The prophet's conundrum: poetic soaring in Milton's "Nativity Ode" and "The Passion".
As a committed Perkinsian Calvinist the young Milton faced a simple, but almost crippling intellectual problem: he wanted to soar. The problem may not be immediately obvious, however, and it appears not to have been to Milton. Why shouldn't a devout Perkinsian Calvinist not become a poet of the soaring kind? While Perkins may have indeed warned against the idle uses of the poetic arts, (2) Spenser, for one, had shown that lofty English poetry was not incompatible with Protestant virtues and the dignity of the Reformed Christian soul. Similarly, Joshua Sylvester's translation of Du Bartas' La Semaine, the Divine Weekes and Workes (a poem which young Milton cherished and imitated) must have demonstrated to the aspiring poet the material poetic possibilities contained in biblical subject matter. Yet neither Spenser nor Du Bartas soared. Spenser's imagination tended to move laterally in the distinctly lapsarian, and allegorically unstable realms of ancient and medieval mythologies; while Sylvester's Du Bartas was afraid to allow his "heedful Muse, trayned in true Religion, / Devinely-humane" to soar too high, commanding it instead to keep to the "middle Region"
Least, if she should too-high a pitch presume, Heav'ns glowing flame should melt her waxen plume (1.1.137-38) (3)
As Alistair Fowler notes, it is with these lines in mind that Milton invokes in the opening of Paradise Lost the "heavenly Muse" to aid his "advent'rous song, / That with no middle flight intends to soar" (1.13-14, my emphases). (4)
Milton from a very early age wanted to soar higher than Du Bartas ever did. But shouldn't he then have been afraid of "Heav'ns glowing flame" melting his "waxen plume"? If he ever entertained such fears he certainly does his level best in the earlier poetry and prose to suppress them. Even in such a frivolous Cambridge poem as "At a Vacation Exercise" the young poet affirms that his true calling lies in "some graver subject" (30)
Such where the deep transported mind may soar Above the wheeling poles, and at heaven's door Look in, and see each blissful deity (33-35, my emphasis) (5)
Milton may be presuming to soar in these rather extravagant lines merely towards the pagan heaven of Mount Olympus, described earlier in "On the Death of a Fair Infant" as being of "ruined roof" (43). But he may by then have set his sights on another mountain altogether--Mount Oreb. Many years later in the opening invocation of Paradise Lost he would openly declare which kind of Muse he sought:
Sing heavenly Muse, that on the secret top Of Oreb, or of Sinai, didst inspire That shepherd, who first taught the chosen seed, (1.6-8)
Milton, then, wanted to soar as a poet-prophet of biblical stature. Indeed, sacred poetry and prophecy appear to have been interchange able terms for Milton from a very early stage. In the conclusion of "Il Penseroso" he embraces Melancholy so that the experience of pensive meditation may "attain / To something like a prophetic strain" (173-74), while in "On the Morning of Christ's Nativity," he significantly echoes Isaiah 6:6-7 in appearing to exhort his own poetic creation to 'join thy voice unto the angel quire, / From out his secret altar touched with hallowed fire" (27-28). (6) However, to become a poet-prophet, Milton needed a receptive audience for whom to prophesy. While he may have felt confident enough to dismiss Calvin as an authority on occasion, he must have known, particularly in the politically uncertain years of his youth, that his projected English audience still revered Calvin and Perkins as saintly authorities. The average English Protestant would have read and judged Milton's claim to inspired prophetic authority with an eye to its underlying theology.
