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Invocation to the Poetic Journey to Epic: “Hail native Language” (in “At a Vacation Exercise”)
by Julian X  /  non-fiction  /  26 Sep 2008

I have always had a soft spot for “At a Vacation Exercise,” which I regard as one of Milton’s best short poems. It is also one of his earliest: the published edition marks the poem as juvenilia with the label “Anno Ætatis 19.” The 100-line poem is really a fragment of a larger work combining this poetry with prose, Latin with English, produced for the annual student festivities to mark the closing of the dormitories at Cambridge and the beginning of summer vacation in 1628. Such exercises, unsanctioned but tolerated by the university with its dons, demonstrated talent and learning, but were also full of bawdy wit and personal references.

The poem, itself split into two sections, was originally preceded a Latin “Oratio” that argued for the interposition of fun with serious studies (worth remembering as we think of Milton as a Puritan) and a “Prolusio,” also in Latin, that insulted particular persons, presumed to have been in attendance, often with strained puns. The first section of the poem, lines 1-58, makes clear reference to this earlier section: its opening, “Hail native Language,” positions the English poetry against the earlier Latin prose. “I have thither packt the worst” (12) likely refers to the puns and off-color humor of the previous section. Likewise, the first poetic section’s conclusion similarly sets up the second poetic section, lines 59-100, in which Milton is thought to have played Ens, father of ten sons, Substance and its nine Predicaments or Accidents, representing Aristotalean logic taught at Cambridge. The second poetic section includes Ens’s speech (59-90), followed by a note telling us that Quantity and Quality -- two of those nine Predicaments -- next spoke in prose, which in turn is followed by a speech by Relation (91-100), another of those Predicaments. This speech consists entirely of a catalogue of rivers, notably all English rather than classical, thus connecting to the first poetic section’s praise of English. At this point, the poem ends with a note that “The rest was Prose.”

Today, we typically balk at excerpting fragments from their context, as we are ourselves trained by our own curriculum to do -- and not without good reason. The mere removal of the poetry from a larger work and inclusion of it as “Anno Ætatis 19. At a Vacation Exercise in the Colledge, part Latin, part English” in a volume of poetry might even appall modern readers. Yet the first poetic section, while obviously subsumed within its rhetorical occasion, most remarkably stands not only as a poem in its own right but as a remarkable poem indeed. Though reading the first section as an independent work is on its face irresponsible, the poem virtually begs for such a reading. Moreover, all poems have a rhetorical context: no poem expresses the author directly; at the very least, even the most non-fictional of expressions require filtering of the diverging thoughts of the author, and at best represent a moment or a particular strain of consciousness or even argumentation. We are always adopting masks, even the mask of directness and openness; even when we try to remove our masks, we find that we have masks underneath, intrinsic to one human expressing, in gesture or grunts as well as in more formalized poses and language, to any other human. The phenomenon of extracting portions of larger works as poems on their own, particularly with authorial consent, demonstrates exactly this: however defined by rhetorical context, any such extract is not so dissimilar from autonomous poems, which have their own rhetorical poses, if not wider contexts.

The first poetic section begins with a bold invocation not to a muse or (ostensibly) spiritual principle, but to English. This may be only by historical coincidence, since it is indeed Milton’s “native Language,” and we may be inclined to read this not as a hail of English but of the vernacular. Indeed, this is how Milton formulates his hailing:

Hail native Language, that by sinews weak
Didst move my first endeavouring tongue to speak,
And mad’st imperfect words with childish tripps,
Half unpronounc’t, slide through my infant-lipps,
Driving dum silence from the portal dore. (1-5)

Here the vernacular is praised on divine terms as dispelling chaos, as ordering the universe, and as granting rationality to the author. It was not Latin, symbol of learning, but English, English that drove silence and unknowing away in all our lives: this is Milton’s message here, touchingly portrayed by imagining childish difficulty at learning what is now “native,” as natural as walking, as native to England as its people. And this has deep resonance for poetry, particularly for the epic: it invokes Dante’s brave use of his Italian for his own religious epic, a decision that changed history in its elevation of the vernacular. It might be going to far to say that Milton immediately identifies with his nation through its language, boldly advocating the vernacular’s worth, already positioning himself as a kind of Dante of English.

