Posts Tagged ‘Micah Mattix’

John Milton: the dispensable poet? A pitch for the Paradise bard

Sunday, February 4th, 2018
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The original anti-hero

John Milton the dispensable poet? Not so! Simon Hefferover at The Telegraph, insists that “to some of us he is the greatest poet in the English language.

So why is Milton so often left off university syllabi and must-read lists, even among poets who should know better?

“Perhaps as this is a secular age his predominantly religious subjects – not just Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained, but also Samson Agonistes – have little appeal,” he writes. “Yet in these works we see, and hear, what Wordsworth meant by ‘majestic’… Sometimes Milton is like an art house screenplay. One should not be deterred by the subject, any more than one should be deterred from reading the King James Bible or the 1662 Prayer Book just because one is not an Anglican. The sheer beauty of the words, and the musicality for which they are chosen, are among the characteristics that make Milton great.”

“To see his breadth, read his English sonnets: they are contemporary (as in his exhortation of Oliver Cromwell), reflective (as on his painful memories of his deceased wife), polemical (notably about religion), humorous (his sonnet defending his pamphlet Tetrachordon) and movingly humble. That last judgment applies to his most famous sonnet, ‘On His Blindness’, in which he promises to serve God dutifully however he can – ‘Thousands at his bidding speed / And post oe’r land and ocean without rest: /They also serve who only stand and wait’.”

Selfish, selfish, selfish…

According to Micah Mattix, writing last week about “Milton’s Morality” over at the Weekly Standard, “Milton’s lines can be both digressive and tight, packed with allusions and neologisms. An exceptional student of Latin and a gifted linguist, Milton coined more English words than Shakespeare, many of them first appearing in Paradise Lost (like ‘terrific,’ ‘jubilant,’ ‘space’ to refer to outer space, as well as ‘pandemonium’).”

Hefner agrees: “His choice of diction is always original and therefore arresting. Time spent with the Oxford English Dictionary will soon show how many words he brought into our vocabulary, from the Latin and Greek of which he was a master. He also, as befits a blind man, has a stunning visual sense: when millions of fallen angels draw their flaming swords in Paradise Lost and “the sudden blaze / Far round illumin’d Hell”, Milton depicts a vivid moment with remarkable economy of words. His use of rhythm in his blank verse is intensely musical; his command of the sonnet form is finer than Spenser’s, and no worse than that ascribed to Shakespeare.”

But perhaps Milton’s feelings would not have been hurt at the neglect. Heffer argues that poetry was dispensable for Milton  –  a sideline. He had been the Latin secretary for Cromwell, and composed all the Puritan leader’s diplomatic correspondence. Poetry became his main only after 1658, when he began to compose Paradise Lost. The direction got a little extra omph after 1660, when the government of the newly restored monarch, Charles II, issued a a warrant for Milton’s arrest as a collaborator with the regicidal Cromwell regime. “He decided, wisely, to keep a low profile, that he had the time and the seclusion to write verse. But admirers of Milton know that he was as good a polemicist as he was a poet, and during the 1640s and 1650s wrote several of the greatest works of political argument in the canon. They came from the heart, covering subjects that deeply affected or annoyed him.”

Courageous in front of a crowd…

The upshot: while Austen’s bicentennials pop up regularly, and even Mary Shelley – whose Frankenstein was so heavily influenced by Milton – has been fêted with a bicentennial this year, poor Milton is still in exile, stirring the fire and waiting for his daughters to serve him porridge. “How did a poem that was lauded even by Milton’s enemies as not only above ‘all moderne attempts in verse, but equall to any of ye Ancient Poets,’ as Sir John Hobart put it in 1668, and that was translated in its entirety into Latin in 1690 and used in English-speaking classrooms to teach rhetoric instead of classical texts lose so much ground to both Shakespeare and Austen, particularly in Western countries?”

It should not be so. Given that Lucifer is the unabashed hero of Paradise Lost, in all his grim and serious-minded glory, isn’t it time to take another look at the poet who gave us heaven and earth? “The point of all this mirroring is to show how closely evil resembles good. Poole writes in Milton and the Making of Paradise Lost that Milton “regards evil as disarmingly close in appearance to the good,” and it is only by careful moral reasoning that the two can be separated,” writes Mattix.

The poet Percy Bysshe Shelley [that would be Mr. Mary Shelley – ED.] praised Milton’s Satan as “a moral being . . . far superior to his God . . . who perseveres in some purpose which he has conceived to be excellent in spite of adversity and torture.” The problem is that Satan’s “excellent” purpose is the destruction of “harmless innocence” for personal and political ends. This makes him, Carey writes, “English literature’s first terrorist.”

He sat here.

In short, Satan says all the rightly compassionate things only to the “right” people, who are, of course, his people, and only when his own interests are at stake. He is unflappable only in front of a crowd, courageous only when it is personally advantageous. He acts like a good leader, father, and husband—and even argues with nearly perfect reasoning that he is more morally upright than God himself—all while serving only himself. He is a god of unchecked liberty, and, therefore, in Milton’s view, a god of chaos and destruction.

What is particularly chilling about the character of Satan is the extent to which he believes all his actions, no matter how violent, are not only justified but morally right. As C. S. Lewis put it, “we see in Satan . . . the horrible co-existence of a subtle and incessant intellectual activity with an incapacity to understand anything,” particularly his own selfish motivations. Satan wants the freedom to do as he pleases, but it is a freedom that always comes at the expense of others’ liberty.

There you have it. Read the Heffer article here. And the Mattix article here.