THIS TRANSIENT WORLD
A conspicuous feature of the history that he, and we, have just learnt is that (like the histories in other epics) it includes not a single date. That is in spite of the fact that over the centuries, many attempts were made by Christians to account for human history in specifically dated terms, using the Judeo-Christian scriptures and other sources deemed authoritative. Well after Milton wrote of Michael's account, perplexed authorities prepared perplexing accounts based on actions largely by named people in named places at dated times. In modern historical terms, they involve countless errors. Milton must have been pleased to play it safe, but he, too, had to have some historical scheme in mind that his contemporaries would find recognizable and that would not be glaringly inconsistent with the Bible. That requirement is nowhere more evident than in Michael's prophecies in Books 11 and 12.As is well known, Michael's revelation of history to Adam has many precedents, particularly in heroic poetry. Spenser's tenth canto of Book 2 of The Faerie Queene is a modern example with which Milton was obviously familiar, as Anchises' prophecy to Aeneas in the sixth book of the Aeneid was clearly a classical precedent. In fact it could be argued that the twelvebook version of Paradise Lost emphasizes a peculiar structural manipulation of Virgil's epic. Milton's first two books correspond to the first or Tartarean half of the sixth book of the Aeneid, as his last two do to the second or Elysian half. However much we wish to make of that as design, the history Michael presents is heavily Judeo-Christian. Books 11 and 12 are persistently and thickly referential but overwhelmingly to the Bible rather than classical literature.It is not simply these last two books that relate what to Milton's view were important historical matters. Adam very pointedly addresses Raphael as “Divine / Hystorian” in 8.6–7. The distinction between the historical messages of the two angels is that Raphael tells of what is the past to Adam and Eve, whereas Michael narrates their future and that of their descendants. The poem's central plot, which is introduced as early as 1.27 or certainly 1.54, constitutes a stage in a long history encapsulated in the first five lines of the poem. In fact, once we adopt a sense of the role of “Eternal Providence, ” and “the wayes of God to men, ” we are dealing with what the Germans term more easily than we salvation history (Heilungs geschichte). In what follows, the chief concern is with what Milton chooses as historical episodes, his use of biblical resources, and his dating of events.Prelapsarian history is either recalled by Raphael for Adam and Eve (of Eve for Adam, of Adam for Raphael, etc.) or consists of the action involving them and others (named and unnamed), whereas history after the Fall is presented in visual and oral revelations by Michael. This scale and kind of history, related so complexly and in a sequence seldom in the sequential order of the plot, is nonetheless easily followed. Perhaps that is because of its very importance to Milton. But there are certain identifiable issues.
How soon hath thy prediction, Seer blest, Measur'd this transient World, the Race of time, Till time stand fixt … (12.553–55)
|1.||The world chronologies existing in Milton's time.|
|2.||Any alterations of those chronologies by Milton.|
|3.||Any inconsistencies of fact or impression.|
The history of the world, as the world was conceived in the seventeenth century, was a matter of as great concern then as it is today, albeit with differing issues and methods of calculation. It may be recalled that world chronology, along with alchemy and judicial astrology, were matters seriously attended to by Newton. Some of these subjects interested Chaucer, who held March to be “the month in which the world bigan … whan God first maked man” (Nun's Priest's Tale, 3187–88). That was reflected in the year's being calculated to begin in that month under the “Old Style” system of the Julian calendar that coexisted, in England, during the seventeenth century with the Gregorian, which fully replaced