Milton proceeds to address English, in the tradition of invocations, with modesty: “I know my tongue but little Grace can do thee” (10). Milton asks for English’s “aide” (15), but desires “Not these new fangled toys, and triming slight / Which takes our late fantasticks with delight” (19-20). Here Milton strikes against the popular misuse of English in poetry, probably indicating the metaphysical poets, whose delightful paradoxes were, as any good student of Donne knows, produced through linguistic slight of hand, through equivocation and deliberate ambiguity. This segues into Milton’s own plans for the language. He provides a timeless depiction of the literary process: “I have some naked thoughts that rove about / And loudly knock to have their passage out” (23-24). But Milton “stay[s]” (25) his writing, in accordance with the gradus ad Parnassium, concerned that he is not yet ready. This is no ancient or overly traditional concern: I myself in youth had ambitious, sprawling literary plans but feared regretting youthful writings, as so many writers have expressed.

While not explicitly mentioning epic, Milton expresses his desire to address “some graver subject” (30) and shows that he is already thinking of spiritual, grand topics for his poetry:

Such where the deep transported mind may soare
Above the wheeling poles, and at Heav’ns dore
Look in, and see each blissful Deitie
How he before the thunderous throne doth lie. (33-36)

Though he continues to address classical deities, transporting the reader’s mind to “deep” heights and even showing readers Heaven can only remind us of Paradise Lost. This is not just reading Paradise Lost backwards onto the poem: Milton may well be thinking of Dante, who performed a similar maneuver in his epic, and who also brought his nation’s vernacular to the timeless heights of epic. But Milton goes further, refering to his desire to write of the earliest state of things: “Then sing of secret things that came to pass / When Beldam Nature in her cradle was” (45-46). Already, then, Milton is pondering Creation, and the resulting changes to Nature, as a topic. Though he continues to express his desire to write of “Kings and Queens and Hero’s old” (47), such as “Ulisses” (50), already his epic inclination is being tempered with a religious tenor that would come to the fore in Milton’s famous epic.

Milton concludes, admitting he has strayed from the poem’s intended topic (53) -- or, we may read, its rhetorical circumstance, which he now asserts, telling English that “it must be now thy only bent / To keep in compass of thy Predicament” (55-56), a punning reference to the following dramatic parody. There is perhaps, in this “must,” a sense of reluctance, of expectancy, of anxious youthful urge to address the grand topics of epic. The first poetic section concludes by just as nervously addressing English to get this rhetorical occasion over with: “quick about thy purpos’d business come, / That to the next I may resign my Roome” (58). While a humorous reference to the closing of the dormitories for summer, the occasion of the “Vacation Exercise,” Milton’s expressed nervousness to finish up with the occasion also suggests his eager plans to return home to study and begin in earnest his poetic quest.

I wish that we read the first section of “At a Vacation Exercise” as its own poem, informally entitled “Hail native Language.” This first section, with its remarkable supposed digression on epic, offers a kind of epic invocation not for Paradise Lost but for Milton’s quest towards epic. Departing Cambridge, Milton praises not only English and writing in the vernacular, but discusses the glories of epic and suggests various topics or tones he wishes to strike. A remarkable poem in its own right, this invocation -- perhaps to the Epic Voice of Paradise Lost commencing in earnest to make the hard trek up Mount Parnassus -- provides not only a biographical document but a stirring and challenging poem that implicitly unites Milton’s corpus into a metanarrative, a poem with “where the deep transported mind may soare,” even in a confined space.

Though written in 1628, the poem was not published until 1673’s Poems etc. Upon Several Occasions, 45 years later. I should point out that, while the poem is usually studied as prognostic of Milton’s epic(s), there might well have been poems referring to a great Arthurian epic, which Milton contemplated prior to becoming disillusioned with what his studies revealed to be a fictional topic, or to a more allegorical drama or epic on the Fall that Milton (or perhaps others) chose not to print in the 1673 edition: in other words, the process of selecting texts might lead to this prognostic quality, excluding works that would display alternate or contradictory prognostics. Moreover, I must point out that -- though I do believe the poem to have been written in 1628, given the poem’s latter portion and the references to excised prose components -- just because the poem was written in 1628 does not mean that it was not subsequently revised -- likely mildly, given what we know of Milton’s revision, as with the minute revisions to Paradise Lost even as its very structure was radically changed. Such revision, if only through a changed word here and there, might have emphasized the poem’s prognostic qualities, reinforcing Milton’s own literary-biographic fable. Critics have been remarkably irresponsible in generally failing to admit this possibility, though it remains just that. Whether Milton altered the poem or simply chose it, its selection and publication after that of Paradise Lost suggests that it would have been read upon its publication -- and was intended to be so read -- in light of the poetic quest having been accomplished, precisely the supposedly anachronistic manner in which we are inclined to read it today.

This essay was first published online on 4 March 2003.

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Essays on Milton by Julian Darius:
Invocation to the Poetic Journey to Epic: “Hail native Language” (in “At a Vacation Exercise”)
“On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity,” 25 December 1629