Happy Birthday, John Milton

Milton! thou should’st be living at this hour:
England hath need of thee: she is a fen
Of stagnant waters: altar, sword and pen,
Fireside, the heroic wealth of hall and bower,
Have forfeited their ancient English dower
Of inward happiness. We are selfish men;
Oh! raise us up, return to us again;
And give us manners, virtue, freedom, power.
Thy soul was like a Star and dwelt apart;
Thou hadst a voice whose sound was like the sea;
Pure as the naked heavens, majestic, free,
So didst thou travel on life’s common way,
In cheerful godliness; and yet thy heart
The lowliest duties on itself lay.

— William Wordsworth

Milton, with the possible exception of Spenser, is the first eccentric English poet, the first to make a myth out of his personal experience, and to invent a language of his own remote from the spoken word.
– W.H. Auden

Milton was born in 1608, and although he left Oxford without completing his degree, he remained a thinker and a propagandist/pamphleteer and a scholar till the end of his days. The isolated poet, focused on self and emotion, would come in with the Romantics. Milton was a public and a political man, a propagandist for the Commonwealth (a dangerous position to take, especially once the Restoration came about). He addressed all kinds of “unpoetic” social and civil issues in pamphlets, books, poems, articles. He was famous in his own day. His reputation since then has risen and fallen with the tides, and we are now in a huge Milton upsurge. He turned 400 a couple of years ago, and there were celebrations across New York City: art exhibits, library exhibits, and also a costume-party in Brooklyn where you had to dress up as either Milton, or a character from Paradise Lost.

I had to read Paradise Lost in high school and thought it was the most boring thing I had ever been subjected to in my life. I had to prop my eyeballs open. I re-read it about 10 years ago, and was totally swept away by it, not only by the thoughts/philosophy in the great work, but also the depths and transcendence of the language itself. I feel like people should be forced to RE-read what they were forced to READ in high school.

Milton traveled widely, and most of his writing was meant for public consumption: he was not a private scribbler. He wrote what amounts to op-ed columns explaining to his audience what was happening to the constitution in England at that time. He wrote poetry privately; he had been writing poetry since he was a young boy.

Jonathan Rosen, in his wonderful New Yorker article about the continuing relevance of Milton, writes:

Sometime in 1638, John Milton visited Galileo Galilei in Florence. The great astronomer was old and blind and under house arrest, confined by order of the Inquisition, which had forced him to recant his belief that the earth revolves around the sun, as formulated in his “Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems.” Milton was thirty years old – his own blindness, his own arrest, and his own cosmological epic, Paradise Lost, all lay before him. But the encounter left a deep imprint on him. It crept into Paradise Lost, where Satan’s shield looks like the moon seen through Galileo’s telescope, and in Milton’s great defense of free speech, Areopagitica, Milton recalls his visit to Galileo and warns that England will buckle under inquisitorial forces if it bows to censorship, “an undeserved thraldom upon learning.”

Beyond the sheer pleasure of picturing the encounter – it’s like those comic-book specials in which Superman meets Batman – there’s something strange about imagining these two figures inhabiting the same age. Though Milton was the much younger man, in some ways his world system seems curiously older than the astronomer’s empirical universe. Milton depicted the earth hanging fixed from a golden chain, and when he contemplated the heavens he saw God enthroned and angels warring. The sense of the new and the old colliding forms part of Milton’s complex aura. The best-known portrait of his mature years makes Milton look like the dyspeptic brother of the man on the Quaker Oats box, but he is far more our contemporary than Shakespeare, who died when Milton was seven. Nobody would ever wonder whether Milton was really the author of his own work. Though Paradise Lost is a dilation on a moment in Genesis, it contains passages so personal that you cannot read far without knowing that the author was a blind man fallen on “evil days.” Even in his political prose, Milton will pause to tell us that he is really not all that short, despite what his enemies say. Though he coined the name “Pandemonium”, all the demons for the palace that Satan and his fallen crew build in Hell, he also coined the word “self-esteem,” as contemporary a concept as there is and one that governed much of Milton’s life.

