As published in The New Yorker .
The enduring relevance of John Milton .
by Jonathan Rosen
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. Though Milton was the much younger man, in some ways his world system seems curiously older than the astronomer’s empirical universe. Milton depicted the earth hanging fixed from a golden chain, and when he contemplated the heavens he saw God enthroned and angels warring. The sense of the new and the old colliding forms part of Milton’s complex aura. The best-known portrait of his mature years makes Milton look like the dyspeptic brother of the man on the Quaker Oats box, but he is far more our contemporary than Shakespeare, who died when Milton was seven. Nobody would ever wonder whether Milton was really the author of his own work. Though “Paradise Lost” is a dilation on a moment in Genesis, it contains passages so personal that you cannot read far without knowing that the author was a blind man fallen on “evil days.” Even in his political prose, Milton will pause to tell us that he is really not all that short, despite what his enemies say. Though he coined the name “Pandemonium”—“all the demons”—for the palace that Satan and his fallen crew build in Hell, he also coined the word “self-esteem,” as contemporary a concept as there is and one that governed much of Milton’s life.
This year is the four-hundredth anniversary of Milton’s birth, and there are a host of Milton books to mark the occasion: the Modern Library has brought out “The Complete Poetry and Essential Prose,” edited by William Kerrigan, John Rumrich, and Stephen M. Fallon, and not long ago Oxford University Press published an edition of “Paradise Lost” introduced by Philip Pullman, whose young-adult trilogy “His Dark Materials” draws its title and much of its mythic energy from “Paradise Lost.” (Titles involving sight and blindness often come from Milton: “Look Homeward, Angel,” “Eyeless in Gaza,” “Darkness at Noon,” “Darkness Visible.”) There is a new edition of “Paradise Lost” edited by the scholar Barbara Lewalski, whose monumental biography of the poet came out a few years ago, and Oxford is launching an eleven-volume series of all Milton’s works, edited by Thomas Corns and Gordon Campbell. Corns and Campbell are also jointly publishing a biography of Milton in time for the birthday, later this year, and Corns is editing “The Milton Encyclopedia,” for Yale University Press. A new critical study by the Princeton scholar Nigel Smith bears the provocative title “Is Milton Better Than Shakespeare?,” and there has been a recent spate of books with titles like “Why Milton Matters” and “Milton in Popular Culture,” pointing out Milton’s influence on everyone from Malcolm X, who read “Paradise Lost” in prison and identified with Satan, to Helen Keller, who created the John Milton Society for the Blind. “Milton in Popular Culture” reminds the reader that in the movie “Animal House,” Donald Sutherland’s Professor Jennings gives a lecture on “Paradise Lost,” taking a bite of an apple as he suggests that the Devil has more fun, before confessing to his unresponsive students that even “Mrs. Milton found Milton boring,” and so does he.
That judgment, alas, still clings to Milton. Never mind that there were actually three Mrs. Miltons, and that Milton, who defended divorce and even polygamy, was a sensuous Puritan, exquisitely attuned to the “amorous delay” of life in Eden: Adam and Eve have sex in the garden before they eat the apple. Never mind that Milton participated in an earthshattering revolution in which he defended the killing of a king; that he was a radical poet who, though he had imaginative power to burn, put aside his art for a decade of political activism. Never mind that he survived imprisonment, the threat of execution and assassination, the plague and the Great Fire of London, and, blind and disillusioned, dictated the greatest long poem in the English language.
John Milton was born on December 9, 1608, in London. His father was a scrivener, a job that went beyond the drawing up of legal documents and included moneylending, which he apparently did with such success that his son did not actually have to work for a living. As a boy, Milton was so studious that, he later recalled, from his twelfth birthday on “scarcely ever did I leave my studies for my bed before the hour of midnight”—thus laying the foundation for vast erudition and eventual blindness. Alongside the usual Latin and Greek, Milton received instruction in French, Italian, and Hebrew, and perhaps even Aramaic and Syriac. His father, who was a gifted musician known for his psalm arrangements, also made sure that his son had a thorough musical education.
