by Kyla Ward
First Appeared in Tabula Rasa#3, 1994
"And long it was not after, when I was confirmed in this opinion, that he who would not be frustrate of his hope to write well hereafter in laudable things, ought himself to be a true poem, that is, a composition and pattern of the best and honourablest things; not presuming to sing high praises of heroic men or famous cities unless he have in himself the experience and practice of all that which is praiseworthy."We can presume John Milton, born 1608, believed what he wrote. This goes for both Paradise Lost and the political article above. He certainly made every effort to live up to it, on his own terms.
Milton lived and acted in a time of crises, the civil war where England went to the brink France came to in 1789, and then came back, when no one, least of all their movers and shakers, dreamt it possible. The English civil war didn't even change the dynasty. It was a matter in which political concerns were irredeemably tied up with religious, and Milton makes an excellent 'abstract and brief chronicle of the time'.
Milton was a Puritan, which at this point can be considered a left-wing Protestant. The present-day reputation of Puritans just goes to show what isolation and physical hardship will do to anyone: those were the American Puritans, who had left England in 1619. In England, these 'believers in purity' were among the foremost of intellectuals and radicals -- to be expected in a country in which the overall power of Catholicism had been broken. It was the attempt of Charles I to impose some order on a turbulent and ever-expanding range of experimental sects, and especially to unite the churches in Scotland with those of England, that brought things to open war. If there was one thing that could band such a variety of groups together, it was the spectre of the return of Catholicism, which is how many interpreted his action. The other thing was a brilliant leader; this was Oliver Cromwell, and the English Reformation did not outlast either of these inspirations.
Milton was the son of a prosperous scrivener -- part scribe, part justice of the peace -- and what was considered a gentleman. He was educated at Christ's College, Cambridge, and there seems to have been a general idea he was to take holy orders. He received a classical education, to the confusion of his more modern readers who may find themselves floundering amongst the allusions to Greek myths -- my advice, I'm afraid, is go and read them. You'll find most of the Romantic poets make a deal more sense too -- and after you've read Milton. Milton saw himself, and from an early age, as a poet, who aimed to prove the English language as fit a vehicle for heroism as Greek or Latin. In another political pamphlet, also of 1642, he found the space to write of;
an inward prompting which now grew daily upon me, that by labour and intent study (which I take to be my portion in this life) joined with the strong propensity of nature, I might perhaps leave something so written to aftertimes, as they should not willingly let it die.It could be extrapolated, he also aimed to make the central Christian myth as fit a subject for poetry as any Greek or Latin fable. In these years, he did publish some poems such as Lycidas, an elegy in the accepted classical form on a drowned friend, and a masque, Comus, contrasting the rewards of Christian temperance and Pagan lasciviousness. After receiving his MA in 1632, he travelled in France, Italy and Switzerland, returning to England when news reached him of the escalating turmoil.
In the lead-up to the war, the increasingly demanding parliament caused the abolition of the 'Star Chamber' in 1641. This body was, of long standing, a high court of justice responsible only to the crown, and one of it's responsibilities was censorship of the press. Books had to be approved by a government licensee before printing, by a licensed printer. This fitted in with the printers guild's (Guild of Stationers) idea of healthy competition very nicely. It was when this system broke down that we first hear of John Milton, the pamphleteer. An Apology for Smectymnuus was written in support of an anti-hierarchical church pamphlet produced by one of his old tutors.
Pamphleteering was the main way of disseminating opinions. It held it's own dangers under the administration; in 1637 another Puritan pamphleteer named William Prynne had had the remainder of his ears cut off for distributing seditious writings -- it was his second offence. The worst Milton encountered however, whilst the reformation was on, was notoriety. He was hard put to shake the nickname 'Milton the Divorcer' after his publication, The Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce in 1643. He was separated from his wife at the time. Milton's political pamphlets are interesting in that they are all very personal, in one way or another. They are all idealistic, all related to ideas of a reformed and just new society, that must needs start with the demolishment of the Church hierarchy and the monarchy. His role, as in the above quote from Reason of Church Government Urged, is the poet of the State. In a way, he achieved this.
