“Thy soul was like a Star and dwelt apart” — William Wordsworth on John Milton

Milton was born on this day in 1608. Although he left Oxford without completing his degree, he remained a thinker, a propagandist/pamphleteer, a scholar till the end of his days. The isolated poet, focused on self and personal 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 in 2008, 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 discussing what was happening to the constitution in England at that time. He wrote poetry privately.

On Shakespeare. 1630

What needs my Shakespeare for his honoured bones,
The labor of an age in pilèd stones,
Or that his hallowed relics should be hid
Under a star-ypointing pyramid?
Dear son of Memory, great heir of fame,
What need’st thou such weak witness of thy name?
Thou in our wonder and astonishment
Hast built thyself a live-long monument.
For whilst to th’ shame of slow-endeavouring art,
Thy easy numbers flow, and that each heart
Hath from the leaves of thy unvalued book
Those Delphic lines with deep impression took,
Then thou, our fancy of itself bereaving,
Dost make us marble with too much conceiving;
And so sepúlchred in such pomp dost lie,
That kings for such a tomb would wish to die.

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.

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 dictated Paradise Lost to his daughter.

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 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.

Milton was political, moral, religious, a finger-wagger, a lecturer. He was interested in good and evil but he falls into the usual writer’s trap of making evil seem so … appealing. Satan is hot and sexy and wild in Paradise Lost. He vibrates with charisma. So Milton understood the appeal of the fallen angel, but was still conflicted. Maybe Lucifer et moi?

Michael Schmidt, below, levels a fair charge at critics that they dislike the content of Milton’s work, the religiosity of it, but they don’t feel they can say this 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.”

Milton died in 1674.

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

Paradise Lost

“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?”


Robert Graves:

By the time he had been made Secretary of State for the Foreign Tongues to the Council of State (a proto-Fascist institution) and incidentally Assistant Press Censor – why is this fact kept out of the text-books when so much stress is laid on the Areopagitica? – he had smudged his moral copybook so badly that he had even become a ‘crony’ of Marchmont Needham, the disreputable turncoat journalist.

Robert Burns:

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.

Harold Bloom, The Best Poems in the English Language:

William Blake and Emily Dickinson were sects of one, and so was their heroic precursor, John Milton.

from Milton
by William Blake

There is a place where Contrarieties are equally True
This place is called Beulah. It is a pleasant lovely Shadow
Where no dispute can come. Because of those who Sleep.
Into this place the Sons & Daughters of Ololon descended
With solemn mourning into Beulahs moony shades & hills
Weeping for Milton: mute wonder held the Daughters of Beulah
Enraptured with affection sweet and mild benevolence

William Carlos Williams:

Milton counted the syllables.

John Milton:

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

W.H. Auden, exaggerating:

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.

Ted Hughes on “confessional poetry”:

Goethe called his work one big confession, didn’t he? Looking at his work in the broadest sense, you could say the same of Shakespeare: a total self-examination and self-accusation, a total confession – very naked, I think, when you look into it … Perhaps it’s the need to keep it hidden that makes it poetic – makes it poetry… At the bottom of Paradise Lost and Samson Agonistes, for instance, Milton tells us what nearly got him executed.

Harold Bloom, The Best Poems in the English Language:

How do you refine John Milton? Pope and Dr. Johnson alike handle Milton in their own poetry in ways very different from Pope’s refinement of Dryden or Johnson’s reliance upon Pope. The exquisite parodies of Milton in The Rape of the Lock, and the wonderfully grotesque Miltonic mock-sublimities of The Dunciad, are remarkable examples of the Nietzschean, daemonic dance of influence-as-parody, much more than they are mimetic or mercantile refinements. Milton and nature are hardly everywhere the same, and Paradise Lost is a difficult native resource to convert into trade.

John Aubrey, 17th century writer:

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.

Michael Schmidt, 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.

Harold Bloom, The Best Poems in the English Language:

But that brings us to the greatest mystery of Paradise Lost and its poet: how fully aware is he that there are two Gods in his epic, the static setter-of-limits and a dynamic deity of becoming, totally free of the Calvinist model?

Christopher Hill:

Milton’s virtual abandonment of the idea of sacrificial atonement, his failure to emphasize the miracles of the New Testament, including the incarnation, the resurrection, the ascension and pentecost, all make an approach verge on the secular.

T.S. Eliot:

After the erection of the Chinese Wall of Milton, blank verse has suffered not only arrest but retrogression.

He was such a scold.

Harold Bloom, The Best Poems in the English Language:

From John Dryden to T.S. Eliot, Milton has been a provocation and a shadow.

Gerard Manley Hopkins, letter to R.W. Dixon, December 22, 1880:

You will find that Milton pays much attention to consonant-quality or gravity of sound in his line endings.

