John Milton’s “ancient liberty” is not the liberalism of Thomas Hobbes or John Locke, where the telos governing human liberty is dispensed with. Rather, “Paradise Lost” cultivates Christian virtues by reclaiming an ancient liberty within the traditional epic verse form and by returning to that which is first or most ancient: Divine Will.

The opening lines of John Milton’s Paradise Lost are memorable and audacious. Milton boldly states that he will undertake things “unattempted yet in Prose or Rhime” (I.16).[1] The scope of Milton’s epic was certainly “unattempted.” Paradise Lost tells the story “Of Man’s First disobedience,” and the reader is presented a history of existence: from the existence of God and the legions of heavenly angels before creation to the history of postlapsarian humanity up to and including the Second Coming and the end of days. For this reason, Northrop Frye rightly calls Paradise Lost “the story of all things.”[2]

Milton’s poetic form, blank verse, is another aspect of Paradise Lost that was “unattempted,” at least in English epic poetry. That is, Milton’s work undertakes things “unattempted yet in Prose or Rhime” because it is in neither prose nor rhyme. Milton’s grand epic was first published in 1667. Samuel Simmons, the publisher, claimed in the fourth issue of that edition (1668) that readers were troubled that the poem “rhymes not.” So, for the 1674 edition, Milton added a preface to the poem that provided a defense of his verse form.

In that preface, entitled “The Verse,” Milton asserts that “true musical delight” is not to be found in “Rime.” Rather, musical delight “consists only in apt Numbers, fit quantity of Syllables, and the sense variously drawn out from one Verse into another.” Milton’s blank verse, then, is to be contrasted with the other long poem forms found in English literature of the Restoration era, notably those of John Dryden. Dryden’s politics and poetics are both the targets of Milton’s preface. In 1660, Dryden published Astraea Redux, a panegyric in heroic couplets celebrating the new regime of Charles II.[3] The Interregnum is presented in Astraea as a time of chaos, and Charles is greeted as a restorer of peace. In addition to the bondage of Dryden’s Royalist politics, Milton opposes the bondage of Dryden’s poetic verse. The latter’s heroic couplets provide the symmetry of rhymes and corresponding periods, while Milton’s verse heightens ambiguity and asymmetry by drawing the sense “from one Verse into another” through the use of enjambment, shifting caesura, and other metrical variations. Milton’s unique epic verse in relation to that of his contemporaries, however, does not make him a Romantic rebel against convention.[4] In fact, Milton explicitly states that he is basing his work on an older tradition and that he is reclaiming an “ancient” liberty. As he states in “The Verse”:

This neglect then of Rime so little is to be taken for a defect, though it may seem so perhaps to vulgar Readers, that it rather is to be esteem’d an example set, the first in English, of ancient liberty recover’d to Heroic Poem from the troublesome and modern bondage of Riming. (my emphasis)

The freedom from rhyme is a return to “ancient liberty.” Rather than breaking free from constraints, Milton wants to base his poetics on ancient tradition and ultimately on that which is oldest and most ancient: Divine Will.

Ancient Liberty vs. License

In “The Verse,” Milton makes it clear that he is adhering to a measure charted out by the epic tradition that precedes him, “as that of Homer in Greek, and of Virgil in Latin.” By following the rules of this epic tradition, Milton is freed to fully express his meaning. It is only with the Romantics that traditional form begins to be construed as somehow limiting the freedom of the poet to express their inner truth. In the wake of the Romantics, we construe “freedom” as “free from” any external constraints. For authors within the classical tradition, however, form is not a straight-jacket that limits the author’s freedom. For the classical tradition, freedom is a matter of being “free to” fulfill one’s end, the condition for which is a set of obligations, duties, and constraints.

