Marcus Clarke – novelist, journalist and bohemian

Convict flogging in Australia
MICHAEL WILDING remembers a foundational Australian writer

Marcus Clarke’s His Natural Life is one of the great novels of the nineteenth century. The classic indictment of the horrors of the English convict system established in Australia, it is the story of Richard Devine, transported for a crime he did not commit and transmuted into the convict Rufus Dawes. The world of the Tasmanian convict settlement he encounters is presented in unforgettable detail: the career criminal John Rex, the brutal officer Maurice Frere, the alcoholic clergyman Rev North, the young daughter of the camp commander, Sylvia, and the horrific episodes of floggings, homosexual rape, child suicide, cannibalism, escapes and recaptures. Retitled For the Term of His Natural Life after Clarke’s death, His Natural Life has never been out of print since it was first published in 1874. As well as Australian, British and American editions, it has been translated into German, Dutch, Russian and Chinese, and adapted for the stage, cinema, television and graphic novel.

Marcus Clarke was born in the London borough of Kensington on 24 April 1846. He was an only child and his mother Amelia died of tuberculosis just before his fourth birthday. He was educated at Highgate School, where his closest friends were the brothers Cyril and Gerard Manley Hopkins. Gerard described Marcus as a ‘Kaleidoscopic, Parti-coloured, Harlequinesque, Thaumatropic being’, and reinvented his surname as ‘Marcus Scrivener’ – which Clarke used as a pseudonym in his earliest writings . Gerard wrote to Ernest Hartley Coleridge, grandson of the poet, ‘I must tell you that Clarke writes very good poetry. He and I compare notes and ideas.’ They collaborated on various projects, noted in Gerard’s journals and in the biography of Marcus that Cyril was later to write.

In 1863, Clarke’s father, a barrister with a good London practice in chancery, suddenly fell ill, lost the power of speech, and was put into an asylum at Stoke Newington, where he died on 1 December. Marcus wrote to Cyril Hopkins:

I remember, when my father was first taken ill, his telling me that I should be well provided for. He worked too hard and too long; which produced his final and fatal attack of paralysis … My cousins thought that he was worth at least seventy thousand pounds … Judge then of our consternation at finding affairs in the greatest confusion, the house in Ireland (left him by his elder brother) sold, and only a certain sum at his banker’s. Records of nothing! His cheque books showing large sums of money drawn out of his banking account with no trace of where they went to.

Poor Clarke is on the voyage out to Australia, his father having met with a paralysis of the brain,’ Gerard wrote to Ernest Hartley Coleridge .

Three months before his father died Marcus was packed off to Australia where his uncle James was a judge in Victoria. Earlier, his uncle Andrew had been Governor of Western Australia and his cousin Andrew the first Surveyor-General and Chief Commissioner of Crown Lands for Victoria, and Member of Parliament for Emerald Hill. Marcus was found a job in a bank. Hamilton Mackinnon, in his biographical introduction to Clarke’s writings, records Clarke’s farewell encounter with the manager:

 Clarke: “I have come to ask, sir, whether you received my application for a few weeks’ leave of absence.”

‘The Manager: “I have, Mr Clarke.”

‘Clarke: “Will you grant it to me, sir?”

‘The Manager: “Certainly, Mr Clarke, and a longer leave, if you desire it.”

‘Clarke: “I feel very much obliged. How long may I extend it to, sir?”

‘The Manager: “Indefinitely, if you do not object!”

Marcus Clarke at 20

Clarke worked on the Swinton and Ledcourt sheep stations in the Wimmera district of Western Victoria for a couple of years from 1865­ to 1867. Arthur Patchett Martin wrote of Clarke’s time there:

It is said that Mr Holt, the squatter, used to tell how he debauched the unsophisticated minds of his boundary-riders, by reading to them the too realistic pages of the great Balzac. He was in the habit of propounding theories as to the proprietorship of land resembling those of Mr Henry George, and which, it must be confessed, were not calculated to make those rude sons of toil contented with their lot.

Returning to Melbourne, Clarke found work as a journalist with The Argus newspaper and its associated weekly, The Australasian. He did the usual things. He wrote a review of a concert performance that, unknown to him, the singer had cancelled through illness. It lost him his reporting job, but he still continued to contribute as a freelance, and retained a regular column, ‘The Peripatetic Philosopher’.

