shape of an oration, such as Areopagitica (and perhaps The Readie and Easie Way), is uncommon. For Milton regularly uncouples the serial parts of a classical speech (exordium, narration, etc.) from the traditional, proportional structure which Greco-Roman examples and the rhetorical textbooks supplied as models. Milton can generate new patterns from the individual parts, sometimes wrenching them into new combinations. From the purely dispositional standpoint, Of Reformation, a pamphlet divided into two "books," contains not one but two orations: a forensic argument dealing with the past and a deliberative argument dealing with the future. But both "orations" are subsumed within an epic-prophetic structure whose apocalyptic premises often subvert the ordinary temporal concepts on which humanist or classical oratory usually relies. The tract's texture violates the rationalistic norms of oratorical style. Rather than exhibiting the persuasive urbanity, irony and dignified passion of a work such as Areopagitica, it sharply polarizes its two characteristic emotions: a rapturous, triumphant welcoming of the revived Reformation in England and the fiercely condemnatory, at times excoriating, language against the bishops. A series of prophetic metaphors (e.g the light of scripture versus prelatical blindness) helps to generate a poetic structure, which is also rhetorical but goes beyond the limited rhetorical organization of the argument into divisions and sub-divisions, or arguments for and against. In Milton's second pamphlet, Of Prelatical Episcopacy, the much briefer polemic explicitly dispenses with "Methode" (YP 1:627) (i.e. formal partitions, divisions and transitions). Instead, it organizes its points more loosely as a series of brusque and sarcastic rebuttals of the opponents' Patristic authorities. However, this loose, serial arrangement, which ironically implies that the opponents hardly deserve a more systematic treatment, is framed within a rhythmically emphatic, upbeat and metaphorically enriched exordium and conclusion, with scriptural echoes and an ondriving rhythm having prophetic implications. The minutiae of the argument are thus set within a providential context, again implying the ultimate triumph of the renewed Reformation as a stage on the road to the ultimate salvation of true Christians. The fifth antiprelatical tract, An Apology Against a Pamphlet, does not employ an oratorical pattern either, but it does incorporate both a personal digression and a brief epideictic speech (the encomium of Parliament) within a diverse literary structure anchored to a point-by-point system of arrangement. And so on. Thus although we find a number of orations among the tracts, the assumption sometimes made, that the oratorical pattern is usually the fundamental or determining structure, is one that requires careful qualification and attention to the differences between the individual pamphlets.

In the following discussion, I shall describe how Milton handles his theme in Prolusion One, a speech in which he achieves a witty correspondence of form and content. Since this early example is not an isolated one among the Prolusions and since similar strategies are later encountered in the pamphlets, one may reasonably infer that Milton's use of a kind of symbolic patterning in his prose discourses was from the first a technique available to him. The polemical prose becomes more interesting and its methods seem more coherent when seen as exploiting the resources of genre, mode, style and structure to push the discursive argument toward expressive and mimetic form. By uncovering the symbolic, expressive and non-literal aspects of Milton's prose, we can also relate the poetics of the prose and verse, sharpening our perception of the similarities, amid the differences, of the two kinds of discourse. Prolusion One investigates the question "Whether Day is more excellent than Night." The topic has all the appearance of artificiality, if not triviality. Nevertheless, it is significant that such an early prose composition should explore, no matter how lightheartedly, oppositions between darkness and light that are later to be so pivotal in the meaning and organisation of several major poems, especially Paradise Lost. Such hindsight should ensure that the very subject of the assignment invites our attention to the work's argument and structure. And indeed, we soon discover that Milton turns his material into an entertainment and a kind of poem, a view encouraged by the speaker's observation near the end of the exordium that the material is "more suitable for a poetical exercise than for an oratorical contest" ("quamvis & haec Prolusioni Poeticae, quam Decertatione Oratoriae, magis videatur idonea" [CE 12:122-23; YP 1:219-20]). In fact, both through its particular organization and its explicit or semi-explicit comments, the exordium supplies some essential clues to the work's method and structure. These are are not only discursive, logical and persuasive, but also partly mimetic and symbolic.

The prolusion begins with an elaborate, mockingly self-referential discussion of the conventions governing oratorical openings. It is confirmed, says the speaker, by all the major teachers of rhetoric ("Nobilissimi quique Rhetoricae Magistri"), that in all the three oratorical genres ("sive demonstrativo, sive deliberativo, sive judiciali") the exordium aims to obtain the hearers' goodwill ("ab aucupanda Auditorum gratia exordium duci oportere"). Unlike Prolusion Three, where the exordium sets explicit objectives which are then fulfilled, or Prolusions Two or Seven, which swiftly resolve their pseudo-dilemmas over how to succeed, here the speaker comically depicts himself as defaulting. The speaker in this instance cannot obtain goodwill, cannot oblige, is, in extremis, forced to violate the conventions themselves and therefore doomed to fail in his effort to persuade. A mock-pathetic note is sounded in which the absurdity and alleged stressfulness of his predicament are emphasized. Already, moreover, he is violating the convention that an exordium should be modest, unassuming and respectful towards the hearers, that it should avoid startling language or excessive emotion (more proper to a peroration). For he at once begins breast-beating about his plight. O dear! O my! What am I to do? What way out is there? he asks:

Quod sires ira est, quam sane, ne vera dissimulem, Eruditorum omnium consensu fixum ratumque novi, miserum me! ad quantas ego hodie redactus sum Angustias! qui in ipso Orationis Limine vereor ne aliquid prolaturus sim minime Oratorium, & ab officio Oratoris primo & praecipuo necesse haheam abscedere. Etenim qui possim ego vestram sperare benevolentiam, cum in hoc tanto concursu, quot oculis intueor tot ferme aspiciam infesta in me capita; adeo ut Orator venisse videar ad non exorabiles.