Milton adheres to the rules of the tradition, for instance, in his use of epic similes, directly recalling earlier similes in the epic tradition. As C.M. Bowra first pointed out, one of the Miltonic similes that echoes the entire epic tradition is the reference to the fallen angels lying on the burning lake like fallen leaves:[5]

… [Satan] stood and call’d
His Legions, Angel Forms, who lay intrans’t
Thick as Autumnal Leaves that strow the Brooks
In Vallombrosa, where th’ Etrurian shades
High overarch’t imbowr (1.300-304)

In this image, Milton echoes Dante, Virgil, and Homer, inviting us to compare the respective heroes and themes of each epic. For instance, Dante compares dead souls falling into the River Acheron to fallen leaves (Inferno, Canto III.112-17). In doing so, Dante echoes Virgil’s Aeneid, where Aeneas sees the numberless dead waiting to cross the river Acheron with the boatman Charon (VI.309-12). In those lines, Virgil echoes Homer’s description of Glaucus’ defiant words to the threatening Diomedes (Iliad VI.146). Because the epic genre has a rich tradition, the poet’s dutiful adherence to the form’s conventions frees the poet to express more richly the complexity of his content than he otherwise could have done.

Milton also refers to an “ancient liberty” that follows certain “rules” in the opening lines of Sonnet 12: “I did but prompt the age to quit their clogs / By the known rules of ancient liberty” (1-2). Sonnet 12 was most likely written in 1644-45 as a response to criticism of his divorce tracts. Milton’s divorce pamphlets appeal to a liberty granted under Mosaic Law (Deut. 24:1-2). In addition to being guided by tradition, then, “ancient liberty” means being guided by Divine revelation and the laws of nature. Far from being free from constraint, these are laws and limits that allow humanity to prosper to its ultimate end. In this sense, Milton distinguishes between “liberty” and “license”: “License they mean when they cry liberty” (Sonnet 12.11). Similarly, in the letter to Parliament that Milton prefixed to his Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce, “[h]onest liberty” is opposed to “dishonest license.” Finally, in the concluding Book of Paradise Lost, Michael explains the concept of “Rational Liberty” to Adam: “Since thy original lapse, true Liberty / Is lost, which always with right Reason dwells” (XII.82-84). Ancient liberty, then, is a liberty tied to ancient rules. These rules have authority in being tied to nature and to Divine revelation, and these rules are accessible to “right Reason.”

Milton’s Return to First Causes

Milton’s liberty is “ancient.” It is a liberty marked off by being particularly old. In fact, as it manifests itself in Milton’s references to ancient philosophers and poets, it enacts a return to first things or to first causes. What Socrates calls the “old quarrel between philosophy and poetry” was, among other things, a combat over going to the oldest things in order to guide human action and knowledge. For the ancients, that which is older has more authority and is more noble than that which is new. The ancient poets portrayed the highest virtues in their works and provided an explanatory framework for the cosmos by basing their stories on ancestral myths and tradition as that which is old and authoritative. Philosophers, in providing an alternative explanatory framework for the cosmos, turned from ancestral tradition to nature as that which is older still.[6]

This is the significance of Milton’s emphasis on his unprecedented approach. Milton is at pains to assert that his poem will chart out a new poetic territory for the “first” time. The word “first” appears six times in the first thirty-three lines of the poem. For Harold Bloom, Milton displays an “anxiety of influence” in this emphasis on being the first. For Bloom, the belated poet will always make the case, “I came first.”[7] Rather than this Bloomian personal agon with poets of the past, which would be a form of Satanic self-assertion, Milton’s relation to the past is directed toward bringing forth the truth. Milton’s task in Paradise Lost is to build on the tradition of the poets and philosophers, but at the same time to show that their works did not delve deeply enough into the truth of all things. The classical poets and philosophers, not having received Christian revelation, were forced to stop at medial causes. Their poetic and philosophic flights were “middle flight[s].” Milton, on the other hand, will “soar / Above th’ Aonian Mount” (I.14-15) and reveal the highest and first causes.

Traditionally, epics open by introducing the subject matter and asking for the Muse’s aid in telling the tale, beginning with the cause of the struggles of the hero. Homer begins the Iliad by presenting the subject matter, namely the wrath of Achilles and his conflict with Agamemnon. Homer then asks the Muse to tell him what the source of this conflict was: “What god drove them to fight with such a fury? / Apollo the son of Zeus and Leto” (I.9-10). Similarly, Homer begins the Odyssey with an announcement of the subject, “the man of twists and turns” (polutropos), and states that when the year arrived that it was time for Odysseus to return home,

every god took pity
all except Poseideon. He raged on, seething against
the great Odysseus till he reached his native land (I.22-24).