He remarked on the ‘instincts of monopoly of the parsimonious management of the Theatre Royal’ and warned about the production that ‘they have selected to mutilate’. The Theatre Royal sued for defamation and won a farthing’s damages on each of two counts ,  and Clarke, who had written and adapted a number of plays, got no further work in the theatre for the next five years.

When the Argus and the Age boycotted the Melbourne Cup over a dispute about free tickets, Marcus wrote a report of it for the Herald,allegedly obtained by camera obscura. It read like something out of a novel. It was. Marcus had recycled an account of a race from his first novel, Long Odds. Writing for the Herald lost him any further work with the Argus group.

Amidst it all he plunged into la vie Bohème. The Café de Paris of the Melbourne Theatre Royal was one of Clarke’s favourite hangouts. ‘Founded by a gentleman who had some difficulty in paying his bricklayers,’ Clarke wrote, it became the fashionable place for the Bohemians of the time. Theatre people, journalists, and others’. Especially others.

Clarke described his lifestyle at that time:

I was living then in Fig Tree Court with my friend Savage, and we dined at the Café daily. We were not rich, for we had both dissipated our incomes in the exact manner recorded of the Prodigal Son. I wrote for the Peacock, and Savage for the Screechowl.We made some four pounds sterling a week — and we were really thankful (not being grocers or drapers) to earn so much. The morning was spent in scribbling, the afternoon in tobacco, the evening in dinner, theatre, and gaslight. I fear we did not lead virtuous lives. I am sure that we were often out of bed after the small hours. I know that Madame Gogo and Lisette de Jambejolie assisted in the spending of the Peacock’s bounty.

The journalist Charles Bright recalled meeting Clarke at the Café de Paris:

I noticed as a peculiarity of the newcomer that he partook of absinthe, a drink rarely called for by any but Frenchmen, and I asked if he liked it.

‘“Not particularly,” he said, “but I’m experimenting with it. They say it’ll drive a fellow mad in a month and I want to find out if that’s a fact. I’ve tried opium-smoking, and rather like that. There are a lot of lies told about these things, you know, and we have scriptural authority for proving all things and holding fast that which is good. I can’t say yet if absinthe be good, or not.”

With the right family connections, Clarke joined the establishment Melbourne Club in 1868. In the same year he helped establish the more Bohemian and literary Yorick Club with Frederick Haddon, another young Englishman, who was editor of The Argus.

The Yorick Club provided a meeting ground for fellow writers and journalists. Initially the group moved to a café, but the regulars there objected to the noise they made, so a room was rented for £1 a week in the Punch office. The Argus office was next door. Mueller’s tavern was below. ‘In its early days Mueller catered for the club until two o’clock in the morning, after which it stayed open until four or five o’clock for members who were newspaper printers.’

The first official meeting of the club was held 1 May 1868. Dr Patrick Moloney, a friend of Clarke’s and at this time an intern at Melbourne Hospital, gave Clarke a skull which Clarke brought to the club room and placed on the mantel-shelf with a pipe under its jaw. Clarke suggested the club should be called the ‘Golgotha’ because it was ‘the place of skulls’. According to the 1911 history, The Yorick Club: Its Origin and Development,he ‘hammered away at the idea all night’ but the club ended up being called the Yorick — an allusion not only to Hamlet but to Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy.

In the end Clarke got very huffy, took his skull and disappeared, not returning for some days. He gave the skull to the actor Walter Montgomery, who was playing Hamlet at the Theatre Royal, and used it in the famous ‘Alas, poor Yorick’ soliloquy.

Clarke himself wrote about the club in his ‘Peripatetic Philosopher’ column in The Australasian, 2 May 1868, still calling it the Golgotha.

Everybody wants to know the secrets of the prison-house, and as Timmins, one of our number, incautiously told his wife that we keep a skull on the mantelshelf, there is much suspicion and terror around. I may briefly mention, however, that the story of the newspaper lad being scraped to death with oyster shells at a late supper, and buried in the back kitchen, is not absolutely true in all its details.

It is a wonder that he could mention anything, since the first official meeting had occurred only the previous day; and the article would have had to have been written two days before that in order to meet The Australasian’s deadline.

