BARRY SPURR rides to the rescue of the blind visionary
When the Oxford philosopher, Isaiah Berlin, was at St Paul’s School in London, in the 1920s, John Milton’s 200-line pastoral elegy, ‘Lycidas’, was set for learning by heart by the boys. Decades later, when Berlin visited the newly-established Wolfson College in Oxford, it was mentioned that “Wolfson” was the translation of the Greek, ‘Lycidas’, “son of the wolf”, whereupon Berlin spontaneously launched, from memory, into a recitation of the poem. A century earlier, it had been observed – was it by Macaulay? – that if all texts of Milton’s twelve-book epic, Paradise Lost, were lost, there would be sufficient readers able to remember such substantial portions of it by heart that it could be recovered completely. Such was the place, only equalled by the works of Shakespeare, the Authorised (King James) Version of the Bible, and John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, that Milton’s poetry once enjoyed in the reading culture of the educated English-speaking world.
Had you suggested, say, 50 years ago, to anybody working as a senior high school English teacher, or an academic in an English Literature department – or even, more generally, to men and women who prided themselves on being widely and deeply read in the great books – they would have been dumbstruck, astonished, appalled that the time would come, by the beginning of the 21st century, not only that the poetry of John Milton would no longer make an occasional appearance in senior English classes and syllabuses, but that it would disappear entirely from university courses in English, and that there would be PhD graduates in the subject (even writing, specifically, on poetry), and university professors of English who had never read or studied a line of Milton’s works. Yet such is the case today. George Orwell, in fact, predicted the future disappearance of Milton as long ago as 1948, when he was writing Nineteen Eighty-Four.
We are becoming familiar with the dismal phenomenon of the ‘cancel culture’, whereby any figure who fails to comply with the enforced principles of the halo-polishing ‘woke’ enforcers of ‘correct’ thought will be vaporised, like a deletion from the Soviet Encyclopaedia. Writers are proving to be fair game in this extraordinary revival of censorship in our time, which, as often as not, is based on risible ignorance of the contexts and nuances of the banished writers’ thought and art – as in the recent cancelling of the American novelist, Flannery O’Connor, a prose-writer of genius, by Loyola University in Maryland. This was stridently supported by people who shamelessly confessed that they had never read a word of her allegedly ‘incorrect’ writings. Blinkered ignorance, through the ages, has been the censors’ and the book-burners’ familiar companion.
The disappearance of Milton’s poetry has been a more protracted process and a more complex phenomenon. And it is interesting to consider the fate of Shakespeare, whom Orwell also imagined, but incorrectly, would be eliminated by the Thought Police. The playwright was customarily paired with Milton as the two geniuses of the golden age of English literature, but he has survived, nay flourished – well, at least to date, though no-one will be surprised if the dramatist’s ‘racism’ and ‘sexism’ find him (and statues of him) in serious trouble very soon. Part of the explanation of these different fates could be that, with drama, the apparently endless possibilities for adaptation at the whim of ‘cutting-edge’ directors has given Shakespeare’s plays the possibility of a species of survival which poetry, resistant to such (mis)treatment, conspicuously lacks. In the Bell Shakespeare Hamlet,in November, 2015, the Sydney Morning Herald reviewer reported that several of Hamlet’s major speeches had been mutilated, to be served up like “chopped salad”; while Lloyd Evans’ review of Bridge Theatre’s 2020 production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, asked: “Is this Shakespeare? It looks like a fancy-dress party in a warehouse”.
The poetry of Milton – and particularly his masterwork, Paradise Lost – progressively receded from view, in the lecture halls of the later 20th century, for a combination of reasons beyond the most obvious one that would make him an easy target for spontaneous cancellation today: his Christianity. A post-Christian age (and, especially in the universities, a militantly anti-Christian environment) inevitably deprecates an entire body of work that is so deeply influenced by Christian ideas and, obviously, the Bible itself. Through its 12 books, Paradise Lost is the most exhaustive and imaginative of poetic explorations of the fundamental Christian story of creation, sin and redemption. Even Milton’s forthright opposition in prose, as well as poetry, to monarchy, the Established Church and Catholicism, his support of Oliver Cromwell and the Commonwealth during the period of the civil wars, and, in his radical social teaching (his enlightened advocacy of divorce on the grounds of a couple’s incompatibility, for instance) have proved surprisingly insufficient to assuage the opposition to a poet so deeply immersed in his version (often heterodox in its details) of Christian scripture and theology. But other factors, apart from this issue of faith, have played at least as significant a part in his disappearance.
