How can I live without you, how forgo
Thy sweet converse and love so dearly joined,
To live again in these wild woods forlorn?
Should God create another Eve, and I
Another rib afford, yet loss of thee
Would never from my heart.
John Milton‘s Adam spoke these words of Eve.
Who reads Milton? I suspect that outside of the anthologized excerpts of Paradise Lost few of us have read the challenging and talented poet after finishing our education; so my answer to that question: few readers do. I suspect that Milton, like T. S. Eliot, remains controversial and inaccessible to modern readers.
Here are some interesting facts that you may not know about Milton:
Item: He read and wrote in English, Greek, Italian and Latin. In fact, he might have met Galileo. Milton also knew Aramaic, and Syriac. He might have known Old English poetry, which being discovered during his lifetime.
As an aside, the only poet after Milton who was as well versed (no pun intended) in such a broad array of languages was Shelley. Milton’s polyglot accomplishments are credited to his teacher Alexander Gill, who was also interested in English and the Native American languages in the New World, as well in loan-words coming into the English language. Milton was no closet Parselmouth; the cunning language of Satan in Paradise Lost had not simply been passed on to him, without his knowledge. He had received a solid education and he had intellectual curiosity. Milton was, without overstatement, one of the most educated men in the first half of the seventeenth century.
Is it not ironic that when Milton met Galileo in 1638 in Florence, at a time when the astronomer was old, blind, and under house arrest, he would also, decades later, be old, blind and under arrest in the Tower of London? Paradise Lost was composed after Milton had become blind in both eyes. His light was spent by 1651. He was 43 years old.
Item: With the exception of Shakespeare’s play Hamlet, his poem “Lycidas” has probably contributed more clichés to the English lexicon. For example: “Look homeward angel,”(Thomas Wolfe novel) “Fame is the spur,”(Howard Spring novel) and “Weep no more.” Read some other John Milton quotes and identify other familiar turns of phrases.
Item: We know Milton for his great epic but he was a consummate man of his craft who had mastered several verse forms. Milton used many classical models from the ode form of the Greek Pindar and Roman Horace to the pastoral elegy of the Greek Theocritus and the Roman Virgil. “Lycidas” is an elegy — and I should mention that I doubt there were any dolphins in the Irish Sea when his friend Edward King drowned in 1637.
- Look homeward Angel now, and melt with ruth:
- And, O ye Dolphins’, waft the hapless youth.
Milton declared his poetic vocation in the ode, “The Morning of Christ’s Nativity,” where he conflates, in light and dark imagery, the birth of Christ and the mystery of Incarnation with his own ambition; and in the same poem he speaks of a Before and an After, Christianity and pagan past, John Milton the son and John Milton the poet. Ironically, the imagery of light and dark in this poem could be read as prefiguring his future blindness. This early poem has an image that also reappears in Paradise Lost. The fifth stanza of “ Nativity” has kingfishers, a symbolic bird for Christ, as “Birds of Calm sit brooding on the charmed wave,” while the Holy Spirit in Paradise Lost is “Dove-like sat’st brooding on the vast Abyss.”
I wish to make one particular observation about “Nativity.” In the poem, Milton states that he wrote the poem in his “native pipes,” which was another way of saying, “I’m writing this in English,” but my point is that as you continue reading Milton, you realize that he associated the English language as a birthright of the father and not of the mother. He would not say, as we would, that English is our mother tongue.
Another earlier poem — this time in Latin — “Ad Patrem,” which was to, for, and against his father John Milton, we can read as a precursor to Paradise Lost, since it is a poem about justification and rebellion. In “Ad Patrem” Milton employs light and dark imagery, as he would later. In this particular poem Milton speaks to his father not as a son but as a writer, while petitioning him for cash (the justification part).
Is Milton the “divided god” man and poet, father and son, incarnated flesh and spark of the divine?
If you know Latin, please read the viper section of “Ad Patrem.” The only links I could find are in Google books. It anticipates the serpentine imagery in Paradise Lost and the Latin prosody practically spits venom.
Item: While Milton did not condone regicide, he did advocate the removal of a king, which did not endear him to Charles II. Milton had gone into exile. He did serve seven months in jail, but it through the intercession of friends and the generosity of Andrew Marvell, his former assistant, that he managed to get out of prison and avoid being drawn and quartered, as had happened to some of his friends.
Milton is without a doubt a challenging read. Is he the Faulkner of poetry with his highly wrought diction, convoluted syntax, and rhetorical devices? Yes. That high style of his carried over into his prose works, too.
“as good almost kill a Man as kill a good Book; who kills a Man kills a reasonable creature, God’s Image; but hee who destroyes a good Booke, kills reason itselfe, kills the Image of God, as it were, in the eye. Many a man lives a burden to the Earth; but a good Booke is the pretious life-blood of a master spirit, imbalm’d and treasur’d up on purpose to a life beyond life.”
The cited passage may suggest Milton was a champion of freedom of the press; and he was, indeed, invoked by the framers of the American Constitution as an inspiration for an American ideal of liberty, along with John Locke; but interpreting this passage out of historical context is dangerous and misleading. It is as misleading as saying Milton was a champion of women’s rights because he supported divorce in certain circumstances when in fact his view of marriage was hierarchical with Man clearly first and woman second. Milton was married three times.
Into the nineteenth century it took an Act of Parliament to obtain a divorce. In fact, Milton anticipates the Matrimonial Causes Act of 1857, which George Eliot was well aware of when she was writing Middlemarch. Feminists should read Milton because he interprets all “relationships” between man and woman, person and State, in strict political terms. Milton was not Foucault but he measured everything in terms of power dynamics. It should not be surprising that he saw relationships this way, since he lived in an age of violent upheaval and social reconstruction. In politics, he was against the abuses of the Crown and against the Vatican. In religion, Milton was a radical Puritan, which meant he did not accept predestination.
Milton wrote these words in Aereopagitica in response to the 1643 Licensing Act that made it a crime to write and produce a book not approved by the government censors. He was against pre-censorship because an author, a printer, and even the person who stitched books could be imprisoned for creating a book. It did not matter whether the printer or bindery person could read the book or not. Why was Milton against pre-censorship? He was precisely because he saw the government acting in the same way as the Vatican, with its use of an Index of Forbidden Books. Milton, however, was for post-censorship if a work did not meet community standards. The individual had the freedom to decide whether a book was offensive.
Milton is a challenge and some of his views are anathema to us. There is not doubt that both Shakespeare and Milton had developed and stretched the English language. What I think is lost to us is Milton’s power as a poet. Why is that? I believe it is because he is not read aloud. His language is violent; it is alliterative; it seethes and it soothes and it is lexically creative. Pick any passage of Milton and look at how he uses adjectives. The concluding quote is from Book 4 of Paradise Lost, which displays Milton’s use of enjambment:
… now conscience wakes despair
That slumbered, wakes the bitter memory
Of what he was, what is, and what must be
Worse; of worse deeds worse sufferings must ensue.