The poet Henry Kendall, who moved to Melbourne from Sydney the following year, described his first visit to the club:

Facing the landing, an old door opened into an aromatic room, which, I was informed, did duty as ‘the reading, talking, and smoking-den’. The most remarkable items of its furniture were the spittoons — useful utensils in their way, no doubt, but distressingly plentiful and palpable at the Golgotha. Passing through a suggestive lavatory, we entered the library, where I found a stock-in-trade, consisting of a couple of desks, four or five chairs, a table, two shelves bristling with ancient magazines and effete blue-books, certain other sundries of a doubtful character, and a melancholy waiter. An apartment, called by courtesy the dining-room, and devoted principally to a brace of dissipated newspaper reporters, was the only other feature that arrested a somewhat disappointed stranger’s attention.

Clarke provided an account of what the Yorick Club members did not do. But what exactly did they do? Haddon had originally hosted Saturday evening gatherings that used to offer a mixed bill of stories, songs and excellent brandy. The Yorick Club seems to have added a certain vociferousness to these occasions. The journalist and novelist, G. A. Walstab, was an early exponent of face-painting. He specialized in taking coals from the fire in the early morning, and blackening the faces of the members dozing in their chairs or beneath the tables .  The official history, The Yorick Club,records that Adam Lindsay Gordon at times was wildly jovial, and one evening pitched Clarke up to very near the ceiling and caught him again coming down. There was nowhere to sit in comfort at first, anyway. At one stage they sat on bales of newspapers, at another on kerosene drums. Clarke denied that they drank the kerosene:

I may, without breaking faith, refute the accusation made by a friend, that the members sit on tubs round the room, smoke green tea, and drink neat kerosene out of pewter pots. More I cannot reveal.

Though they certainly had pewter pots. ‘Not empty, gentle reader,’ records one member . One unsubstantiated theory is that they passed round a skull with some opium-based mixture. And the green tea Clarke refers to might have been hyonskin tea, popular in the outback and reputed to drive you mad according to some doctors; or it might have been marijuana, sometimes colloquially referred to as tea. It was about this time that Clarke persuaded a Collins Street doctor to get him some hashish. The doctor agreed to on condition that he could watch and make notes while Clarke took it. He wouldn’t let Clarke see the notes and, the doctor records, Clarke ‘became sarcastic in his remarks’.

After three and a half hours Clarke began to dictate a story. And he seems to have continued to use hashish. A Dr Cannabis appears in the ‘Noah’s Ark’ columns he contributed to The Australasian in 1872 and 1873.

The Yorick Club recalls that Clarke ‘was always ready for mischief night and day.’ The journalist Alfred Telo, Clarke’s former flatmate, is described as ‘one of the most outrageous of the practical jokers’. He brought back from the Pacific islands a collection of long spears and one night these were used in a piece of Dadaist street theatre to lift from their hooks the gilded hats hung out as signs by Melbourne hatters. Another favourite game was collecting brass doorknobs. Telo particularly prized one he had stolen from the theatre critic James Neild. Neild wrote a letter to The Argus denouncing the

…idiots who could find nothing better to do than to wrench off citizens’ knockers’ — ‘only to find, on the following morning, that his house had been visited afresh and ornamented with a fishing rod and a gilt fish, a pawnbroker’s sign, and an undertaker’s board.

On 22 July 1869, Clarke married Marian Dunn, the youngest daughter of the Irish comedian and actor John Dunn. He had typically failed to look for lodgings for them both until the marriage ceremony had actually been concluded. She had been a popular actress before her marriage. Eleven years later she was back on the stage again to help out with the family cash crises, Clarke writing A Daughter of Eve and adapting a French comedy Forbidden Fruit, or the Custom of Caudubec with parts especially for her.

In 1870, according to Hamilton Mackinnon,

…overwork had told its tale upon the restless brain, and the doctors ordered change of air to the more salubrious climate of Tasmania. But as funds were, as usual with him, decidedly short, how was the change to be effected?

The printer and publisher of the Australian Journal, A. H. Massina recalled the solution in an interview on his retirement forty years later:

Clarke came to me one day and said, “Massina, I want £50.”

‘“Oh”, I said, “You’ve had enough out of me. What more do you want?”

‘“£50,” replied Clarke, “I can write a story for your journal. I am going to Tasmania to write up the criminal records and I’ll do the story for one hundred pounds.”

‘We jumped at it.

