Posts Tagged ‘John Milton’

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
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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.

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
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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
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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
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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 𝑃𝑎𝑟𝑎𝑑𝑖𝑠𝑒 𝐿𝑜𝑠𝑡,” 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.

Reading “Paradise Lost” in the fall of 1968: a poem on liberty and loss, and the sexual revolution, too

Friday, May 11th, 2018
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Ta-daaaa!

I knew it, I knew it. A John Milton revival is on the way. I could smell it in the air. I wrote about it here – but here’s another indication: Robert Crossley‘s “My Ever New Delight: The Pleasures of Paradise Lost” in the current issue of The Hudson Review. 

“Paradise Lost is a feat of delicate engineering,” Crossley explains, “to leave parts out is to risk the whole thing collapsing.” He has taught it for years, and insists “the students in my epic poetry course mastered the distinctive Miltonic rhythm of lines suspended over vast spaces, the rhetorical energy of the speeches, the thundering polysyllables colliding with brisk bursts of vernacular, the enjambments and the inversions and the heaping of adjectives that make Paradise Lost a tour de force for the human voice.”

But his interest began with Prof. Mary Ann Radzinowicz of the University of Virginia, who introduced the masterpiece only after the students had read the prose treatises, many written during the poet’s stint as chief propagandist for Oliver Cromwell’s revolutionary government…

With this understanding of Milton’s utopian commitments and his experience as a failed revolutionary, I was ready to read Paradise Lost as a poem less about theological doctrines than about liberty and loss, a poem with an intensely personal dimension. Even Milton’s anxious publisher required him to attach to the second edition of Paradise Lost as an explanation for why the poem didn’t rhyme exhibited the still smoldering fires of the old revolutionary resisting authority. … From that note a reader plunges (quite literally) into the dizzying account of a fall from the heights of heaven to the bottom of the universe. The leader of the rebel angels has been

John Milton knew a little about falls himself…

Hurl’d headlong flaming from th’ Ethereal Sky
With hideous ruin and combustion down
To bottomless perdition, there to dwell
In Adamantine Chains and penal Fire.

It will be nine days before Satan can so much as lift his head from the lake of fire and begin to undertake his campaign of ven­geance against the Almighty.

One of the great mysteries of Paradise Lost—how could Milton write with apparent sympathy for the devil?—was about to be dissolved for me. It wasn’t that he thought Satan a hero (as some of the Romantic poets, Blake and Shelley in particular, liked to believe). Milton’s judgments about Satan are clear and unequivocal. But psychologically Milton had been there: he knew what it meant to rebel against an absolute monarch and to lose. Empa­thy isn’t the same as sympathy. Milton could put himself into the mind and the circumstances of the fallen angel, understanding a rebel’s seething hatred, despair, and fixed determination “never to submit or yield,” while also peeling back the layers of delusion, self-aggrandizement, and fabrication in Satan’s accounting of himself. Here were radicalism and fraudulence, freedom and its counterfeit fused in a single personality not easily pigeonholed.

Act I, equality. Act II …?

As I began reading Paradise Lost in the fall of 1968, Mary Ann Radzinowicz would occasionally punctuate her lectures with brief asides about speeches and confrontations at the Democratic National Convention that had just concluded in August and on the national debates about policy and strategy in Vietnam. My marginal annotations to my old graduate school text of Milton tell part of the story. Much of Book II of the poem is devoted to a council on foreign policy in hell. Next to the hopeful but hollow speech of Belial, whose “Tongue / Dropt Manna” during the debate over the devils’ strategic attitude toward God in the aftermath of their downfall, I’ve penciled in “Hubert Humphrey rhetoric.” When Satan announces his expedition to Earth to avenge his defeat by destroying the Creator’s new human beings, his Seraphim celebrate “with pomp Supreme” their newly installed “dread Emperor.” My pencil note, reflecting the polit­ical conventions of the previous summer, reads: “A ‘spontaneous demonstration’ for the new standard bearer of the party of hell.” I hasten to say that Radzinowicz didn’t try to score cheap points or to turn Paradise Lost into a crowd-pleasing guidebook to American politics. Her notations to contemporary events were small change in the larger transactions of reading. She never lost sight of the epic poem we were traversing, but she made the politics and psychology of the epic as vital to us in 1968 as it had been for Milton’s first readers in 1668. For me, all the doors were flung wide open.

