Early Christian authors and the prologue to 'Paradise Lost.'.
(Paradise Lost, I.6-23)
As a Christian humanist, Milton cannot have been unaware that his project of competing with the ancients on their own ground had already been entertained by some illustrious writers of the patristic era. Jerome, who wrote the best Latin of this period, was a lamp of style and knowledge to Renaissance humanism; and though the Puritan poet may not have shared his theological opinions, he clearly saw no harm in lifting a whole block of allusions from his letter to a Christian orator.
O si mihi liceret istius modi ingenium, non per Aonios montes et Heliconis vertices, ut poetae canunt, sed per Sion et Itabyrium et Sinai et excelsa ducere scripturarum, si contingeret docere quae docui, et quasi per manus mysteria tradere prophetarum, nasceretur nobis aliquid quod docta Graecia non haberet. (Letter 58.8)
(Oh, if it were given me to lead such a faculty, not through Aonian mountains and the peaks of Helicon, as the poets sing, but through Sion and Itabyrium and Sinai and the heights of scripture, supposing it were mine to teach what I have taught, and as it were to pass the mysteries of the prophets from hand to hand, then something would be born that learned Greece did not possess.)
Here we have Sion and Sinai as in Milton, together with the Aonian peaks that include Mount Helicon. Jerome craves, like the English poet, a talent that will enable him to surpass whatever has been done in books. He knew himself, as we see, to be no poet, but a few of his contemporaries were not so fortunate. Though Milton's art can hardly be indebted to the laborious Poemata Arcana (Mystic Poems) of Gregory Nazianzen, the first of these may have given him the courage to invoke the Holy Spirit:
[Greek Text Omitted]
(Spirit of God, it is for you to rouse a mind and tongue in me) (Poem I: On First Principles, 22)
In the words of the latest editor, 'Gregory points the contrast with pagan poets by calling not on the Muse, as e.g. in Hom[er], Od[yssey] I.1, 10, Arat[us], Phaen[omena] 16-18, but on the Holy Spirit'.(1) In Nazianzen's friend and mentor Basil of Caesarea we already find the image of the Holy Spirit brooding like a dove upon the waters:
'Was borne upon' . . . means that it incubated the watery nature and gave it life, after the manner of the bird which incubates its brood and imparts to them a certain vital force. (Hexaemeron, Homily 2)
This passage was not obscure to Protestant readers, having been cited as early as 1550 by the eminent divine and martyr Roger Hutchinson:(2)
The hen is borne of her eggs and sitteth upon them and so hatcheth her young: and so the Holy Ghost was borne upon the waters: sat upon them and brougt forth and hatched all creatures which there are called waters . . . Basil, who for his great learning was called Magnus, expoundeth the text thus.
(The Image of God, or The Layman's Book, chapter 14)
One of Hutchinson's works is An Apology - that is to say, defence - for Spitting on an Arian, and his precedent, combined with the authority of Basil, should suffice to prove that Milton commits no heresy when he makes the heaven and earth rise out of Chaos.(3) This is merely a literal reading of the first two verses of Genesis, which indicate that there was already an earth 'without form and void' before the first day when God created light. Augustine states that the fashioning of the world and the creation of its matter were simultaneous in time (Confessions, 12.27 etc.); but the belief that matter came first was not a heresy, unless one held, with the Gnostics and Manichaeans, that matter was coeternal with, and antithetical to, God himself.(4)
The power that brought creation out of Chaos is the one that will illuminate the poet; under this inspiration, he may justly hope, as he says elsewhere, to be 'equalled' with the bards of high antiquity, 'blind Thamyris and blind Maeonides' (PL, III.35). The prologue too invites comparison with the elder poets by its use of the Greek name Chaos as the equivalent of the comparison with the elder poets by its use of the Greek name Chaos as the equivalent of the Hebrew tohu-bohu. In a student of the classics, it could not fail to provoke a recollection of the Theogony of Hesiod, an author who was reputed to be a contemporary of Homer and thus the earliest pagan to describe the generation of the gods. In this poem earth and Love emerge spontaneously from Chaos, giving rise in turn to heaven, whose union with earth engenders the anthropomorphic deities more familiar from myth. Later imitators brought an egg into this cosmogony,(5) but the egg was still the source and not the product of a personal creator. A Christian could argue that the origin of the world remains invisible to all but those in whom the Holy Spirit reproduces his primordial work of love.
