Conrad Zaar (conrad_zaar) wrote in miltonic,
Conrad Zaar

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"To soar / Above th'Aonian Mount": Christianity and Classicism

Paradise Lost begins with Milton's famous invocation of his Muse. This is not, of course, one of the nine Muses of antiquity, but rather the Holy Spirit "that on the secret top / Of Oreb, or of Siani, didst inspire / That Shepherd" (I. 6-8). A Christian epic requires a Christian Muse. According to Milton, the Holy Spirit will serve him better than any Classical Muse ever could, providing sacred inspiration for

                   my advent'rous Song,
That with no middle flight intends to soar
Above th'Aonian Mount, while it pursues
Things unattempted yet in Prose or Rhyme. (I. 13-16)

Here Milton promises that his epic will outdo anything attempted by those who have relied on inspiration from Classical sources.

Another instance of Milton privileging of Christianity over Classicism occurs somewhat later in Book I, in the description of the newly-constructed palace of Pandemonium. Specifically, Milton devotes a few lines to the architect of the remarkable structure:

Men call'd him Mulciber; and how he fell
From Heav'n, they fabl'd, thrown by angry Jove
Sheer o'er the Crystal Battlements: from Morn
To Noon he fell, from Noon to dewy Eve,
A Summer's day; and with the setting Sun
Dropt from the Zenith like a falling Star,
On Lemnos th'Aegean Isle (I. 740-46).

"Mulciber" is another name for the pagan god Vulcan (or Hephaistos) and Milton appears to have taken his story almost directly out of Homer's Iliad, in which Hephaistos describes how Zeus punished him for aiding Hera against his will:

he caught my by my foot and threw me from the magic threshhold,
and all day long I dropped helpless, and about sunset
I landed in Lemnos, and there was not much life left in me. (I. 591-94)

Milton insists, however, that this classical account is "Erring; for he with this rebellious rout / Fell long before" (I. 747-48). Homer, it seems, was mistaken: Mulciber was not thrown down from heaven by an angry Zeus, but by an angry God, as punishment for rebellion. Furthermore, he did not fall for one day and land in Lemnos; rather, he fell for three days and landed in Hell. Here we see the advantage of Milton's Christian Muse, which has enabled his story to "soar above th'Aonian Mount," allowing Milton to surpass Homer in accuracy.

And yet the balance between the Biblical and the Classical does not always tilt towards the former. Although Milton takes his story from the Christian tradition, of course, the poetic form of the epic comes from the Classical tradition that he seeks to outdo. His references to God (at least so far in my reading) make Him come across as a very Zeus-like figure, a "Thunderer," who wields lighting bolts as weapons. And although Milton's celebrated catalog of demons does not just consist of Old Testament deities, but Classical deities such as Saturn and Jove, he does not give these figures the gruesome descriptions that the Biblical demons get (and none of them have yet been mentioned since their initial appearance).

I'll be interested to see how this Biblical/Classical interplay works out as the poem continues.

Any thoughts?
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