There was, for example, the formidable influence, in schools and universities, for several decades in the mid-20th century, of Modernist poetics and literary-critical principles. Particularly, T.S. Eliot took up the cudgels against Miltonic epic language (in the first of two essays on the poet, in 1936) and what he regarded as its bad influence on poetry in English, generally: “an influence against which we still have to struggle”. Milton writes English “like a dead language”, Eliot contended, and (being blind) was deficient in the visual sense: “Milton may be said never to have seen anything”. Leading literary critics of the time promptly took their cue from the most influential poet-critic of their generation. At Cambridge, F.R. Leavis wrote:
Milton’s dislodgment, in the past decade, after his two centuries of predominance, was effected with remarkably little fuss. The irresistible argument was, of course, Mr. Eliot’s creative achievement; it gave his few critical asides …their finality, and made it unnecessary to elaborate a case. Mr. Middleton Murry also, it should be remembered, came out against Milton at much the same time
Devastating as this assault may have seemed (and Eliot modified his critique in a later essay in 1947), it had the positive effect of putting Miltonists on their mettle to come to the defence of the poet and his prosody.
We should also remember that reservations about Milton, the man and his work, were not confined to the 20th century Modernists. Samuel Johnson’s ‘Life of Milton’ (1780) is replete with ambiguous assessments of the poet’s crowning achievement: “Paradise Lost is one of the books which the reader admires and lays down, and forgets to take up again. None ever wished it longer than it is”; “the want of human interest is always felt”, and so on. And ‘Lycidas’ is rejected outright: “Its form is that of a pastoral, easy, vulgar, and therefore disgusting”.
Such forthright frontal attacks (indicating, again, what a formidable presence Milton once had in the mind of the reading public, to call forth such strident opposition) ultimately proved less damaging to Milton and his centrality to the canon of poetical works, than other prejudices and obstacles, in our time, which – in addition to the anti-Christian disposition of the academy I have mentioned – have secured his suppression. One of these is feminism. And again, we have the unlikely figure (in this context) of Dr Johnson to thank for initiating this particular critique, with regard to the poet’s allegedly low regard for the female sex:
…his first wife died in childbed, having left him three daughters. As he probably did not much love her he did not long continue the appearance of lamenting her, but after a short time married Catherine, the daughter of one captain Woodcock of Hackney; a woman doubtless educated in opinions like his own. She died within a year of childbirth, or some distemper that followed it; and her husband has honoured her memory with a poor sonnet
Milton’s granddaughter, Johnson reports,
…knew little of her grandfather, and that little was not good. She told of his harshness to his daughters, and his refusal to have them taught to write
In the later 20th century, it was the representation of Eve in Paradise Lost that most stirred the ire of feminist commentators. “Our first parents”, at their creation, Milton writes, were
Not equal, as their sex not equal seem’d;
For contemplation hee and valour form’d,
For softness shee and sweet attractive Grace,
Hee for God only, shee for God in him;
His fair large Front and Eye sublime declar’d
Absolute rule. (IV, 294–99)
Then, Eve’s fruit-eating action in Eden initiated nothing less than the Fall of humanity – what John Henry Newman called our “aboriginal calamity”:
her rash hand in evil hour
Forth reaching to the Fruit, she pluck’d, she eat:
Earth felt the wound, and Nature from her seat
Sighing through all her Works gave signs of woe,
That all was lost. (IX, 780-84)
Seduced by Eve, “fondly [foolishly] overcome with Femal charm”, Adam completes “the mortal Sin / Original” (IX, 99, 1104-5), the source, in Christian teaching, of all the subsequent misery of human life. In the face of this, the first man issues a monitory message to all men about the Daughters of Eve:
Thus it shall befall Him who to worth in Women overtrusting Lets her Will rule; restraint she will not brook, And left to her self, if evil thence ensue, Shee first his weak indulgence will accuse. (IX, 1182-6)
Next, with reference to these contemporary obstacles, and with regard to the process of understanding the poetry, there is the matter of Milton’s vast learning, especially in the classical languages and literature, with which educated readers, once, had at least a degree of familiarity. That background in Latin and Greek has long since disappeared from virtually everybody’s educational experience. So Milton’s detailed appropriation and re-imagining of a host of texts from antiquity which informs so much of his poetry, having been acknowledged, we then must accept that if we are to enter with confidence into the breadth and depth of the poet’s imaginative world, we need to develop a degree of that knowledge (even if only of texts in translation) ourselves. It is a formidable obstacle.
