It has become a commonplace of Milton criticism to describe Milton as, in some sense, a prophetic poet, a tradition reaching back to Marvell’s prefatory poem to the 1674 Paradise Lost. Challenging all those who might think Milton demeaned or took unwarranted liberties with the biblical text, Andrew Marvell insists, “Just Heav’n thee like Tiresias to requite / Rewards with Prophesie thy loss of sight.”1 Looking to interpret such “Prophesie” from the invocations and other references in the poems and prose, early commentators set some directions that have endured over the centuries. Patrick Hume (1695) offered an early example of the practice of collapsing such references as finally all terms for the Spirit’s inspiration: “Milton needed to invoke his heavenly Muse, whom he later identifies with the Holy Spirit.”2 Others affirm, as a global proposition, that Milton thought of himself and his epic as inspired. Thomas Newton (1749) cites as evidence Milton’s widow, who “was wont to say that he really did look upon himself as inspired,” and David Masson (1890) concludes, “Milton believed himself to be, in some real sense, an inspired man.”3 [End Page 59]
Several later critics have explored in depth some aspects of the prophetic or visionary aspect of Milton’s writing. Leland Ryken highlights the motifs of apocalypse and apocalyptic imagery as unifying and dominant elements in Milton’s epic. Michael Lieb found such a prophetic center in Ezekiel’s visio Dei, the chariot of Ezekiel (Ezek. 1:4–28) as described in book 6 (827–52) of Paradise Lost, as Milton, like Ezekiel, conveys here and elsewhere the mysterious and terrifying otherness of God. William Kerrigan asserts categorically that Milton saw himself as a prophet whose epic offers “another Testament,” created “with prophetic inspiration higher than ‘those Hebrews of old.’” Accordingly, “Milton assumes divine authority for every word, every event in Paradise Lost that does not appear in Scripture.”4 A more prominent vein of criticism explores Milton as practitioner of a “visionary” mode, broadly defined and encompassing various senses of the prophetic or of inspiration. Looking especially to the Romantic poets’ praises of Milton as a visionary poet, Joseph Wittreich discusses many of Milton’s works in such terms and places him in a line of visionary poets (Spenser, Sidney, Blake). The term “visionary” incorporates a wide range of meanings and applications in a collection of essays paying tribute to Michael Lieb’s work, Visionary Milton: Essays on Prophecy and Violence.5
We need to attend with greater care to what Milton himself means by casting himself as, in some sense, a prophetic poet. Throughout his long career he refers often, in several works of prose and poetry, to various prophets, to the muse, and to the Spirit. Rather than bundling such references together under the rubric “prophetic,” or “visionary,” we need to attend to their specificity, to the circumstances and implications of his identification with particular prophet-models, and to ask when, and why, he now addresses particular muses or the Spirit of God. Doing so reveals that Milton’s self-definition as prophet-poet is complex and that from the beginning it coexists with strong assertions of authorial agency.
In his Nativity ode, written at age 21 and presented first in his 1645 Poems, Milton seeks to interpret the significance of Christ’s Nativity to nature, humankind, and history. In the four-stanza [End Page 60] proem, he inserts himself as poet into the Nativity event and associates himself with several other witnesses to and celebrants of it. In “Elegia sexta,” he describes this poem to his friend Charles Diodati as a gift “we gave … for Christ’s birth,” which “dawn’s first light carried to me.”6 The plural dedimus refers to the several participants with whom he joins, even as the hymn itself ends with another inclusive plural: “Time is our tedious Song should here have ending” (239).
The proem states first that this is the morn of which “the holy sages once did sing” (Nativity, 5), alluding to those Hebrew prophets like David and Isaiah whose verses were thought...