The Invocation in Book 9 of Paradise Lost

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The Origin

      It has been a practice since the times of Homer for the writers to open their literary works with an invocation to the Muse, Urania, Aphrodite or God. Milton however did not follow it as a conventional custom. Milton believed that in order “to justify the ways of God to man”, he had been inspired by the Muse to write this great epic as a poetic offering to God. Not only in Book IX but Milton opens various other books also with an invocation to the Muse. But the invocation with which he opens his Book IX is different from other books. It is retrospective because it looks back to books V to VIII and it is prospective because it looks forward to the tragic Fall of Man hence, it is lengthier and also a manifesto of the poet’s epic theories.

Change in the Tone of the Poet

      In the earlier books Milton had sung of the friendly visits of Raphael to the garden of Eden and had brought out his discussion with Adam regarding creation, about the war in heaven and other cosmic matters. But in this book the poet invokes the Muse to help him in presenting the most difficult situation of Man’s sin of disobedience in eating the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge. He faces the challenging situation of describing man’s first act of sin arousing, God’s wrath and subjecting the human race to Death. Man could not keep the one and only restraint put on him and thus led himself towards Sin, Death and suffering which the poet now sings about:

Foul distrust, and breach
Disloyal on the part of man, revolt,
And disobedience: on the part heaven
Now alienated, distance and distaste,
Anger and just rebuke, and judgement given,
That bought into this world, a world of woe,
Sin and her shadow Death, and Misery
Death’s harbinger.

      Since he considers his theme superior to the themes of the earlier epics, that of Homer, Virgil and Spenser, he invokes the “celestial patroness” the Muse to come to his aid. The poet confesses with profound gratitude to have written under the direct supervision of God.

Who deigns
Her rightly visitation unimplor’d, And dictates to me slumb’ring or inspires Easy my premeditated verse.

      Milton asserts the superiority of his theme though it may be a tragic one. He considers it a task of the inferior craftsmanship to indulge in subjects like the trappings and paraphernalia of medieval chivalry with its heraldic finery, its jousts and tournaments and formal banquets. Hence, he says:

Sad task, yet argument
Not less but more heroic than the wrath Of stem Achilles or his foe pursued Thrice fugitive about Troy will: or rage Of Tumus for Lavinia disespoused,
Or Neptun’s ire on Juno’s, that so long Perplexed the Greek and Cytherea’s son

Milton’s Difficult Theme

      Milton thus claims to sing of a noble theme which would bring honor to the name of the poet. He feels that his subjects matter would enhance the reputation of epic poetry unless it is not faced by any of the three dangers. Firstly, it is too late in the world for epic to flourish. Secondly, England is too far north for the climate to favor the creation of an epic and thirdly, Milton being over fifty may be too old. But Milton believes that the inspiration of his Heavenly Muse will, make him overcome these disadvantages.

Negative Time and Situation

      The poet expresses his need of the divine help of the “celestial patroness” much more because he has fallen on evil days. He hopes that she will continue to inspire him as she has done so far. He faces many difficulties such as his old age, he has begun too late because it took him a long time in choosing this all embracing theme, moreover, it may be an age too late i.e. an age not suitable for epic poetry. He is however, confident of being successful because the task is not all his but hers who he says “brings it rightly to my ear.” With the Restoration of Charles II on the throne of England, things changed and Milton could not do much without the help and guidance of the Divine Muse:

Me of these
Nor skille’d nor studious, higher argument
Remains sufficient of itself to raise
That name, unless an age too old on cold,
Climate, or years damp my intended wing
Deprest, and much they may, it all be mine,
Not hers who brings it rightly to my ear.

      Since Milton was writing a Christian epic, he invoked the Christian “Celestial Muse” and not the pagan goddess or Muse of Poetry because an invocation to the Pagan Goddess would not have been in keeping with the context of the poetry.

University Questions

What is the significance of the invocation in Book IX of Paradise Lost?
“The invocation has been presented as a prologue to the tragic drama of Man’s Fall”. How far is this statement true about Book IX of Paradise Lost?

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