Read the whole thing: here.

Poet Walter Savage Landor wrote:

Milton, even Milton, rankt with living men!
Over the highest Alps of mind he marches,
And far below him spring the baseless arches
Of Iris, colouring dimly lake and fen.

Milton lost most of his public standing when the Restoration came, although he didn’t experience the harsh reprisals that many others did. He was blind by that point, and his great works, the works that would put him in the canon for all time, were still ahead of him.

Milton’s “sonnet to his blindness” is a searingly truthful poem, and one I have turned to in my darkest hours.

Sonnet: On His Blindness
When I consider how my light is spent,
Ere half my days, in this dark world and wide,
And that one talent which is death to hide,
Lodged with me useless, though my soul more bent
To serve therewith my maker, and present
My true account, lest he returning chide,
Doth God exact day-labour, light denied?
I fondly ask; but Patience to prevent
That murmur, soon replies, God doth not need
Either man’s work or his own gifts, who best
Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best, his state
Is kingly. Thousands at his bidding speed
And post o’er land and ocean without rest:
They also serve who only stand and wait.

He dictated Paradise Lost to his daughter. That fact alone makes my brain go blank.

There are some people who seem to be vessels of a higher force, or energy, or sensibility. Whatever you want to call it. You could tie them up, throw them in a basement for 75 years, and they would STILL scratch out an epic on the basement wall. It is something that cannot be easily explained. It just is. Milton’s last works are of that order.

Michael Schmidt wrote of Milton in Lives of the Poets:

Milton was revered through two and a half centuries. Before Eliot tried to knock the bust off its plinth, only Doctor Johnson had expressed damaged misgivings, and he tempered criticism with grudging respect. Milton became a spiritual and literary duty, a task and test, a measuring stick, and a rod to every poet’s back. Shakespeare was monumentalized, but he remained engaging, inspiring, inimitable, Milton furrowed the brow of most readers.

Milton was political, moral, religious, a bit of a finger-wagger, but ultimately he was connected to the depths of what it means to be a human being, all the pain and grief and joy and striving that makes up our condition here. He was interested in good and evil but he falls into the usual writer’s trap of making evil seem so … appealing. Milton understood the appeal of evil, the appeal of the fallen angel.

Schmidt writes:

Milton was unsuccessful with protagonists. Christ, God, and Sampson repel us in different ways; what they represent they do not recommend. His antagonists can be admirable. They are given much of the best verse. Comus and Satan are attractive villains. Blake could claim Milton as “of the Devil’s party” and John Middleton Murry branded him a “bad man” on these grounds. Robert Burns declared, “I have bought a pocket Milton, which I carry perpetually about with me, in order to study the sentiments – the dauntless magnanimity, the intrepid, unyielding independence, the desperate daring, the noble defiance of hardship, in that great personage, SATAN.” Milton’s unequal skill in moral characterization is inevitable. Goodness and virtue cannot be particularized without limiting or containing them. Virtues are flimsy, tend toward abstraction when they aspire to be comprehensive. Evil, however, has to be particularized. Fallen men fall in different ways. Evil acts in a world of characters we recognize. The devil has the best, because the most diverse and seductive, tunes. A marriage between virtue and character, between pure qualities and mundane objects, is beyond most art, even his. Or is it beyond our comprehension? Is there a modern prejudice that finds the individual invariably more real, more attractive, than the universal?

The Commonwealth had been restored, leaving Milton at odds’ end, and it was during that time that he wrote, in succession, Paradise Lost, Paradise Regained and Samson Agonistes.

He died in 1674.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote of late-stage Milton:

My mind is not capable of forming a more august conception than arises from the contemplation of this greatest man in his latter days: poor, sick, old, blind, slandered, persecuted: ‘Darkness before and danger’s voice behind,’ in an age in which he was as little understood by the party for whom, as by that against whom, he had contended, and among men before whom he strode so far as to dwarf himself by the distance; yet still listening to the music of his own thoughts, or, if additionally cheered, yet cheered only by the prophetic faith of two or three solitary individuals, he did nevertheless

… argue not
Against Heaven’s hand or will, nor bate a jot
Of heart or hope; but still bore up and steer’d
Right onward.