When Milton was sixteen, he started at Christ’s College, Cambridge, where he excelled at composing Latin verse and earned the nickname the Lady of Christ’s, because of his delicate looks and chastity—though he also later boasted that as a young man he was seldom without a sword and could beat many stronger men at fencing. After seven years at Cambridge, Milton retreated to his father’s house in the countryside for five more years of isolated, self-directed study. By the end of this time, he had produced a handful of lasting poems, including the great elegy “Lycidas,” occasioned by the drowning death of a college friend.
“Lycidas,” like much of Milton’s longer poetry, takes a nugget of actual narrative—the friend’s shipwreck—and blows it up to allegorical proportions with elaborate allusions, classical forms, a concern for immortality both poetic and spiritual, and even a digressive attack on greedy bishops. But if the allusions escape contemporary readers, and we’re never quite sure why his friend Edward is called Lycidas, there is a deep music that sweeps over the reader like the drowning sea at the heart of the poem: “Look homeward angel now, and melt with ruth. / And, O ye dolphins, waft the hapless youth.” In the end, the poem manages to enact the stages of mourning for a body lost at sea, and to achieve a resolution of psalmlike authority and Christian consolation, fused with unexpected emotional immediacy:
Weep no more, woeful shepherds, weep no more,
For Lycidas your sorrow is not dead,
Sunk though he be beneath the wat’ry floor.
In 1638, the year “Lycidas” was published, Milton—still essentially unknown but with a fixed notion of future greatness—sailed for Europe. It was on this trip that he had his encounter with Galileo, but he also came into contact with the lush beauty of Italian Renaissance art, and the homeland of Virgil and Dante further inspired his epic ambitions. The trip was fraught with Miltonian paradox: at a time when his Puritan sympathies were growing, he steeped himself in Catholic art, depictions of the human form, and the languorous Mediterranean climate. Returning to England the next year, he was increasingly drawn into the religious struggles that would erupt openly in 1642 in the English Civil Wars.
It is difficult for a modern reader to parse the intertwined worlds of politics and religion that Milton inhabited and that led to those wars. His father had been disinherited for rejecting the family’s Catholic faith in favor of Protestantism, but, in England, where Henry VIII had brought about the Protestant Reformation, in the fifteen-thirties, for the purpose of remarrying, the lines between faith, political conviction, and personal expediency were particularly thin. By Milton’s time, further schisms had emerged. With Charles I at its head, Anglican Protestantism became increasingly ceremonial and High Church, spreading fear of Papist resurgence and increasing the power of certain key bishops. Milton, like many of his contemporaries, moved toward Puritanism, attracted by its idea that the Bible was the ultimate authority and trumped all institutional hierarchies. Milton was particularly well equipped to follow this line. He could read the Hebrew Bible in the original and had absorbed aspects of rabbinic culture; indeed, his Hebraism helped radicalize his Christian beliefs.
For Milton, the rupture of the Civil Wars coincided with a more personal strife. In June, 1642, he married Mary Powell, the daughter of an Oxfordshire squire who owed Milton money, but just a few months after the wedding she left Milton’s house to return to her parents. Mary was only seventeen (Milton was thirty-three), and it is unclear whether she was sent away or ran off. But soon after her departure—she was absent for three years—Milton wrote a treatise advocating divorce, which, characteristically, was both an idealistic cry for personal liberty and an act of self-justification. Milton based much of his argument on a reading of Deuteronomy, but although the Bible was always his argumentative cornerstone, he was far from being a fundamentalist. In 1644, he published “Areopagitica,” his defense of free speech, declaring that truth—which he compares to the broken body of Osiris, in Egyptian myth—can never be wholly known on earth until the Second Coming of the Messiah; we therefore must all search for truth in every way we can, which means not censoring the press. For Milton, the great trial of life was to discover truth through error, but without falling off the path of good. His oratorical vigor balances divine purpose and individual autonomy, and he displays an optimism that, in its mixture of manliness and statecraft, sounds like a speech by Teddy Roosevelt:
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. . . . That which purifies us is trial, and trial is by what is contrary.
