Milton, the Muses, the Prophets, the Spirit, and Prophetic Poetry

Barbara Lewalski, Harvard University

Milton is often described by critics as a prophet poet, and he provides a basis for that description in many prose tracts and poems. But just what that designation means in his case is neither obvious nor static. My purpose here is to define more precisely what Milton himself understood by that self-characterization throughout his long career, from the Nativity Ode to Paradise Regained. This involves examining where and how Milton invokes or discusses various Muses—what they represent and what they are asked to bring to the poem in question—from the Muse charged to produce and present the Nativity Ode to the multiple kinds of assistance the Bard seeks from the Celestial Muse Urania in Paradise Lost. I look also at the prophets with whom Milton aligns himself as polemicist and as poet, attending to when and why as a poet he identifies himself especially with Isaiah.

Of central importance to this inquiry is Milton’s developing understanding of the action of the Spirit, Relevant sections of Milton’s De doctrina Christiana as well as some passages in Milton’s prose tracts clarify his belief that the Spirit reveals to every willing Christian the essential meaning of scripture passages, taking precedence over the literal text and often reaching beyond it. In Areopagitica Milton developed the implications of that theological view, to insist that all knowledgeable Christians might be prophets—understanding that term, as did many in the period, to be synonymous in gospel times with teacher or preacher. That inclusive definition clearly bears on Milton’s conception of his own vocation as prophet-poet, as a calling evidenced especially by his God-given poetic talents, not by a Divine voice impinging on his consciousness. Giving extended attention to Paradise Lost, I examine the four Proems in some detail, to distinguish how the Spirit and the Muse are characterized in the several invocations and descriptions, and the aid requested from each. In this regard I consider the import of the little myth Milton creates, taking off from Proverbs 8, of Urania’s heavenly origin as sister of Wisdom and embodiment of celestial song delighting God in heaven.

Throughout, I indicate how Milton’s descriptions of the illumination sought from the Spirit and of the poetic resources and aid brought by various Muses co-exist with forceful assertions of his own authorial agency.