T.S. Eliot wrote:

In Milton the world of Spenser was reconfigured and almost unrecognisable … What had been reasonable and courteous, a belief in the fact that men of culture and intellect will be able to engage in rational discussion and agree to disagree, had been displaced by faction and sometimes violent intolerance. The moderate had stood down and the fanatic had taken his place, in the pulpit, in Parliament, and on the very peaks of Parnassus.

Schmidt writes:

The case against Milton is largely a case against his effect on the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. It was universal in Britain, and not confined to these islands. Milton is strictly inimitable: a radical and an anachronism. T.S. Eliot delivered telling blows, some of them against the moral content. The poem’s moral purpose, like that of The Fairie Queene, has become muted and remote. We read it for reasons other than edification. It fell to F.R. Leavis to square his shoulders before the master and try to knock him down. Leavis attacks first Paradise Lost and the grand style. He finds it predictable: “routine gesture,” “heavy fall”, “monotony”… Milton is “cut off from speech … that belongs to the emotional and sensory texture of actual living.” His style is “an impoverishment of sensibility.” Milton had “renounced the English language.”… Many of his charges are in part true. There is monotony; the grand style does compel an attitude in the reader (it has designs on us), the language is cut off from speech, except when it is speaking. But such facts need not be incriminating. The poem answers the more serious case … There is subtle and delicate life in the verse, and a variety of subtleties and delicacies. In dismissing Milton, Leavis assaults the wide area of English poetry which he affected; and his effect is still felt. The prejudice of our age, as much an unwritten rule as the rules of decorum were in the eighteenth century, is contained in Leavis’s declaration that Milton’s language is “cut off from speech”. His sin is his language.

Yet for two and a half centuries – even for a “speaker” like Wordsworth – Milton’s virtue was this language, which engaged and developed subjects difficult to combine, moral verities and the created world. The language of speech is not the only, or first, language of poetry. To criticize work in terms strictly irrelevant to it is of little value: a critical act of “brute assertive will,” or a prejudice so ingrained as to be indistinguishable, for uncritical readers, from truth itself. With the decline of literacy, Milton, like Spenser, becomes a more difficult mountain to scale, more remote from the “common reader”. Yet Chaucer and Shakespeare, the only poets in the tradition who are Milton’s superiors, both grow and recede in the same way and are not dismissed. They seem more accessible. In the end Leavis’s hostility, like Empson’s and Richards’s in other areas, is to the Christian content of the poems, and in Milton it is obtrusive and central. We read Herbert’s and Donne’s divine poems even if we are unbelievers: there is their doubt to engage, and the framed drama of specific situations. But Milton will not allow disbelief to go unchallenged: his structures and narratives are not rooted in individual faith but in universal belief. The question of revealed truth raises its head as in no other poet in the language.

Michael Schmidt, above, levels a charge at critics – a very fair charge (and you can see this dynamic in contemporary criticism as well when critics applaud a work because they “approve” of the ideas expressed in the work, and harangue a work that expresses ideas of which they may not “approve.” And so a very good work that contains ideas that seem distasteful to the critics is pilloried, while a milk-warm milquetoast work that confirms the critics’ conception of the world and what “matters” and “what we should do about this such-and-such serious issue” is hailed as “great”): Schmidt declares that the critics dislike the content (too religious, too literal, Milton is WAY too much of a “believer”), but they don’t feel they can say that outright, so they go out of their way to decimate the verse for other reasons. They don’t just want to come out and say, “All of this talk about God makes me really uncomfortable because I don’t feel the same way at all.” Excuse me, but who the hell cares if you feel the same way? Judge the work for the work. Or at least try to engage with it on its own terms, not yours.