The only way Milton could ever comfortably soar "with no middle flight" among Calvinists was to convince his mostly orthodox readers that God had predestined him for such soaring. The autobiographical rhetoric of the early prose and poetry does indeed abound with references to the distinctly Calvinist passivity, if not necessity, of Milton's agency as a man predestined by God for poetic greatness." Later in life when he eventually abandoned Calvinist theories of predestination for a doctrine more in tune with Arminianism, he made a point in his De Doctrina of dismissing the "necessity" of God's decrees as absurd, for where there's necessity there is no freedom and no moral accountability. (7) But in his youth, he appears to have adhered to the orthodox Calvinist view. For example, citing as prophetic types the blind mythological seer, Tiresias, and the author of Revelation, Milton explains in Book II of Reason of Church-Government that he too was bound as it were to attack in print the supporters of episcopacy, for "when God commands to take the trumpet and blow a dolorous or a jarring blast it lies not in mans will what he shall say, or what he shall conceal." (8)
However, the High Calvinist orthodoxy Milton often echoes in his early poetry and prose inherently impedes the sort of literary, pseudo-prophetic soaring he ultimately aimed for in his more solemn verse. The literary and aesthetic implications of his desire to soar with no "middle flight" towards heaven and don the mantle of Moses, the archetypal prophet, is at odds with the fundamental Genevan terms of reference otherwise informing his Reformed sensibility. Such aspirations transgress the Calvinistic framework of all contemporary Reformed discourse by seeking to peer into heaven and hell and envisage the hidden Creator himself. Far from confining himself to the theological and literary norms of what Georgia Christopher discusses as a Reformed "speech act," Milton often extended his poetic imagination far beyond the "Word" to presumptuously inquire into what Luther describes as the "absolute God." (9) But as Luther warns--a warning which was central to Calvinist teaching as well--"From this absolute God everyone should flee who does not want to perish, because human nature and the absolute God ... are the bitterest enemies." (10) Given what we now know of the older Milton such transgression need not surprise us. However, Milton did not begin to write poetry as an emancipated heterodox thinker. For many years he seems to have labored to become a poet under the assumption that he could chip away at the Genevan bedrock of his convictions without somehow destabilizing the entire theological edifice of his elect authority. As an examination of the "Nativity Ode" and "The Passion" will corroborate, the nature of this dilemma was so vexing to the early Milton that he often sought to evade its implications. His early pseudo-Calvinistic claims to predestined poetic greatness depended precisely on his ability to suppress this inherent intellectual contradiction.
Having promised his elect readers in Reason of Church-Government a solemn "work" wrought from "devout prayer.., to the 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," (11) Milton appears to make good his promise by opening the 1645 volume with his most solemn poem to date--"On the Morning of Christ's Nativity." This seems to be the confident, exuberant expression of a young poet assured in his divine calling. Stirred into what appears to be a conventional mode of religious devotion occasioned by the liturgical calendar ("This is the month, and this the happy morn" ), the poet invokes the aid of the "heavenly Muse" of Christian poetry to sing a "humble ode" (24) to the infant Christ. There is a pause between the proem's third and fourth stanzas as the Muse presumably discharges her service, and the resulting "Hymn" follows. It is only natural to assume--as this is what the poem encourages us to do--that since in the proem the poet requests that his inspired Hymn may join its "voice unto the angel quire" (27), the Hymn that follows necessarily does just that, at least in our imagination. This is supported, as Tuve and Broadbent have noted, by the poem's underlying celebration of the Incarnation. (12) As God descends into flesh, forsaking "the courts of everlasting day" to choose "with us a darksome house of mortal clay" (13-14), so the poet in turn seeks to sing a hymn uttered by prophet-like lips, touched with hallowed fire from out of God's "secret altar" (28).
However, wanting to soar towards God in one's speech is one thing, succeeding is quite another. If Milton's hymning lips in the "Nativity Ode" were truly touched with God's "hallowed fire," "unsufferable" as the light of the Son's glory, his resulting "Hymn" would have been rendered radically unintelligible to those who dwell in "a darksome house of mortal clay." As Catherine Belsey points out in her Derridian reading of the poem, the divine "presence" such poetry "seeks to realise depends precisely on eliminating the differences of which it is composed." (13) To put it simply, Milton's literary ambition was at odds with his early religious impulse. As one who had so often declared himself in the early polemical prose to be a member of Perkins' elect, he was bound by the limitations imposed by Calvin and Perkins on the elect religious vocabulary. Again, contrary to what Georgia Christopher avers, Milton could not transform his lapsarian discourse into prophetic song equal to that of "the holy sages" that "once did sing" (5) while remaining intellectually and spiritually loyal to the Protestant imagination and its modes of rhetorical discourse. On the contrary, Milton could evoke the kind of prophetic authority he craved only by displaying his ability to venture imaginatively beyond the realms of speech into the unmediated mysterious presence of the necessarily ineffable Godhead. This was not so much a matter of religious radicalism as it was a case of unbridled literary ambition. Milton wanted to stand out as a poet gifted with unique divine talent, not to anonymously dissolve into the respectable "we" of the Genevan community of saints.