Clarke may already have arranged for the Argus group, with its associated weekly the Australasian, to help finance the holiday by a journalistic assignment ‘to write up the criminal records.’ Haddon, the editor of the Argus, had visited Tasmania the previous January. Now he went there again with Clarke.

On 21 January 1870 Clarke and Haddon arrived in Launceston, and on 26 January they visited Port Arthur. The trip is described in a series of articles Clarke wrote three years later when the closure of Port Arthur was announced. They were published in the Argus, on 3, 12 and 26 July 1873, and reprinted in the Australasian 26 July and 2 August .

“You will find it difficult to get down to Port Arthur unless you’ve got friends there!” said the genial but imperative landlady of the Ark Hotel. “Of course, I mean friends in the Government,” she added, seeing that I looked askance.

‘We had friends in the Government, for Hacker, my companion, was a man of mark at the office of the Peacock and had hinted vaguely of columns of lead minion to be supplied by my eminent hand.

Clarke’s account of his visit captures the horror of the place.

To me, brooding over stories of misery and crime, sitting beside the ironed convicts, and shivering at the chill breeze which whitened the angry waters of the bay, there was no beauty in those desolate cliffs, no cheering picturesqueness in that frowning shore. I saw Port Arthur for the first time beneath a leaden and sullen sky; and as we sailed inwards past the ruins of Point Puer, and beheld barring our passage to the prison the low grey hummocks of the Island of the Dead, I felt that there was a grim propriety in the melancholy of nature.

He continues:

I know that I thought to myself that I should go mad were I condemned to such a life, and that I caught one of the men looking at me with a broad grin as I thought it. I know that there seemed to me to hang over the whole place a sort of horrible gloom, as though the sunlight had been withdrawn from it, and that I should have been ashamed to have suddenly met some high-minded friend, inasmuch as it seemed that in coming down to stare at these chained and degraded beings, we had all been guilty of an unmanly curiosity.

There were still some 574 inmates – convicts, invalids and insane at Port Arthur. Looking through the records Clarke asked to see one of them, transported for poaching when he was thirteen:

The warder drew aside a peep-hole in the barred door, and I saw a grizzled, gaunt and half-naked old man coiled in a corner. The peculiar wild-beast smell which belongs to some forms of furious madness exhaled from the cell. The gibbering animal within turned, and his malignant eyes met mine.

‘“Take care,” said the gaoler; ‘he has a habit of sticking his finger through the peep-hole to try and poke someone’s eye out!’

‘I drew back, and a nail-bitten hairy finger, like the toe of an ape, was thrust with rapid and simian neatness through the aperture.

‘“That is how he amuses himself,” said the good warder, forcing-to the iron slot; “he’d best be dead, I’m thinking.”

The experience was a horrifying one. The library researches Clarke made through the published records were no less so. He writes,

In out-of-the-way corners, in shepherds’ huts or roadside taverns, one meets “old hands” who relate terrible and true histories. In the folio reports of the House of Commons can be read statements which make one turn sick with disgust, and flush hot with indignation. Officialdom, with its crew of parasites and lickspittles, may try to palliate the enormities committed in the years gone by; may revile, with such powers of abuse as are given to it the writers who records the facts which it blushes for; but the sad grim truth remains. For half a century the law allowed the vagabonds and criminals of England to be subjected to a lingering torment, to a hideous debasement, to a monstrous system of punishment futile for good and horribly powerful for evil.

On 19 February 1870 the Australasian published the first of Clarke’s articles, under the series title ‘Old Stories Retold’. His Natural Life had been advertised in the Australian Journal in Januaryand the first instalment appeared in the March issue. The publisher A. H. Massina recalled:

Now Clarke was going to write that story in twelve monthly sections. At first he wrote enough for two months, then enough for one month, and got down to very little. In fact we had once to put it in pica type, instead of brevier to swell out the size of that month’s contribution. But on one occasion he had nothing ready and we had to go to press with an apology to our readers. Finally we had to lock him in a room to get his matter written.

His Natural Life ultimately ran for twenty-seven episodes, instead of the originally agreed upon twelve. The ‘Old Stories Retold’ series appeared simultaneously, on and off, through fourteen tales, some in multiple parts over two or three weeks, concluding on 24 June 1871, and were collected as a book, Old Tales of a Young Country, in 1871.

