Posts Tagged ‘John Milton’

Was Milton embarrassed? “He doesn’t say which poems make him squirm.”

Saturday, March 13th, 2021

At an early hour on a Saturday, January 9, I tumbled out of bed to listen to poet and classicist A.M. Juster talk about his translation of John Milton‘s short Book of Elegies, published by the Paideia Institute. (We wrote about his translations of Maximianus here.) Mike Juster has the chops for it: long ago, he graduated magna cum laude from Roxbury Latin School. He was only a few years younger then as the Milton who wrote the elegies.

These Latin elegies were youthful efforts, and most poets dismiss what they later consider juvenilia. Milton was no exception. You can tell because the older Milton writes a postscripted poem to the collection that begins with an apology for the younger self who wrote the poems. “He doesn’t say which poems make him squirm,” Juster said. “You can see from his use of the word ‘nequitiae’ — which I’ve translated as vileness — that he’s making some pretty harsh judgments about his own work. It’s definitely a kind of defensive preemptive strike.”

Translator of Maximianus, too.

“These are primarily poems that were written while he was an undergraduate, and by the time that he’s pulling the poemata together, he’s probably 36. Now most of us have some embarrassment in middle age about our teenage poetry, but I think that this sort of half vague apology may be a little bit more complicated.”

His “apology” from the untitled postscript:

From a perverse persistence and contrariness,

I once made pointless trophies to my vileness.

At the time of the elegies, he’d been kicked out or “sent down” from Christ’s College, Cambridge. We don’t know exactly why. As Juster explains in the introduction, Milton’s strict tutor, the bishop-to-be William Chappell, may have beaten him for an infraction. Milton was overjoyed to be sent home.

To bear a callous master’s threats and other things

Repugnant to my nature does not please me.

If this is “exile” – back again with household gods

And seeking welcome leisure free of care –

I have not shunned the label, nor protest my lot,

And gladly celebrate my exiled state.

“Then it gets more interesting. Elegies 1 and 6 are epistolary poems to the great love of John Milton’s life: Charles Diodati.” Was the bard gay? Don’t jump to conclusions. Juster continues: “I think he was just a lonely young man who had one strong friendship that started in grammar school, and that he never formed such a bond again with other men or his three wives. In these two elegies, you see a warm even wryly funny Milton. The formal prose adopted in almost all his other work is dropped, and you see him I think fairly clearly as he was at the time.”

“This Milton surprises even scholars. He tells Diodati about his many trips to the theater, but most scholarly opinion until fairly recently discounted this observation and assumed that they were secondhand based on the older Milton’s contempt for theater. Only with the discovery that Milton’s father was a part owner of London’s Blackfriars Theater plus the discovery of Milton’s heavily annotated first folio of Shakespeare did most scholars accept the truth was more complicated than they had believed.” [Curiously, I attended last month the Milton’s Cottage Annual lecture, “Re-reading Milton Re-reading Shakespeare” on precisely that topic. Let’s hope the zoom discussion goes online soon. – CH]

“Milton clearly had extensive firsthand knowledge of the theater, just as he told us in this elegy. The language of these elegies should also knock some comfortable assumptions about Milton.”

“Too often we see Milton as inevitably destined to be an epic poet, but there’s in fact really nothing in the Book of Elegies that would reinforce that view. Not only did he use Ovid‘s elegiac couplets instead of Virgil‘s dactylic hexameter, he compares the two great poets and comes down — perhaps jokingly, but still — on the side of Ovid as the greater of the two. Well, pursuit of poetic greatness in Latin poetry necessitated an eventual epic, and of course Milton knew that. The young Milton clearly reveled in the language and imagination of its mythology and romance to a greater extent than the battle scenes from the Aeneid. Milton also repeatedly looks to Ovid by adopting and adapting imagery from Tristia and presenting himself as an exile.”

You can get the short bilingual Book of Elegies, published by the Paideia Institute here.