But if such is the fact, which--may I not depart from the truth--I know is surely fixed and established by the agreement of all scholars, have mercy on me! To what desperate straits am I reduced this day! I, who at the very beginning of my speech fear lest I may advance something not at all worthy of orators and lest I should have deviated unavoidably from the primary and principal duty of a speaker; indeed, how can I expect your goodwill, when, in this great assembly, I perceive almost as many persons hostile to me as I behold with my eyes? Hence it is that I seem to come as an orator to those who are inexorable. (CE 12:118-21; YP 1:218-19)

The speaker, then, has launched into an ironic and comically exaggerated lament. He thrashes about with seeming irrelevance to the actual question, while committing a series of rhetorical indiscretions. We may sense the comic spirit at once, but the full irony is only later disclosed when the speaker attacks his "hostile" audience for what he goes on to call their frothing verbiage and their ridiculous and over-dramatic renderings in the tragic manner (see the passage cited below). All the while this speaker is anticipating in his melodramatic self-presentation sins not so very different from those for which he next berates his hearers. (6)

After this dramatic parade of comic distress, the speaker, still apparently evading the question proper, now proceeds to depict a Cambridge divided by heated but sterile controversy over the proper methods and contents of the syllabus, with squabbles "among those pursuing different subjects, or among those following different methods in the same studies" ("vel diversa Studia, vel in eisdem studiis diversa judicia sequentium" [CE 12:120-21; YP 1:219]). (7) Covert threads of association are suggested here between Night, dissension and obscurantism, in contrast to the positive effects of Day subsequently unfolded, especially her contribution to harmony in nature. That there is some connection between hostility, quarrelsomemess and Night is certainly implied in what follows.

The unexpected aggressiveness which the speaker initially adopts towards his allegedly hostile audience is now intensified. For despite conceding that he does spy one or two persons of friendly disposition among the audience, this is but a drop of goodwill amid a sea of opposition. No matter. It is better by far to be approved by a few discerning friends, he now taunts in a delightful satiric passage merging criticism with insult, than praised by masses of ignoramuses,

a quibus etiam quantumvis paucis, equidem probari malo quam ab innumeris imperitorum Centuriis, in quibus nihil mentis, nihil rectae rationis, nihil sani judicii inest, ebullienti quadam & plane ridenda verborum spuma sese venditantibus; a quibus si emendicatos ab novitiis Authoribus centones dempseris, Deum Immortalem! quanto nudiores Leberide conspexeris, & exhausta inani vocabulorum & sententiuncularum supellectile, [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.], perinde mutos ac ranuncula Seriphia. At o quam aegre temperaret a risu vel ipse, si in vivis esset, Heraclitus, si forte hosce cerneret, si Diis placet, Oratorculos, quos paulo ante audiverit cothurnato EuriDidis Oreste, aut furibundo sub mortem Hercule grandiora eructantes, exhausto tandem vocularum quarendam tenuissimo penu, posito incedere supercilio, aut retractis introrsum Cornibus, velut animalcula quaedam abrepere. Sed recipio me paululum digressus.

by innumerable companies of the ignorant, who have no brains, no power to reason correctly, no sound judgment, men who betray themselves by a certain boasting and quite laughable froth of words, from whom if you take away the medley begged from modern authors, immortal God! you will find them even more empty than a bean pod, and when they have exhausted their meagre supply of words and little maxims, they utter not even a grunt, being just as speechless as the little Seriphian frogs. But O with what difficulty would even Heraclitus himself, if only he were alive, restrain his laughter, if by chance the gods being willing, he could perceive these little speakers here, whom a short time ago he might have heard spouting in the buskined Orestes of Euripedes, or more bombastically in the Hercules ragtag towards his death; at length their very slender supply of some little words being exhausted, parade in measured step with hautiness laid aside, or crawl slowly off like certain little animals with their horns drawn in. But I recover myself, having digressed a little. (CE 12:120-24; YP 1:220)

This extravagant assault fulfils the speaker's earlier warning that the conventional capitatio benevolentiae had to be foregone. For instead of wooing his auditors, he baits them. The effect is doubly comic. First he flouts the rule about modest and appealing openings, though he soon stages a diplomatic withdrawal of his elaborate insult, beginning in the closing sentence of the passage. But, on another level, the overall effect of the exordium and this passage within it invites consent and approval through laughter. The audience is ridiculed rather than flattered; the speaker, instead of showing courtesy as in Prolusions Two and Seven, vaunts his superiority and elaborates his contempt for the hearers. Confronted by what he terms their dull-brained inferiority and mob-hostility towards him, the speaker represents himself here in epic terms as an heroic challenger confronted by "the numberless regiments of the ignorant" ("ab innumeris imperitorum Centuriis"). These unworthy hearers are described as envious and contemptible, mere petty orators and actors, rival speakers or declaimers, who, in their own dramatic recitations of passages from Euripides' texts, offer grotesque impersonations of the mad figures of Orestes and Hercules. The Latin terms reinforce this comic spectacle even more than the translation suggests. Thus the series of diminutives with their lengthy suffixes seem ideally tailored to produce a mock-heroic satire of bombastic speeches: "vocabulorum & sententiuncularum" (platitudlets--here the similar genitive plural endings add rhyme to ridicule), "Oratorculos" (oratastors), "ranuncula Seriphia" (Seriphian froglets), "animalcula" (little creatures). (8) The reference to Heraclitus recalls the latter's axiomatic intolerance of fools, while the final description depicts a bathetic progress from Herculean magniloquence to exhausted emptiness made the more demeaning by the image of snails--petty, undignified creatures that, when confronted, crawl away timorously hiding their horns in shame. Individual insults apart, this comic diatribe is entertaining precisely because it appears to violate on such a grand scale the anticipated decorum governing speaker-audience relations. But the use of a mock-heroic style, and the sharpening of opposition between speaker and hearers are in several ways germane to Milton's official subject, as he is about to tell us.

