Friday, September 04, 2009

The Virgilian Progression

A commonplace of Renaissance literary thought that is certainly relevant to Milton is the idea of the "Virgilian progression." Here's an allusion to it from a life of the poet Samuel Daniel:
Daniel continued to mount the ladder of literary achievement, charting a Virgilian progression from lyric poetry, tragic complaints, and drama to epic history in verse. link
The notion began with words that Virgil was believed to have used to introduce the

Ille ego, qui quondam gracili modulatus avena
carmen, et egressus silvis vicina coegi,
ut quamvis avido parerent arva colono,
gratum opus agricolis, at nunc horrentia Martis
arma virumque cano. (translation here)

In brief, the idea is that just as Virgil began with lowly pastorals in his Eclogues, then graduated to the more robust, learned Georgics (which end with the story of Orpheus and Eurydice) before ascending to the epic muse of War and the destiny of Rome in the Aeneid, so later poets who aspire to greatness could do worse than tread in his footsteps.

The three moments correspond to the three levels of style identified in classical rhetoric -- the plain, or low style, the middle, or "mixed" style, frequently used for didactic poetry, and the high, florid, or epic style. See, for example, Cicero's Orator. Other classic works that exemplify the middle style would be Lucretius's De Rerum Natura, a philosophical work that freely mixes high and low, and Hesiod's Works and Days.

Virgil's "progression" was also understood as a recapitulation within a single poetic career of the entire history of Greek literary development, bookending it in reverse:

Homer --> Hesiod --> Theocritus <--> Eclogues --> Georgics --> Aeneid

As such, Virgil was understood to have done singlehandedly for Rome what took centuries for Greek poets to create, and this is part of why in 1944, when T.S. Eliot asked "What is a Classic?," Virgil was his touchstone.

Edmund Spenser, one of Milton's significant English models, employed the progression as a conscious programme in his own career, and used it as a structuring device within the Fairie Queene.

Milton is clearly following in his predecessors' traces in beginning with L'Allegro and Il Penseroso and then, in Lycidas, raising the ante as he seeks augmented poetic inspiration:

Begin then, Sisters of the sacred well,
That from beneath the seat of Jove doth spring,
Begin, and somwhat loudly sweep the string.

From there it's yet another leap to the muse of Paradise Lost (much as Dante, in each of the three canticles of his Comedy, invoked a distinct spirit):

[O]F Mans First Disobedience, and the Fruit
Of that Forbidden Tree, whose mortal tast
Brought Death into the World, and all our woe,
With loss of Eden, till one greater Man
Restore us, and regain the blissful Seat,
Sing Heav'nly Muse, that on the secret top
Of Oreb, or of Sinai, didst inspire
That Shepherd, who first taught the chosen Seed,
In the Beginning how the Heav'ns and Earth
Rose out of Chaos. Or if Sion Hill
Delight thee more, and Siloa's Brook that flow'd
Fast by the Oracle of God; I thence
Invoke thy aid to my adventrous Song,
That with no middle flight intends to soar
Above th' Aonian Mount, while it pursues
Things unattempted yet in Prose or Rhime.

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