Likewise, Virgil begins the Aeneid by announcing his subject matter, Aeneas and his battles, and then asks the Muse to tell him what the source of Aeneas’ struggles was: “Tell me, / Muse, how it all began, why was Juno outraged?” (I.8-9).[8]

Milton echoes this tradition, but transcends it to “first” things.

Say first, for Heav’n hides nothing from they view
Nor the deep Tract of Hell, say first what cause
Mov’d our Grand Parents in that happy State …
Th’infernal Serpent; hee it was (my emphasis) (I.27-34)

Milton’s cause precedes the causes in the epics of the pagan poets. He is going back to the first things, to things earlier than what other poets saw. Other poets saw what they thought of as ultimate causes in pagan gods. Like Venus in Book II of the Aeneid, these poets pull back the veil to show the Olympian gods at work in the events we see in the world. Milton shows that these gods themselves had a pre-history. The gods portrayed by the classical epic poets are, in fact, fallen angels that had been taken as gods by pagan peoples. In Book I, Satan rouses the legions of fallen angels. Milton then provides a catalogue of the fallen angels that rise out of the burning lake. Included in this list are the Olympian deities celebrated in the classical epics mentioned above, those who “on the Snowy top / Of cold Olympus rul’d the middle Air” (I.515-16). We note that these Olympian gods, isolated as causes by the epic poets, ruled only “the middle Air,” whereas Milton’s task is to find the highest and first causes.

In addition to the classical poets, Milton confronts classical philosophy in Paradise Lost. In particular, Milton confronts the materialist philosophers, who study the world and find material causes at the root of all phenomena. Milton shows that the material order of the cosmos has its ultimate cause in the Word of God (VII.163). The creation of the physical cosmos occurs only after the “First Disobedience” of Satan described in Book V, which parallels “Man’s First Disobedience” that will be the primary subject of his epic as a whole. Again, Milton’s modus operandi is to show that, like the classical poets, these philosophers stopped at “middle” things rather than first things.

This is what is at stake in Milton’s description of Chaos in Book II of Paradise Lost: “The Womb of nature and perhaps her Grave” (II.911). Milton’s line is a translation of a line from Lucretius’s De rerum natura (V.259).[9] Although Milton agrees with Lucretius that the physical universe arises out of a chaos of elemental matter and may one day return to that state, he asserts that Lucretius does not go far enough to see a Divine Will behind the scenes, ordaining the formation and decay of material things: “Unless th’ Almighty Maker them ordain / His dark materials to create more Worlds” (II.915-16).

Another way Milton highlights the shortcomings of traditional poets is by making them akin to the fallen angels in Hell. After the discussion in Pandemonium, which concludes with the decision to destroy humankind and conquer the newly created world, the fallen angels are shown pursuing various activities in Hell, including some who

Retreated in a silent valley, sing
With notes Angelical to many a Harp
Thir own Heroic deeds and hapless fall
By doom of Battle; and complain that Fate
Free Virtue should enthrall to Force or Chance.
Thir song was partial” (II.547-552)

In these lines we are reminded of both Homer’s and Virgil’s epics. The rule of Fate in the Aeneid, for instance, could be seen as enthralling the “Free Virtue” of Aeneas, as he himself claims upon seeing Dido in the underworld: “I left your shores, my Queen, against my will” (VI.535). For Milton, poets such as Virgil have told a limited truth: “Thir song was partial.” Our actions, like those of Aeneas, may appear to be constrained, but we are ultimately born free. In Book III, no less an authority than God states, “I made him just and right, / Sufficient to have stood, though free to fall” (III.98-99).

In a similar way, Milton makes the fallen angels akin to traditional philosophers, portraying them philosophizing in Hell. Their philosophizing “found no end, in wand’ring mazes lost” and is ultimately “Vain wisdom all, and false Philosophie” (II.561, 565). In the “old quarrel between philosophy and poetry,” then, Milton transcends the two contestants to a higher authority, to a more ancient authority. He shows that both are derivative of a higher revelation. Milton shows reverence for the poetic tradition, yet he transcends that tradition in order to point to Christian truths. Milton’s reverence for the tradition and his ultimate goal of referring to the truth of the Divine are the ways we can distinguish Miltonic poetics from the pride of Satan. That is, although both Satan and Milton audaciously attempt things “unattempted,” Satan’s goal is self-assertion while Milton’s goal is the revelation of God’s Will as that which is “first” in the highest sense.

