Some Words on John Milton

In the parlance of today’s academic culture, John Milton is not just a “dead white male,” he is the dead white male, epitomizing all of the pejoratives this neologism connotes: his works are archaic, stylistically and syntactically complex, and long and dense enough to frustrate even determined readers. He does not share Shakespeare’s widespread popularity and pop cultural importance (there is no West Side Story- or 10 Things I Hate About You-style interpretation of Paradise Lost) and is thus often a primary candidate for omission in college curriculums. He is, however, something of a personal hero of mine, and deserving of vastly greater esteem and recognition than he currently receives.

He was born in London in 1608, the son of a composer and scrivener whose financial success enabled the young Milton access to what is surely one of history’s most rigorous and enviable educations. With his own tutor and a singular drive and focus, the young Milton set about learning Latin and Greek. When school ended, his tutoring began; when his tutoring ended, he began his personal instruction, immersing himself in classical and contemporary thought until the early hours of the morning, reading by candlelight and damaging his vision in the process. By the time he was 20 years old, he was a distinguished classical scholar, proficient in nine or ten modern languages, including Hebrew and Dutch, in addition to the Greek and Latin he had mastered. His formal education complete, in 1638, at the age of 30, he began a tour of Italy and France, immersed himself in the art and music of Europe and actively sought out the leading intellectuals of each nation, Galileo among them, for discussion and enrichment of his own learning.

His first published poem, the remarkable sonnet “On Shakespeare,” remains my favorite of Shakespeare’s many epitaphs, and reveals Milton to have been an astute and appreciative reader of Shakespeare, a fact amply confirmed in Paradise Lost. In his day, however, Milton was known less as a poet than as a polemicist; his early prose pamphlets, distributed thanks to the emergence of the printing press, attacked the episcopacy, argued for the legalization of divorce, supported the republican ideals of the Commonwealth and contended, implicitly and explicitly, that regicide was justifiable, indeed necessary, if the government did not serve the interests of the common people. His principled stances, radical in their time, laid much of the groundwork for our modern concept of democracy, and Areopagitica, his prose pamphlet in defense of freedom of speech and in opposition to censorship, specifically the Licensing Order of 1643, which would have mandated publishers to acquire governmental approval prior to distribution, is as pertinent today as it was four centuries ago, its many salient quotations adorning university and library facades the world over, most notably in the New York Public Library.

In 1658, with the death of Oliver Cromwell, the English Republic that was the embodiment of all of Milton’s worldly political aims collapsed into feuds and petty in-fighting, paving the way for the return of Charles II and monarchical government. It is difficult to convey the disappointment and danger that this represented for Milton. His name was irrevocably attached to pamphlets advocating the murder of a monarch, and one whose son was now ascending to the throne of England. Even when the cause was lost and the return of Charles II imminent, Milton continued to publish anti-monarchical tracts and he alone – not his publishers, printers or distributors – continued to sign his name to his works, in open defiance of the shifting political opinions, and thus exposing himself to charges of treason. By 1660, Milton’s works were being publicly burned and warrants issued for his arrest. It is only through the intervention of powerful friends, among them fellow poet Andrew Marvell, that Milton’s life was spared and he was allowed to retreat, blind and disgraced, to a cottage in the English countryside, where he would begin dictating the greatest poem of the English language.

To convey the majesty and mastery of Paradise Lost is beyond the scope of this post, but suffice it to say that no other poem written in English demonstrates such an unerring command of language over such an immensity of design. In Milton, our humble, mongrel English is transformed into music and conducted to suit his every whim and purpose. In Book VII, for example, Milton offers us a glimpse of his predicament as he composes his masterpiece:

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

In barely five lines he gives us the entirety of his miserable situation: the “darkness” that his blindness has condemned him to, the courage, downplayed (“unchanged / to hoarse or mute”), with which he continues to express himself, and the bare facts of his desperation: the voices that denounce him as a heretic, the omnipresent threat of treason and the ignominious and public death that would entail. The final “and solitude,” separated as it is by the line break and the caesura created by the comma, is given the most weight of all, and devastates readers who are forced to supply with their imaginations the details that that “solitude” evokes without enumerating.

The legacy and dramatic thrust of Paradise Lost lies with the character of Satan, whom Milton casts, at least in part, as a republican hero, a noble outlaw seeking to overthrow a tyrannical god. William Blake, himself a great admirer of Milton, wrote that he was “a member of the Devil’s party, but he didn’t know it.” Harold Bloom, echoing Blake’s sentiment, argues that Milton practices “a religion of one.” What both men mean is that, despite his public and profuse expressions of piety and religious sentiment, Milton’s own brand of Christianity is wholly unique from the dogma of the mainstream Protestantism of his day. Consider these famous lines, delivered as Satan first glimpses Adam and Eve in Paradise:

All is not theirs, it seems;
One fatal tree there stands, of Knowledge called,
Forbidden them to taste. Knowledge forbidden?
Suspicious, reasonless! Why should their Lord
Envy them that? Can it be sin to know?
Can it be death? And do they only stand
By ignorance? Is that their happy state,
The proof of their obedience and their faith?
O fair foundation laid whereon to build
Their ruin! Hence I will excite their minds
With more desire to know, and to reject
Envious commands, invented with design
To keep them low, whom knowledge might exalt
Equal with gods.

Milton’s Satan realizes what God does not (or cannot, or will not): that obedience from a state of enforced ignorance is not true obedience, not love or fealty but slavery, and he asks exactly the questions Christopher Hitchens would ask if confronted by the Edenic couple: by what right or reason are they deprived of knowledge? What possible purpose could any deity have for depriving them of learning and understanding? It is impossible not to sympathize with Milton’s Satan, who in these lines expresses a Promethean desire to “excite their minds / with more desire to know,” they “whom knowledge might exalt / Equal with gods.” How could such a man as this, the creator of a sympathetic Satan, align himself with the religion of Martin Luther, who famously decried that “Reason is the Devil’s harlot, who can do nought but slander and harm whatever God says and does”? The answer, as Blake and Bloom realized, is that in truth he does not: Milton’s sympathies, as with ours, are towards knowledge, freedom and democracy.