#83: JOHN MILTON. Poor Milton! Rarely has an author of such pinnacled stature been tagged with such resolutely lousy PR. Dour pedant, he’s been called, misogynist, massive and unparalleled bore, cranky bastard, and, in the century’s final and most damning term of opprobrium, a PURITAN—a label which in these illiterate days has lost its theological and historical moorings and is pasted onto any form of emotional refrigeration. “The Lady of Christ College”: imagine the snarky nickname you picked up in college outliving you by three hundred years. And for every golden phrase singing our debt to Shakespeare, there’s some sniffy remark made at Milton’s expense. Our most revered critic on Milton’s masterpiece: “No one ever wished it longer.” “Paradise Lost is a book which, once put down, is very hard to pick up again.” And so on up to Gary Snyder, from his mountain lookout: “What use, Milton, a silly story / Of our lost general parents, / eaters of fruit?” True, Keats (who shared Milton’s politics) and Wordsworth (who shared them during his Republican youth but then skipped out) wrote lovely poems to him. Virginia Woolf was famously on the fence, but did speak of “the inexpressible fineness of the style, in which shade after shade is perceptible.” Anyone remember anything else? So there’s Milton, permanently stuck on the membership rolls of the Diogenes Club.
So why should we bother? Because Milton, for all his having the personal charms of, say, Robert Frost or Bertie Brecht, is of the very greatest, and Paradise Lost is one of the greatest works of the English language; because his poetry is above all else beautiful. Milton, or Paradise Lost at least—I’d always enjoyed the shorter pieces, the sonnet On his Blindness being one of the first poems I committed to memory—was a late enthusiasm for me. Paradise Lost is long, it’s brimful of Milton’s classical and Biblical learning, and its seventeenth-century mindset is quite a distance to leap. I had to take three or four cracks at it, and threw it down the stairs more than once. But that distance is an essential part of the blessing that the older poets, Shakespeare and Milton especially, those bestriding masters, have to offer. Leaping clean free of our century, our sense of our own time is forever expanded and changed. We are no longer quite our old selves; we speak a language we had not spoken before. One can admit Woolf’s reservations about “the sublime aloofness and impersonality” of Milton and still find that there are beauties in his work—imaginative, courtly, learned, religious—like none in our modern poetry, or even in later English verse; no one, not even Shakespeare, has so skillfully used the varied caesura and the enjambed line to make irresistible the forward tug of narrative verse. A little while ago someone dropped off a new scholarly edition at the Barn: The Complete Poetry and Essential Prose of John Milton, edited by William Kerrigan, John Rumrich and Stephen M. Fallon, Modern Library, 2007, and it’s been my evening reading for the last few weeks. The prefaces and notes, because of the range of Milton’s learning, are like a reeducation in classical myth and Biblical reference; they deepen and clarify our pleasure in Milton’s language. Funny what you get fond of: the Latin verses smell more like Cambridge than classical Rome, but I find I can live with that. And from those cloistered Cambridge chambers, startlingly often, Milton goes aloft and with him you see the entire world: “Where the deep transported mind may soar / Above the wheeling poles, and at Heav’n’s door / Look in.” An effort, yes. But as a later master said—“Have you another appointment?”