What is the significance of these lines from Paradise Lost: "What in me is dark Illume, what is low raise and support; . . . And justify the ways of God to men."?

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These lines from "Paradise Lost" signify Milton's invocation to the Christian God, akin to ancient poets' invocation of the muse, for divine aid in his narrative. He seeks illumination for his spiritual darkness and support for his human frailties to justly recount the divine providence. This is a prayer, reflecting Milton's humility and fear of not adequately portraying God's ways to mankind. Furthermore, his life's suffering and physical blindness add a literal layer to his plea for illumination and elevation.

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Milton is essentially penning an epic poem, a long narrative poem that details events which are important in the poet's culture and tells of big adventures and high drama. In ancient Greek epic poems, where the form originated in Western culture, the poet would typically begin with an invocation of...

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the muse. The muses were nine daughters of Zeus, responsible for inspiring humankind to create various art forms. A classical poet would invoke the muse of epic poetry, named Calliope, asking her to inspire him and enhance his skill to tell his narrative, almost like asking for a blessing and divine aid. Milton seems to draw on this tradition, calling, it seems, on the Christian God rather than the ancient muse so that he can "assert Eternal Providence, / and justify the ways of God to men." Just as classical poets (like Homer, who was also blind, by the way) would call on the muse for divine aid, Milton seems to do the same thing so that he can do justice to the story he tells.

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Quite simply, this is a fragment of a prayer. Milton is going to tell a story to which he is afraid that he may not do justice. Milton considers here that the holy spirit itself is his muse, and he will have to attempt to "justify the ways of God to man," an act that he considers to be daunting, to say the least.

Paradise Lost was dictated by Milton after he became blind and impoverished. For this reason, his words here actually may hold some literal sway. When he asks for what is dark in him to be illuminated and for what is low in him to be raised, he is asking for all the parts of him that are ungodly, having accumulated over a life of no small suffering, to be cast away.

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