Chaucer and Milton on Light

     Books I and I of Paradise Lost have taken readers from the lake of fire in the depths of Hell to Satan's flight through Chaos toward Creation.  At the end of Book II, the narrative ends with Milton's narrator describing Satan flying more confidently through the gentler air around Paradise toward his attempted seduction of God's new-created creatures, Adam and Eve.  At this point, the narrative changes locations to Heaven, where God and the Son discuss the fate of humanity and the ultimate outcome of Satan's plot.  To inaugurate this shift from Hell to Heaven, Milton begins with a praise of "Holy Light," which combines a meditation on the power of light to instruct and restore, and on his own blindness which has left him seeking to serve God though deprived of the ordinary light with which he might do so.  At such a moment, Milton turns for a literary model in English to Chaucer's Troilus for the parallel structural and functional precedent, the Proem "O blisful light" (III.1-49).

Milton, Paradise Lost, III.1-55 Chaucer, Troilus, III.1-49

Hail holy light, ofspring of Heav'n first-born,
Or of th' Eternal Coeternal beam
May I express thee unblam'd? since God is light,
And never but in unapproached light
Dwelt from Eternitie, dwelt then in thee,
Bright effluence of bright essence increate.
Or hear'st thou rather pure Ethereal stream,
Whose Fountain who shall tell? before the Sun,
Before the Heavens thou wert, and at the voice
Of God, as with a Mantle didst invest
The rising world of waters dark and deep,
Won from the void and formless infinite.
Thee I re-visit now with bolder wing,
Escap't the Stygian Pool, though long detain'd
In that obscure sojourn, while in my flight
Through utter and through middle darkness borne
With other notes then to th' Orphean Lyre
I sung of Chaos and Eternal Night,
Taught by the heav'nly Muse to venture down
The dark descent, and up to reascend,
Though hard and rare: thee I revisit safe,
And feel thy sovran vital Lamp; but thou
Revisit'st not these eyes, that rowle in vain
To find thy piercing ray, and find no dawn;
So thick a drop serene hath quencht thir Orbs,
Or dim suffusion veild. Yet not the more
Cease I to wander where the Muses haunt
Cleer Spring, or shadie Grove, or Sunnie Hill,
Smit with the love of sacred Song; but chief
Thee Sion and the flowrie Brooks beneath
That wash thy hallowd feet, and warbling flow,
Nightly I visit: nor somtimes forget
Those other two equal'd with me in Fate,
So were I equal'd with them in renown,
Blind Thamyris and blind Mĉonides,
And Tiresias and Phineus Prophets old.
Then feed on thoughts, that voluntarie move
Harmonious numbers; as the wakeful Bird
Sings darkling, and in shadiest Covert hid
Tunes her nocturnal Note. Thus with the Year
Seasons return, but not to me returns
Day, or the sweet approach of Ev'n or Morn,
Or sight of vernal bloom, or Summers Rose,
Or flocks, or heards, or human face divine;
But cloud in stead, and ever-during dark
Surrounds me, from the chearful wayes of men
Cut off, and for the Book of knowledg fair
Presented with a Universal blanc
Of Nature's works to mee expung'd and ras'd,
And wisdome at one entrance quite shut out.
So much the rather thou Celestial light
Shine inward, and the mind through all her powers
Irradiate, there plant eyes, all mist from thence
Purge and disperse, that I may see and tell
Of things invisible to mortal sight.

 

        O blisful light of whiche the bemes clere
       Adorneth al the thridde hevene faire!
       O sonnes lief, O Ioves doughter dere,
       Plesaunce of love, O goodly debonaire,
       In gentil hertes ay redy to repaire!
       O verray cause of hele and of gladnesse,
       Y-heried be thy might and thy goodnesse!

       In hevene and helle, in erthe and salte see
       Is felt thy might, if that I wel descerne;
       As man, brid, best, fish, herbe and grene tree
       Thee fele in tymes with vapour eterne.
       God loveth, and to love wol nought werne;
       And in this world no lyves creature,
       With-outen love, is worth, or may endure.

       Ye Ioves first to thilke effectes glade,
       Thorugh which that thinges liven alle and be,
       Comeveden, and amorous him made
       On mortal thing, and as yow list, ay ye
       Yeve him in love ese or adversitee;
       And in a thousand formes doun him sente
       For love in erthe, and whom yow liste, he hente.

       Ye fierse Mars apeysen of his ire,
       And, as yow list, ye maken hertes digne;
       Algates, hem that ye wol sette a-fyre,
       They dreden shame, and vices they resigne;
       Ye do hem corteys be, fresshe and benigne,
       And hye or lowe, after a wight entendeth;
       The Ioyes that he hath, your might him sendeth.

       Ye holden regne and hous in unitee;
       Ye soothfast cause of frendship been also;
       Ye knowe al thilke covered qualitee
       Of thinges which that folk on wondren so,
       Whan they can not construe how it may io,
       She loveth him, or why he loveth here;
       As why this fish, and nought that, comth to were.

       Ye folk a lawe han set in universe,
       And this knowe I by hem that loveres be,
       That who-so stryveth with yow hath the werse:
       Now, lady bright, for thy benignitee,
       At reverence of hem that serven thee,
       Whos clerk I am, so techeth me devyse
       Som Ioye of that is felt in thy servyse.

       Ye in my naked herte sentement
       Inhelde, and do me shewe of thy swetnesse. --
       Caliope, thy vois be now present,
       For now is nede; sestow not my destresse,
       How I mot telle anon-right the gladnesse
       Of Troilus, to Venus heryinge?
       To which gladnes, who nede hath, god him bringe!