There’s more: How Raphael tries to teach Adam to be a misogynist. And the sex life of angels, too. Read it all here.

“This is the hardest class you will ever take,” the kids were told. And the course filled up within minutes.

Tuesday, April 10th, 2018
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Auden knew what he was doing.

Kids are lazy little buggers who opt for easy courses, right?

Wrong.

Some time ago I wrote about W.H. Auden‘s syllabus during his time at the University of Michigan in the 1940s, a copy of which had been sitting in my files for decades. I can’t remember how I found it in the archives of the Rackham Graduate School, but occasionally I would run across it again, take it out, and stare at it, as at a marvel.

The reading list for his course, “Fate and the Individual in European Literature,” included: The Divine Comedy in full, four works by Shakespeare, Pascal’s Pensées, Horace’s odes, Volpone, Racine, Kierkegaard’s Fear and TremblingMoby-DickThe Brothers KaramazovFaust, Baudelaire and Rimbaud, Kafka, Rilke, T.S. Eliot. Also, nine operas. (Auden loved opera – and assigned three of Wagner‘s Teutonic masterpieces.) That’s more than 6,000 pages total. For a single course.

At the University of Oklahoma, three brave men – Kyle Harper, a classicist and the university’s provost; the historian Wilfred McClay; and David Anderson, a professor of English – decided to team-teach a year-long course, modifying Auden’s syllabus a little – to include, for example, Milton.

“This is the hardest class you will ever take.”

The result, according to Mark Bauerlein writing in the Chronicle of Higher Education:

When enrollment opened last semester, the unexpected happened. The course filled up within minutes. Harper had already warned his students, “This is the hardest class you will ever take.” The syllabus was posted online in advance, so that students knew exactly what they were getting into. The course meets a general-education requirement at Oklahoma, but so do many other courses with half the workload. To accommodate the unexpected demand, the class was expanded from 22 to 30 students, the maximum number that the assigned classroom could hold.

I sat in on a class in October. McClay lectured on Inferno. The atmosphere was genial but focused. You can tell after five minutes whether a class has an esprit de corps — no sullen faces, no eyes drifting to windows and cellphones, even the bad jokes get a laugh. McClay slid from Augustine to Bonaventura to Jesus, Jonah, Exodus, and the prodigal son before taking up Paolo and Francesca, and then the suicides, sodomites, murderers, and frauds in Dante’s torture zones.

The historian was game.

After class, about half of the students and I headed over to the dining room at Dunham College, one of Oklahoma’s graceful new residential colleges, for lunch. There, without the professors present, I asked the key question: Why did they sign up for Western-civ boot camp?

One fellow grumbled that he had to do three times as much work as he did in his other classes. The rest nodded. But you could hear in his words the self-respect that comes from doing more work than the norm, from climbing the highest hill while your peers dog it. Another student said that the page-count of the syllabus had flattered her, that it showed the professors respected her enough to demand that she take on a heavy load of historic literature.

The English prof was game, too.

“This is what I came to college for,” another said. One more chimed in, “This class is changing my life.”

They acknowledged, too, the distinctiveness of the works they read, one student calling them a “foundation” for things they study elsewhere. They admired the professors, to be sure, but the real draw was the material. When I asked what they would change about the course, they went straight to the books: add The Iliad and some of the Bible.

Read the whole thing here.

A postscript of 4/14 from John Murphy of the University of Virginia: “On my way out the door of higher ed and toward opportunities, both teaching and otherwise, elsewhere, one of my thoughts – in line with the program described here – is one way to revive the humanities might be to make the whole enterprise an honors curriculum or honors college within larger institutions. That would allow for a recuperation of the rigorous and seriousness that has long been lost within college and university humanities courses and it would also raise the value of a humanities degree as a credential. The implicit message would be “real college for real students” and it would be mark of distinction to have taken the more difficult and selective course of study, even if you went on to purse a “practical” career after that. It would be a sign to “practical” employers that a graduate had really hit the books during college and not taken the easy way out. Young people will work very, very, very hard at things that ultimately don’t matter as much as curricular education – i.e. athletics. So maybe foregrounding the aspect of difficulty might tap some kind of competitive spirit. ‘Auden College: No Pain, No Gain.'”