Edward Le Comte, who wrote the introduction to my copy of Paradise Lost, says:

Out of the ruins and out of the darkness Milton brought Paradise Lost, Paradise Regained, and Samson Agonistes – a long epic, a short epic, and a Greek tragedy, all without rivals in the language. It was a miracle of the spirit – of, he intimated, the Holy Spirit, for he was strong and insistent in his belief in the sacredness of his inspiration.

Here is a part of Paradise Lost from Book One, with the hot and attractive Satan calling upon his followers.

Paradise Lost

Thus Satan talking to his neerest Mate
With Head up-lift above the wave, and Eyes
That sparkling blaz’d, his other Parts besides
Prone on the Flood, extended long and large
Lay floating many a rood, in bulk as huge
As whom the Fables name of monstrous size,
TITANIAN, or EARTH-BORN, that warr’d on JOVE,
BRIARIOS or TYPHON, whom the Den
By ancient TARSUS held, or that Sea-beast
LEVIATHAN, which God of all his works
Created hugest that swim th’ Ocean stream:
Him haply slumbring on the NORWAY foam
The Pilot of some small night-founder’d Skiff,
Deeming some Island, oft, as Sea-men tell,
With fixed Anchor in his skaly rind
Moors by his side under the Lee, while Night
Invests the Sea, and wished Morn delayes:
So stretcht out huge in length the Arch-fiend lay
Chain’d on the burning Lake, nor ever thence
Had ris’n or heav’d his head, but that the will
And high permission of all-ruling Heaven
Left him at large to his own dark designs,
That with reiterated crimes he might
Heap on himself damnation, while he sought
Evil to others, and enrag’d might see
How all his malice serv’d but to bring forth
Infinite goodness, grace and mercy shewn
On Man by him seduc’t, but on himself
Treble confusion, wrath and vengeance pour’d.
Forthwith upright he rears from off the Pool
His mighty Stature; on each hand the flames
Drivn backward slope their pointing spires, & rowld
In billows, leave i’th’ midst a horrid Vale.
Then with expanded wings he stears his flight
Aloft, incumbent on the dusky Air
That felt unusual weight, till on dry Land
He lights, if it were Land that ever burn’d
With solid, as the Lake with liquid fire;
And such appear’d in hue, as when the force
Of subterranean wind transports a Hill
Torn from PELORUS, or the shatter’d side
Of thundring AETNA, whose combustible
And fewel’d entrals thence conceiving Fire,
Sublim’d with Mineral fury, aid the Winds,
And leave a singed bottom all involv’d
With stench and smoak: Such resting found the sole
Of unblest feet. Him followed his next Mate,
Both glorying to have scap’t the STYGIAN flood
As Gods, and by their own recover’d strength,
Not by the sufferance of supernal Power.

“Is this the Region, this the Soil, the Clime,”
Said then the lost Arch Angel, “this the seat
That we must change for Heav’n, this mournful gloom
For that celestial light? Be it so, since hee
Who now is Sovran can dispose and bid
What shall be right: fardest from him is best
Whom reason hath equald, force hath made supream
Above his equals. Farewel happy Fields
Where Joy for ever dwells: Hail horrours, hail
Infernal world, and thou profoundest Hell
Receive thy new Possessor: One who brings
A mind not to be chang’d by Place or Time.
The mind is its own place, and in it self
Can make a Heav’n of Hell, a Hell of Heav’n.
What matter where, if I be still the same,
And what I should be, all but less then hee
Whom Thunder hath made greater? Here at least
We shall be free; th’ Almighty hath not built
Here for his envy, will not drive us hence:
Here we may reign secure, and in my choyce
To reign is worth ambition though in Hell:
Better to reign in Hell, then serve in Heav’n.
But wherefore let we then our faithful friends,
Th’ associates and copartners of our loss
Lye thus astonisht on th’ oblivious Pool,
And call them not to share with us their part
In this unhappy Mansion, or once more
With rallied Arms to try what may be yet
Regaind in Heav’n, or what more lost in Hell?”