The conundrum would appear to be insoluble. But Milton nonetheless succeeds in evading its implications in the "Nativity Ode" without quite appearing to do so. That he appears to have succeeded in this is evidenced by the fact that the Ode, unlike "The Passion," is often lauded as a significant breakthrough in Milton's early attempts at solemn English verse. The hymning poet carries himself as an all-knowing, all-uttering seer, effortlessly describing the universal impact of the Incarnation on Nature, on the ocean and stars, on the rustic shepherds, on the pagan gods. He successfully avoids the crippling implications of his prophetic conundrum by sounding assertive, by beguiling the reader with the rhyming, alliterative music of his verse. Whereas the contemporary Catholic poet Richard Crashaw in his "An Hymn of the Nativity" sings as one of the lowly, awe-struck shepherds, Milton pretends to fly high above such mystified voices, observing rather from a great distance the "shepherds on the lawn ... simply chatting in a rustic row" (85-87). Unlike the soaring poet, these merely pastoral shepherds are limited in their intellectual capacity, their "silly thoughts" unable to grasp the full universal magnitude of the Incarnation:
Full little thought they then, That the mighty Pan Was kindly come to live with them below; Perhaps their loves, or else their sheep, Was all that did their silly thoughts so busy keep. (88-93)
The hymning poet's patronizing tone towards the shepherds strongly implies that unlike such rustics our poet has ascended, Isaiah-like, to the full measure of the Incarnational miracle. This in turn sustains the power of the poet-prophet's audacious poetic soaring. Milton thus avoids Crashaw's perplexed ecstasy and assertively sings of the divine vistas his elect soaring has enabled him to observe outside space and time. After all, to be lost for words can be interpreted as being lost to the Incarnated Word, and the Calvinist in Milton could ill afford such implications, especially in a poem specifically aimed at celebrating the miracle of the Incarnation.
However, once we break from the spellbinding effect of Milton's fluid cadence and attend to what the voice in the poem actually says we soon discover that the vocal power of the poet's "verbal offering," as Christopher terms it, is illusory. (14) To begin with, the opening invocation to the heavenly Muse is not, as far as we can tell, ever answered. The invocation does not open with an imperative petition as in Paradise Lost's "Sing heavenly Muse," but with a hesitant inquiry:
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, (15-18, my emphasis)
Uncertain of his ability to sing at one with the Muse, the poet desires of it first to "say" in a language he can understand whether or not their joint song is at all possible given his lowly lapsarian condition. The implicit answer to this question, at least in the poem before us, is no, not in this present, not in your lifetime. The heavenly Muse cannot afford any verse, or hymn, or solemn strain that fallen humans, elect though they may be, may ever hope to utter or understand so long as they dwell in a "darksome house of mortal clay."
The Muse's silence is indeed as loud as the poet's shrill impatience in the proem's next and final stanza:
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. (22-28)
Milton exhorts the Muse to lay her gift of a "humble ode" at Christ's "blessed feet," and thus have the "honour first, thy Lord to greet, / And join thy voice unto the angel quire" (my emphasis). But surely these lines should have read, "my Lord to greet, / And join my voice unto the angel quire." There is an ambiguity here that is as deliberate as it is destabilizing. Clearly, the interpretation of these lines depends on whom we understand to be the addressee of the impatient exhortations to "see," "run," "prevent," and "lay." To allow for the standard reading of the poem in which it is assumed the Muse assents to the poet's request, the exhortations must be read as referring to the ode about to be written: at one with the Muse, the poet stirs himself into poetic action. Such a reading however supplies a positive answer to the third stanza's query which is never guaranteed in the poem. If we read the proem's third and fourth stanzas as one fluid utterance then the exhortations to "see," "run," and "prevent" continue the petition to the heavenly Muse who is yet to supply her contribution to the poet's verse. Read in this way, stanza four shows the poet surrendering to the silence of the Muse in deference to her divine authority. Lurking beneath the assured presumption of the poet's voice is the tacit concession that it would be better for the Muse, at least for the present, to sing with the angel choir what the poet actually knows himself to be incapable of. For his part, the poet of the opening stanzas desires instead to lay his limited, written poetic gift not at the feet of the infant Christ, but at the feet of an imagined lapsarian readership. And it is for the sake of this readership, as it were, that the poet must remain in regenerate darkness. This darkness may be shot with some measure of elect light, but it is a rather pale light compared to "that light unsufferable" of the Son's unmediated glory.