What was for many a time of terrifying anarchy—this was, after all, the world that produced Hobbes’s “Leviathan”—was for Milton a great religious reckoning. In common with many radical Protestant groups, he saw the idea of a relationship to God unmediated by ecclesiastical authority as a justification for beheading the titular head of the Anglican Church, Charles I. It was defending the regicide of 1649 in a pamphlet called “The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates” that helped bring Milton to the attention of Oliver Cromwell. He was appointed Secretary for Foreign Tongues soon afterward.
Milton served the Commonwealth as a translator, polemicist, and all-around house intellectual. He claimed that the writing of his long pamphlets in defense of the new government cost him his eyesight. (His enemies claimed it was divine retribution.) Though he did continue to write some poetry—such as the moving sonnet on his blindness, “When I consider how my light is spent”—he laid aside plans for the grand epic he had long contemplated in favor of his political work, which he saw as religious service. Milton genuinely thought he was helping to fashion the Kingdom of God on earth, and—hard as this has proved for a later, secular age to understand—he was someone who would rather live there than write a poem about it.
This may also explain why he continued to serve the state even when Cromwell dissolved Parliament, in 1653, giving way to the autocracy of the Protectorate, in which Cromwell assumed virtually kinglike powers. Even after Cromwell’s death, in 1658, when his son Richard succeeded him, Milton remained loyal to the cause, though with increasing ambivalence. Soon, the Army removed Richard from power; the monarchy was restored with Charles II’s accession to the throne, in 1660.
During the Restoration, despite a broad act of amnesty, those who had abetted and defended the killing of Charles I were hanged, drawn, and quartered. Several of Milton’s friends and associates suffered this grisly fate, and he might have as well, had it not been for the intervention of high-placed friends like Andrew Marvell. Even then, Milton spent time in the Tower of London and lived with the fear that he might be killed in retaliation for his scathing attacks on those who resisted the Cromwellian tide.
It was in this climate that Milton began writing “Paradise Lost.” The poem’s cast of characters—Adam, Eve, Satan, God, and the Son of God (not the same thing, for Milton, as God)—says something about Milton’s ripening literary ambition and about his dwindling faith in political resolutions. Through the preceding years, Milton had suffered a number of personal disasters: in 1652, his wife Mary died in childbirth, and a son died the following month. In 1658, his second wife, whom he had married two years before, died as well, followed a month after that by their daughter. Furthermore, in the year of Mary’s death Milton’s blindness became total, a fact that informs the tone and texture of “Paradise Lost,” as does the total collapse of his political-theological hopes.
Milton had carried his epic around inside him for many years, and any number of calamities—including the outbreak of bubonic plague from 1664 to 1665, which killed seventy-five thousand Londoners—might have prevented him from getting it all down on paper. Its very completion must have seemed like divine Providence to Milton. Even while writing it, he believed that he shared a muse with Moses and King David and that she visited him nightly in his dreams; he woke up and dictated his poem in seemingly preformed stanzas. The palpable exhilaration of the poem’s composition, and the heavy burden of its complex meanings, contributes to the thrilling tension of “Paradise Lost.”
Milton’s burning question, how things could have gone so wrong in human affairs, is carried back to the moment when “our first parents” ate the apple and brought “death into the world, and all our woe.” (It is part of the poem’s power that the reader is implicated in the story—“our” parents, “our” woe.) But Milton is carried back further than Adam and Eve. Doled out in the course of the epic, as tales within tales, is the narrative of Lucifer, the highest in a vast hierarchy of angels, who grows jealous at the promotion of God’s son to the position of Messiah. He organizes a revolt, loses, and is thrown with his many followers into Hell. The ecstatic descriptions of Satan’s fall, great fire-breathing phrases with the sinews of a dragon, exhibit Milton’s rhetorical power to the full:
Hurled headlong flaming from th’ ethereal sky
With hideous ruin and combustion down
To bottomless perdition, there to dwell
In adamantine chains and penal fire,
Who durst defy th’ Omnipotent to arms.
To make up for the angelic absence, God creates earth and Eden and Adam and Eve. Satan, having heard of this spot, decides to conquer it, by cunning, for himself and his devils.