A retraction follows. The foregoing section is now redefined as the speaker makes the ironically understated admission that he has "digressed a little." After the hostilities have been fully indulged with such devil-may-care frankness and gusto, this anticlimactic about turn is as unexpected and comic as the original offence. Now, he continues, he would like to beg his audience's forbearance, even that of his most obdurate opponents. If he has perchance spoken too sharply, there is a sufficient reason. Here he makes a strategic and rhetorical revelation, a defence of consistency and higher artistic intentions sanctioning the discourtesy and break of decorum. These rhetorical sins have been committed quite intentionally ("de industria"). And the reason? "Volo enim ut initium Orationis meae primulum imitetur diluculum; ex quo subnubilo serenissima fete nascitur dies" (for I wish that the beginning of my oration should resemble the very early dawn from whose gloomy clouds the clearest day is usually born ICE 12:122-23; YP 1:221]). This brief, easily overlooked remark, represents, I suggest, a decisive statement of intent, especially when taken in conjunction with Milton's subsequent claim (cited above) that the subject is suited to a poetic treatment. The discourse, he asserts here, will accomodate a poetic structure as well. The argument will be rendered partly as a symbolic action or mimesis. By stating that the organization of his speech, as a whole, is to resemble or imitate ("imetetur") the emergence of dawn from the gloomy clouds, Milton evokes, in that brief description itself, the very process of which speaks. It is a response to the imaginative as much as to the literal and discursive potential of his material. In its comic-heroic pattern of dilemma, turbulence and mutual human aggression, abruptly followed by polite retraction, mollification and calm, the exordium anticipates in small the larger structure of the speech that follows. Thus a section illustrating contention, obscurity and trouble--typical aspects of Night--is followed by a section lauding the benefits of light, nature, friendliness and harmony associated with the Day, followed again by a section enumerating the evils and lawlessness of the night hours. These turns follow the logical divisions of the argument; they also mimic the cyclic pattern within the frame of the speech. This imitated cyclic movement is not necessary to the argument, but essential to the poem, much as in L'Allegro-Il Penseroso.

After this gracious transition and clarification, the speaker conducts us from his mockery of the petty and bombastic student speeches, the mere travesties of heroic and tragic classical literature, to his own, extremely accomplished reprise of ancient mythological conquests. Mock animosity, satire and parody give way to argument by narrative and the sheer scope and power of the speaker's imaginative evocations. This pattern of critique and counter-demonstration is typical of Milton's polemical approach. Style and the speaker's eloquence are presented, and not for the last time, competitively. More than just an accessory to the argument, style (in the widest sense of exemplary discourse) is itself often the argument. (9)

In a bold, imaginative surge, akin to the sudden turn in the verses of At a Vacation Exercise in the College (11. 33ff), the orator-poet transports us wholesale to the cosmic, heroic world of pagan mythology. The issue is pondered first as a challenge to Day by her rival, Night, as though the latter is erupting once again to renew ancient warfare. Is this, the speaker asks dramatically, the meaning of Night's outrageous, envious and futile challenge for supremacy of the heavens, despite her earlier humiliations? Is the war of the Titans to be renewed, unleashing volcanic eruptions as Typhoeus escapes from beneath the crushing weight of Mount Aetna, as Briareus applies his enormous strength to break loose from the adamantine chains? After so long a calm, what can have thus aroused the gods of the infernal regions, including Night, to aspire to dominion of the heavens for yet a third time ("quod Deos manes ad Coelestis imperii spem jam tertio erexerit?" [CE 12: 124-25; YP 1:222]). In this showy, declamatory prologue to the debate proper by way of cosmic flashbacks to the worlds of Hesiod and Pindar, Milton first characterizes Night as a perenially violent, quarrelsome and rebellious god, now the instigator of a more local conflict--namely, the present disputation over supremacy seeking to upset the balance of the universe, improve her fortunes and attain predominance despite previously catastrophic defeats. But no, she has learnt something. She will try instead the weapons of wrangling and nagging complaint (suitable female tactics--"pro more Mulierum" [ibid.]) which may bring her more success than outright battle. In this reformulation, action and character are deftly modulated to adapt the remoter cosmic hostilities to the present rhetorical context. War gives way to litigation, a somewhat bathetic progression, which however affords the speaker the chance to make the condescending, remark on the character of Night, portrayed here in a more comic-domestic character. Her cause, however, is hopeless, we are assured in advance. For now Day (also feminine here, though masculine in the genealogical association with Phanes [CE 12:130-31; YP 1:225]), is blithely confident and rouses to the first cock-crow of dawn to hear her praises recited (as they are in a later section).

In this initial grand display of mythological lore, ironically slanted against the figure of Night, the sudden shift of perspective translates the speaker's arena from the intimate, but provincial, pettyfogging colloquies and frictions of the college hall to the vast, cosmic stretches of a universe peopled by wilful, pagan giants who act out their violent destinies in an amoral playground. It is an imaginative equation fundamental to Milton's art: the reflection of the cosmos in the microcosm of language, the history and battles of the universe within the dramas of the individual psyche.