Dr. Samuel Johnson on Lycidas:

With these trifling fictions are mingled the most awful and sacred truths, such as ought never to be polluted with such irreverent combinations.

Ouch. Counterpoint:

Harold Bloom, The Best Poems in the English Language:

[Lycidas] is the central elegy in the language, and sets the pattern in which all those that come after are elegies for the self: Shelley’s Adonais, Arnold’s “Thyrsis,” Swinburne’s “Ave Atque Vale,” Whitman’s “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d”, Eliot’s The Waste Land, Hard Crane’s “The Broken Tower.”

T.S. Eliot:

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.

Camille Paglia, “Love Poetry”:

Milton’s “Lycidas” revives the classical style of homoerotic pastoral lament. Paradise Lost, following Spenser and Donne, exalts “wedded Love” over the sterile wantonness of “Harlots” and “Court Amours.”

Harold Bloom, The Best Poems in the English Language:

Here, I want to describe Milton’s particular genius for stationing himself in literary tradition, so as to make his forerunners into his descendants, and to overshadow his many actual poetic descendants, even when they possessed the genius of a Keats or a Shelley… In regard to the poetic riches of the past, Milton boldly attempted to subsume no less than everything. If there was a single flaw in his recondite awareness of every precedent and each precursor, it would be Shakespeare, most dangerous of influences. The only indeliberate allusions or unintended echoes of forerunners that I can uncover in Paradise Lost invariably turn out to be Shakespearean. Milton is adept at making himself seem early or first, and Homer, Vergil, Lucretius, Ovid, Camoens, Tasso, Spenser, and even the Bible were late.

Michael Schmidt:

Wordsworth was one of the few English poets of his time to struggle out from under the burden of Milton and write back into English. Milton leaves his mark less on the diction and more on the syntax and cadence of his verse and the wonderful way he handles line endings.

Gerard Manley Hopkins, letter to Robert Bridges, August 21, 1877:

In fact all English verse, except Milton’s, almost, offends me as “licentious.” Remember this…The choruses in Samson Agonistes are intermediate between counterpointed and sprung rhythm. In reality they are sprung, but Milton keeps up a fiction of counterpointing the heard rhythm (which is the same as the mounted rhythm) upon a standard rhythm which is never heard but only counted and therefore really does not exist. The want of a metrical notation and the fear of being thought to write mere rhythmic or (who knows what the critics might not have said?) even unrhythmic prose drove him to this. Such rhythm as French and Welsh poetry has is sprung, counterpointed upon a counted rhythm, but it differs from Milton’s in being little calculated, not more perhaps than prose consciously written rhythmically, like orations for instance; it is in fact the native rhythm of the words used bodily imported into verse; whereas Milton’s mounted rhythm is a real poetical rhythm, having its own laws and recurrence, but further embarrassed by having to count.

Harold Bloom, The Best Poems in the English Language:

Milton has an intensity and drive that rivals Dante. Each desired poetic immortality and the redemption of his people. The imperial politics of Dante and the republican hopes of Milton alike came to ruin. For the last nineteen of his fifty-six years, Dante was an exile from Florence. At fifty-one, Milton, already totally blind for seven years, endured imprisonment, after suffering the strong possibility of dreadful public execution for defending regicide: hanging, being cut down alive, having one’s private parts cut off, one’s entrails ripped from the body, and only then being beheaded. The Florentines sentenced Dante to be burned alive; the English very nearly incurred the permanent disgrace of butchering their epic poet, who a decade later completed the composition of Paradise Lost.

Edward Le Comte:

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.

Virginia Woolf:

[He had] a dash too much of the male.

I love her restraint. “a dash too much”

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.

Robert Graves on “Lycidas”:

The sound of the poem is magnificent; only the sense is deficient.

Reminder: John Milton made a disastrous marriage to a 16-year-old Roman Catholic girl, and Graves wrote a whole novel from her point of view. Graves went AFTER Milton.

Elizabeth Bishop, letter to Robert Lowell, September 19, 1965:

The local bookshop had provided a complete Milton in paperback, and that was all, except for the Brazilian poets, & I seem to be quite sick of them. Now I find I can turn from that wonderful:

For who loves that, must first be wise and good;
But from that mark how far they roave we see
For all this waste of wealth, and loss of blood.


Only man thinning out his kind
sounds through the Sabbath noon, the blind
swipe of the pruner and his knife
busy about the tree of life…

and feel the language hasn’t deteriorated at all, even if the state of civilization stays the same, or just gets worse and worse.

