Last flowers of Bloom

Harold Bloom
STODDARD MARTIN remembers a dedicated litterateur’s late works

One can hardly think but with affection of Harold Bloom, addict of the Word, historic lover of literature, and coiner of the phrase “anxiety of influence” among other more recondite tags.

It would be invidious not to feel that affection when considering his final books, compendious and repetitive though they may be, composed or compiled as they were during bouts of convalescence between the illnesses that led to his corporeal silence in 2019, aged eighty-nine. It is likely that more words from the indefatigable commentator may be stored up yet to come, editing angels and publishing deities willing. The prospect is daunting, to some perhaps dismaying, for after seven decades of pronouncements, more Bloom may seem less.

Of the supreme enunciator of literary rankings in recent times – “probably the most famous literary critic in the English-speaking world” of his day – posterity might require for a tidy canon. But tidy Bloom is not. In his 2019 book Possessed by Memory: The Inward Light of Criticism, the idealiser of Falstaff and his perceived form of “heroic vitalism”[1] tacitly put faith in excess. Bloom’s object, insofar as it ever went beyond an exuberant autodidact’s self-revelations, was to provoke more than to instruct (Possessed, p12 – all subsequent page numbers refer to this book). “I am a Nietzschean,” he declares in the last of his provisional last words (p79) after a lifetime of enthusiasm for the philosopher’s kindred spirits, such as W. B. Yeats. Thus at the end, like the author of Ecce Homo when approaching fatal dispersion into madness, Bloom eerily claims: “Something in me speaks for multitudes around the globe.” (p11)

“Oh my brothers!” is Zarathustra’s refrain, and Bloom never tired of projecting that he was carrying on a dialogue with colleagues and students, whether at Cornell, Yale or Cambridge where a boy from a Yiddish-speaking immigrant family earned degrees, or at the same or similarly distinguished institutions where a publicity-loving adult would ultimately profess. First person plural is the mode. Bloom’s method as critic was conversational, sometimes ingratiating, especially in books where he might indulge in a lifetime’s penchant for having the last word. Why argue with him? Listen. Admire. Reflect. Then, perhaps, carry on a silent conversation of one’s own in the watches of night – those insomniac hours in which, as he tells us, Bloom had his most fertile ideas and, when not idealizing, lay awake reciting favourite works to the shades – incanting, as if a religious at prayer.

This is the milieu. And it determines content. Bloom’s canon finally includes, from the beginning, what he considers to be the great literary passages of “the Hebrew Bible” (Old Testament), for as he says, beyond having become Sterling Professor of Humanities at Yale, Charles Eliot Norton Professor at Harvard, recipient of the American Academy of Arts and Letters Gold Medal for Belles Lettres and Criticism, etc., he is “a literary and religious critic” (emphasis mine), whose “tradition is dying” and whose dying wish is “to rally a saving remnant”(p11). Again, a note of Nietzschean messianism, if perhaps with a hint of the disingenuous tendency of that other heroic vitalist (“the Fat Knight”) to humour and guff, “nimble believing and disbelieving”.

The lifelong lover of Shakespeare ascribes these qualities to Hamlet, whom he sees as “his own Falstaff… a consciousness so enormous that it contains all of human self-otherseeing” (p112). It might be a description of what Bloom aspired to be himself; it is also what he finds lacking in the Hebrew God – Yahweh, a dislikable presence for him at almost every turn, despite his Jewish roots. Here the old Bloom, whose early literary critical self started with Shelley, returns to youthful insurgency. Something is wrong in the heavens, as it was for the renegade Romantic: Prometheus punished by Jupiter is dealing with a false God or at least a faulty one – there is better beyond, in the pleroma. Gnosticism is in the air, and Bloom inhales it, lauding the work of his late “mentor” Gershom Scholem and concentrating passing attention on Scholem’s special study, the Kabbalah. “I have spent part of a lifetime,” Bloom states, “trying to work out a pragmatic relationship between Kabbalah and literary criticism” (p20). The provisionality implied here is matched by an achievement that is opaque and fragmentary. Bloom links Kabbalah and poetry both to “heretical subversions of orthodoxy”, “salvation by transgression”, “the frontier between the sacred and the profane” and no requirement to complete the Great Work but no freedom to desist in the attempt (pps23-5).

A Christian attempt to unravel Kabbalism, by the 16th/17th century thinker Heinrich Khunrath

From here it is small distance to Blake, Whitman and others of Bloom’s un-Leavisite “great tradition”, grounded in English literature fundamentally not only on Shakespeare but more portentously on Milton’s Satan. However – and here is an essential, perhaps under-recognised element in Bloom – heresy is only a pretext for a new/old orthodoxy and God. For Bloom’s ultimate standard is breadth and depth of vision, a vastness of sensibility and inclusion, reminding one perhaps of what a critic once complained of in the French symboliste Mallarmé: a sense that anything less than the all-embracing might be presumptuous[2].

