Happy Birthday, John Milton

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John Milton turns 401 today. Last year, New York went all out in celebrating his birthday – with exhibits, art installations, even a costume ball. I love living here.

Milton has the kind of genius that is best not talked about too much. Just leave it be. Don’t try to ask why, or HOW. Just accept that in this day and age of mortal man, giants still walk the earth on occasion. JUST ACCEPT IT. Every now and then, once every three or four centuries, a giant walks the earth. DEAL.

Milton was born on this day in 1608. He went to Oxford for a bit – but ended up leaving – and studied, basically, all of human nature and history and mankind on his own. The depth and breadth of his work, and his inquiry, is remarkable.

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.

I guess, on a personal note, my own terror of going blind makes me feel a strange fearful kinship with John Milton who went blind, and had to dictate his great works to others. He dictated Paradise Lost to his daughter.

What?

Honestly. I go blank when I think of this. I can’t speak. To have that, that, in your head

There are some people who seem to be vessels of a higher being. Whatever you want to call it. You could tie them up, and throw them in a basement for 75 years, and they would STILL scratch out their epic on the basement wall. This is something that cannot be easily explained. It just is.

I’ll just end with a poem that ranks among my favorites of all time. My fear of losing my sight is so deep and so profound that it is hard to even admit to, because I feel like it will come true if I speak it out loud. Milton stands before me, as a beacon – of someone this happened to – and yet he persevered. But oh. To live in darkness. To have the world of Paradise Lost in your head … and to have to wait … to WAIT … as someone else takes it down in dictation …

And so …. echoing this terrifying image of having to WAIT while your head is crammed full of Paradise Lost I’ll end with Milton’s sonnet to his own blindness.

Sonnet XIX: 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.”

Oh, that is bittersweet.

Here are some quotes I’ve compiled about (and from) Milton:

“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, 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.
Walter Savage Landor

“His harmonicall and ingeniose Soul did lodge in a beautifull and well-proportioned body. He was a spare man … He had abroun hayre. His complexion exceeding faire – he was so faire they called him the Lady of Christ’s College. Ovall face. His eie a darke gray.” — John Aubrey

“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, “Lives of the Poets”

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 ancieng 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.
Wordsworth

“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.” — TS Eliot

“I take it to be my portion in this life, joined with a strong propensity of nature, to leave something so written to aftertimes, as they should not willingly let it die.” — John Milton

“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.” — Robert Burns

“He was much more admired abrode than at home.” — John Aubrey

“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.”
Samuel Taylor Coleridge

“True musical delight consists only in apt numbers, fit quantity of syllables, and the sense variously drawn out from one verse to another.” — John Milton

“I cannot praise a fugitive and cloistered virtue, unexercised and unbreathed, that never sallies out and sees her adversary, but slinks out of the race where that immortal garland is to be run for, not without dust and heat. . . . That which purifies us is trial, and trial is by what is contrary. ” – John Milton

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7 Responses to Happy Birthday, John Milton

  1. Ken says:

    John Milton turns 401 today.

    And he looks great — not a day over 340. (Thank you, thank you, I’m here all week. Try the veal. Wocka wocka. Aaaaa.)

    I have been reading Old English poetry (translated, mostly) — Maldon, The Dream of the Rood, stuff like that, but this reminds me it’s about time to read me some Milton, which I have not done since high school.

    There are some people who seem to be vessels of a higher being.

    When I read that line, Handel came to mind.

  2. Mary L says:

    “On His Blindness”! Possibly the greatest Sonnet ever written.

    On a side note, I hope your terror of going blind is baseless. Please say it is.

  3. george says:

    “Honestly. I go blank when I think of this. I can’t speak. To have that, that, in your head …”

    Sheila,

    I remember a scene from Amadeus where he dictates his music to Salieri – who can hardly believe what he’s hearing – the music is all there, complete and beautiful.

    I think it generally true that people often have the experience of having formed some idea or written something in their mind only to find it isn’t all that much when they put it down on paper. Alas! If envy’s a sin… then bless me Father for I have sinned.

  4. red says:

    Mary L – I agree with you about that sonnet. It cuts me to the bone – every time. Amazing.

    Sadly, yes, I could go blind. Hopefully not – but my eyesight and how terrible it is is the bane of my existence.

  5. red says:

    George – I love that analogy with Mozart and Salieri and Salieri’s almost despairing response. Full of admiration, yet despair.

    Quite unbelievable. Makes me glad to know that I walked the same earth with these giants, albeit a different time and place. The human race is capable of such extraordinary things.

  6. Michael Thomas says:

    One need not go to university anymore. One need only to read The Sheila Variations!

  7. e. says:

    “They also serve who only stand and wait” is the most resonant line of poetry I have ever read. I read that sonnet while working through a particularly rough patch, spiritually. I love him for it.

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