Critical examination of opening lines of Paradise Lost and discussion about how Milton’s invocation is different from that of conventional pagan epics:
The first twenty-six lines of Paradise Lost (Book I) constitute an introductory invocation or prayer to heavenly Muse to inspire and bless the poet to complete his task properly. In this way, John Milton basically follows the poets of antiquity like Homer and Virgil. These ancient poets used to appeal to gods and goddesses, in whom the modern poets no more believe. Instead of praying to these gods and goddesses, Milton prays to Almighty God, to give him the necessary help and guidance to complete his task. This shows Milton’s personal belief in God as well as the teachings of the Christian Religion.
Milton was quite confident and in full Biblical knowledge that the Heavenly Muse has already provided inspiration to Moses on Mount Sinai for writing an account of the creation with which the first chapter – Genesis of Bible opens. Moreover, the poet has resolved to write the epic nobler and different from that of conventional pagan epics. He seeks the help of the Muse to deal with the subject in such a manner not attempted so far by anyone, either in prose or verse. That with no middle flight intends to soar; Above the Anion Mount, while it pursues things unattended yet in prose or rhyme. He prays to the Muse to enlighten the darkness of his limited vision to exalt his low level of earthly scholarship and misunderstanding.
Critics have admired the beauty and excellence of these opening lines especially the first six lines which read as under:
Of Man’s first disobedience, and the fruit,
Of that Forbidden Tree,
Whose mortal taste
Brought Death into the world, and all our woe,
With the loss of Eden, till one greater Man
Restore us and regain the blissful seat
Sing heavenly Muse (Li, 1-6)
His main aim of this invocation is to assert Eternal. Providence and justify the ways of God to man. Husdon adds:
“These opening lines not only contain the invocation but also announce the theme. It is of man’s first disobedience that the poet has undertaken to sing. Yet it is important to remember that this theme has a larger bearing than this first statement might lead us to anticipate. The Fall of Man is the origin of the evil that is the immediate subject. But it is so trended as to become universalized. The tragedy of Eden is conceived as the tragedy of the whole human race. The poem in fact sets forth the eternal conflict between God and Satan alike throughout history and in the soul of each man. “
Milton leads up to the climax of the invocation, that his aim is momentous because he wants to “assert Eternal Providence” and justify the ways of God to Man:
What in me is dark,
Illumine, what is low raise and support,
That to the eight of this great argument,
I may assert Eternal Providence,
And justify the way of God to Man
The first line, for example, goes on until line 5 before the construction and aim become clear with the verb sing. Basically, Milton uses a grammatical structure that is purely Latin. Matthew Arnold in this regard says:
“Milton is so resolute not to let it (the sentence) escape him till he has crowded into it all he can that it is not till the thirty-ninth word in the sentence that he will give us the key to it, the word of actions, the verb;”
The first six lines have power and sublimate what T.S. Eliot calls the quality of “breathless leap;” It is an example of suspensions the verb is delayed while the whole subject is proposed. Milton brings in all the things he is going to deals with disobedience, death, loss of Eden, and restoration through one’s greater Man before he brings in the verb.
Ambition and humility are mixed in the sense and movement of verse. The self-confidence of stating that he is attempting something as yet unattempted. (Read about pagan epics)
“What in me is dark….”
In the invocation to the Muse, Milton follows a poetic tradition adopted from antiquity but in such a way to fill it with significance. The heavenly Muse is in reality the divine inspiration, which revealed the truth of religion to Moses and the spirit of God, which dwells in the heart of every believer.