To be sure, Milton does not take these myths very seriously. In fact, he is at pains to point out that such cosmological legends are often contradictory, and are so specifically concerning the parentage of Night. Thus the stories of her origin should not be taken literally but rather as entertaining fictions which may provide in allegoric form some explanation or description of observable natural or astronomic phenomena. But this very uncertainty produced by rival mythological accounts permits Milton to select and redeploy the versions useful to his case. As in his poems, the classical myths may be used as vehicles of moral truths. Here, a tacit connection is made between the "unfriendly" portion of his audience and the vindictive, envious and restive Night. The speaker disarms opposition by rendering it inconvenient for members of the audience to be linked with Night's dark and futile enterprise. For her association with darkness, besides other attributes, gives her a somewhat dubious and threatening quality. Later, in Areopagitica, Milton uses much the same strategy to embarrass the Presbyterian faction by linking the Licensing Order to the practices of the inquisition.

Masson has supplied a perceptive account of the prolusion's subsequent rhetorical organisation as well as its poetic and mythological character. "After the exordium," he notes,

the orator proceeds to the question. He undertakes to show the superiority of Day over Night on three grounds--first, the ground of more honourable parentage; secondly, that of the greater respect of antiquity; and, thirdly, that of higher utility for all human uses. Under the first two heads there is an examination of the pedigrees of Day and Night respectively, according to the ancient Greek mythology, with quotations from Hesiod, &c. On the whole, from this logomachy, Dav dances out beautifully as the nobler-born and the more classically-applauded; and the remainder of the oration is taken up chiefly with a contrast, by the speaker himself, between the phenomena of Night and those of Day. Here through the mock-heroic argumentation and the heaviness of the Latin, there breaks the genius of the poet. (10)

Masson's response is authoritative, recognizing the playful mood and spirit of the prolusion, and sensitive to changes of tone, notably in the movement from a mock-heroic "heaviness" to a lighter, more poetic surface. The shift in mode has a structural dimension. First comes the extended section of querulous, if ironic, wrangling over rank, with its laborious citation of alternative genealogies and sources and the use of sophistical exegesis (CE 12:126-37; YP 1:222-27). Once this is concluded, we pass to a concentrated burst of affirmation in the emotive, descriptive and poetic encomium of Day (CE 12:137-41; YP 1:227-30). Milton's inclusion here of a substantial quotation from the Orphic Hymn to Aurora is no doubt intended to confirm that his own celebration of the goddess of day is cast in the form of a "hymn in prose," to borrow Milton's own term, used in another work. (11) The hymn in turn gives way to a more forensic style of defence, followed by a comic catalogue of the ills of the night hours. But the major structural movement is from the involved argument over status to the simpler, celebratory passage on Day. For since the whole litigation section is dominated by the figure of Night--it is her envious fury which engenders the argument--and since the claims of Day can be put in more directly poetic terms, Milton is able to make the contrast in treatment appear to emerge from the characters themselves, while providing an emotional shift from the troublesome Night to the joyous Day. The central rhetorical point is made, not only by argument, but also by poetic means.

The speaker also punctuates the argument by asides to the audience, breaking the frame of his inner argument by references to "real" time: it is urgent that he complete his task before the onset of night, with all its dangers. (The relevant passages are cited below.) The speaker's time is itself a comic fiction, however, since the speech is initially defined as a "morning exercise" ("matutini" [CE 12:122-23; YP 1:221]). But this outer, temporal frame, though a stretching of the truth, does remind us of actual time elapsing as we read, or hear, the speech and once again, though at a different representational level, of the relentless cyclic motion of night and day. As in the case of the symbolic journey through the woods in Comus, towards the actual Bridgewater residence and the real social celebration of which the masque is a part, Milton includes within the overall structure of his speech (a version of) the actual occasion in the college.

Night's ancestry, as Milton presents it, seems initially the more ancient and in this sense more favorable, though this genealogy is tainted by obscurity and by negative associations. Either she is daughter of Earth by an unknown father, or, from Hesiod, like her brother Erebus, the offspring of chaos (CE 12:126-27; YP 1:233). Hesiod's version, gives Night precedence over Day, but the downside of this tradition is that it makes Night the mother of Day by her incestuous union with Erebus, her similarly dark brother, who too kindly shields her in his warm embraces after she has fled in terror of the shepherd Phanes, an ardent, but rejected and now vengeful suitor. Milton's swift but masterly account of this beautiful story, though basically ironic, relinquishes nothing of its potency as a history of erotic attraction and incest. One has the sense that, after he has so tellingly conveyed the sense of the mighty physical forces unleashed on the cosmos in Night's desperate bids to break out from below and wreak havoc, the goddess is now seen as the cause of other kinds of chaos in the universe. For Night unleashes erotic energies in herself and others, engendering, resisting and experiencing disruptive primal instincts. Beyond the mocking tone, there is a real frisson of danger here, more than a hint of the demonic and lustful, perhaps slightly daring in an academic exercise, though all done by suggestion within the narrative.

