The Prophet's Conundrum: Poetic Soaring in Milton's "Nativity Ode" and "The Passion"

By Reisner, Noam | Philological Quarterly, Fall 2004 | Go to article overview

The Prophet's Conundrum: Poetic Soaring in Milton's "Nativity Ode" and "The Passion"


Reisner, Noam, Philological Quarterly


Milton, it is often stressed, was a sect of one. However, to overemphasize the rebellious nature of Milton's early religious convictions is to conceal a basic biographical fact: he was raised a devout Perkinsian Calvinist, not a radical, free thinking Arminian. Throughout the anti-prelatical tracts, Milton indeed unequivocally aligns himself with orthodox Genevan doctrine on sacraments and preaching, the self-sufficiency and literality of Scripture, and the primitive merits of presbyterianism. Granted, it was his fierce sense of prophetic calling that ultimately drove him in 1641 to temporarily set aside his personal literary ambition as a poet in favor of polemical prose. However, this raises a previously unconsidered question for the earlier poetry of the 1620s-1640s. Is Milton's Genevan sense of elect assurance in the anti-prelatical tracts commensurate with the historical Milton's concurrent desire to become a prophetic poet? As I will argue in this essay, prosaic faith in orthodox Genevan doctrine posed complex difficulties for one claiming to be a "Poet soaring in the high region of his fancies with his garland and singing robes about him." (1)

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.

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