In 1644, the revolutionary parliament brought back the mechanism of censorship, inevitably for the same reasons the King had maintained it. Milton published Of Education and Areopagitica, illegally in Amsterdam, the latter being a defence of the free press. Parliament responded, eventually, by offering him a position of Secretary for the Foreign Tongues and politely requesting, in effect, that he write propaganda justifying their regicide. Milton accepted. The results were Eikonklastes and Pro Populario Defensio -- 'a defence of the people of England'. He was replaced of necessity in his secretarial duties in 1655, but continued active in what was, after all, his vocation as a reformer. In 1655, he lost the last of his eyesight, which had been deteriorating for some time.
In 1660, after the death of Cromwell (from natural causes, believe it or not), the parliament accepted concessions from Charles's son, who had spent the last decade in France. Charles II was crowned that same year. The movement back to monarchism had been tending for some time, and it can only be seen as an act of genuine belief in his cause; a last gesture of faith, perhaps; that Milton published A Ready and Easy Way to Establish a Free Commonwealth this year, under his own name. It must be said, this was the equivalent of standing up during hunting season with a pair of antlers on your hat.
As it happened, he brazened through. His Eikonklastes and Pro Populio Defensio were banned, and all copies theoretically called in and publicly burnt. But Milton had his following as a writer, and someone, friend or foe, came up with the statement he had already been punished by God with his blindness. He received a full pardon, and went back to his inherited estate and to a project, it seems, had already been partially begun.
This is the background to one of the most extraordinary pieces of literature to come out of the Christian thesis.
Of Man's First disobedience, and the FruitThat Milton never did take holy orders is no real mystery. He didn't want a canon, he wanted an argument. And that is what Paradise Lost is, a series of arguments. The brilliant movement, imagery and scope; that can hypnotise an atheist and set Christian critics at loggerheads; is all part of the grand debate, in which several voices argue their points and logic finally reveals the truth. This is a classicist, who has read Plato and Cicero, and is here achieving perfectly the great Renaissance trick of mating Christian belief with essentially Pagan science.
The several voices are, of course, God, Mankind and 'th' Arch-Enemy, And thence in Heav'n call'd Satan'. It was certainly not unknown or as a rule unacceptable, for all the different elements of the Christian myth to be portrayed and speak; consider the Mystery plays of the proper Middle Ages. It was not even unknown to create them as characters -- consider Christopher Marlowe's Faustus. Milton created them, however, as characters in an heroic epic, which provides one of the few feasible models for good characters. To give him and the achievement credit, Milton is one of the few authors that have ever managed personalties for angels.
But Milton gives personalities to demons that more than match them. If this is a heroic epic, then the Fallen Angels are the dragon, the villain, who always does provide the story. But how is it, in an overtly Christian and moralising tale, that a careful and idealistic writer gives us one of the most powerful and attractive visions of evil ever produced? And not only that, the most logical.
This knows my punisher; therefore as farSatan's position from the bible onward has been special; there always seems to have been a hierarchy of angels, and Satan was of the highest rank. Milton was attempting to reason how an 'angelic intelligence' could willingly defy God. Satan's logic, in Milton's grand scheme, must needs be consistent and expressed with all power, but be given the lie by the logic of God. It is perhaps an indication of Milton's disapproval, of certain ways of thinking, that many readers then and now have found the opposite to occur. The artist William Blake, who worked in the eighteenth century and produced the most adequate illustrations of Paradise, (also of Dante's Inferno, and the biblical Book of Job) considered;
The reason Milton wrote in fetters when he wrote of Angels and God, and at liberty when of Devils and Hell, is because he was a true Poet and of the Devil's party without knowing it.Grant at least, that Milton created a political heaven and hell, as he was most qualified to do.
Paradise Lost was published in 1667, twelve 'books' 'freed of the troublesome and modern bondage to rhyme'. It was moderately well received. Milton published two more works before his death in 1674, Paradise Regained and Sampson Agonistes, a poem and a play, in 1671. Paradise Regained was said by Milton in the preface to be the result of a friend's vastly predictable joke. It deals with the temptation of Christ by Satan, who makes his return in excellent form. Sampson Agonistes deals with the legend of Sampson and Delilah. Sixty years after, the manuscript of A Christian Doctrine was discovered in a cupboard at the house of one of his friends, together with strict instructions for the friend to publish it after Milton's death. It was his last pamphlet.
* Paradise Lost, John Milton (ed). Christopher Ricks, Penguin Classics, 1989, c1968. (1667)
* A Preface to Milton, Lois Potter, Preface Books, series ed. Maurice Hussey, Longman, 1971.
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