The problem, though, is that this pedigree does in the end give precedence to Night. Though Milton has no difficulty in elegantly evading the outcome by discrediting the Greek myths that he finds inconvenient, one wonders why, besides sheer comic perversity, he is initially so faithful to this Hesiodic version of Night's more ancient parentage and her begetting of Day, given that these details work against his conclusion. Perhaps it is in part because the effect is to indulge the very attraction of this rebellious, sin-polluted lady. For her sexual charisma, and thus her reality as an ever-present threat of chaos, is not wholly cancelled by the arbitrary, casuistic twist of the speaker's pleading, which purports to negate this version of her history. Nor is her impact erased by the, now beautifully affirmed, mythological claims of Day, or by the glimpes offered of that deity's benign effect upon all nature described in the next section. The potent attractions of Night, in short, are permitted to register, made psychologically real, like the later presences of Comus, Satan and Dalila, figures of similar magnetism, though more overt menace. This expansion of the dark personality is important too in another, related way. For its residual force enables the argument to maintain its, thematically essential, cyclic rhythm of turn and return, attraction and rejection, which outright conquest (i.e. of Night's claims to significance) would not have permitted.

Be that as it may, Milton now proceeds to quash Night's formal claims to precedence and greater nobility merely by means of an adroit intellectual ploy as dubious as it is witty. The Greek poets after all, it is now condescendingly urged, can be forgiven for occasional errors of detail. Enough that we grant them their teacherly triumph in recalling men from the condition of beasts in the wild to the better fruits of civilisation. Nonetheless, the pervasive ignorance of their age must have given rise to this wholly improbable story that the dark and incestuous Night and Erebus could have given birth to Day. But, he continues, in cases where the tales are so obviously far-fetched, the rational tests of the ancient philosophers should be preferred to a slavish dependence on their often suspect myths and fictions. For is it likely that the radiant Phanes would have sought marriage to the black figure of Night? No one in their right mind could warrant such an interpretation. But, the speaker insists, let no one accuse me of altering the poets' words, perish the thought! I merely seek "somehow or other to reduce these things to the norm of reason" ("ad normam rationis revocare conor" ICE 12:129-30; YP 1:224]). A preferable and (for this casuistic speaker determined to win at any logical price) more advantageous reading of the allegory, is that Phanes' pursuit of Night symbolized the succession of opposites fueled by eternal animosity, this being the ancients' way of expressing the alternation of night and day. Granted that there is a firm tradition that Night bore Aether and Day, yet such a story is too fantastic to contemplate. For how could the cloudy, murky Night ever have conceived an offspring so pleasing and agreeable? Milton's case, presented in this charming, witty and blatantly opportunistic form, is as irresistible as the more official version it is designed to supplant. We willingly submit to his arm-twisting tactics, sensing that they are deployed in the service of a higher, strategic, exegesis.

As an application of "the norm of reason," this is no doubt as casuistic an interpretation as one may find from the great opponent of sophistry and creator of Comus, Satan and Belial. Yet Milton underlines the playful arbitrariness of his own procedure by first expounding a strong argument and then merely sweeping it aside without a serious rebuttal, in a parody of logic. It renders the speaker himself a figure of mocking inconsistency as he presented himself already in the exordium. The strategies and inversions of a work like Erasmus's In Praise of Folly (a work mentioned in another prolusion) are operative here. (12) Nonsequiturs may thus be deliberately introduced for comic effect.

The speaker now turns to the argument from utility. The wrangling, litigious spirit of the section on rank and lineage (CE 12:125-37; YP 1:222-27) was, as we saw, carefully attributed to the opposing figure of Night herself (a discrediting strategy Milton uses elsewhere, e.g in An Apology). And, as already remarked, the details of her origins and troublesome nature, whether violent, litigious or erotic, have almost totally dominated the entire disputation hitherto. Even the most skillful of advocates, the Miltonic speaker, has had to pull out all his sophistical stops to refute the rival claimant and extricate his own client from a difficult challenge. Of course, the "difficulties" of this contest are largely of the speaker's own invention and elaboration, for Milton is as generous here in giving scope to the adversary's position as he is in his longer poems. For comic and other structural reasons already noted, Milton makes the adversary seem substantial, with the result that her defeat by her counter-figure will be the more meaningful, precisely as in Comus and elsewhere. Now, though, as Masson suggests, Day's moment breaks forth triumphantly, almost as an epiphany, and the mode of persuasion shifts decisively from an excessively complex mythological exegesis to a simpler, more overtly poetic evocation. Here we encounter a passage which unites rhetoric with joyous description in just the beneficently seductive, Orphean manner (linking the ends of rhetoric and poetry) which Milton defends, and illustrates, in Prolusion Three.

The passage concerned is one that Tillyard and others have rightly associated with L'Allegro (CE 12:136-43; YP 1:227-30). (13) All living creatures, we are told at the onset of a traditional catalogue of Day's benefits to nature, respond to the approach of the benign deity, who is both Day and the sun. The birds sing out joyfully or fly upwards to greet the sun in a gesture of thanksgiving for the blessing of light; at day-break the cock heralds the morning and rouses mankind to the awaiting delights; goats and all four-footed creatures gambol about to express their pleasure. The flowers respond too. Description edges into narrative as the anthropomorphism underlying the whole dispute is extended, now with only the occasional explicit mythology, inanimating the attributes of all nature. The heliotrope turns always towards her lover, the sun-god Phoebus; marigolds and roses open their bosoms to release their perfumes to the sun alone, but retreat into their leaves at the first approach of evening. The other flowers, first bowed somewhat by the weight of the dew, "almost surrender themselves to the sun and ask secretly that he wipe away with his kisses their tears, which his absences had produced" ("& tacite rogant ut suis osculis abstergat Lachrymulas, quas ejus absentiae dederant"). Love pathos yields to joyous celebration. Earth herself dresses in her finery to mark the day; the clouds in varying tints form a procession like "maids in attendance on the rising god" ("videntur ancillari surgenti Deo"). Overall, the largely feminized landscape with its fauna and flora constitutes a masque-like, Pousinesque pastoral hymn. Cumulative physical movements--the skipping creatures, bowing flowers, circling clouds--are gathered into procession and ceremony. Greeting, embraces and adoration are linked as the sun's universal exaltation is noted. Many nations, like the Persians, the Lybians and the Rhodians, have worshipped the sun or honoured it with monuments; or, like the Indians of the Americas, made it sacrifices.

