2

Can it be inferred from John Milton's Paradise Lost, that by invoking the Muse in book 1, he wanted to reject biblical literalism (despite the Muse being the Holy Spirit, which itself formed the Bible)?

2
  • 2
    It seems likely that "literary" is a typo for "literalism" so I've been bold and fixed it. Hopefully the OP will come back and confirm or deny accordingly. Commented Jan 13 at 11:04
  • 2
    @GarethRees I agree with your assertion
    – Kamola
    Commented Jan 16 at 19:50

1 Answer 1

7

TL;DR: No. It’s true that Milton was opposed to biblical literalism, and it’s also true that in Paradise Lost he used a scheme in which figures from Classical mythology, including the Muse, were reinterpreted so as to make them conform to Christianity. But we can’t infer the former from the latter, because someone could (in theory) believe that the text of the Bible may only be interpreted literally, and also that the text of other works (such as Paradise Lost) may contain metaphor, allegory, and other non-literal figures of speech. Since the other works are not the Bible, this would not be an inconsistent position to hold. However, we can observe that poets, by their profession, make a lot of use of figurative language, and so are less likely to find literalism an appealing position.

Milton’s opposition to biblical literalism

The Oxford English Dictionary’s very first citation for the word “literalism” is from Milton, in a context where it is clear that he is against it:

And if none of these considerations with all their weight and gravity, can avail to the dispossessing him of his precious literalism, let some one or other entreat him but to read on in the same xixth of Matth. till he come to that place that says, ‘Some make themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of Heaven’s sake.’† And if then he please to make use of Origen’s knife,‡ he may do well to be his own carver.

John Milton (1644). ‘Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce’. In Charles Symmons, ed. (1806). The Prose Works of John Milton, volume 2, pp. 44–45. London: J. Johnson.

Matthew 19:12. ‡ Eusebius alleged that Origen had castrated himself (Ecclesiastical History 6.8).

Milton’s opposition to literalism was discussed at length by Thomas Fulton:

Milton’s work on divorce breaks from the modes of interpretation that supported his opponents’ positions. It is here in 1643–45 that he identifies “literalism” as the source of the problem, using the word for the first time in The Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce. It occurs some four times as such and in several different extended forms in this polemical prose, as Milton decries the misguided “extreme literalist” or the “obstinate literality” of bad interpreters. […] In The Judgement of Martin Bucer the buzzword turned slur appears again when Milton addresses the Parliament at the outset, suggesting that the current views of divorce derive from the “canonical tyranny of stupid and malicious Monks” and (painting literalism as a medieval Catholic mode of reading) an “abrupt and Papistical way of a literal apprehension against the direct analogy of sense, reason, law, and Gospel.” “Literal” occurs seven more times in Tetrachordon (1645), the tract that focuses most on exegesis, among these criticizing “the fury of his literal expounding,” the dangers of “literal rigidity,” and the problems of “Literal bondage” for those who are “still the servants of a literal indictment,” and obey any “literal Law in the vigor of severity.”

Thomas Fulton (2021). The Book of Books: Biblical Interpretation, Literary Culture, and the Political Imagination from Erasmus to Milton, chapter 8. University of Pennsylvania Press.

Milton’s reinterpretation of Classical figures

The lines referred to in the question are these:

Sing Heav’nly Muse, that on the secret top
Of Oreb, or of Sinai, didst inspire
That Shepherd, who first taught the chosen Seed

John Milton (1667). Paradise Lost 1.6–8. Wikisource.

The allusions here are straightforward. The “chosen Seed” are the children of Israel (the Jewish people), and their “Shepherd” is Moses, who led them out of Egypt to the promised land. On the top of Mount Horeb (“Oreb” in Milton’s spelling):

the angel of the LORD appeared unto him [Moses] in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush

Exodus 3:2, Authorized Version.

and on the top of Mount Sinai:

the glory of the LORD abode upon mount Sinai, and the cloud covered it six days: and the seventh day he called unto Moses out of the midst of the cloud.

Exodus 24:16.

According to tradition, Moses was “inspired” by these events to write the five books of the Pentateuch.

So Milton’s “Heav’nly Muse” (Paradise Lost 1.6) corresponds to the “angel of the LORD” (Exodus 3:2), or the “glory of the LORD” (Exodus 24:16), which some interpret as referring to the Holy Spirit.

In Paradise Lost, Milton adopted a general scheme in which Classical names were reinterpreted so as to make them consistent with Christian mythology. This allowed him to emulate the great Classical poets—Homer, Virgil, Ovid and so on—by invoking the Muse, while also respecting Christian doctrine. The equation of the Muse with the “angel of the LORD” is one such case, but later in Paradise Lost he explains that the gods of the ancient pantheons, including Titan, Saturn, and Jupiter, were actually fallen angels:

Nor had they yet among the Sons of Eve
Got them new Names, till wandring ore the Earth,
Through Gods high sufferance for the tryal of man,
By falsities and lyes the greatest part
Of Mankind they corrupted to forsake
God their Creator, and th’ invisible
Glory of him, that made them, to transform
Oft to the Image of a Brute, adorn’d
With gay Religions full of Pomp and Gold,
And Devils to adore for Deities:
Then were they known to men by various Names,
And various Idols through the Heathen World.
[…]
These were the prime in order and in might;
The rest were long to tell, though far renown’d,
Th’ Ionian Gods, of Javans† Issue held
Gods, yet confest later then Heav’n and Earth
Thir boasted Parents; Titan‡ Heav’ns first born
With his enormous brood, and birthright seis’d
By younger Saturn, he from mightier Jove
His own and Rhea’s Son like measure found;
So Jove usurping reign’d: these first in Creet
And Ida known, thence on the Snowy top
Of cold Olympus rul’d the middle Air
Thir highest Heav’n; or on the Delphian Cliff,
Or in Dodona, and through all the bounds
Of Doric Land; or who with Saturn old
Fled over Adria to th’ Hesperian Fields,
And ore the Celtic roam’d the utmost Isles.

Paradise Lost 1.364–521.

† Javan was a grandson of Noah (Genesis 10:2), and according to Jewish tradition the ancestor of the Greeks (Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews 1.6). ‡ Titan, “the firstborn son of Uranus and Gaia is not named as one of the twelve Titans in Hesiod’s Theogony, but was apparently invented by Euhemerus of Messene (fl. late 4th cent. B.C.) as part of his reinterpretation of the Greek gods and heroes as historical figures, and subsequently incorporated into some later retellings of classical myth.” (OED)

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.