Moreover, while the hymning voice in the poem insists on exhibiting the power of its essentially lapsarian utterance, the actual drama of the Hymn celebrates the transformation of such lapsarian utterances into inexpressible heavenly music. The Hymn's opening sequence portrays the created universe as semantically in need of repair. Gripped in the lapsarian vice of post-Babel utterance the poet portrays a world animated by speech that on a sudden becomes "fair" and "mild" at the immanent presence of the infant Incarnated logos. Thus we read how Nature "woos the gentle air" with "speeches fair" (37-8), how the trumpet of war "spake not to the armed throng" (58), or how the winds "whisped' so that the "mild ocean" may now forget how to "rave" (64-67, my emphases throughout). This mellowing of cosmic utterances is then followed at the center of the Hymn by a verse description of the song the angel choir is suddenly heard singing to the infant Christ. Crucially, in describing what the angels' song sounds like the poet effectively positions himself outside the angel choir to which he had hoped to be joined in the proem. However, by describing the impact of this song on the shepherds' hearts and ears, which, as the previous stanza establishes, are far more lowly than the poet's, Milton ingeniously sustains a semblance of detached prophetic authority while still conceding that he too cannot in actuality sing with the angel choir.
Milton, therefore, elegantly positions himself in these stanzas, if only for a brief moment, as a prophet-like mediator standing within earshot of both heaven and earth, somewhere between the rustic shepherds' "chatter" and the angels' song:
When such music sweet Their heart and ears did greet, As never was by mortal finger strook, Divinely-warbled voice Answering the stringed noise, As all their souls in blissful rapture took: The air such pleasure loth to lose, With thousand echoes still prolongs each heavenly close. (93-100, my emphasis)
Milton's obsession with music and musical figures is well documented. (15) The point of song of course is that it marries words with music in such a way that rationally circumscribes the more unruly affective powers of music within effable meaning. To impose words on music is to transform the fundamentally ineffable power of music into an articulated, syntactically linear utterance, memorably Platonised by Milton in the later "At a Solemn Music" in the invocation to the
Blest pair of sirens, pledges of heaven's joy, Sphere-borne harmonious sisters, Voice, and Verse, (1-2)
John Carey has cogently argued that "Voice" and "Verse" do not represent the conjoined powers of music and poetry, as is often assumed, but rather the marriage of specifically unaccompanied song with the measured rhythms of versification. As Carey points out, "the idea of song, and of song as opposed to songless music, was vital to [Milton's] creative impulse and can be traced in the choices his imagination made." (16) This idea is clearly noticeable in the imaginative choice Milton makes in the "Nativity Ode," where the "music sweet" heard by the shepherds is immediately qualified as a "divinely-warbled voice," that is as a singing voice presumably singing with words. This clever maneuver allows Milton to sustain his prophetic power within the stanza's ambiguity by effectively allowing the possible interpretation of the "divinely-warbled voice" as that of his own Hymn, pretending, if only for a moment, to be at one with the angel choir. For the brief space of two stanzas (IX-X) the poet thus toys with the possibility that it is in fact his inspired Hymn which the shepherds are actually listening to, and which potentially at least "Could hold all heaven and earth in happier union" (108).
