A discussion of the introductory invocation of John Milton's 'Paradise Lost', considering its significance to the whole text and context
What is the significance of Milton’s invocation in ‘Paradise Lost’?
John Milton’s epic poem ‘Paradise Lost’ begins with an invocation to a “Heav’nly Muse”, specifically one with the knowledge of the beginnings of the Heavens and Earth according to the Judeo-Christian account. Milton’s command is for this Muse to “Sing”, to instruct, inspire and support him in his composition, devised for the purposes of asserting “th’ Eternal Providence” and justifying “the wayes of God to Men”.
Such introductory invocations are typical of the Classical Greco-Roman epic poetry that Milton was emulating in writing Paradise Lost: as an extensively educated writer of his era, he was thoroughly familiar with the history, mythology and literature of Ancient Europe, and well-versed in this particular form. The true significance of this invocation, as with the significance of the whole text, lies in the fact that Milton is appropriating the features of the Classical epic, and replacing the heroes, pantheons and legends of its typical narrative with figures and events from the scripture of Christianity – as the actual religion of his culture, in the ideologically tumultuous period following the English Civil War, the Interregnum and the Restoration, this undertaking is certainly as daring and profound as he appreciates in this opening passage.
The invocation establishes that this is his intention straight away as he refers to the “Forbidden Tree” and the “loss of Eden”; other names from the Bible like Oreb and Sinai are also prominently included here, alongside true Classical terms like Chaos and “th’ Aonian Mount”. Yet the first concern is “Mans First Disobedience”, and the piece, as Milton proclaims, is being written for humanity’s benefit. To the contemporary Christian reader, the form and content of this Classical device endow the poem with both scholarly authority and immediate personal meaning, such that the original Greek and Roman literature, though greatly esteemed, could not achieve to the same extent