Although Milton draws on a variety of resources to attain stylistic grandeur, readers' responses differ, depending on knowledge, taste, and expectation. A test case is presented us as Michael sets out on the prophecies of Books 11 and 12. Proper nouns, evocative and high astounding names offer one such resource. “Men called him architect” differs from “Men call'd him Mulciber.” Of course nothing is guaranteed in art: the name inevitably means more to a reader possessing knowledge of Mulciber-Hephaestos-Vulcan and of Zeus's throwing him from Heaven. Milton's love of canorous names is not necessarily shared by readers in every age or mood. Milton's onomastic ode (11.385–411) initiating “the Visions of God” provides an excellent test case, because it has required commentary from Patrick Hume to Alastair Fowler. To their observations we may preface another that helps explain the function of names of people and places in Paradise Lost. Following epic tradition, Milton quite strikingly offers proper nouns, but not here, earlier, or later gives a date. (On biblical dating, see Excursus 12.553.)
The earliest commentator, Patrick Hume, presumably spoke for other seventeenth-century readers as well when he expressed his high approval in an introductory paragraph. (The quotations come from annotations on the passages, and the printer's styles for the older editors are considerably modernized.)
Most admirable and excellent are these episodes, which here begin, and adorn our author's poem to the end, surpassing all those tedious stories and the vain-glorious boastings of the Homeric heroes and Virgil's artful enumeration of the Roman conquerors down to Augustus Caesar and the bemoaned Marcellus (Aeneid 6) as much as a relation of what was to come to pass from the beginning of the world to Adam and all mankind to the end of it, and in order to a better (taken out of sacred story), must excel any particular of human history whatever.
Not surprisingly, that cicerone to prosaic reason, Richard Bentley, bracketed this account of empires, deriding it as a product of Milton's obtrusive editor.
By the time of Thomas Newton in the middle of the eighteenth century, a judgment different from Hume's might seem required. He ends Michael's, or Milton's, two dozen lines:
thus he surveys the four different parts of the world, but it must be confessed, more with an ostentation of learning than with any additional beauty to the poem. But Mr. Thyer is of the opinion that such little sallies of the Muse agreeably enough diversify the scene, and observes that Tasso, whose Godfrey[i.e., Gerusalemme Liberata]isno very imperfect model of a regular epic poem, has in his fifteenth canto employed thirty or forty stanzas together in a description of this sort, which had no necessary connexion with his general plan.
The difference between Hume and Newton is more profound than may be evident. Hume's enthusiasm extols the entire array of Michael's visions and narrated accounts in the last two books. Newton is lukewarm about Milton's grand overture. The common judgment today supports Newton rather than Hume, or more accurately, applies Newton's unenthusiastic judgment of a part to the whole conceived by Hume. In our view, it is possible to find interest in this opening and in ensuing episodes without thinking Books 11 and 12 the peaks of Paradise Lost.
These issues are not readily resolved, but the twentyodd opening lines offer a manageable sample. Since we must have in mind what it is we are considering, David Masson's simple division into four units assists modern memories and will render the whole more readily intelligible. Like Hume, he is impressed.
In this splendid geographical survey there is a certain order. (1) In lines 387–395 the eye sweeps eastward in a wide circuit over what is in the main Asia. (2) Next, Africa comes into view, lines 396–404. (3) Europe is then merely glanced at, lines 405, 406, as concentrated all in all in Rome. (4) But perhaps it was given to Adam, in spirit, to see not only the hemisphere of the earth on which he was, but also America beyond the Atlantic, lines 406–11.
Bearing in mind those four divisions, we can draw upon Alastair Fowler's highly detailed annotations. At this point a reader also needs a second opening of this book at Book 11, lines 388–95.
388–95 The Asian kingdoms are arranged symmetrically