Two stanzas later, however, we learn that the "divinely-warbled voice" the shepherds hear is in fact not the poet's but that of "The helmed cherubim / And sworded seraphim" who appear amid "a globe of circular light," "Harping in loud and solemn quire, / With unexpressive notes to heaven's new-born heir" (109-16, my emphasis). The adjective "unexpressive," first coined by Shakespeare in As You Like It 3.2.10 to denote the ineffability of intense desire in the face of sublime female beauty, normally denotes that which is inexpressible. It can also mean, however, that which is itself incapable of expressing anything semantically meaningful. While Shakespeare's Orlando only has the former meaning in mind, in Milton's use of the adjective both meanings uneasily coexist. The seraphim's song is ultimately "unexpressive" in a prelapsarian, pre-Babel sense in that it does not express itself at all in normative language. The brief marriage of the hymning voice and the angel choir in stanzas IX and X thus disintegrates on the turning of this one ambiguous adjective, as stanzas XI through XVI gradually deflate the poet's claims of realized prophetic power. The poet's voice--the one we are actually reading and listening to in our head--is clearly expressive, while the angels' song, as the poet now concedes, is not.
Milton's prophetic persona thus subtly begins to lower almost imperceptibly the height of its ambition, and moves from asserting the illusory union between its and the angelic voices, to conceding the actual gulf between them. Having drawn attention to this gulf between the two voices, vying against each other within the Hymn, the hesitant lapsarian voice of the mere Calvinist lurking behind the inspired confidence of the prophetic poet begins at this point to intrude into the Hymn by parenthetically qualifying its vocal illusion of power: "Such music (as 'tis said) / Before was never made" (117), or "Once bless our human ears, / (If ye have power to touch our sense so)" (127). Parenthesis then fluidly gives way to open statement, as actual power recedes into deferred millenarian promise: "For if such holy song / Enwrap our fancy long, / Time will run back, and fetch the age of gold" (133-35). Retreating back again into his "darksome house of mortal clay" the poet plummets rather than soars, looking ahead with the rest of lapsarian humanity towards Judgment Day, when "to those ychained in sleep, / The wakeful trump of doom must thunder through the deep" (155-56).
The Hymn, however, does not end here. As if unwilling to end on a note of conceded weakness, the poet's voice gathers strength again as it asserts its power not over that which is transcendental and above the Word, but over that which lies in pagan ignorance below the salvific remit of the Word. The positioning of the traditional Nativity component of the "cessation of the oracles" at this juncture in the Hymn allows Milton's pseudo-prophetic persona to reassert its control and to begin soaring again by picking on his pagan inferiors. Once again the imagery reverts from that of music and song to that of mere speaking voices. In contrast to the favorable mellowing of speech in the opening sequence of the Hymn, however, the impact of the Incarnation and its attendant inexpressive angelic song on the pagan gods is stark. The descent of the divine logos into the world renders the pagan oracles "dumb," stripping their voices of any coherent expression. Since the poet, however, clearly does have words with which to describe the vocal violation of the pagan gods, he once again positions himself outside his subject, describing in triumphant succession a host of Greco-Roman and Semitic idols in various postures of incoherent vocal defeat--shrieking, weeping, lamenting, sighing, and mourning.
Thus empowered by his parading of humiliated and defeated gods, tightly imprisoned within the power of his rhyming metre, the poet finally ends his Hymn with yet another deliberately ambiguous address, perhaps to the reader, perhaps to himself, perhaps to the Muse:
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) (17)
Perhaps "our" song is inclusive of reader, poet, and Muse, its tediousness pointing to its spent power. Milton has just about managed to sustain his prophetic voice alongside the "unexpressive" song of the angel choir, but there is an inescapable sense that both reader and poet are left feeling hoarse with the effort. Even so, the illusory power of the poet's utterance has had its desired effect and we the fallen readers are at least left feeling tired and spent in the comforting image of sympathetic stars and serviceable angels attending to "our" well-earned rest as well as to that of the God-man "babe" in the manger. Even though the poet has actually conceded that what he had in mind all along was beyond his poetic reach, he nonetheless leaves us with an unqualified sense of power at the occasion of a traditional Nativity scene made vividly glorious through the sheer audacity of his poetic will.
If such are the complex maneuvers Milton has to employ in order to suppress and evade his prophetic conundrum in the "Nativity Ode," no wonder then that "The Passion" is such a failure. Even stranger is the fact that Milton chose to include it in a published volume of his poetry at all. Contemporary readers of Poems 1645 would have read through the "Nativity Ode" and the two subsequent paraphrased Psalms, which, as Milton's headnote declares, were "done by the Author at fifteen years old," and would have promptly registered the tender age in which the poet accomplished such admirable poetic feats. After such clear signs of early poetic promise Milton may have intended his readers to forgive the ensuing poetic oddity of "The Passion," which as the 1645 postscript declares was abortive: "This subject the author finding to be above the years he had when he wrote it, and nothing satisfied with what was begun, left it unfinished." But the positioning of the poem in the volume soon after the Ode, and the addition of the explanatory postscript, only account for what Milton expected his readers to do with the unfinished poem once they read it in its published context. It does not explain why Milton wanted to publish it in the first place.