“Harmonious numbers”: Milton’s Divine Intention

The danger of the Lucretian materialism mentioned above is that it reduces the cosmos to a chaotic, random collision of atomic particles without meaning. This is the same danger we are faced with today in the form of the scientific interpretation of the cosmos. The cosmos and our lives within it can seem random and meaningless unless we use our “right Reason” and see a Divine intention within them. For Milton, this is also the danger of the misinterpretation of his blank verse. Without rhyme, without apparent signs of order in the line endings of the verse, Milton needed to ensure that the adept reader would discover a controlling intention or will behind the seeming chaos. We can see this order at the level of the part as well as that of the whole: in the “fit quantity of Syllables” in each line as well as in the overall number or measure he gave to the poem. In addition to adding “The Verse” as a preface, Milton carefully edited the 1674 version of Paradise Lost so that the number of lines totaled 10,565. In Gematria, the Hebrew alphanumeric code that assigns numeric values to letters in a word, 10,565 is the number for the Tetragrammaton:

Y 10
H 5
W 6
H 5

We also see this Divine number in the opening and closing stanzas of the poem. As Eve Keller points out, “it is not coincidental that the first and last paragraphs of Paradise Lost are each twenty-six lines long—twenty-six being the sum of the four letters of God’s name (10 + 5 + 6 + 5). Thus, the Name who-is-the-whole is also the beginning and the end.”[10] Milton’s poetic intention or will is visible in the overall design of the poem, and it is an intention that wishes to align itself with God’s Will. In Book III, Milton refers to his poetic designs as “thoughts, that voluntary move / Harmonious numbers” (III.37-38). His poetic designs are “voluntary” in that they arise from a free will, not the chance collision of Lucretian atoms. These designs create “Harmonious numbers” in terms of both the measured rhythms of the poetic verse as well as the poem’s overall number of lines.

Milton’s “ancient liberty,” then, is not the liberalism of Thomas Hobbes or John Locke, where the telos governing human liberty is dispensed with and we can assume that a public good will arise from individual selfishness. Rather, the cultivation of virtue by means of education, including poetic education, is vitally important to Milton. Paradise Lost cultivates Christian virtues by reclaiming an “ancient liberty” within the traditional epic verse form and by returning to that which is “first” or most ancient: Divine Will.

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[1] All quotations of Milton are from Complete Poems and Major Prose (New York: Macmillan Publishing, 1957), ed. Merritt Y. Hughes.

[2] The Return of Eden: Five Essays on Milton’s Epics (Toronto: U of Toronto Press, 1965), 3-31.

[3] Dryden: Selected Poems (London: Routledge, 2007), eds. Paul Hammond and David Hopkins, 15-31.

[4] In contradistinction to critics such as Henry Weinfield, The Blank-Verse Tradition from Milton to Stevens: Freethinking and the Crisis of Modernity (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2012). For Weinfield, this utilization of blank verse by Milton makes him an early Romantic, seeking freedom from external constraints.

[5] From Virgil to Milton, (London: Macmillan, 1945), 240-41.

[6] Plato, The Republic (USA: Basic Books, 1968), trans. Allan Bloom, 607b; Aristotle, Metaphysics (Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1966), 983b-984a; Leo Strauss, Natural Right and History (Chicago: U of Chicago Press, 1953), 91-92.

[7] The Anxiety of Influence: A Theory of Poetry (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1973).

[8] The Iliad (New York: Penguin Books, 1990), trans. Robert Fagles; The Odyssey (New York: Penguin Books, 1996), trans. Robert Fagles; The Aeneid (New York: Penguin Books, 2006), trans. Robert Fagles.

[9] The original reads: “omniparens eadem rerum commune sepulcrum.” Lucretius, De rerum natura (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard UP, 1975), with English translation by W.H.D. Rouse and Martin F. Smith.

[10] “Tetragrammic Numbers: Gematria and the Line Total of the 1674 Paradise Lost.” Milton Quarterly. Vol 20.1 (1986): 23-25.

The featured image is “God creating the Sun, the Moon and the Stars” by Jan Brueghel the Younger (1601–1678) and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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