Harold Bloom, The Best Poems of the English Language:

One can choose 1587 as an arbitrary date to begin the richest eighty years of poetry in English. Christopher Marlowe’s Tamburlaine was then first performed, perhaps with Shakespeare in the audience, though we do not know when the greatest of poets first arrived in London: 1589 seems to me rather too late, even as an outward limit. The first three books of Spenser’s Faerie Queene were published in 1590. In the early 1590s, Donne wrote many of the Songs and Sonnets, to be published only posthumously. By 1595, at the latest, Shakespeare was at his first full greatness, joined by Jonson at his strongest in Volpone (1606). The Tribe of Ben–disciples of the lyric and epigrammatic Jonson–included Robert Herrick, Thomas Carew, and Richard Lovelace. Andrew Marvell, a poetic party of one, wrote his lyrics by the 1650s, coming after the posthumous publication of George Herbert’s poetry in 1633. Richard Crashaw and Henry Vaughan published by the 1650s. Milton’s Comus was composed in 1634; Paradise Lost, dictated by the blind poet, was finished by 1665, seventy-eight years after Marlowe first shattered his London audiences.

Matthew Arnold:

…perfect sureness of hand

Gerard Manley Hopkins, journal, 1864:

Next, Parnassian. Can only be used by real poets. Can be written without inspiration. Good instance in Enoch Arden’s island. Common in professedly descriptive pieces. Much of it is in Paradise Lost and Regained. Nearly all The Fairie Queen. It is the effect of fine age to enable ordinary people to write something very near it.

from “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard”
by Thomas Gray

Some village Hampden, that with dauntless breast
The little tyrant of his fields withstood;
Some mute inglorious Milton here may rest,
Some Cromwell, guiltless of his country’s blood.

John Aubrey:

He would be chearfull even in his Gowte-fitts, and sing. He pronounced the letter R (littera canina) very hard – a certaine signe of a Satyricall Witt – from John Dryden… He was much more admired abrode than at home.

John Dryden, “Lines on Milton,” in 1688 folio edition of Paradise Lost
Three poets, in three distant ages born,
Greece, Italy, and England, did adorn.
The first in loftiness of thought surpassed,
The next in majesty, in both the last:
The force of Nature could no farther go;
To make a third she join’d the former two.

London, 1802
By William Wordsworth
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.

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.

John Milton:

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.

Camille Paglia, Sexual Personae:

Shakespeare managed to evade Spenser, but Milton as epic poet had to meet Spenser on his own turf. Paradise Lost staggers under the burden of The Faerie Queen. If Spenser is the English Botticelli, Milton is its Bernini. Paradise Lost is a Baroque Laocoon, strangling itself with its own stately ornateness. Though Milton uses Shakespeare’s over-spilling line, Shakespeare’s speed is gone. The best things in Paradise Lost are pagan developments of Spenser…Spenser’s radiant Apollonian armouring becomes Milton’s louring metallic daemonism, militant and misogynistic. Satan’s legions gleam with hard Spenserian light. Milton sinks when he sings of the foggy formlessness of good. His God is poetically impotent. But his noisy, thrashing Paradise; his evil, envious Spenserian voyeurism: these are immortal.

Harold Bloom, The Best Poems in the English Language:

There are no elegies for John Milton.

Michael Schmidt:

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”…Many of his charges are in part true…but such facts need not be incriminating…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.

Harold Bloom, The Best Poems in the English Language:

The final movement of Lycidas is one of the supreme examples in poetry of a transumption of metaleptic reversal, a return of the Dead in the poet’s own colors, establishing his own earliness and the belatedness of the tradition, audaciously even of Revelation…Lycidas will be Milton’s guardian, preserving him for achievement in heroic poetry. The sacred nuptial song of Revelation 19:9 is subsumed by the images of Milton’s monody. That permeates the beautiful coda in which Milton as unknown poet (“uncouth swain”) appears in perpetual earliness, ready to accomplish the still greater poems waiting for him beyond.

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12 Responses to “Thy soul was like a Star and dwelt apart” — William Wordsworth on 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.

  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.

  6. My experience with Milton is entwined with my experience with two other poets.

    Like you, Sheila, I was made to slog through Paradise Lost when I was in high school. A couple of years later, though, a creative writing instructor encouraged me to take a Milton class (!) taught by poet Alicia Ostriker.

    That’s when I saw that you don’t read Milton for another version of The Fall. You read him because he’s a poet ne plus ultra. Not only is he inimitable; his poetry itself is a world.

    Years later, I would take a workshop and tutorial with Allen Ginsberg. Guess what he told me to re-read? Yes, Milton was one of his favorite poets. Why? Well, Allen’s best poems, I think, work because of their rhythms. And it’s the sounds–especially the vowels–that makes for those rhythms. And who did those things better than Milton?

    Milton, Ostriker, Ginsberg–not as strange bedfellows as one might think!

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