The fact that the devils in “Paradise Lost” are failed revolutionaries gives the poem a weird undertow, in light of Milton’s support of the regicide. There is great pathos, for instance, when Satan encounters one of his followers disfigured by the fall:
If thou beest he; but O how fall’n! How changed
From him, who in the happy realms of light
Clothed with transcendent brightness didst outshine
Myriads though bright.
The loss of place and power is felt in the most immediate and personal way. Probably the most famous remark about “Paradise Lost” is William Blake’s judgment that Milton was “of the Devil’s party without knowing it,” and since the Romantics many critics have sought to save Satan’s soul by making his evil a form of Promethean good. But although Milton’s Satan is charismatic—and his God, as even ardent Miltonists tend to accept, dull in the extreme—Milton adroitly climbs out of this theological hole and shows Satan’s cause to be unjust. Milton supported the execution of a mortal king, but Satan is rebelling against the Creator of the Universe, a position that forces him to deny that he was even created by God and to tell his followers, “We know no time when we were not as now.” Besides, Satan is completely miserable, body and soul, and he slinks away in the most ignominious fashion after seducing Eve.
Those who trumpet Satan’s glory often neglect the nobility of his adversaries, most memorably a low-ranking angel who finds Satan disguised in Eden and touches him with a spear. Instantly, Satan springs up in his actual form, since angelic touch reveals his true nature. Satan is horrified to discover that his own fall has transfigured him so that he is no longer recognizable as Lucifer; he stands “abashed” and, contemplating this junior angel, “felt how awful goodness is.” That sense of the awfulness of goodness (the word, in its seventeenth-century usage, means “awe-inspiring”) was as powerful an engine of Milton’s work as the glamour of evil.
Of course, the clash of opposing forces brought out great poetry in Milton; there is sheer delight in the face-off between Satan and Gabriel, the warrior angel charged with keeping Eden safe (a job he does very badly, it is worth noting). The trash-talking between these two rises to glorious heights. Gabriel threatens:
If from this hour
Within these hallowed limits thou appear,
Back to th’ infernal pit I drag thee chained.
Satan, unimpressed, responds:
Then when I am thy captive talk of chains,
Proud limitary Cherub, but ere then
Far heavier load thy self expect to feel
From my prevailing arm.
For all the angelic, divine, and infernal fireworks, though, it is with mankind that Milton’s sympathies lie. We first meet Adam and Eve holding hands in the garden, and we see them last holding hands and striking out together into a fallen world. They are constantly changing, constantly evolving even before their fall. My favorite of all the recent Milton books, Margaret Olofson Thickstun’s “Milton’s Paradise Lost: Moral Education,” points out how occupied with teaching and learning everyone—except Satan—is. (Milton’s only real job, before his role as Secretary for Foreign Tongues, was as a teacher and tutor.) The author draws on her own experience as a parent and teacher to emphasize the earthy humbleness that anchors this loftiest of poems. Milton may have set out to “justify the ways of God to men,” but he was a deep defender of human dignity. God notes that he has made Adam and Eve “sufficient to have stood, though free to fall.” That freedom was paramount to Milton, who departed from mainstream Puritanism in rejecting the idea of predestination. Free will, divinely given, is a glory, but every parent knows the pain of letting go, and it is remarkable how much this book about “our first parents” is itself about parenting—though Milton was, by all accounts, a dreadful parent.
The concept of freedom is also crucial in the relationship between Adam and Eve. They argue when Eve wants to go off alone: Adam, warned about Satan, wants her close, but Eve counters by pointing out that unless she has freedom to do wrong she can’t be virtuous (“What is faith, love, virtue unassayed?”). Adam, who is technically Eve’s parent as well as partner, having given up a rib for her creation, assents, praising her virtue and logic. The fact that she is right but then succumbs to temptation is part of the hard knowledge that lay at the heart of Milton’s notion of freedom.
Milton’s treatment of women has not traditionally won him the admiration of feminists—Virginia Woolf called him “the first of the masculinists,” thinking perhaps of the contrasting description of Adam and Eve: “For contemplation he and valour formed / For softness she and sweet attractive grace.” Adam is upright and strong, Eve is like a vine that needs to cling. (Emily Dickinson referred to Milton as “the great florist.”) But there have lately been a number of feminist readings of Milton, and though they can’t explain away that primal inequality, certainly they have a lot to point to, such as Eve’s argument for independence in Eden.
