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With Mortal Voice: Milton Defends Against the Muse

From: ELH
Volume 62, Number 3, Fall 1995
pp. 509-527 | 10.1353/elh.1995.0021

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

ELH 62.3 (1995) 509-527

There she was, for centuries, the big
broad with the luscious tits, the secret
smile, a toga of translucent silk, cool
hand on the shoulder of the suffering
poet -- the tease who made him
squeeze those great words out. He
was the mirror and the lamp, she the torch
who burned with the blue butane of a pure
refusal, too good for mortal use, her breath
was cold as mountain streams, the chill
of the eternal -- no hint of plaque
or any odor of decay. Ethereal as hell,
a spirit in chiffon, the mystery is
how she had got so rounded in the butt
and all her better parts as soft as butter,
why such a wraith should be so ample,
what her endowments had to do
with that for which she set example --
all this was surely Mystery, oh that elusive
object of desire, that "untouch'd bride
of quietness," that plump poetic dish
who lived on air but looked
as if she dined on pasta.

-- from "The Muse," by Eleanor Wilner, Ms., March/April 1991

When Milton invokes his muse at the beginning of book 7 of Paradise Lost, he does so with a hesitation that does not resolve itself in the following lines. The hesitation concerns the rightness of the name by which the muse is called: "Descend from Heav'n Urania, by that name / If rightly thou art call'd, whose Voice divine / Following, above th'Olympian hill I soar." These lines deliberately recall two earlier invocations, that of book 1 in which the poet announces his intention "with no middle flight... to soar / Above th'Aonian Mount" (1.14-15) and that of book 3 in which he rejoices at having escaped the "Stygian Pool... while in my flight / Through utter and through middle darkness borne / With other notes than to th'Orphean Lyre / I sung of Chaos and Eternal Night " (3.14-18). All three invocations are addressed to the same person (?), and all three worry either the identity or the location of the addressee. Does the muse sit on the "secret top" (1.6) of Oreb (in which case we still wouldn't be able to locate it since the mount is secret) or on Sinai? Is the muse co-existent with "Light, offspring of Heav'n first-born" (3.1) or "hearest thou rather pure Ethereal stream, / Whose Fountain who shall tell" (3.7-8)? In these first two invocations, the question of the muse's gender is carefully avoided (although the phrase "Thou O Spirit" at 1.17 seems a reference to one of the persons of the Trinity and to the masculine noun for spirit, animus; lumens (light) is neuter), but in the third the name given is unambiguously female. No sooner is it given, however, than it is qualified and even repudiated. I call, the poet says, not the name, but the meaning, but he doesn't tell us what the meaning is, except negatively: "for thou / Nor of the Muses nine, nor on the top / Of old Olympus dwell'st, but Heav'nly born" (7.5-7). That is, you are not one of those women, nor were you born of women, since "heav'nly born" means precisely born of Heaven, of the Father, generated directly by him as were the Son and the Holy Spirit. Gender is admitted once again when the muse is said to converse "with Eternal Wisdom... / Wisdom thy Sister" (7.910), but the marking of Wisdom as female (and here Milton as many have noted follows Proverbs, chapter 8), tells us nothing about the muse who plays with Wisdom its sister but is not (or at least is not said to be) Wisdom's sister in turn. All we know is that both play "In presence of th'Almighty Father", who is "pleas'd / With thy Celestial Song" (7.11-12).

The introduction of the Almighty Father does not so much dispel the uncertainties of gender and person as render them less urgent; for the Father, precisely because he is almighty, grounds and centers a play that is anything but free, a play circumscribed by his "presence...


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