This seductive poetic excursion lifts the disputation beyond contentiousness to obtain the audience's goodwill by spellbinding effects. But, using another strategy, the speaker turns from tender solemnity to ironic compliment of his hearers, now mockingly invoked as witnesses in his cause. For do not they themselves, in accord with all nature, awake to meet the morning with joyous expectation, "seeing that it summons you again to the more gentle Muses, from whom the disagreeable Night has separated you, insatiable and thirsty" Cutpote quod vos ad mansuetiores Musas revocet, a quibus insaturabiles & sitibundos dimiserat ingrata nox")? This gentler address to fellow academics is a far cry from the exordium's earlier hostile remarks towards the audience, which castigated its meagre intelligence and literary capacities. The courtious irony here reiterates once more the large structural movement from the contentious sphere of night to the calmer, all-friendly and peaceful realm of day. Actually, the speaker is making almost the same point, only on this occasion inviting his colleagues to laugh, with him, at themselves rather than be shocked or startled at his audacious and apparently indecorous scorn. Discord and dissension are replaced here by harmony and consent between speaker, audience and cause. For, as we are told in a clinching argument, even Saturn and Pluto themselves would gladly have escaped from the nether regions of darkness to the heavenly realms of light.

Though Day permits men to pursue their ordinary activities, discouraging Night, which to mankind is neither attractive nor useful (terms used in the partition [CE 12:124-25; YP 1:222]), would confine all honest men within doors. No one would venture across the seas if the world was covered by an enveloping darkness. The result can be clearly forseen: business would cease, men would stay indoors, all human society would come to an untimely end (CE 12:140-41 ; YP 1:229). Furthermore, the indispensable blessing of visual beauty, epitomized by the legendary Venus and Helen, would never have been recreated in the paintings by Appeles. Without day, the gift of sight itself, the most precious of the senses ("nobilissimus ille videndi sensus"), would be of no use at all, all natural things would perish. Man would die through lack of subsistence, while ancient chaos returned (CE 12:140-43; YP 1:230).

Here the speaker makes another cyclic turn to the opponent figure as he enumerates, in a final, comic anticlimax, the disreputable associates of Night. For who are these but the robbers and villains who lie in wait to fall upon good citizens and shun the daylight by which they may be detected? Ghosts and goblins, owls, witches and other hateful demons noted by the ancients stalk the night. The blessing of repose, a possible counter-point, is neatly dismissed: rest is not supplied by Night, but by God--another casuistic argument perhaps, but one also providing a more direct Christian emphasis. Death, however, is, as Homer states, the twin of Sleep (CE 12:142-47; YP 1:231). In short, Night has nothing to recommend her, and anyone who advocates her cause is merely a night-time gambler, who snores all day, and frequents brothels after dark.

The sub-divisions of the speech (nobility, lineage, usefulness) provide the argumentative structure. But, as we have seen, Milton exploits these turning points poetically as well to suggest the perpetual alternation of night and day. More than this, though, the whole argument, in its context of a contest of speakers, is provided with the fictive structure of a twenty-four hour cycle. For, interspersed with these mocking diatribes or delightful paeans, come the asides to the audience referring to the passage of time within the scope of the speech. Hence, as we proceed towards the end of the prolusion, Day, after hearing so many praises of her virtues and too modest to hear more, proceeds towards the sunset, as Milton describes in an elegiac evocation: "Jam igitur declinat in vesperam dies, & nocti statim cedet...." (Now, therefore, the day declines into eventide and quickly yields to night ... [CE 12:142-43; YP 1:230]). Near the close of the whole piece the (spurious) imminence of Night is again insisted upon, now with mock-trepidation and a slightly grotesque image which Masson thinks may refer to the physical appearance of the next speaker, who will shortly reply to Milton's speech: "Sed nigra video Noctis supercilia, & sentio atras insurgere tenebras; recedendum est, ne me nox improvisam opprimat" [But I see the black eyebrows of Night and I feel the dark shadows arising; I must retire lest Night overwhelm me unawares (CE 12:146-47; YP 1:232)]. (14) With this last playful, yet persuasive, allusion to the temporal structure within a composition whose structure enacts, as well as argues, the theme, and with this final crack at his opponent--mythical, human, or both--Milton lowers the curtain and turns to his hearers to beg their votes in his cause.

In its complex, ironic and gracious way, the prolusion explores the apparently artificial question and delivers a victory for day over night whilst entertaining the audience with a vigorous display of oratory, sophistry, mythology, poetic evocation and wit. Part of that wittiness comes from producing a mimesis of the argument. Yet beyond such virtuosity, the playful banter, mocking genealogies and the charming encomium of Day, there are hints of larger Miltonic themes. It is notable too that the thematic-structural movement--from a section ruled by contentiousness, murky ancestries and obscure questions to a passage infused with associations of daylight, pleasantness, beneficent nature, and concord--is an expressive pattern with numerous parallels not only in Milton's poetry, but in the companion prose exercises as well.

