Happy Birthday, John Milton 


Milton! thou should’st be living at this hour:
England hath need of thee: she is a fen
Of stagnant waters: altar, sword and pen,
Fireside, the heroic wealth of hall and bower,
Have forfeited their ancient English dower
Of inward happiness. We are selfish men;
Oh! raise us up, return to us again;
And give us manners, virtue, freedom, power.
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 itself lay.

— William Wordsworth


Milton, with the possible exception of Spenser, is the first eccentric English poet, the first to make a myth out of his personal experience, and to invent a language of his own remote from the spoken word. – W.H. Auden

Milton was born in 1608, and although he left Oxford without completing his degree, he remained a thinker and a propagandist/pamphleteer and a scholar till the end of his days. The isolated poet, focused on self and emotion, would come in with the Romantics. Milton was a public and a political man, a propagandist for the Commonwealth (a dangerous position to take, especially once the Restoration came about). He addressed all kinds of “unpoetic” social and civil issues in pamphlets, books, poems, articles. He was famous in his own day. His reputation since then has risen and fallen with the tides, and we are now in a huge Milton upsurge. He turned 400 a couple of years ago, and there were celebrations across New York City: art exhibits, library exhibits, and also a costume-party in Brooklyn where you had to dress up as either Milton, or a character from Paradise Lost.

[Read the full text here, via Sheila O’Malley, at The Sheila Variations]

I had to read Paradise Lost in high school and thought it was the most boring thing I had ever been subjected to in my life. I had to prop my eyeballs open. I re-read it about 10 years ago, and was totally swept away by it, not only by the thoughts/philosophy in the great work, but also the depths and transcendence of the language itself. I feel like people should be forced to RE-read what they were forced to READ in high school.

Milton traveled widely, and most of his writing was meant for public consumption: he was not a private scribbler. He wrote what amounts to op-ed columns explaining to his audience what was happening to the constitution in England at that time. He wrote poetry privately; he had been writing poetry since he was a young boy.

Jonathan Rosen, in his wonderful New Yorker article about the continuing relevance of Milton, writes:

Sometime in 1638, John Milton visited Galileo Galilei in Florence. The great astronomer was old and blind and under house arrest, confined by order of the Inquisition, which had forced him to recant his belief that the earth revolves around the sun, as formulated in his “Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems.” Milton was thirty years old – his own blindness, his own arrest, and his own cosmological epic, Paradise Lost, all lay before him. But the encounter left a deep imprint on him. It crept into Paradise Lost, where Satan’s shield looks like the moon seen through Galileo’s telescope, and in Milton’s great defense of free speech, Areopagitica, Milton recalls his visit to Galileo and warns that England will buckle under inquisitorial forces if it bows to censorship, “an undeserved thraldom upon learning.”

Beyond the sheer pleasure of picturing the encounter – it’s like those comic-book specials in which Superman meets Batman – there’s something strange about imagining these two figures inhabiting the same age. Read the rest of this entry »