His Natural Life first appeared as a serial in the Australian Journal from March 1870 to June 1872. Clarke then revised it considerably for book publication. The Irish nationalist politician Charles Gavan Duffy, at this time a member of the Victorian legislature, recalled in My Life in Two Hemispheres how Clarke had approached him for advice on revising the serial for book publication, and how he followed his ‘suggestions for vigorous cutting’, reducing the 370,000 word serial into a 200,000 word novel . Clarke provided a new explanation and motivation for the protagonist’s transportation, removing the 40,000 word opening section that dealt with alchemical experiments in Europe, and the conclusion that fulfilled the alchemical theme by emerging from the Nigredo of imprisonment into the discovery of the Victorian goldfields.

George Robertson published the book in Melbourne. Two readers reported on the book to the London publisher Richard Bentley, Lady Charlotte Jackson who was unenthusiastic, and Geraldine Jewsbury who recommended publication: ‘an extremely powerful and well written work, and you will do well to accept it subject to one condition.’ The condition was that Rufus Dawes should survive. Clarke was willing to make the change, but in the end the English edition followed the Australian edition with Dawes drowned at sea. Geraldine Jewsbury was the long-standing and intimate friend of Jane Carlyle, and the Carlyles were long-standing friends of Gavan Duffy, who published his Conversations with Carlyle in 1892. Duffy, who was in Europe at the time, may have been an influence in achieving the novel’s publication, as well as helping in its revision. And he arranged for the proofs to be read by Frances Cashel Hoey, wife of Duffy’s associate editor on the Irish journal The Nation, who may also have been responsible for some of the stylistic changes made in the English edition .

The revised book version was dedicated to Duffy. Clarke does not remark that Duffy himself had been twice imprisoned by the English for his involvement in Irish independence movements, and had more than twelve months’ experience in Ireland of the interior of ‘a house of correction’, to quote from the dedication. But the facts were well known. Clarke’s dedication of his great novel to Duffy can be seen as a proclamation of his own increasing alienation from English establishment values. In the serial version of the novel, Dawes finally returns to England. In the book version he drowns. There was no return.

In 1870, the year after his marriage, Clarke took a salaried job as Secretary to the Trustees of the Melbourne Public Library . He wore his duties lightly. The moving spirit behind the establishment of the library and the chairman of its board of trustees was Sir Redmond Barry. Hamilton Mackinnon remarks on ‘the interest Sir Redmond Barry evinced in the rising littérateur, whom he took under his parental wing, when obtaining for him the secretaryship of the Public Library’ and records one characteristic vignette:

It was a hot summer’s day, and, as was his style in such weather, the librarian was dressed dandily in unspotted white flannel, with a genuine cabbage-tree hat stuck defiantly on the back of his head; and so clothed he was leisurely wending his way up the steps of the library when he met the President, looking more starched, if possible, than ever, and wearing the well-known, flat-rimmed, tapering bell-topper, which shone in the glare of the noonday sun: and the following brief dialogue ensued.

‘President: “Good morning, Mr Clarke.”

‘Librarian: “Good morning, sir.”

‘President: “I scarcely think your hat, however cool it may be, is exactly suited to the position you occupy in connection with this establishment, Mr Clarke — Good morning, Mr Clarke.

And with a stiff bend of the erect body the President took his departure with just a glimmer of a smile playing round the firmly closed haughty lips’ .

Clarke was fond of his cabbage-tree hat. It had been made for him by a convict in Pentridge Prison. In 1902 his third son, Rowley, took it with him when he sailed to South Africa with the 2nd Commonwealth contingent. It is preserved in the picture collection of the State Library of Victoria .

Hugh McCrae recalled his father George Gordon McCrae’s friendship with Clarke:

George, who admired him, often pointed out a green metal lion half-way up the steps leading to the Melbourne Public Library. It was into the mouth of this lion that Marcus used to commit his unfinished cigar, before being manacled to the desk at his office. The lion, smoking the cigar, became a signal to his friends that Marcus was within.

Clarke coveted his freedom so much that he would rather scintillate outside than be earning his salary as sub-librarian locked up among books. Actually, in his own words, he preferred to “trinquer” at the “House-of-the-Light-Wine-of-the-Country” before his humdrum devoirs at the Bibliotheque

Marcus could never be found when he was wanted. Sir Ferdinand Jakob Heinrich von Mueller once said he might go to the Botanic Gardens and be certain of seeing there an example of the native fuchsia tired to a stake from Monday to Monday — but Clarke was no native fuchsia; and that he carried his household with him wherever he went. At the beginning of the week, he might be in Coburg; and the middle of it in Essendon; and, at the end of it, in Brighton — or Moonee Ponds.

