The Prologue in Paradise Lost Book 9

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      It is now a well-accepted fact that Paradise Lost is an epic. But when Milton ventured upon it, its subject was a new one for epics. In Book IX, which deals with the crisis of the entire work, Milton dwells upon the nature of work he has undertaken. Lines 1-47 form a prologue which is both retrospective and prospective. In the process, Milton also asserts the inherent superiority of his epic theme over the traditional or conventional epics.

Change of Tone

      The prologue in Book IX differs from the earlier ones in several ways. It is not an invocation to a Muse (though the celestial patroness is mentioned). It does not become a prayer to the Holy Spirit. The primary function of the prologue is to change the tone from that of the leisurely books, in which Adam and the ‘sociable Angel’, Raphael, talked so easily together in the idyllic days before sin entered the Garden of Eden, to the mood of the four final books. From the idyllic and pastoral mood, says Milton,

I now must change
These notes to tragic;....

      For those friendly visits would no longer be possible. Man has sinned by disobeying God, by defying the only commandment laid by God, and has had to forgo the innocent pleasures which were once his. Man has been justly dealt with by God for his disobedience. The fall from innocence is a tragic subject and Milton justifies his choice of theme as a fitting one for an epic. Indeed, as he puts it, the theme is grand, dealing as it does with

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

Milton’s Defence of his Choice of Subject

      Milton has chosen a tragic theme, but he goes further to assert that it is a theme fitting for an epic. He has deliberately chosen a Christian subject. The theme, he confidently states, is in no way inferior to the themes chosen by the earlier epic writers. His Christian epic is ‘not less but more heroic’ he insists, than the three great classical epics (Iliad, Odyssey and Aeneid), and much more suitable for the grandeur of an epic than the trappings of chivalric romance of the Middle Ages. Milton’s God is omnipotent unlike the gods of classical epics who are sometimes made to look ridiculous in their wrath against human beings. The consequences of defying such a God are bound to be tragic and this tragic theme is inherently ‘heroic’ and suitable for epic poetry.

A Subject Truly Heroic

      Milton’s theme is the Fall of Man. It is sad task to dilate on it, because it bears on Man’s incidence to sin, suffering, and death. But it is a nobler theme, and better fitted for epic treatment, than the squabbles among men and gods celebrated by Homer and by Virgil.

      The subject of Homer’s Iliad is the wrath of Achilles, the Greek hero, as he ‘pursued’ or followed the ‘fugitive’ or fleeing Trojan Prince Hector. Achilles, furious at the death of his friend, Patroclus, at the hands of Hector, sought the latter. Hector, was so awed by the avenging fury of Achilles that he ran thrice round Troy before picking up enough courage to fight his pursuer and die gloriously. The subject of Homer’s Odyssey is the wrath of Neptune, the sea god, as it was vented on the “Greek”, namely, Ulysses, King of Ithaca. The subject, again, of a third classical epic, Virgil’s Aeneid, is the wrath of Juno, Queen of the Heavens, on Aeneas, the son of Venus or, as she was also called, Cytherea, and the principal episode of the poem is the wrath of Turnus, an Italian Prince, at Princess Lavinia, then betrothed to him, being promised to Aeneas. So it appears that the classical poets, Homer and Virgil, were taken up exclusively by human or divine wrath and its unseemly consequences. Milton will choose a different theme, sad though it might be. The pity of man’s subjection to sin and his fortitude in bearing its consequences are more truly tragic and heroic than the pomp and circumstance of classical epics.

The Heavenly Muse Inspires Him

      The idea of a goddess inspiring poetical composition, or any artistic effort is a classical conception. It is also a custom or convention, to invoke her aid, to begin with. Milton follows the convention, but his Muse is not the same as the classical Muse. He calls her the ‘Heavenly Muse’, or, as here, his ‘Celestial Patroness’ one who inspires sacred verse. A name that he gives her elsewhere is ‘Urania’ and Urania is said to be the Muse of Astronomy. It is fitting that she should inspire him because he sings, in this poem, of the beginning of the stellar and planetary universe and of the heavenly regions.

Why he Chose the Subject

      The Biblical story of the Fall of Man from Paradise had appealed to Milton, as a fit subject for a tragedy on the classical model as early as 1640. Then for nearly sixteen years and more, he was busy with political and religious controversy in support of the cause of liberty in England. It was only in 1658, when he was fifty and had been blind for five years, that he could start composing the great poem of his fancy; then he took five years to complete it. All this time, he says, “long choosing, and beginning late”, and despite his limitations of body and mind, it was the Divine Muse that had kept the light of his ideal flame in his mind so that he has no doubt of her further helping him to go on with his good work and to complete it.

Difficulties to be Overcome

      Milton enumerates the difficulties which his Muse will help him overcome. These are mainly three—the age, the climate, and his own advancing years. As for the age, people always say that present is a decadence from the past, so that one would despair of being able to revive the glories of classical antiquity; for example, the heroic age of Homer. As for the climate, it is well-known that England is a cold and foggy land, apt to make a man sluggish; it is not like the Mediterranean region, with its calm, blue waters and clear, blue sky, which made old Homer and Virgil sing. As for the poet, Milton, at the time of writing this poem, he was on the wrong side of fifty, and—as Shelley said—“blind, old, and lonely” But there was also a great compensation; he knew himself to be yet a ‘Son of Light’, inspired by Urania, and so he would do the fullest justice to his theme.


      In a way, it would be possible to consider Milton as the hero of the Prologue and the classical epic poets as his antagonists. However, rather than hero versus antagonists, it would be more appropriate to see the prologue as Milton’s justification of a theme hitherto not taken up by epic poets. He was venturing in a new direction and he wanted to silence his critics on the issue.

University Questions

What light does Book IX of Paradise Lost throw upon Milton’s conception of the epic?
Consider the Invocation in Book IX of Paradise Lost as a prologue to the tragic drama of man’s fall.
Discuss the significance of the Prologue in Book IX of Paradise Lost.
How far would it be true to say that Milton himself is the hero of Book IX of Paradise Lost and his antagonists are the classical epic poets?
Critically analyze Milton’s views on the epic form as propounded in Book IX of Paradise Lost.

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