If my argument so far holds, one or two probable answers suggest themselves. First, Milton's early failure to grapple poetically with the subject of the Passion was in itself clearly significant to him. It was especially significant in the context of his projected poetic ambition to tackle with complete verbal perspicuity subject matter which traditionally falls under the conceptual categories of the ineffable and the numinous. The Passion of the Christ is one such subject, and far more mysterious than the Incarnation which precedes it. Because the Incarnation inherently involves the intimate contact of the divine with the human, it affords plenty of room to maneuver for a poet who desires to avoid sacramental expression in his treatment of its mystery. The subject of the Passion, on the other hand, fulfils the grim promise of the Incarnational intimacy. It reminds Christians what sinful creatures they really are, and how great is the love of their Creator who would suffer unspeakable torture and death to atone for their dejected sinfulness. The Passion is meant to render the lapsarian voice dumb, to humble it in reflective silence, to overwhelm it with paradox. I suspect Milton's failure to grapple with the subject of the Passion has little to do with the immaturity at the time of his poetic talent. The verbose pretence of power Milton had barely managed to sustain in the "Nativity Ode" was bound to fail when he came to sing of God's suffering on the cross. The experience humbled Milton, and it is for the sake of communicating this redemptive sense of humility that I believe he desired to share this experience with his readers. If anything it was aimed to counteract the marked lack of humility within the unfinished poem itself. There is, however, another, strictly conceptual, poetic reason for the inclusion of "The Passion" in Poems 1645. The failure of "The Passion" poignantly qualifies the limited success of the "Nativity Ode" which precedes it. "The Passion" is important, therefore, not only for being a failure, but also in the way it shows itself failing.
The received wisdom on "The Passion" is that the deeply irrational nature of its mystery and Milton's refusal to take the road of paradox results in the highly self-referential, tortured tone of the poem: "my song," "my flattered fancy," "my woe," "my sorrows," "my plaining verse" etc. As Barbara Lewalski surmises,
[Milton's] Protestant imagination was not stirred by the Passion, and he found no way in elegy, as he had in the Nativity Ode, to move from the personal and local to the universal. So his conceits become ever more extravagant and the text becomes painfully self-referential. (18)
To say that the Passion did not stir Milton's imagination because he was a Protestant oversimplifies the problem, to put it mildly. The subject of the Passion certainly did not fail to stir the devotional imaginations of such Protestant sacramentalists as Donne in his "La Corona," "The Cross," or "Upon the Annunciation and the Passion falling upon one day" (to name only three obvious examples), and Herbert's "The Sacrifice." What I suspect Lewalski probably means is that as a Puritan, Milton's preferred mode of plain literary utterance meant he was more comfortable writing about the Incarnation and the Nativity than about the Passion. However, the Passion clearly did stir Milton's Protestant imagination, otherwise he would not have attempted this poem to begin with. What is more, Lewalski assumes that the self-referential pain of the poem results from Milton's difficulty with the subject, when in fact, as I would argue, it is the other way round: it is Milton's insistence on a peculiarly conceited self-reference which causes him pain and ultimately fails the poem.