Was John Milton less dour than we imagine? He may have been a fun kind of guy.

Wednesday, January 13th, 2021

Poet and translator A.M. Juster reviews Nicholas McDowell’s Poet of Revolution: The Making of John Milton in The Los Angeles Review of Books:

As a young teenager, John Milton set out in a fiercely determined way to become not just a successful poet, but a poet the literary world would regard as a peer of Homer, Virgil, Dante, and Petrarch. He organized his life around this goal with a demanding plan that required close reading of a prodigious number of texts — an approach that would puzzle today’s burgeoning guild of poets, who too often spend a few years in MFA programs learning about erasure poetry, liminality, and their depressing professional prospects. Even before matriculating at the University of Cambridge at the age of 16, Milton wrestled with whether greatness required him to write in Latin or in English, and for many years his uncertainty about this question caused him to hedge his bets by writing in both languages. …

Nicholas McDowell’s erudite Poet of Revolution: The Making of John Milton helps us understand why and how Milton pursued poetic glory. He lays out in clear prose what we know of Milton’s family life and education, and he describes in detail the intense curricula at St Paul’s School and the University of Cambridge, which focused on fluency in languages, both modern and ancient, along with critical approaches to literature, history, theology, and other disciplines. He also shows us that Milton’s teachers and professors were adamant that the lives of Virgil, Dante, and Petrarch demonstrated that wide and deep reading in the humanist canon is a necessary precondition for success as a true poet.

McDowell’s judicious weighing of the historical evidence relating to the young Milton’s religious and literary development serves as a welcome reminder of a common flaw in Milton scholarship, the tendency to paint a reductionist portrait of the mature Milton and then to fit the younger Milton into that same narrow interpretive frame.

Juster makes some unusual connections between Milton and theater – and concludes that, after all, the author of Paradise Lost might have been a fun kind of guy:

My only criticism of this admirable biography is that I would have liked to have seen the author push a little harder against certain scholarly misconceptions. … Not long ago we learned that Milton’s father — with whom he was close — had been part-owner of the Blackfriars Playhouse. Last year, Jason Scott-Warren identified extensive annotations (including proposed improvements) in a Shakespeare First Folio as those of Milton. It is time for scholars to look harder at the plays performed at his father’s theater (some of which were edgy for the time) and to determine if any of the language or ideas from plays performed there echoed through Milton’s work.

I would also have liked to have seen more pressure-testing of the standard portrayal of the young Milton as almost as dour as the later Milton. “Miltonic humor” might seem as unpromising as a Bill Clinton lecture on the virtues of chastity, but Milton seems to have been popular in his Cambridge years, and he even acted as the master of ceremonies for a student satirical event known as a “salting.” His epistolary elegies to his best friend, Charles Diodati, demonstrate his capacity for amiable teasing, but there is also a subversive wit in his other Latin poetry. Did this sense of humor evaporate, or are there satirical traces we have not noticed in the later works because we braced ourselves for grimness?

McDowell ends this book shortly before Milton’s doomed marriage to his first wife, but in the last paragraph adds that “the second half of Milton’s life is the story of how this gleaming vision of the poet’s powers became darkened, but not overshadowed, by the experience of revolution.” I take that assertion as a promise of a second volume — which is great news for lovers of this great poet.

Read the whole thing here.

Happy Birthday, Milton! Here’s how you can support him – no, no, not with another civil war, but by preserving his cottage.

Monday, December 9th, 2019

Milton makes whoopee.

Happy 411th birthday to John Milton! You can see him at the party today at left. He celebrated – where else? – at his cottage in Chalfont St. Giles, his refuge while he was out of royal favor after the defeat of Oliver Cromwell. We’ve written about it here and here.

Milton’s Cottage is the only surviving home of the poet and parliamentarian who wrote Paradise Lost, Paradise Regained, Lycidas, Comus, Areopagitica, and so much more. Today, his birthday, is a good way to think of how we can all help preserve this chunk of 17th century literary history.