And then there is the matter of the grandiloquence of Milton’s “grand style” as Christopher Ricks terms it, in Milton’s Grand Style, his well-known study of Milton’s poetic voice. The Victorian laureate, Lord Tennyson, in his tribute to the poet, noted the instrument which captures the sound and majesty of Milton’s verse-music:
O mighty-mouth’d inventor of harmonies,
O skill’d to sing of Time or Eternity,
God-gifted organ-voice of England,
Milton, a name to resound for ages….
But if we in the modern age, as Helen Gardner has suggested in her reading of Paradise Lost, have a “distaste for the heroic”, we may also be disinclined to revel in the grandeur of the epic voice in poetry, the fit accompaniment for that heroism. As Eliot wrote of some lines in Book XI:
I can enjoy the roll of
Cambalu, seat of Cathaian Can,
And Samarchand by Oxus, Temir’s throne,
To Paquin of Sinæan kings; and thence
To Agra and Lahor of great Mogul,
Down to the golden Chersonese; or where
The Persian in Ecbatan sat, or since
In Hispahan; or where the Russian Ksar
In Mosco; or the Sultan in Bizance,
and the rest of it, but I feel that this is not serious poetry, not poetry fully occupied about its business, but rather a solemn game
Yet the aural grandeur of the catalogue, here, is essential to two vital aspects of the epic undertaking on which Milton has embarked. Its roll and cadence, stylistically, is what one expects of heroic poetry (so to criticise Milton for sounding like an epic poet in the course of an epic poem is disingenuous). More importantly, it was a part of his purpose to compose not merely a national epic, but one of global range, and from the beginning of time, no less, so such catalogues of places, their rulers and histories, at various points in the poem, are a vital element in that extraordinary aspiration to cosmic completeness.
Then there is the unavoidable fact: Milton is a dead, white, male. The times are not propitious for the recovery of the appreciation of his extraordinary literary achievement, but the day may well come when this current blight of acceptable racism and sexism is just a bad memory of a corrupted culture that eventually came to its senses.
The case for the defence
From what, then, should the case for the revival of the poet’s works as an essential component for study in senior English classes and, more urgently, in university courses (where the teachers of such classes are educated) proceed? Why does Milton matter not merely as much as ever, but more than ever? Several reasons can be offered.
Some proceed from issues implicit in the very objections that have customarily been made to Milton’s verse. As we have said, the fact that so many figures of notable standing, through the ages, in the evolution of literature in English have engaged, whether positively or negatively, with Milton and his poetry indicates its significance. To ignore him is to ignore one of the most influential writers in the language. Even poets composing in pointed reaction against him, as in the brilliant satire by Alexander Pope in ‘The Rape of the Lock’ (1712), reveal a deep knowledge of what they are caricaturing and parodying. The reader who has not read Paradise Lost misses much of the point of the scintillating humour of that brief mock-epic of Belinda’s “fall”. When the early Romantic poet, William Wordsworth, a century later, invokes Milton in a powerful sonnet as a force of national moral regeneration – “Milton! thou shouldst be living at this hour: / England hath need of thee” (‘London, 1802’) – he is paying tribute to that profound ethical sensibility which informed the great poet’s life, as well as his works:
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 herself did lay.