Bloom, in short, disliking the Yahweh of tradition, sets out in effect to descry a truer God – humane, non-vindictive, invisible but glimpsed beyond Demogorgon up in starrier heavens. Like Shelley’s Prometheus being liberated from his bonds, the tireless yet mortally ill individual must rely on a bevy of maidens to help him complete the job – seven female assistants are named at the start of Possessed by Memory. This could be interpreted as Kabbalistic in the sense of Bloom’s contention that the proper mystical Yahweh can only function with aid from the Moon Queen or female spirit that resides in Malkuth, foundational pod of the Sefiroth [EDITOR’S NOTE: The Sefiroth are ten attributes of emotion, intellect or will in Kabbalistic esotericism]; it might also bring to mind accusations of “inappropriate” attention to female students that marked the professor’s later years.

Be that as it may, the inclusions in his excursion towards a summatory roundup of values betray composition by many hands: sketches, bits of lectures, notes from seminars are the basis, even in one case a funeral address. The authorial scholar gives way to the genial teacher, whose mission is foremost to enthuse. Possessed is designed to tell us why a dying man has recalled this passage or that poem and what is outstanding about it. It is a trawl, a last judgement on the canonical, as per a decent God’s instincts. And why not? Many an ailing scholar would love to engage in such a pastime, and Bloom’s range is such that he is almost always engaging at it – almost being the lively interlocutor’s operative word. In difference lies interest, in qualifications glided over or simply not made, in enthusiasms too grandly stated.

The Fat Knight Falstaff, for Bloom an exemplar of ‘heroic vitalism’

Falstaff, for instance, is not for this reader the exemplar that he is for Bloom, nor do the plays in which he appears seem the Bard’s best. Bloom has little time for the Marlovian in Shakespeare, speaks dismissively of Hotspur, and ignores the coruscating soliloquies of that supreme Machiavel, Richard. He is intriguing about the bastard Faulconbridge in the oft-neglected King John, but says little of comedies which now may strike the ear as warm-ups for Blackadder. As to Milton, he admits with Dr Johnson that few read him with pleasure (p176); re Johnson himself, he forgives eccentric pomposities. Bloom is of a generation of American Jewish scholars who began in awe of English literary tradition. He does not rate the deviations of Pound and Eliot towards Europe, attention to Dante excepted. The superior art of Baudelaire earns from him no more than an aside in a discussion of Swinburne (p301).

Walt Whitman, whom Bloom considered the greatest American poet

Much else is missing. Where for instance is Wilde, save in apt citation of a quote from ‘The Critic as Artist’ as the book’s epigraph? As for Wilde’s countryman Yeats: is he quite understood? In these summatory pages, how much space does old Bloom accord to a signal figure of his youth? His trajectory now, whatever it was in journeyman days and however much he may remain haunted by Shakespeare and Shelley, is towards fellow Americans – those who, unlike Eliot and Pound, did not “beat out [their] exile” but stayed home to “make [their] pact”, to borrow from the latter, Whitman-as-internationalist, as Bloom resolutely won’t. The god who stands at the head of American poetic tradition is for Bloom the seminal incantor – psalmic “transumptor” – of Leaves of Grass. Whitman the untidy, the vastly inclusive proto-Zarathustran – in him the professor finds a lodestone more congenial than in an Irishman whose attention to craft moved George Moore to depict him coming down to lunch at Coole Park to report to Lady Gregory that his morning’s work had consisted of removing a comma which he later restored[3]. Whitman’s incontinence, like Falstaff’s, if wilder, exposes another facet of “heroic vitalist” genius chez dying Bloom. Might we conclude that, in the light of his disintegration, a coherence strained for in youth seems no longer essential – analogous to how for the late Turner a glimmer of sun through vague clouds became preferable as subject to the detail of ship and sail? One suspects it to be partly the case. Bloom alludes en passant to Yeats’ “Byzantium poems”, but the exactitude of “hammered gold and gold enamelling” is hardly seen as a destiny. Bloom may live on as critic or at least enthuser: penning fifty-odd books suggests aspiration to transcendence beyond mere bodily existence. But if he lives on, Bloom is liable to do so as the critic permissive rather than the critic precise.