So SATAN spake, and him BEELZEBUB
Thus answer’d. “Leader of those Armies bright,
Which but th’ Omnipotent none could have foyld,
If once they hear that voyce, their liveliest pledge
Of hope in fears and dangers, heard so oft
In worst extreams, and on the perilous edge
Of battel when it rag’d, in all assaults
Their surest signal, they will soon resume
New courage and revive, though now they lye
Groveling and prostrate on yon Lake of Fire,
As we erewhile, astounded and amaz’d,
No wonder, fall’n such a pernicious highth.”

He scarce had ceas’t when the superiour Fiend
Was moving toward the shore; his ponderous shield
Ethereal temper, massy, large and round,
Behind him cast; the broad circumference
Hung on his shoulders like the Moon, whose Orb
Through Optic Glass the TUSCAN Artist views
At Ev’ning from the top of FESOLE,
Or in VALDARNO, to descry new Lands,
Rivers or Mountains in her spotty Globe.
His Spear, to equal which the tallest Pine
Hewn on NORWEGIAN hills, to be the Mast
Of some great Ammiral, were but a wand,
He walkt with to support uneasie steps
Over the burning Marle, not like those steps
On Heavens Azure, and the torrid Clime
Smote on him sore besides, vaulted with Fire;
Nathless he so endur’d, till on the Beach
Of that inflamed Sea, he stood and call’d
His Legions, Angel Forms, who lay intrans’t
Thick as Autumnal Leaves that strow the Brooks
In VALLOMBROSA, where th’ ETRURIAN shades
High overarch’t imbowr; or scatterd sedge
Afloat, when with fierce Winds ORION arm’d
Hath vext the Red-Sea Coast, whose waves orethrew
BUSIRIS and his MEMPHIAN Chivalrie,
VVhile with perfidious hatred they pursu’d
The Sojourners of GOSHEN, who beheld
From the safe shore their floating Carkases
And broken Chariot Wheels, so thick bestrown
Abject and lost lay these, covering the Flood,
Under amazement of their hideous change.
He call’d so loud, that all the hollow Deep
Of Hell resounded. “Princes, Potentates,
Warriers, the Flowr of Heav’n, once yours, now lost,
If such astonishment as this can sieze
Eternal spirits; or have ye chos’n this place
After the toyl of Battel to repose
Your wearied vertue, for the ease you find
To slumber here, as in the Vales of Heav’n?
Or in this abject posture have ye sworn
To adore the Conquerour? who now beholds
Cherube and Seraph rowling in the Flood
With scatter’d Arms and Ensigns, till anon
His swift pursuers from Heav’n Gates discern
Th’ advantage, and descending tread us down
Thus drooping, or with linked Thunderbolts
Transfix us to the bottom of this Gulfe.
Awake, arise, or be for ever fall’n.”

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11 Responses to Happy Birthday, John Milton

  1. Rinaldo says:

    I had an early unsuccessful encounter with Milton myself, and have yet to do the rereading during which I finally “get” him. I guess I owe him that, don’t I? :)

    Sheila, how do you feel about the comparisons Dorothy L. Sayers made between Milton and Dante? (For the last couple of decades of her life, as I’m sure you know, she was hugely involved with Dante, lecturing about him and translating the Commedia.) She began one of her lectures (later published, as all of them were) with a neat trick: a biographical paragraph, about a page long and full of detail, at the end of which one realizes that it describes either poet equally well, that’s how similar their lives were in many ways.

    • sheila says:

      Rinaldo – wow! I actually don’t know anything about Dorothy Sayers’ comparison. Fascinating – can you point me in the direction of further reading perhaps?

