In lines 1-26 of Book I of John Milton's Paradise Lost, how is the speaker ambitious and how is the speaker humble?
The speaker of the first 26 lines of John Milton’s Paradise Lost is clearly meant to be identified with Milton himself. The speaker displays an intriguing combination of ambition and humility, as befits a mere human being who is attempting to explain one of the most important events in all of human history.
Milton’s ambitiousness is implied or overtly stated in a number of ways in these lines. Some examples of his ambitiousness include the following:
- He chooses a theme already dealt with in the Bible and thus runs the risk of appearing to try to “improve upon” scripture.
- He chooses a genre, mode, and style associated with the classical epics, some of the most highly respected poems ever written.
- He directly addresses the same “Heav’nly Muse” (1.6) who had inspired Moses to write the first five books of the Bible. Milton knew that such an address might seem presumptuous to some of his readers.
- He implicitly places compares himself to Moses since he seeks, like Moses, to act as an inspired prophet and historian.
- He explicitly calls his song “adventurous” (1.13), or daring.
- He explicitly proclaims that he intends “with no middle flight . . . to soar / Above th’Aonian mount” (1.14-15) – in other words, to surpass the achievements of the great writers of classical epics.
- He announces that he intends to pursue “Things unattempted yet in prose or rhyme” (1.16).
- He suggests that the Holy Spirit will recognize in him an “upright heart and pure” (1.17).
- He openly states that he intends to explain the workings of “Eternal providence, / And justify [that is, show the justice of] the ways of God to men” (1.26).
In 26 lines, then, Milton reveals enormous spiritual and poetic ambitions. On the other hand, these 26 lines also imply or openly reveal a good deal of humility as well. Examples of such humility include the following:
- In speaking of the need for Christ to “Restore us” after the fall (1.5), Milton implies that he, like all human beings, is fallen and sinful.
- By invoking the heavenly muse to sing (1.6), Milton implies his hope that he will merely be a mouthpiece inspired by God.
- By allowing the muse to choose the exact mode of inspiration (1.10-13), Milton implies that he is an essentially passive receptacle of divine inspiration.
- In the very lines in which Milton announces his intention to pursue “Things unattempted yet in prose or rhyme” (1.16), he pays sly tribute to an earlier Italian poet.
- In line 1.19, Milton explicitly asks for divine instruction.
- In lines 1.22-23, Milton concedes that his physical blindness makes him all the more dependent on divine inspiration.
- In those same lines, Milton implies that he, like all human beings, is spiritually dark and needs spiritual support from God. In other words, he concedes his sinfulness and imperfection and makes clear that he can achieve nothing without God’s help.
For an excellent brief overview of the poem, please see C. S. Lewis, A Preface to Paradise Lost (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1961).
The first twenty-six lines of Paradise Lost come from the perspective of the writer of the epic poem, John Milton himself. This is in accord with the tradition of epic poetry: Homer in The Iliad and Virgil in The Aeneid both opened their epic poems with a personal invocation of the muses and an explanation of the topic of their epic poems. These two elements of an epic poem (the invocation of the muse and the statement of the epic's theme) are just two of the epic conventions that all epic poems have in common.
On the one hand, this makes the first twenty-six lines of Paradise Lost very ambitious, and even the opposite of humble: they make these lines pompous. By invoking a muse and stating the theme of his work, Milton is making it clear that he is writing an epic poem, thereby putting his work alongside established greats who were, at the time Milton was writing, widely regarded as the best writers of all time. Additionally, epic poems are meant to encapsulate the epitome of the writer's culture, or define a civilization: The Iliad was a core aspect of Greek culture, while Virgil expressly created The Aeneid to showcase the power of the Roman Empire. Milton's aim in Paradise Lost, however, was to not only match the creation of Homer and Virgil, but to surpass them: the aim of Milton's Paradise Lost was to be an epic not of Milton's own British culture, but of all mankind.
However, the epic convention of invoking a muse to help Milton write Paradise Lost could also be interpreted as a humbling idea, as well. After all, it means that the writer, Milton, feels unable to write the poem on his own and needs divine intervention to make it worth the reading.