Again, why not? The third of four parts of Possessed by Memory begins to judder and creak as it extends Anglo tradition to snippets from the canonical Browning and Meredith; but the fourth part, commencing with its long devotion to Whitman, moves to some eye-opening appreciations, not only of the predictable Stevens, Williams and Crane, but more appealingly of the less obvious Edward Arlington Robinson and Conrad Aiken among others. With Aiken, comparison to his Harvard classmate Eliot leads to a fuller understanding of why Bloom felt antipathy for the most celebrated Anglo-American voice of the past century. That said, Bloom’s account of Aiken’s work falls short of full praise, and his explanation for why Aikens failed to reach “the eminence” of “Robert Frost and Wallace Stevens, Thomas Stearns Eliot and Hart Crane” seems partly to tell against itself – “Associative rhetoric was both Aiken’s mode and, sadly, his weakness. He did not try to make it new but to augment the foundations by relying upon the major poets of the Romantic tradition.” (p393)

Might this not be a description of Bloom’s own approach as critic? Might one even go so far as to see it as either a veil drawn over a latent, counter-canonical preference for poets of Aikens’ pitch or a subconscious admission of Bloom’s own less than supreme rank as critic? These are not idle questions. Somerset Maugham once famously quipped that his status as writer was in the first rank of the second rate. The false modesty hardly strained to disguise a popular novelist’s healthy antipathy for experimental modernists whom a cognoscenti lionized, but the common reader found unreadable: Woolf, Joyce and so on. Bloom, when set alongside the Derrida-ists, Deconstructionists, Structuralists and such fashionable ‘critics’ of his epoch, might strike one analogously as among the first rank of the middle-brow.

John Ashbery, by David Shankbone. Wikimedia Commons

Like Maugham in The Summing Up, Bloom laces his learned observations with recollection. His remarks on one of two women included in a 500-page book, May Swenson, pivot on their meetings at a café in Greenwich Village in the 1960s. His discussion of the original and vitalist ex-soldier Richard Eberhardt stems from a lecture tour at the University of Florida, where Eberhardt frightened him with the campus alligator. Bloom’s account of the master of negation, Weldon Kees, begins with an encounter at a jazz club in Harlem. Longer pieces on lesser-knowns such as Archie Randolph Ammons or Alvin Feinman are founded on yet closer association, as is the inclusion on John Ashbery, with whom Bloom’s “friendship has been continuous these sixty years… I have just phoned him at the Whittier Rehabilitation Center where he is recovering rather slowly from double pneumonia” (p431). Illness and age are constant companions in these last works, not notably cheerful ones, rather ones with whom Bloom struggles manfully to come to terms, never quite achieving reconciliation with, let alone joy in, observation of their processes – intrinsic to life, after all, thus a subset of the “heroic vital”. Bloom resists falling back into angry, non-accepting “rage, rage against the dying of the light”; rather he strives to win from these ultimate confrontations a revitalised urgency and heightened appreciation. He can still read, or be read to, and hear. He can still idealize and recite in the watches of night. Most of all he can remember. Which brings us to the ‘coda’ of the book, Proustianly entitled “In Search of Lost Time”.

Before one arrives there, one must be reconciled with Bloom’s subjectivity. One has to accept that his judgments have often to do with where he could most comfortably locate himself; that his “we” posits a community both transitory and presumptuous; that his lordly opinions, such as that Hart Crane is the great American poet after Whitman and Dickinson, may pass as gospel without being convincingly preached; that he gives himself grace to make errors and to speculate beyond what accords with known facts; that he settles scores on occasion – against Saul Bellow,  for instance (p416) – and will not always refrain from resorting to guff.

What, say, is the sense of a sentence such as “His consciousness was a plenum that could have created a heterocosm, where space and sun might have made another world” (p430)? From here it is not far to complain of Bloom’s cherished inventions such as “self-othering” or “transumptive”. But let it pass. Bloom is a character in his literary universe. He is too Shakespearean not to put a high, perhaps excessive, value on personality. That he has a big one has been part of his “body of fate”, to use a Yeats term; Bloom has embraced and cultivated it, and created a space for it to exist in and flourish and suffer. Irritating this may be, but one can also be glad for it. Bloom himself becomes a standard, not just what he says: a brand, an embodiment of forces to reckon with, if not revere – something of a god. Apotheosis may not be a fate he has worked for entirely nakedly, but he has certainly flirted with it often, notwithstanding the trademark baggy garb of being “human, all-too-human”.