Prolusion Two "examines" the concept of the harmony of the spheres. The gracious exordium exploiting the modesty topos while complimenting the fellow speakers, swiftly establishes a harmonious note. That this is deliberately related to the argument is made explicit later, at the end of the speech, where the speaker regrets that his rude, unmelodic style may have violated the very harmony which he has defended. (15) The argument proper begins by exacerbating an ancient philosophical wrangle (over whether the notion of the celestial music was intended by Pythagoras literally or only metaphorically). The contentious opening dispute (the opposite of harmony) presently gives way to a more serious discussion about the hidden truths contained in myths. The prolusion gradually rises to an exalted, idealistic note as the speaker calls for the spiritual purification of this world to enable all mankind to hear the heavenly music. The overall progression, then, is from lesser wisdom (i.e. dimmer light) to higher insight. One commentator, M. N. K. Mander, in her careful analysis of the prolusion's intellectual context, has suggested that Pythagoras here is probably intended to represent the messianic figure of Christ. (16) For, as the speaker urges in his climactic burst of eloquence, the philosopher's conception, if only understood in a deeper, spiritual sense, can help to restore the golden age of peace, concord, love and joy (CE 12:156-57; YP 1:238-39). In spirit at least, the passage is kindred to, say, the apotheosis section of Lycidas. In Prolusion One, the praise of Day over Night may well have similar implications.

The spirited Third Prolusion once again traces a movement from darkness to light, here from the darkness of medieval philosophy to the light and truth of humanist learning. The schoolmen's intellectual toil is characterized as a ferocious obfuscation and contentiousness which emanates, metaphorically speaking, from the darkness and the gloom of obscure caves, more literally from monastic cells, far from the upland peaks of the Muses. Milton advocates instead the Orphic powers of expression found in poetry, rhetoric and historiography to inspire men's hearts to noble conceptions and deeds. The study of nature (the gift of God), through sciences such as geography and astronomy, leads men towards ever higher knowledge and wisdom: to the discovery of the secrets of the universe, on the one hand, to self-knowledge and wisdom on the other. The pattern of the argument leads us from a satire of metaphysical confusion and hair-splitting abstraction to the realm of humanist knowledge, from the aggressive, baser human instincts (scholastic contentiousness) to the higher, more idealistic, and, indeed, ultimately more Christian, impulses of the intellect and spirit.

In Prolusion One, the similar movement from darkness/ contention towards enlightenment/peace implies a cosmic opposition between malevolent and benevolent forces. The proper place of Night, we learn, is in Hades and she is the mother of a terrifying progeny that includes misery, envy, fear, fraud, discord, darkness and death (CE 12:132-33; YP 1:225). Moreover, according to a piece of free Miltonic interpretation, her true reason for avoiding Phanes, the sun, is surely that the very force of his radiance would have annihilated her totally, a strong hint that the sun and the day are associated, as they traditionally are, with the power of the Christian God. The emphasis on the dazzling power of Phanes anticipates the contest between the Lady and Comus, a tussle in which the Lady relies on her "hidden strength"--"the sun-clad power of chastity."

A Christian emphasis is also felt in the structure itself. The genealogical section of Prolusion One is conducted in terms of pagan mythology whose status and validity is questioned. In the subsequent hymn to day, however, the complicated exegesis of the myths gives way to a simpler, more natural and descriptive, if still highly literary, mode. This transition serves to distance the dubious, multiple and conflicting pagan cosmologies previously evoked. These are replaced by a catalogue which lists a profusion of observable earthly and natural phenomena implicitly attributable to a single, benign providence. In this way, the prolusion conveys an ameliorative Christian dynamic, a potent structure in Milton's verse and in his pamphlets. Comparable shifts, from the complex inadequacies of pagan myths to the higher, and usually simpler, terms and truths of Christian reality, appear in some of Milton's early poems, for example in the consolatory elegies On the Death of a Fair Infant and the Epitaph on the Marchioness of Winchester, though with a more explicitly doctrinal emphasis as the genre requires.

Some recent criticism has noted that Milton's works employ shifts of genre, mode and style rhetorically, utilising a wide range of literary forms, with their shared cultural conventions and associations, to reinforce the implications of his arguments and themes. (17) To speak of Milton's argumentative prose as making its points by mimesis, as well as by statement, of the theme, through thematic-structural (or poetic) movements, or by means of a dialectic of styles and modes, is to see his prose in a fuller, richer perspective in common with his poems. In his pamphlets, besides using metaphoric patterns to help shape the arguments, Milton often associates his polemic with non-discursive modes such as narrative and drama (both serious and comic). In doing so, he effaces the (supposed) boundaries between discursive and poetic modes of discourse. A work such as Of Reformation can be seen as apocalyptic epic; Animadversions as a striking proto-dramatic debate akin (on one level) to Paradise Regained; An Apology as, inter alia, a contest and a Bildungsroman. However, as early as his First Prolusion, Milton had already demonstrated to a sophisticated academic audience that the ends of poetry and rhetoric could be harmonized within an oration.

Tel-Aviv University


(1) Quotations from the Latin text of Prolusion One with an English translation are taken from the Columbia Edition of The Works of John Milton, 22 vols., ed. Frank Allen Patterson et al. (Columbia U. Press, 1931-38), cited as CE. A reference is given to the corresponding version in the Complete Prose Works of John Milton, 8 vols., ed., Don M. Wolfe et al. (Yale U. Press, 1953-82), cited as YP. References to Milton's pamphlets are to YP.