Why? Let one of the trustees, Stanford alum John Bradley, tell you: “Here in 1666, he completed his epic work Paradise Lost.”

“During his lifetime in the 17th century he laid the groundwork for the democratic way of life we enjoy today. He championed the four basic freedoms of thought, of speech, of religious following, and of freedom of publication, which we are still hotly debating today. This legacy provides an anchor for the civilized world as we know it. His influence on founding father Thomas Jefferson and John Adams is fully apparent in the wording of both the U.S. Constitution and the First Amendment, which enshrines theses freedoms.”

Americans can make tax-deductible donations via the British Schools & Universities Foundation and Network for Good here, noting Milton’s Cottage Trust as a preference. And if you’re in Britain, you have a chance to make donations that will be quadrupled here for “Darkness Visible,” to support a program at the Cottage for the visually impaired (as Milton was). But you must move quick! quick! quick! Donations must be received by midday tomorrow – London time.

Update:  John Bradley wrote this morning to tell me that all U.S. donations will be doubled until the end January 2020 (at least). Go to the Milton Cottage website here and scroll down to the section on “U.S. Donors.” Do it for Father Christmas.

Want to see the Milton Cottage yourself? Try the video below.

“Not ordinary speech, but extraordinary speech”: Robert Pinsky on John Milton and the American imagination

Saturday, May 4th, 2019

Milton’s man in America

“Great art is great not because it enters an academic curriculum, and neither is greatness affirmed by the awarding of prizes or titles. But great is not necessarily a vague term. It can indicate work that penetrates the shapes, feelings, ideas, and sounds of a culture, as in the cadences of speech. Sometimes that kind of penetration is so deep, so transforming, that it is nearly invisible, or barely acknowledged.” So writes Stanford poet (and friend) Robert Pinsky, in “The American John Milton,”  a 2008 article I just discovered in Slate.  Milton’s ideal “is not a poetry based on ordinary speech—which has been one Modernist slogan—but extraordinary speech.”

Two excerpts from the former U.S. poet laureate’s article:

Here is an interesting, continuing conflict in American writing and culture: the natural versus the expressionistic, or simplicity versus eccentricity, or plainness versus difficulty. American artists as different as Robert Frost and William Carlos Williams belong more or less in the “ordinary speech” category. On the other, “Miltonic” side of that division about word order in the mother tongue, consider the expressive eccentric Emily Dickinson, who in her magnificent poem 1068 (“Further in Summer Than the Birds”) writes this quatrain about the sounds of invisible insects in the summer fields:

Antiquest felt at Noon
When August burning low
Arise this spectral Canticle
Repose to typify

In these lines, the natural and the mysterious become one, an effect arising not just from the words (“Canticle”) but also from their order.


In the days when the Fourth of July was celebrated on town greens, the occasion was marked by fireworks, band music, and speeches—speeches that almost invariably quoted John Milton, the anti-Royalist and Protestant poet. Anna Beer, in the preface to her useful new biography Milton: Poet, Pamphleteer and Patriot, points out Milton’s considerable influence on the Founding Fathers. English writer Peter Ackroyd published, in the ‘90s, a novel called Milton in America, imagining the poet’s actual immigration—an outgrowth, in a way, of the more remarkable, actual story of Milton’s work in the American imagination.

I once heard the great American poet and iconoclast Allen Ginsberg recite Milton’s poem “Lycidas” by heart. Nearly every page of John Hollander’s indispensable anthology Nineteenth Century American Poetry bears traces of that same poem. In Ginsberg’s published journals from the mid-’50s, he assigns himself the metrical task of writing blank verse (and succeeds with subject matter including his lover Peter Orlovsky’s ass: “Let cockcrow crown the buttocks of my Pete,” another perfect pentameter).