The Devil and John Milton in Chalfont St. Giles: did my residency inspire a poem?

Wednesday, April 4th, 2018
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Was R.S. Gwynn was with us in Chalfont St. Giles, in spirit at least? He sent a short poem, “Near Milton Cottage,” obviously inspired by the recent posts on my all-too-brief stay at the only extant Milton residence in Britain.

Sam denies it: “Actually, I’ve never been to Chalfont St. Giles. This was inspired by a trip to a Marks & Spencer (my first) near Salisbury. There’s really nothing in the U.S. like these stores – a sort of cross between Trader Joe’s and Macy’s, but on a smaller scale. I could have spent half a day in this one, sitting on sofas, trying on jackets, eating free cubes of cheese. I saw at least a dozen kinds of sausage I’d like to have tried. How Satan got in there, God only knows, but he does seem to prefer hanging with the upper middle class.” Marks & Spencer upper middle class? We think not. Try Harrods for that.

Sam Gwynn

He continued: “I did use the meter of ‘L’Allegro,’ by the way. It alternates full trochaic tetrameters with catalectic ones. The rhymes on the odd lines were fun, especially pitchfork and which pork. I’ve rarely used trochaic. It has a tendency to be lead-footed if you’re not careful.”  Wish I had his breezy facility. 

Here goes:

 

Near the Milton Cottage

Satan shops at Marks & Spencer
With a trolley heaped with cake,
Shedding, like a swinging censer,
Whiffs of brimstone in His wake.

Everything there sports one label
(At a fair though upscale price).
Swarthy stockboys shout in Babel,
Keeping picnic things on ice.

Stabbing goodies with His pitchfork
— Capons, capers, casual clothes—
He slows down to ponder which pork
Sausage most excites His nose.

Loosed upon their shops by Milton,
Now, midst sprats and Mozart tinned,
He unveils a putrid Stilton
To remind them how they’ve sinned.

He wolfs down endangered species,
Grills with Amazonian wood,
Chips the poles for ice with ease;
He’s got a credit line. It’s good.

Satan, consummate consumer,
Thrives in both the boom and bust.
See Him give a housewife room!
Herself ahead, He swells with lust.

Is He Tory? Is He Labour?
Are His economics planned?
Do thy best to do thy neighbour
In this green and pleasant land.

“Paper? Plastic?” croons the checkout.
Satan smiles and answers, “Both.”
Mrs. Bean now sticks her neck out
From a slow queue bagged by Sloth:

“Sinful Satan,” cries the woman,
“Are Your actions ever Green?”
Satan nods and smirks to someone,
“Let’s recycle … Mrs. Bean.”

How John Milton wound up blind and in disgrace in Chalfont St. Giles (and how he was inspired to start Paradise Regained).

Saturday, March 24th, 2018
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The “First Court” at Christ’s College, Cambridge. Milton would have walked it every day that he was here as a student.

Today I made my sad farewell to John Milton at his cottage in Chalfont St. Giles, but I expect it is an au revoir and not an adieu. Tonight, I am staying a few blocks away on the night before I head for Heathrow – with John Dugdale Bradley and his gracious wife Jan, who will comfort me in my sorrow. 

In my previous post, I mentioned how Milton’s Quaker friend, Thomas Ellwood, meant to greet the poet on his arrival here, as he fled the London plague and royal disfavor, but the government blocked Ellwood’s plans. Here’s the story in Ellwood’s words:

The “Great Gate” at Christ’s College, Cambridge.

Some little time before I went to Aylesbury Prison, I was desired by my quondam Master Milton to take a House for him, in the Neighbourhood where I dwelt, that he might go out of the City, for the Safety of himself and his Family, the Pestilence then growing hot in London. I took a pretty Box for him in Giles-Chalfont, a Mile from me; of which I gave him notice: and intended to have waited on him and seen him well settled in it; but was prevented by that Imprisonment.

But now being released and returned Home I soon made a Visit to him, to welcome him into the Country.

After some common Discourses had passed between us, he called for a Manuscript of his which being brought he delivered to me, bidding me take it home with me, and read it at my Leisure, and when I had so done, return to him, with my Judgment thereupon.