While in the midst of the Victorian Age, the inimitable and inventive Gerard Manley Hopkins owed much to Milton in the evolution of his own distinctive style, finding “counterpointed rhythm”, for example, in the choruses of Milton’s late work, the “closet drama”, Samson Agonistes, which was an element in the development of Hopkins’s own distinctive “sprung rhythm” in his poems. And speaking of Samson, we even have T.S. Eliot echoing that poem in the second of the Four Quartets, ‘East Coker’ (1940): “O dark dark dark. They all go into the dark”, echoing Milton’s line: “O dark, dark, dark, amid the blaze of noon…”.
Then there is the vast heritage of scholarship and commentary on the poet’s works. Such indebtedness is by no means confined to the domain of poetic influence. In the same years of the Blitz in which Eliot was writing the last three Quartets, Winston Churchill was quoting Milton too, for the inspiration of a nation: “They also serve who only stand and wait” (from the sonnet on his blindness, ‘When I consider how my light is spent’).
So, to ignore Milton’s existence, in the context of what continues to presume to present itself as the study of English Literature, makes as much sense as ignoring Homer in Greek, Virgil in Latin, Dante in Italian. It is an anti-intellectual impoverishment of understanding, a version of what the Milton scholar, Michael Wilding, calls “the denial of history”, and of the powerful role of the important component of influence in the development of a literary culture. In his study of the Western canon, Harold Bloom observes that “Milton is the central problem in any theory and history of poetic influence in English”.
Then there is the much-touted obstacle of the ‘difficulty’ of Milton. Since when, and why, has it become a valid reason, in the pursuit of the life of the mind, to eschew (rather than relish) the study of any important subject or writer – Voltaire described Milton as “the glory and the wonder of England” – in any discipline because it is hard? The pernicious doctrine has seeped into what passes for educational theory today that learning ‘should be fun’, and so any material that presents difficulties can, on that puerile criterion, be disposed of. How often I used to hear colleagues saying that such-and-such a novel – let us say, Middlemarch or Daniel Deronda by George Eliot – could not be put back on the undergraduate course because the students ‘won’t read it now; it’s too long’! Learning worthy of the name is anything but fun: it is a hard slog, with the distant prospect of mastery for those prepared to put in the effort. And when that mastery does come, as a result of concentrated toil, it brings satisfaction and enrichment that is lights years away from (and infinitely superior to) mere ‘fun’. Anyone who has mastered a musical instrument to that crucial point where you play with ease and accomplishment knows that years of tedious practice have brought about that fluency and effortlessness, “to set a crown”, as Eliot put it, “upon your lifetime’s effort”.
While no-one would suggest that the fascination with what’s difficult (in W. B. Yeats’s phrase) will be a sufficient reason alone to encourage readers to embark on the understanding and appreciation of the 10,000 lines of Paradise Lost, to argue that that is a valid reason for not reading it at all is simply intellectually disreputable, and insulting to undergraduates’ intelligence and commitment.
One of the best ways to entice and encourage readers to embark on the study of Milton is to reveal not only the towering achievement of the epic poem, but the range of the poet’s abilities in works of even the shortest and very accessible kind, such as lyrics (‘Let us with a gladsome mind…’); accomplished sonnets (including several of the most memorable in the language: ‘Avenge, O Lord, thy slaughter’d saints…’, ‘Methought I saw my late espoused saint…’); philosophically-themed works, as in the juxtaposition of the active and contemplative lives in ‘L’Allegro’ and ‘Il Penseroso’; the ode, as that ‘On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity’; the masque known as ‘Comus’; the little-regarded Paradise Regained, which sounds like a sequel to Paradise Lost, but has its own intimate and focused integrity, with the single subject (from St Luke’s Gospel) of Christ’s temptation by Satan in the wilderness – and many other works besides. Together, these amount to a splendid final statement of a century of the richest period of the exploration and development of poetry and poetic forms in the English Renaissance.