The opening stanza of "The Passion" explicitly points to the earlier "Nativity Ode" and invites comparisons with it:
Erewhile of music, and ethereal mirth, Wherewith the stage of air and earth did ring, And joyous news of heavenly infant's birth, My muse with angels did divide to sing; But headlong joy is ever on the wing, In wintry solstice like the shortened light Soon swallowed up in dark and long out-living night. (1-7)
This one stanza tells the entire story of the poem's failure. The voice identifies itself, unequivocally, with that of the soaring, prophetic poet of the "Nativity Ode." There is a sense of false confidence, as the poet seeks to carry over the apparent success of the earlier poem's beguiling utterance into a contemplation of the deeply ineffable mystery of the Passion. The voice alludes to the universal scope of vision in the earlier poem where the "stage of air and earth did ring" with the power of his song. The next line, perhaps the most significant in the poem, then seeks to suppress the illusory character of the earlier Ode's power by asserting the unity and harmony of the human and divine voices which in the earlier poem were effectively presented as distinct and remote from one another. The gulf between the divine and the human lurking as a suppressed presence beneath the earlier poem's assertive diction is almost casually dismissed as the poet claims that it was in fact "My muse" who "with angels did divide to sing" (my emphasis). "Divide to sing" is of course a remarkable coinage in this context. As John Carey points out in his notes to the poem, "divide" "can mean execute 'divisions' or rapid melodic passages, and 'share' (with the angels)." (19) It is, moreover, indicative of the inherent dichotomy between the two voices. Although the two voices may appear to share in one song, they are nonetheless divided. "My muse" did sing and "I" did sing are not, after all, the same thing, just as the "song" the poet does end up writing down is tightly divided into quantifiable metrical verses whereas the angels' "unexpressive" song clearly is not.
This expression of doubt has, however, a peculiar effect. Rather than deflating the poet's hope of coherent song and stimulating an outpour of paradox, the poet becomes obsessed with the sound of his own voice. Milton does not attempt to replicate his strategy from the "Nativity Ode" and merely move from the personal to the universal. Instead, he impossibly attempts to subsume the universal into the personal as if to altogether swallow up Isaiah's burning coal of prophetic utterance. The poet in "The Passion" thus desperately snatches the "harp" from the hands of the "harping" cherubim and seraphim of the earlier Ode as he declares: "For now to sorrow must I tune my song, / And set my harp to notes of saddest woe" (8-9, my emphases). Egged on by his anxious desire to sound sublime and prophetic, Milton attempts to graft the mystery of the Passion onto his own voice so that once again he may sustain the pretence of utter vocal control in the face of a deeply ineffable religious mystery. But without a minimum degree of humble distance between the authority of his poetic voice and its subject, Milton is unable to create the sacramental space necessary for the idea of the Passion to expand its ineffable presence in the poem. His anxious ego intrudes with such force that the reverberating sounds of its utterance altogether divest the Passion of its essential numinous character. Unable, therefore, to create an illusion of power as he had done in the "Nativity Ode," the poet turns to nervous petition for alternative agencies of poetic inspiration. He reflects how he will need "softer airs" and "softer strings" (27), and the guiding powers of a different muse (since the heavenly Muse from the earlier Ode has once again failed him). He appeals to a personified "night best patroness of grief" (29), and when that fails, invokes Ezekiel's chariot, "That whirled the prophet up at Cedar flood" (37). These alternative divine agencies would of course, in theory, confer upon the would be poet-prophet the required "holy vision" wherein his "soul" might fruitfully reflect on the Passion "In pensive trance, and anguish, and ecstatic fit" (41-2). But ecstasy and anguish signify precisely the type of inarticulate loss of emotional and verbal control Milton is so anxious to avoid in his solemn verse if he is to safeguard his claims of a predestined, and hence necessary, prophetic election.
The result is defeat. All that remains is for the poet to toy with the conceit that perhaps he ought to sing in solitude on some "mountain wild" where
The gentle neighbourhood of grove and spring Would soon unbosom all their echoes mild, And I (for grief is easily beguiled) Might think the infection of my sorrows loud, Had got a race of mourners on some pregnant cloud. (50-55)
Alone with the echoes of his own voice, the poet muses that maybe if he shouted loud enough heaven would at least reward him with the conceit of its response, a welcome fancy. That too, however, is denied as the poem recedes into an uneasy silence and abruptly ends, a proem without a Hymn. For what is supposedly an unfinished poem this is a rather powerful ending. As it stands, "The Passion" is a remarkable expression of un-expression, the last stanza of its orphaned proem in many ways encapsulating the essence of young Milton's prophetic conundrum. Of course, the nature of this conundrum dictates that given Milton's sense of poetic destiny, such a failure could not have been allowed to speak for itself, and so Milton added in 1645 the postscript which declares it to be an unfinished poem, a temporary setback. Curiously enough, stanza IV, midway through the poem, in fact reads in this context as an especially prophetic synopsis of future achievements. In Paradise Regained Milton would indeed find a voice to sing of "His godlike acts; and his temptations fierce" (24). In 1645, however, with the ghosts of Calvin and Perkins still haunting his sense of personal identity and poetic mission, such promises were impossible to realise and thus indefinitely deferred.