Milton may not have been much of a husband, but it is the love between Adam and Eve that makes the fall endurable. I was first turned toward Milton years ago, in a required freshman English class, when the teacher—a reserved young man who had been born in China—suddenly read aloud to us Adam’s words to Eve after he has made the decision to eat the apple and fall with her. At this point in the poem, it is unclear to Adam and Eve whether or not she will live, but Adam decides that he would rather die with her than live alone: “To lose thee were to lose myself.” Adam’s decision to eat the apple is complicated—he might have interceded for Eve had he not fallen, too—but there is no undoing the beauty of his speech, and the teacher told us, in a voice thick with emotion, that he had just recited these words to his own bride:
How can I live without you, how forgo
Thy sweet converse and love so dearly joined,
To live again in these wild woods forlorn?
Should God create another Eve, and I
Another rib afford, yet loss of thee
Would never from my heart.
Adam is rescued from despair after the fall by his love for Eve and by her fortitude and love for him. In a sense, they rescue each other.
“Paradise Lost” was published in 1667, though Milton, after completing “Paradise Regained” and “Samson Agonistes,” revised it into its final form in 1674. Milton did many things with “Paradise Lost”: he revived and then killed off the classical epic, he made his personal theology into literary scripture, he fused the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament, making the Son present at the creation. “Paradise Lost” is simultaneously personal, national, and universal, a poem that claims divine inspiration but is clearly made up, a poem with ancient origins and contemporary interpolations that confuses the very notion of old and new. A number of recent scholars who have focussed on Milton’s knowledge of Hebrew see echoes in his literary strategy of rabbinic Midrash, human stories that helped embody divine meaning and in the process became divine themselves.
In America, where God and the Devil live alongside Western rationalism, Milton seems right at home. After the attacks of September 11th, it was possible to find Milton invoked to remind us of the nature of absolute evil—his Satan really is a model terrorist, who, having abandoned hope of a happy home, devotes his energy to destroying the lives of others—and at the same time quoted to uphold the rights of individuals whose distasteful views might be curtailed during a time of war. Milton’s spirit, mingling prophetic zealotry with a sort of pragmatic humanism, is thoroughly woven into the fabric of American life. Like other disappointed Puritans, Milton might easily have sailed for the literal New World, but he instead settled for an imaginary one that was to exert a strong influence on America’s Founding Fathers. (In Thomas Jefferson’s literary commonplace book, Milton appears more than any other poet.) He shares traits both with the first theocratic European settlers and with the Enlightenment figures of a century later, combining an urge for Biblical fulfillment with an urge for radical new beginnings.
Milton died shortly after completing his revision of “Paradise Lost,” in 1674, and was buried in the church of St. Giles Cripplegate, in London. In 1790, during a renovation of the church, the grave was dug up, because church elders wanted to pinpoint the exact burial spot so they could erect a monument. The coffin was located and left lying deep in the ground. The next day, a group of curious local men, including a churchwarden, a publican, and a pawnbroker, after a “merry-meeting,” hauled it out of the ground. They prized back the leaden lid, and, carried away by ghoulish irreverent devotion, or simple greed, knocked out Milton’s teeth for souvenirs. They grabbed hanks of his hair, which he had worn down to his shoulders, like Adam, and which came away easily, and snatched what bones they could from under the shroud.
The next day, a gravedigger named Elizabeth Grant, with the aid of workmen who kept the church doors barred to all but those willing to pay the price of a pot of beer, put the remains on display. Order was eventually restored, but the news shocked the country—the poet Cowper wrote a poem about the desecration. Milton was reburied, but, like the torn figure of Osiris in “Areopagitica,” he was incomplete. Still, a man named Philip Neve, who wrote an account of what happened after interviewing the participants, managed to buy up whatever “relics” he could and return them to the coffin before reinterment. Most hauntingly, perhaps, he had managed to recover a rib. Ü¶
ILLUSTRATION: EDWARD SOREL