With regard to Paradise Lost itself, the multiple reasons for the necessity of its study include the recognition that it is the first complete and only epic poem in the English language – Milton’s “sage and serious [Edmund] Spenser” having left an earlier attempt, The Faerie Queene, a national epic centred on Elizabeth, incomplete, its six books being only half of the intended poem. Milton himself had discarded an early plan to compose an epic of Arthurian kind. And further to the poem’s extraordinariness, is the striking matter that Paradise Lost is unique in epic literature as, in the course of presenting the story of the creation, fall and redemption of the human race, it overturns the essential preoccupation of heroic poetry, where the courage of the hero is exemplified in physical acts of heroism. Instead, Milton concentrates on and celebrates the development of moral heroism; the spiritual warfare of fallen humanity against the ever-present powers of sin. The poet roundly (and satirically) rejects former epic models focused on bodily prowess:
this Subject for Heroic Song
Pleas’d me long choosing, and beginning late;
Not sedulous by Nature to indite
Warrs, hitherto the onely Argument
Heroic deem’d, chief maistrie to dissect
With long and tedious havoc fabl’d Knights
In Battels feign’d; the better fortitude
Of Patience and Heroic Martyrdom
Unsung; or to describe Races and Games,
Or tilting Furniture, emblazon’d Shields,
Impreses quaint, Caparisons and Steeds;
Bases and tinsel Trappings, gorgious Knights
At Joust and Torneament; then marshal’d Feast
Serv’d up in Hall with Sewers, and Seneshals;
The skill of Artifice or Office mean,
Not that which justly gives Heroic name
To Person or to Poem. (IX, 25-41)
He replaces this with the teaching he summarises in one of his most quoted prose passages, from the Areopagitica (1644), ‘A speech of Mr. John Milton for the Liberty of Unlicenc’d Printing, to the Parliament of England’:
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. Assuredly we bring not innocence into the world, we bring impurity much rather; that which purifies us is trial, and trial is by what is contrary
The heroic striving of the spirit is central to the theme of Paradise Lost – not the stuff of fable, but the essential fact of human life: the perpetual warfare of “the upright heart and pure” (I, 17) with the evil one.
So Milton’s characterisation of his most celebrated dramatic creation, Satan, the enemy of humanity, is crucial to the undertaking. Not for nothing was the poet writing in the wake of the age of Shakespeare: “Dear son of memory, great heir of fame….”, as he says of him in the commemorative sonnet of 1630. And it was the Shakespearian soliloquy, in particular, that provided the inspiration for Milton’s unfolding of the tragic story of fallen Lucifer, who is not only an instrument of evil, such as Macbeth, but its very embodiment, as his role as the doomed protagonist of the ultimate revenge tragedy unfolds:
Me miserable! which way shall I flie
Infinite wrauth, and infinite despaire?
Which way I flie is Hell; my self am Hell;
And in the lowest deep a lower deep
Still threatning to devour me opens wide,
To which the Hell I suffer seems a Heav'n.
O then at last relent: is there no place
Left for Repentance, none for Pardon left?
None left but by submission; and that word
Disdain forbids me, and my dread of shame
Among the Spirits beneath, whom I seduc’d
With other promises and other vaunts
Then to submit, boasting I could subdue
Th’ Omnipotent. Ay me, they little know
How dearly I abide that boast so vaine,
Under what torments inwardly I groane:
While they adore me on the Throne of Hell,
With Diadem and Sceptre high advanc’d
The lower still I fall, onely Supream
In miserie; such joy Ambition findes.
But say I could repent and could obtaine
By Act of Grace my former state; how soon
Would higth recall high thoughts, how soon unsay
What feign’d submission swore: ease would recant
Vows made in pain, as violent and void.
For never can true reconcilement grow
Where wounds of deadly hate have peirc’d so deep:
Which would but lead me to a worse relapse
And heavier fall: so should I purchase deare
Short intermission bought with double smart.
This knows my punisher; therefore as farr
From granting hee, as I from begging peace:
All hope excluded thus, behold in stead
Of us out-cast, exil’d, his new delight,
Mankind created, and for him this World.