(2) For emergent discussion of thematically linked, formal and stylistic aspects of Milton's prose, see Kester Svendsen, "Science and Structure in Milton's Doctrine of Divorce," PMLA 67 (1952): 423-45 and "Milton's Pro Se Defensio and Alexander More," TSLL 1 (1959): 11-29; Thomas Kranidas, "Milton and the Rhetoric of Zeal," TSLL 6 (1965): 423-32, "'Decorum' and the Style of Milton's Antiprelatical Tracts," SP 62 (1965): 475-78 and in several subsequent articles on the antiprelatical prose; Keith Stavely, The Politics of Milton's Prose Style (Yale U. Press, 1975); Stanley E. Fish, "Reason in The Reason of Church Government," Self-Consuming Artefacts." The Experience of Seventeenth Century Literature (U. of California Press, 1972), 265-302. See also articles by MiChael Lieb and John F. Huntley in Michael Lieb and John T. Shawcross, eds., Achievements of the Left Hand. Essays on the Prose of John Milton (U. of Massachussetts Press, 1974).

(3) David Loewenstein and James Grantham Taylor, eds., Politics, Poetics and Hermeneutics in Milton's Prose (Cambridge U. Press, 1990). See especially essays by Stanley Fish, Laura Knoppers, David Loewenstein, James Grantham Taylor and Suzanne Woods. The continued interest in formal and generic aspects of Milton's pamphlets is indicated in recent articles by Maureen Thum, Reuben Sanchez and James Egan in Milton Studies 30 (1993).

(4) Loewenstein, 171.

(5) Achievements of the Left Hand, 55-82.

(6) Kate McEwan, the Yale editor of the Prolusions, comments in a disapproving biographical vein on Milton's "arrogance or ... sheer braggadocio" (YP 1:220, n.3) and is as oblivious to the irony as she is to the poetic structure of the speech. Several other editors exhibit what is surely a too solemn, and too literal, response to Milton's brilliantly outrageous treatment of opponents, recreated as comic butts in the antiprelatical tracts (see, e.g., YP 1:654-55, 866) and later pamphlets.

(7) Milton was no doubt serious in criticizing the syllabus. But this neither proves his unpopularity nor diminishes the comic element of the speech.

(8) Dr. R. A. Buttimore, Head of Classics at Wellington College, kindly pointed out to me the humorous Latin diminutives and suggested these English equivalents.

(9) The tracts are peppered with frequent passages of brilliant stylistic criticism, often defining an opponent's mannerisms--and hence his character and ideology--through satire and parody. Examples can be found in Of Reformation, YP 1:568; An Apology, YP 1:872-74; and in the critique of the king's "Arcadian prayer" in Eikonoklastes, YP 3:362-67. Such moral, religious and aesthetic criticism commits Milton himself to an exemplary style at all times, to a broad notion of "decorum." But particular passages are sometimes explicitly intended as counterstatement, as with the attack on the self-styled "modest" Confuter's manner of praising Parliament in An Apology, YP 1:920, immediately followed by Milton's own panegyric "because it shall not be said I am apter to blame others than to make triall my self" (922). Chapter twenty eight of Eikonoklastes responds to a chapter in the Eikon Basilike "Intitl'd Meditations upon Death" (YP 3:352). It opens in homiletic manner using solemn, Senecan sentences that clearly reflect the kind of pious resignation and unworldiness which the king's meditations before death have allegedly lacked. Here and generally the use of decorous, exemplary styles, which can include parody, satire and vituperation, is part and parcel of the persuasive method.

(10) David Masson, The Life of John Milton: Narrated in Connexion with the Political, Ecclesiastical, and Literary History of His Time (London: Macmillan, 1871), 1:243-44.

(11) An Apology, YP 1:930.

(12) In Prolusion Six, in his defence of the comic spirit and those Greek and Latin writers who rely on it, Milton singles out Erasmus for high praise: "Et cuique jam in manibus est ingeniosissimum illud Moriae encomium non infimi Scriptoris opus." "And there is now in the hands of everyone that most clever Praise of Folly, a work not by a writer of the lowest rank" (CE 12:220-21; YP 1:273-74).

(13) Tillyard argues, in The Miltonic Setting (London: Chatto and Windus, 1966) that L'Allegro and Il Penseroso "grew out of Milton's First Academic Exercise or Prolusion," (15). See also Merrritt Y. Hughes, John Milton: Complete Poems and Major Prose (Indianapolis: The Odyssey Press, 1957), 600, n.21.

(14) Masson speculates on a possible reference to the identity of the opposing speaker, 1:246.

(15) M. N. K. Mander, in "Milton and the Music of the Spheres," Milton Quarterly 24 (May 1990), notes this passage in which Milton explicitly associates the style of his address with its theme (69).

(16) Ibid., 69.

(17) Barbara Kiefer Lewalski, in Paradise Lost and the Rhetoric of Literary Forms (Princeton U. Press, 1985), shows how Milton combines many different literary forms within his epic poem, each form carrying its particular cultural significance. A similar approach has been extended to the prose by Susanne Woods "Elective Poetics and Milton's Prose: A Treatise of Civil Power and Considerations Touching the Likeliest Means to Remove Hirelings Out of the Church," in Politics, Poetics, and Hermeneutics in Milton's Prose, 193-211, where she refers to rhetorical shifts of style in Milton's pamphlets and argues that "a sophisticated poetics, or complex series of linguistic strategies, is evident in his plainest prose" (194).
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Author:Shub, Joseph
Publication:Philological Quarterly
Date:Jun 22, 1996
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