God incarnate in Bloom? Will He live on as Holy Ghost? Close to his physical end, Bloom muses: “When we die, our own survival will be the extent to which we have changed the lives of those who come after us… I have to consider how little I know of time to come. Doubtless it is better that way. Foretelling can be destructive.” (p507) His coda to Possessed begins in this way to evince a becoming humility. Before sojourning with Proust, he recalls Saint Augustine’s conversations with his mother about God’s eternal light. The aptness is to what Bloom characterises as Proust’s “sublime lucidity”, which transcends Jewish and Christian roots to be “closer to Hindu philosophy”. While admitting that Proust probably never read the Bhagavad-Gita, Bloom invokes it.

Marcel Proust, for Bloom a kind of Gnostic seeker

Shortly afterwards, he qualifies a roving meditation by confessing, “I have the realisation or fantasy that simultaneously I know everything and nothing” (p481). This precedes recollection of moments of “sudden radiance” in early childhood, which “seem now to be heretical intimations of a lost gnosis” (p487). Proust’s similar epiphanies, Bloom muses, may stem from “worship of an unknown God who is yet knowable” (p492); in any case, the novelist’s truth “is compounded of perception, involuntary memory, impressionism, a search for spiritual meaning, and a kind of aesthetic mysticism” (p497). Is this not Bloom’s “truth” in a mirror? The presiding return of “childlike vision” is for him, as for Proust, “allied to phantasmagoria and to the world of dreams… modified delirium” (p501). Here one might end, or with association of “the survival of the inner self with a world founded upon benignity” (p503), or with a largeness that “could be at once atheist and mystic” (p505). But Bloom actually concludes by reverting to Dr Johnson, whose wisdom allows for ebb as well as a flow that chez Proust is continuous. Bloom has indeed already undercut his paean to In Search of Lost Time by stating that he would choose Richardson’s Clarissa in preference to it. Why? Because the heroine and her rapist lover are “more vital”.

One trusts this no more than one might accept Mozart’s sympathy to be with the survivors rather than with the deposed libertine at the end of Don Giovanni. Bloom’s coda, brave as it is in conveying what remains at the approach of his earthly dissolution, conveys one back towards his penultimate book, which occupies a more preliminary stage in the process and thus may constitute a more reliable summing-up of a career of concentrated literary contemplation.

W B Years in 1908

The book is less given to reminiscence and enthusiasm, though some is ever present. There are no chapters devoted to lesser talents such as John Wheelwright, James Merrill, Jay Macpherson or Amy Clampit, with whom Bloom ends his pre-coda trawl in Possessed. Among those, notably Merrill, Bloom remains ready to deviate back to consideration of his traditional greats: he cites phone calls “in which we explored W. B. Yeats’s A Vision, the Gnostic religion, and the relation of Yeats to Shelley and to Blake” (p449). Reader, take note. Bloom subsumes the Irish poet here to two English Romantics whom he has consistently ranked as the foremost. He glides from A Vision to Scholem’s topic as if Yeats’s mystico-historic text were self-evidently Gnostic. He considers the matter no further except to say “I suspect that Yeats would not have taken to James Merrill’s poetry” (p453), then somewhat conversely he postulates that in Merrrill’s poetry “the Byzantium of William Butler Yeats hovers and is deftly evaded” (p456). Deftly seems a loaded adverb, not least in a context where the Irish poet’s full name is iterated, as it is in most other scattered allusions to him throughout this book. Why? Shelley almost never requires “Percy Bysshe”. Is there some other Yeats that Bloom fears we may think of, or is there some more telling nuance at play??

Looking at this penultimate work, so boldly entitled Take Arms Against a Sea of Troubles: the Power of the Reader’s Mind over a Universe of Death, and among chapters Bloom devotes to the usual titans – Shakespeare, Milton, Blake, Wordsworth, Shelley, Byron, Keats, Browning, Tennyson, Whitman, Frost, Stevens, Crane, Freud (eccentrically) and Dante (again, lone continental) – we find “William Butler Yeats and D. H. Lawrence: Start with the Shadow”. The title seems tricksy – it matters little: tags chez Bloom and others of his generation of academics often do. What does matter is the shadow of doubt that pervades. Bloom invokes an American favourite to contrast “three modes of mastery. In Lawrence it is chthonic. In Yeats it is occult. In Stevens it is massive acceptance of things as they are.” (p474) Proceeding to quote from one of the American’s poems, Bloom wonders if it is not “a critique by Stevens of the endless series of questing wanderers in Yeats” (p476). Endless series? “William Butler Yeats,” we are told (entire name again) “had the good fortune and the vital temperament to refuse any despair of his own quest” (p479). Are we to infer that a less “occult” sensibility should have despaired? Later, in parsing “All Souls” Night”, Bloom informs us that “the magnificence of gesture, metric, diction overcomes what could be judged sheer silliness” (p483); later still, in relation to Yeats’s alleged “pagan purpose”, we are told that “The force of his diction and metric brushes argument aside” (p485). “Devoted readers of Yeats learn that for him God and Death are one,” Bloom states, “a Gnostic formulation” (p486). This is of course arguable and reflects what Bloom is finally obliged to confess: “More than ever I have a mixed response.” (p490). He lauds “Adam’s Curse” in part to question the quality of what comes after; and when he reaches “Under Ben Bulben”, he decries a “farrago… much of it of a badness not to believed” (p497).