So farewel Hope, and with Hope farewel Fear,
Farewel Remorse: all Good to me is lost;
Evil be thou my Good. (IV, 73-110)
A plethora of oxymora characterises this tormented angel, throughout the poem, as in his culminating determination here: “Evil be thou my Good”, and in Milton’s forecast, at the beginning of the poem, of his ultimate, perverted fate:
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. (I, 214-220)
The irony here is at the heart of the thesis of Paradise Lost and is focused on the concept of the felix culpa: the fortunate Fall. As in a work replete with structural components of parallel and contrast, the hellish paradox of Satan’s fate is offset by this heavenly paradox. Had not Satan been successful in securing his perverse victory over Adam and Eve, the ultimate triumph of the redemption of humanity by the sacrifice of Christ, for sin, would not have been occasioned, bringing not merely good out of evil, but a greater good, as celebrated by Adam in the epic’s last book:
O goodness infinite, goodness immense!
That all this good of evil shall produce,
And evil turn to good; more wonderful
Then that which by creation first brought forth
Light out of darkness! (XII, 469-73)
But, tellingly, Eve has the last word, in the context of biblical typology, where individuals and events from the Old Testament prefigure those in the New. The first Adam looks forward to the second, Christ. So, the first Eve, anticipates the Virgin Mary, as ‘Eva’ is reversed in the angelic salutation at the Annunciation, ‘Ave’:
though all by mee is lost,
Such favour I unworthie am voutsaft,
By mee the Promis’d Seed shall all restore. (XII, 621-23)
As important as this theological teaching, is the moral principle at the heart of Paradise Lost and of the poet’s life. No ethical ideal was more valued by Milton than the concept of the freedom of the individual, the liberty to choose right from wrong and the truly heroic autonomy that steadfastly refuses to submit to tyranny of any kind. This is captured, tellingly, in the representation of the seraph Abdiel, who rebels against Satan’s burgeoning power. Isaac Asimov has argued that Abdiel is a representation of Milton himself:
Among the faithless, faithful only hee; Among innumerable false, unmov’d, Unshak’n, unseduc’d, unterrifi'd His Loyaltie he kept, his Love, his Zeale; Nor number, nor example with him wrought To swerve from truth, or change his constant mind Though single. From amidst them forth he passd, Long way through hostile scorn, which he susteind Superior, nor of violence fear’d aught; And with retorted scorn his back he turn’d On those proud Towrs to swift destruction doom’d. (V, 897-907)
So, in sum, this is why Milton matters: he is, arguably, the greatest of poets writing in English; he is the author of the only complete epic poem in the language, as well as being the author of an astonishing range of poems, in different styles, that few other poets have matched. For centuries, he exercised an influence, whether in imitation or deviation from his ideas and practice, more potent than that of any other poet; and in both his life and work, in prose as well as poetry, he was a passionate defender of a fundamental principle of human life that, once again in our period of history, is under enormous threat: the absolute freedom of the individual will, of thought and speech from the tyranny of totalitarianism, political and ideological.
Let John Milton have the last word, in prose (and, again, from the Areopagitica), of the reason why we should defend and promote great books, such as his, against all the pernicious, censorious influences, most disturbingly in our universities today, which are committed to suppressing them:
For books are not absolutely dead things, but do contain a potency of life in them to be as active as that soul was whose progeny they are; nay, they do preserve as in a vial the purest efficacy and extraction of that living intellect that bred them…. as good almost kill a Man as kill a good Book; who kills a Man kills a reasonable creature, God’s Image; but he who destroys a good Book, kills reason itself, kills the Image of God, as it were in the eye. Many a man lives a burden to the Earth; but a good Book is the precious life-blood of a master-spirit, embalmed and treasured up on purpose to a life beyond life
BARRY SPURR is the Poetry Editor of Quadrant, the Australian current affairs and literary magazine. For 40 years, he was a member of the Department of English at the University of Sydney, and was Australia’s first Professor of Poetry. Professor Spurr has taught and published extensively on Renaissance and Modernist literature, including books on T.S. Eliot (Anglo-Catholic in Religion), Lytton Strachey, Studying Poetry, and on poetry devoted to the Virgin Mary (See the Virgin Blest)