By the way, Derek Walcott made his students memorize “Lycidas” – so Ginsberg wasn’t alone. Read Robert Pinsky’s article in its entirety here.  

Happy World Book Day! A few words from John Milton…

Thursday, March 7th, 2019

Happy World Book Day! According to Wikipedia, “World Book Day, also known as World Book and Copyright Day, or International Day of the Book, is an annual event the organized by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) to promote readingpublishing, and copyright.”

Nota bene: Apparently, World Book Day was first celebrated on 23 April 1995, and continues to be recognized on that day – but it’s also recognized as Shakespeare’s birthday, and we rather think the Bard deserves his own day.

So let’s celebrate with one of the English languages other Bards: John Milton. From Milton’s Cottage on this day: “What better time to quote Areopagitica – Milton’s iconic defense of the freedom of the press and the source of his best quotes about books?”

“A good book is the precious life-blood of a master spirit, embalmed and treasured up on purpose to a life beyond life.”

And this: “For Books are not absolutely dead things, but doe contain a potencie of life in them to be as active as that soule was whose progeny they are; nay they do preserve as in a violl the purest efficacie and extraction of that living intellect that bred them.” (Thanks to poet Dan Rifenburgh for the find!)

Happy 410th birthday, John Milton! Here’s how you can thank him for Paradise Lost.

Sunday, December 9th, 2018

And there was a little party tonight chez lui – cake and champers in Buckinghamshire!

Happy 410th birthday to the man who lost paradise, and then regained it – for all of us! There was a lovely little party to celebrate the event at the poet’s digs in Chalfont St. Giles, his only surviving home. Wish I’d been there! (I wrote about my own stay earlier this year here.)

Like to get him a little prezzie for the occasion? Here’s what he really needs, and you have a few more days to get it: make a contribution to keeping his place tidied up. The Milton Cottage in Chalfont St. Giles is his only surviving residence, and it’s a charmer. But after half a millennium, it needs a few repairs. “I visited the cottage last summer. It is an absolute gem and the staff are delightful,” according to Milton scholar Joe Nutt.

But move quickly: Thanks to a generous benefactor, any time up midnight on 14th December 2018 your donation will be quadrupled! For a tax-deductible contribution (via credit card or Paypal), Americans should go HERE to donate. Scroll down to note that your intended target for funding is “Paradise Maintain’d: Milton’s Cottage”!

“Yes, I’ve donated to Milton’s Cottage for several years. It is the only structure associated with Milton that remains intact, and it’s where he completed ???????? ????,” wrote Milton enthusiast Mark Hackler. He continued:

Milton was a Londoner for most of his life, but every house (at least four) that he lived in has been obliterated over time. One or two were burned during the Great Fire of London in 1666, and others were destroyed during the Blitz in WWII.

You can view the exterior of the “dorms” at Christ College at the University of Cambridge, where Milton shared a room with a half-dozen pensioners (scholarship students), and there is a memorial window dedicated to Milton at St. Margaret’s Church, Westminster Abbey; sometimes his portrait is on display at the National Portrait Gallery. But nothing physical remains of Milton in London, except his corpse, which is buried in the floor of the St. Giles without Cripplegate church.

If you visit Bread Street in London, the street on which Milton was born and grew up, you’ll find nothing but soulless office buildings and a tiny gap between two banks called Milton’s Way. The school he attended (St. Paul’s) is gone; the Mermaid, the pub at the end of the street, where Shakespeare and other greats ate and drank, is gone (perhaps a young Milton, who was 12 when Shakespeare died, met the playwright as he stumbled from the pub on a foggy London afternoon); St. Paul’s Cathedral, just around the corner, looks very different now than it did in Milton’s day. Nearly everything in this part of East London (Cheapside) was bombed and burned during WWII.

The London of Milton – and of Chaucer, Spenser, Shakespeare, Wordsworth, Keats, Shelley, Byron and many others – has vanished.