When I came home, and had set myself to read it, I found it was that Excellent POEM which he entitled PARADISE LOST. After I had, with the best Attention, read it through, I made him another Visit, and returned him his Book, with due Acknowledgement of the Favour he had done me, in Communicating it to me. He asked me how I liked it, and what I thought of it; which I modestly but freely told him: and after some further Discourse about it, I pleasantly said to him, Thou hast said much here of Paradise Lost; but what hast thou to say of Paradise Found? He made me no Answer, but sate some time in a Muse: then brake off that Discourse, and fell upon another Subject.

After the Sickness was over, and the City well cleansed and become safely habitable again, he returned thither. And when afterwards I went to wait on him there (which I seldom fail|d of doing, whenever my Occasions drew me to London) he shewed me his Second POEM, called PARADISE REGAINED; and in a pleasant Tone said to me, This is owing to you: for you put it into my Head, by the Question you put to me at Chalfont; which before I had not thought of.

If you want to see the “pretty box,” I refer you to an earlier blogpost here. The photos here revisit Milton’s student days at Christ’s College, Cambridge. John and I visited yesterday with Cambridge graduate student and Stanford alum Michael Gioia (our first visit to Cambridge as a guest of Girton College here) – all the images make a splendid finale to this U.K. visit. All photos by John Dugdale Bradley, a Cambridge (and Stanford) alum himself.

From the First Court towards the Great Gate…

I sleep where Milton slept: my first night at the poet’s cottage in Chalfont St. Giles

Thursday, March 22nd, 2018
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Milton meets MacBook. In this room he slept and wrote.

I slept in John Milton‘s room last night. I’m told I was likely the first person to do so in hundreds of years. The sense of incongruity gave an unreality to the event, as I sat in the 17th century chair and worked at the desk next to the fireplace, first plugging in my Apple MacBook Pro with its adapter, and hooking up my cellphone to recharge. The sense of immodesty, too, as I pulled off my earrings, sweater, trousers, for the night, in the room where the Puritan poet spent his days, in royal disfavor after the fall of the Cromwell regime – though the poet was blind when he lived here, so my discomfort was meaningless on more than one scale. A hot water bottle generously provided by my real-life hosts kept me warm in bed, as well as mittens and heavy socks.

The view from the back, where the Milton Garden features the flowers that he loved.

To clarify, Milton’s bedroom doubled as his study, or rather vice versa. In 1665, he fled the plague in London to this refuge in Chalfont St. Giles, in Buckinghamshire, about 25 miles from the city.  His friend Thomas Ellwood had rented a residence for the poet now known as Milton’s Cottage, but he was arrested and jailed when he when he attended a Quaker funeral, and so wasn’t on hand to welcome him. Milton took on the place for a little over a year, a period that was bookended by the plague at the beginning, and the Great Fire that burned half London at the ending in 1666.

He completed Paradise Lost here, in Chalfont St. Giles. But it’s unclear how much work was done in this cottage, with its inexplicable layout of 8 or so rooms, cupboards, and many nooks and crannies. He had already given a draft to Ellwood, but Milton was an endless tinkerer and reviser. Certainly the final draft was finished here, and he began the inevitable sequel, Paradise Regained. He couldn’t leave his tale at this, at the end of Paradise Lost:

The World was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and Providence their guide:
They hand in hand with wandering steps and slow,
Through Eden took their solitary way.

Blind, crippled with gout, he pretty much remained in this one room, with the parlor where he may have received guests. He slept in his study, next to the kitchen, where the challenging stairs wouldn’t torture him. He wouldn’t have seen the huge fireplace, about five feet high (parliament could meet in it), or the window that looks out onto the street, but I hope he could at least sense the sunlight, as I did, as it streamed through the small latticed eastern-facing window at the back of the room in the morning.

But perhaps there’s another reason why he slept here – one that captures the imagination more. Maybe he wanted to be close to ink and paper. He claimed he woke up with lines of poetry rolling through his head, and was anxious to take up his quill and write them all down – or rather, to have one of his daughters take up the pen and paper, as he dictated to her.

My Milton cup

Perhaps he fine-tuned lines like these:

More safe I sing with mortal voice, unchanged
To hoarse or mute, though fallen on evil days,
On evil days though fallen, and evil tongues,
In darkness, and with dangers compassed round,
And solitude; yet not alone, while thou
Visit’st my slumbers nightly, or when Morn
Purples the East. Still govern thou my song,
Urania, and fit audience find, though few.

 

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.