  2. Rinaldo says:

    Her thinking on the subject can be found in her collected letters (4 volumes, ed. Barbara Reynolds) and in The Passionate Intellect: Dorothy L. Sayers’ Encounter with Dante (by Barbara Reynolds), as well as her introduction to her translation of “Hell.” But the essay (originally a lecture) dedicated to the comparison is titled “Dante and Milton,” and collected in Further Papers on Dante (and probably in other anthologies by now — this is what I found in our university library). I’ll give a condensed quotation in the next comment.

    She does find Dante more to her own personal taste, while underlining and acknowledging the greatness of Milton. One of her more surprising topics (it comes out in her letters, and I think there was also a lecture which must have startled her academic audience back then) was the conviction that Dante’s writing shows that he must have been good in bed — “bedworthy” in her wording. It’s hard not to speculate that she must have encountered some counter-examples in her time, isn’t it?

    Anyway, on to the quotation.

  3. Rinaldo says:

    [My initial memory underestimated this; it goes on for two and a half pages! So this will be a ruthless condensation.]

    “The author of the great poem of the Divine Way was born into an epoch of violent political faction and civil war, marked by savage disputes about the derivation of secular authority and the respective functions in the commonwealth of Church and State. . . .

    “Descended from good native stock, gentle though not noble, the young man received the best education that his age afforded, and gave early proof of an intellectual and literary ability which was recognised by all his contemporaries. Endowed with a sensuous and highly sensitive temperament, his mind steeped in the Scriptures as well as in the romantic and classical poetry which formed the cultural background of his time, he struck a new lyrical note, instinct with freshness of feeling, and combining a vivid awareness of earthly beauty with an acute religious sensibility. To this period belongs the composition of a body of love-poetry and a number of very noble odes which would in themselves suffice to crown him with fame. . . .

    “At the moment, however, when all the omens pointed to a peaceful and prosperous development of his natural gifts, the ship of his fortunes was struck by a political tornado. . . .

    “The bitter reproaches addressed to those countrymen of his who had betrayed the cause gave poignant proof of the poet’s outraged feelings. Impoverished, disappointed, and in considerable political peril, he returned to his true calling, and poured into a great sacred poem — at once a parable of human destiny and a summa of the writer’s religious and political faith — all the ardour, the passion, and the experience of his frustrated life. . . . Discarding the Latin of which he had from time to time shown himself master, and using the beloved vernacular in which he could appeal most intimately to the hearts of his compatriots, the poet forged for himself a new poetic form and a new poetic diction which were to leave their impress upon the native style for centuries to come. He was 56 years old when he completed the stupendous task which had occupied him, under conditions of more than ordinary difficulty, for many laborious years. . . .

    “His marriage would seem, on the whole, not to have been very happy. He had four children, one of whom (a boy named John) died at an early age; the other three survived him. . . . Even in later life, though reserved and autocratic in manner and somewhat given to sarcasm, he was found excellent company by those to whom he could open his heart freely. And while his popular legend rests chiefly upon his reputation as a poet of Hell, yet to judicious minds the tenderer passages of his Divine poem display no less genius than the rest, with perhaps a superior subtlety of feeling and rhythmical invention — in especial the exquisitely human and moving scenes which take place in the Terrestrial Paradise.

    “Among his less-read works may be mentioned an ambitious prose treatise of a philosophical and theological character, and an unfinished philological essay.”

    Milton or Dante?

  4. Rinaldo says:

    Sheila — the point of her mock-bio for some imaginary dictionary is that EVERYTHING in it (at its original fuller length, too) applies equally well to both Milton and Dante. That’s how oddly similar their lives were.

    • sheila says:

      Wild!! I know more about Milton than Dante – but it’s amazing, that all of that would be true for true literary giants!

  5. Rinaldo says:

    Right down to the number of children and their longevity. And the canard that “he’s better with Hell than with Heaven” — but maybe people are always gonna say that, whether or not it’s true.

    Sayers herself was more sexually experienced than people realized at the time (including the illegitimate son who existence was revealed only after her death), and she must have had the chance to discover the difference between men who were bedworthy and those who weren’t. Even though nice upper-middle-class Oxford-educated women weren’t supposed to know or talk about such things.

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