‘I have sold my birthright of free speech for a mess of official pottage, and so to all intents and purposes my “Peripatetic” is dead …’ Clarke wrote in The Australasian,11 June 1870, announcing the end of his ‘Peripatetic Philosopher’ column. A public service position was deemed to preclude him from journalism that involved anything that might seem like political comment. Nonetheless, he continued to write and publish no less prolifically, not only the serial of His Natural Life, but also the historical ‘Old Tales Retold’ that became Old Tales of a Young Country, the novel Chidiock Tichborne, the stories collected in Holiday Peak and Other Tales  and Four Stories High, together with poems and articles, as well as the occasional theatrical venture. And the official pottage meant that his income was double the amount he had earned simply from writing. But it still wasn’t enough.

His Natural Life may have brought Clarke fame, but it didn’t bring fortune. In 1874, the year it was published in book form, he was declared bankrupt. His debts amounted to £2,186. 6s. 6d; his assets to £505. A catalogue was printed for the sale of his books, The Well-Selected Library of Mr Marcus Clarke . He began a new column, ‘The Wicked World’ for the Melbourne Daily Telegraph’s weekend magazine, the Weekly Times. It shows Clarke at his most Balzacian, portraying the moneyed world of Melbourne in all its pretensions and dishonesties.

He had been hoping to be appointed the new Melbourne Librarian, but in November 1879 he wrote an essay for the Victorian Review on the irrelevancy of Christianity in the modern age . The Bishop of Melbourne, Dr James Moorhouse, replied. Clarke responded with a second article exposing weaknesses in the bishop’s arguments which the Victorian Review refused to publish. The Melbourne Review accepted it, only to withdraw all copies from sale upon publication. The whole debate was collected in book form as Civilisation Without Delusion (1880) and sold rapidly.

It made Clarke no friends with the Melbourne establishment, and didn’t help his chances of being appointed Librarian. Mackinnon records the reaction of the President of the Trustees of the Public Library, Sir Redmond Barry:

The President appeared one evening in the librarian’s office with a somewhat clouded countenance, and said, “Good evening, Mr Clarke.” The librarian with an intuitive feeling that a lecture was about to be administered, returned the salutation, when the President remarked: “Mr Clarke; you would oblige me greatly if you were to leave some things undone. For instance, that unfortunate article of yours — attacking so estimable a man as the bishop. Very indiscreet, Mr Clarke. I — think — I — should require — to — have — some — thousands a year of a private income before I would — venture — upon writing such an — article on — such a subject, and among so punctilious a community as exists here. Good evening, Mr Clarke.”

Then Clarke helped adapt Gilbert A’Beckett’s burlesque The Happy Land, based on the play The Wicked World by W. S. Gilbert (under the pseudonym F. Tomline). It dealt with the visit of three politicians to Fairyland, where the benefits of popular government are explained to them. Clarke helped to adapt it from English to Australian conditions. The Victorian government immediately banned it and The Argus and The Age just as promptly printed the text. Clarke’s name was not specifically mentioned, but it was widely known that he had been involved in the adaptation. Clarke may have been surprised when he was not appointed Librarian. No one else was.

But he had little time to be surprised. He had borrowed money on the strength of being appointed. The money-lender, Aaron Waxman, pressed for payment. Clarke declared bankruptcy for a second time, and so was required to resign his library position. He became sick with pleurisy, Mackinnon records,

…and this developing into congestion of the liver, and finally into erysipelas, carried him off in the space of one short week…the end came upon him rapidly. Losing his speech, he beckoned for pencil and paper, and seizing hold of the sheets moved his hand over them as if writing. Shortly afterwards the mind began to wander, but still the hand continued moving with increasing velocity, and every now and then a futile attempt to speak was made.  

He died at St Kilda at 4 p.m. on 2 August 1881. He was thirty-five, and left a wife and six children, the eldest only eleven.

Why Milton matters

Gustave Dore illustration for Paradise Lost

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,

Turchestan-born…

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