Old Bloom clearly had a problem with old Yeats. From a concluding phrase one might take it that he continued to rate or anyway grapple with the Irish master mainly out of an older loyalty: “The daemon in Yeats, as he acknowledged, was Shelley” (p499). This is arguable too and, at best, partial. But then, as I have indicated, partiality is characteristic of critic Bloom, in age as in youth. He is, to repeat his claim, a Nietzschean, as he fancies it: a “provoker”. A windbag like his beloved “Fat Knight”, he is more than a touch averse to fine concision. He is also no dedicated traveller in realms of magic and dream, however insomniac his nights may have been. Baudelaire comments somewhere that it would be impossible for a poet not to contain a critic but it would be prodigious for a critic to contain a poet. Harold Bloom adored poetry: of that there is no doubt. What may be lacking in him – one leaves it to weigh up – is a thoroughgoing sense of the poetic.

Harold Bloom bibliography (partial)

  • Shelley’s Mythmaking, 1959
  • The Visionary Company: A Reading of English Romantic Poetry, 1961
  • Blake’s Apocalypse: A Study in Poetic Argument, 1963
  • Yeats, 1970
  • The Ringers in the Tower: Studies in Romantic Tradition, 1971
  • The Anxiety of Influence: A Theory of Poetry 1997
  • A Map of Misreading, 1975
  • Kabbalah and Criticism. 1975
  • Poetry and Repression: Revisionism from Blake to Stevens, 1976
  • Figures of Capable Imagination, 1976
  • Wallace Stevens: The Poems of our Climate, 1977
  • Deconstruction and Criticism, 1980
  • The Flight to Lucifer: A Gnostic Fantasy, 1980
  • Agon: Towards a Theory of Revisionism, 1982
  • The Breaking of the Vessels, 1982
  • The Poetics of Influence: New and Selected Criticism, 1988
  • Ruin the Sacred Truths: Poetry and Belief from the Bible to the Present, 1989
  • The Book of J: Translated from the Hebrew by David Rosenberg; Interpreted by Harold Bloom, 1990
  • The American Religion: The Emergence of the Post-Christian Nation, 1992
  • The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages, 1994
  • Omens of Millennium: The Gnosis of Angels, Dreams, and Resurrection. New York: Riverhead Books, 1996.
  • Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, 1998
  • How to Read and Why, 2000
  • Stories and Poems for Extremely Intelligent Children of All Ages, 2001
  • El futur de la imaginació (The Future of the Imagination), 2002
  • Genius: A Mosaic of One Hundred Exemplary Creative Minds, 2003
  • Hamlet: Poem Unlimited, 2003
  • The Best Poems of the English Language: From Chaucer Through Frost, 2004
  • Where Shall Wisdom Be Found?, 2004
  • Jesus and Yahweh: The Names Divine, 2005
  • American Religious Poems: An Anthology By Harold Bloom, 2006
  • Fallen Angels, 2007
  • Till I End My Song: A Gathering of Last Poems, 2010
  • The Anatomy of Influence: Literature as a Way of Life, 2011
  • The Shadow of a Great Rock: A Literary Appreciation of The King James Bible, 2011
  • The Daemon Knows: Literary Greatness and the American Sublime, 2015
  • Falstaff: Give Me Life, 2017
  • Cleopatra: I Am Fire and Air, 2017
  • Lear: The Great Image of Authority, 2018
  • Iago: The Strategies of Evil, 2018
  • Macbeth: A Dagger of the Mind, 2019
  • Possessed by Memory: The Inward Light of Criticism, 2019 
  • Take Arms Against a Sea of Troubles: The Power of the Reader’s Mind Over a Universe of Death, 2020
  • The Bright Book of Life: Novels to Read and Re-read, 2020

[1] Possessed by Memory: The Inward Light of Criticism (Vintage, 2019), p. 101. Further references by page number.

[2] See my Wagner to the Waste Land (Macmillan, 1982), 122.

[3] Moore notoriously settled a number of old scores in his memoir, Hail and Farewell.

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,


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