Hesiod was also the earliest author to claim a personal acquaintance with the Muses, whom he met while he was pasturing his flocks on Helicon, the 'Aonian mount':
It was they who once taught lovely song to Hesiod as he was shepherding his lambs under the sacred peak of Helicon; and this was the word that first of all they spoke of me, the Olympian Muses, daughters of aegis-wielding Zeus: 'Rustic shepherds, you villains and mere bellies, we know how to say many things like the truth, and we know, when we will, how to speak the truth'.
This passage, much imitated in antiquity, gave rise to the conceit of representing poets as shepherds, even before it was fashionable to represent the shepherd as a poet.(6) Hesiod's poem is said to have been deposited in a temple, but it was clearly no temple for the Holy Spirit, whom Milton invokes as the mouthpiece of sublime and unadulterated truth. In calling Moses a shepherd, therefore, Milton is not merely alluding to his occupation at the time when he encountered the burning bush; he is also saying that Moses was the Hesiod of the Hebrews. Or rather it was Hesiod who was the Moses of the pagans: the prophet who 'first taught the chosen seed' was thereby giving the first expression to a knowledge of which the Greeks possessed a late and delusive echo.(7) It had been a standard argument of the Christian apologists that what is prior in time must be superior in wisdom; this principle led most humanists into a secular veneration of the classics at the expense of patristic writers, and especially of those pious versifiers like Nazianzen, who had fallen so far short of pagan models. Paradise Lost sets out to match the ancients in its prosody and excel them in its subject; it invokes the Holy Spirit in the language both of the Fathers and of the classics, to show that he is at once the only Muse of Christian doctrine and the unacknowledged tutor of the Greeks.
M. J. EDWARDS Christ Church, Oxford
1 D. A. Sykes, with C. Moreschini, Gregory of Nazianzus. Poemata Arcana (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997), 84. Although it is sometimes said that Milton would not have invoked the Holy Spirit (cf. De Doctrina Christiana, I.6), he could have waived this theological principle in a poem which invokes both light and Urania. The attributes accorded to the addressee here are familiar enough: see J. Carey and A. Fowler, Poems of John Milton (London: Longmans 1968), 461. It does not follow, of course, that he recognized the Spirit as one Person in a coequal Trinity.
2 Cited from the Parker Society edition (Cambridge 1842), 64-5.
3 Just before the passage cited, Basil uses the word [Greek Text Omitted] ('flowing'), possibly cognate with [Greek Text Omitted], to describe the state of matter before creation. Milton's knowledge of Basil's Hexaemeron is suggested, for example, by J. M. Steadman, 'Milton and St Basil: The Genesis of Sin and Death', Modern Language Notes, lxxiii (1955), 83-4 - though Basil may not be the only patristic source for that motif.
4 On this heresy in relation to Milton see J. M. L. Evans, Paradise Lost and the Genesis Tradition (Oxford: Clarendon Press 1968), 62-8. At PL, VII.168 Milton seems to speak of the deep, but not of matter, as already present to the Creator; at VII.232 he says that God created earth as 'matter unformed and void', which may imply that God first created chaos.
5 The earliest such cosmogony extant at Aristophanes, Birds, 693 ff., is often assumed to have an Orphic prototype. 6 See e.g. Virgil, Eclogue, 6.1 ff., echoing Callimachus' proem to the Aetia, which in turn alludes to the passage in Hesiod.
7 For the classic statement of the theory that the Greeks derived their wisdom from the Hebrew prophets, see Justin Martyr, First Apology, 44-5 (mid-second century AD).
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|Title Annotation:||work of English poet John Milton|
|Publication:||Notes and Queries|
|Date:||Mar 1, 1998|
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