St. Anne's College, Oxford University
(1) Complete Prose Works of John Milton, gen. ed. Don M. Wolfe, 7 vols. (Yale U. Press, 1953-80), 1:808.
(2) See for example Perkins's treatise A Direction for the Governement of the Tongue in The Works of that Famous and Worthy Minister of Christ ... William Perkins, 3 vols. (London, 1625-1635), 1:450.
(3) The Divine Weeks and Works of Guillaume De Saluste Sieur Du Bartas translated by Joshua Sylvester, ed. Susan Snyder, 2 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1979), 1:115.
(4) All citations of Paradise Lost are from Milton: Paradise Lost, ed. Alistair Fowler, 2nd ed. (London and New York: Longman, 1998).
(5) Unless otherwise noted, all citations of Milton's poetry excluding Paradise Lost are from Milton: Complete Shorter Poems, ed. John Carey, 2nd ed. (London and New York: Longman, 1997).
(6) The subject of Milton's vatic or prophetic persona has been widely addressed by Miltonists. See for example Joseph Wittreich, Visionary Poetics: Milton's Tradition and his Legacy (San Marino, Cal.: Huntington Library, 1957), and William Kerrigan, The Prophetic Milton (Virginia U. Press, 1974).
(7) See De Doctrina Christiana 1.3. Complete Prose, 6:164-67.
(8) Complete Prose, 1: 803. My emphasis.
(9) Georgia Christopher, Milton and the Science of the Saints (Princeton U. Press, 1982). See in particular Christopher's analysis of the "Nativity Ode," 22-9.
(10) Luther's commentary on Psalm 51:1. Luther's Collected Works, American edition., ed. Jaroslav J. Pelikan, H. T. Lehmann, et al., 55 vols. (St. Louis: Concordia Pub. House, 1958-1986), 12:312: "The people of Israel did not have a God who was viewed 'absolutely', to use the expression, the way the inexperienced monks rise into heaven with their speculations and think about God as He is in Himself. From this absolute God everyone should flee who does not want to perish, because human nature and the absolute God ... are the bitterest enemies.... We must take hold of this God, not naked but clothed and revealed in His Word; otherwise certain despair will crush us."
(11) Complete Prose, 1:820.
(12) Rosemond Tuve, Images & Themes in Five Poems by Milton (Harvard U. Press, 1962), 37-72; J. B. Broadbent, "The Nativity Ode," in The Living Milton, ed. Frank Kermode, 12-31 (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1960).
(13) Catherine Belsey, John Milton: Language, Gendeg, Power (Oxford: Blackwell, 1988), 20.
(14) Christopher, Science of the Saints, 23.
(15) Sigmund Spaeth's Milton's Knowledge of Music (1913; repr., Michigan U. Press, 1963) remains the definitive study on this subject. See also John Hollander, The Untuning of the Sky: Ideas of Music in English Poetry, 1500-1700 (Princeton U. Press, 1961), 315-31; Leo Spitzer, Classical and Christian Ideas of World Harmony (Johns Hopkins U. Press, 1963), 103-7; and the essays by Laurence Stapleton and John Hollander in Milton: Modern Essays in Criticism, ed. Arthur E. Barker, 31-57 (Oxford U. Press. 1965).
(16) John Carey, "Milton's Harmonious Sisters," in The Well Enchanting Skill: Music, Poetry, and Drama in the Culture of the Renaissance, ed. John Caldwell et al., 245-58 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990), 247.
(17) In the 1673 edition of his collected poems Milton aptly revised the punctuation of this stanza, amending the period after "car" into a comma, and the period after "attending" into a colon.
(18) Barbara K. Lewalski, The Life of John Milton (Oxford: Blackwell, 2000), 38.
(19) Complete Shorter Poems, 123.
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|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2004|
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