Bet­ter to rule in hell

On the eve of the 400th an­niver­sary of John Milton’s birth on De­cem­ber 9, Michael Wild­ing as­sesses his legacy

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

JOHN Milton has al­ways been a con­tentious fig­ure. The poet, a high-pro­file repub­li­can, was lucky not to be ex­e­cuted af­ter the restora­tion of the English monar­chy in 1660. Posters ap­peared ad­ver­tis­ing God’s vengeance on for­mer rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies and Milton’s blind­ness was cited as ev­i­dence that God had al­ready pun­ished him. His books were burned pub­licly and he spent time in jail, but was re­leased on the in­ter­ven­tion of William Davenant, the nose­less poet ( he had syphilis) who in his cups claimed to be the nat­u­ral son of Shake­speare.

Milton had been the fore­most pro­pa­gan­dist for the English revo­lu­tion. He had be­gun by writ­ing pam­phlets about church gov­ern­ment. He moved on to ad­vo­cat­ing eas­ier di­vorce ( his first wife left him soon af­ter their mar­riage, though later re­turned) and the abo­li­tion of cen­sor­ship. Af­ter de­fend­ing the ex­e­cu­tion of Charles I in 1649, in The Ten­ure of Kings and Mag­is­trates , he was ap­pointed Latin sec­re­tary to Oliver Cromwell. It in­volved writ­ing the great de­fences of the revo­lu­tion in re­sponse to Euro­pean monar­chists.

Af­ter the Restora­tion he kept away from po­lit­i­cal pam­phle­teer­ing and be­gan Par­adise Lost . He com­posed in his head in the early morn­ing, then ‘‘ waited to be milked’’ as he told his amanu­en­sis who came to write the great poem down. His blind­ness, he de­clared point­edly, was not a pu­n­ish­ment from God but a re­ward. It put him in the great tra­di­tion of blind bards from Homer on­wards. God had given him an in­ner light.

Re­ject­ing the au­thor­ity of church and state, rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies claimed that in­ner light was what guided them. Milton’s was a provoca­tive re­asser­tion of his rad­i­cal ide­ol­ogy and Par­adise Lost was nearly banned by the cen­sor, who took ex­cep­tion to an early aside about a so­lar eclipse that ‘‘ with fear of change per­plexes monar­chs’’.

The Eng­land in which Milton grew up was deeply re­pres­sive. It was for­bid­den to pub­lish do­mes­tic news. The po­lit­i­cal was in­ex­press­ible. Only through dis­cus­sions of the Bi­ble could so­cial and po­lit­i­cal the­o­ries be ex­pressed, and rad­i­cal pu­ri­tans de­coded it in rev­o­lu­tion­ary ways. There was no men­tion in Gen­e­sis of man be­ing given do­min­ion over other men, only over an­i­mals. So on what au­thor­ity did the rulers rule? Not God’s, clearly.

Milton per­pet­u­ates the idea in Par­adise Lost , declar­ing of God that ‘‘ man over men he made not lord such ti­tle to him­self re­serv­ing, hu­man left from hu­man free’’. And not only does Milton de­clare God’s orig­i­nal cre­ation to be one of ‘‘ fair equal­ity’’, it was also one of com­mon own­er­ship. There was no pri­vate prop­erty, earth was ‘‘ a com­mon trea­sury’’. Cel­e­brat­ing the in­sti­tu­tion of mar­riage, in con­trast to the Ranters who had ad­vo­cated sex­ual shar­ing, Milton writes: ‘‘ Hail, wed­ded love, mys­te­ri­ous law, true source of hu­man off­spring, sole pro­pri­ety in Par­adise of all things com­mon else.’’ With the ex­cep­tion of mar­riage part­ners, ev­ery­thing in Par­adise was held in com­mon.

‘‘ His po­lit­i­cal no­tions were those of an ac­ri­mo­nious and surly repub­li­can,’’ wrote Dr John­son, who dis­liked them in­tensely. ‘‘ He hated monar­chs in the state and prelates in the church; for he hated all whom he was re­quired to obey.’’ Of Par­adise Lost he re­marked: ‘‘ None ever wished it longer than it is.’’ It was largely John­son who cre­ated the im­age of Milton as misog­y­nist: ‘‘ There ap­pears in his books some­thing like a Turk­ish con­tempt of fe­males.’’ Robert Graves’s novel Wife to Mr Milton de­vel­oped the case fur­ther. Yet Eve is a much more sym­pa­thetic fig­ure than Adam in Par­adise Lost and the Vir­gin Mary is an im­por­tant pres­ence in Par­adise Re­gained .

William Blake sug­gested Milton was ‘‘ a true poet, and of the devil’s party without know­ing it’’, be­cause of his pow­er­ful por­trayal of Satan. For Percy Shel­ley, Satan was the poem’s hero. William Empson took the po­si­tion to its ex­treme in Milton’s God, claim­ing ‘‘ the rea­son the poem is so good is that it makes God so bad’’.

It is not quite as sim­ple as that. Hav­ing failed in his re­bel­lion against God, Satan at­tempts re­venge by de­stroy­ing Adam and Eve. He sets off for Par­adise as the ar­che­typal colo­nial in­vader. He cer­tainly has all the qual­i­ties of the old epic hero: brav­ery, de­fi­ance, pride, mil­i­tary prow­ess. But Milton presents th­ese qual­i­ties for se­ri­ous ques­tion­ing. He un­der­cuts the whole mil­i­taris­tic ethos of na­tion­al­is­tic epic. The first — and last — great English epic is an anti-epic. Mil­i­tary so­lu­tions are firmly re­jected. ‘‘ Wars, hith­erto the only ar­gu­ment heroic deemed’’ are re­placed by ‘‘ the bet­ter for­ti­tude of pa­tience and heroic mar­tyr­dom’’ that Christ em­bod­ies.

Milton makes a point of pre­sent­ing Satan as the ar­che­typal monarch. The way Milton sees it, God is the sole monarch; earthly monar­chs are there­fore rebels against the di­vine or­der and so can quite prop­erly be over­thrown. But, as he stresses again in Par­adise Re­gained , mil­i­tary so­lu­tions are not the way. ‘‘ For what can war but end­less war still breed.’’

He had been there, lived through the civil wars, seen the revo­lu­tion fail. He had no il­lu­sions about par­lia­men­tary democ­racy. The par­lia­ment in hell has a thou­sand mem­bers; only four get to speak; and the de­ci­sion to go to war has al­ready been taken be­hind the scenes.

In the early 20th cen­tury, Milton be­came deeply un­fash­ion­able in aca­demic cir­cles. T. S. Eliot wrote an in­flu­en­tial es­say claim­ing that Milton’s verse was ‘‘ like a dead lan­guage’’, im­pre­cise, vague, bad po­etry. ‘‘ Milton’s ce­les­tial and in­fer­nal re­gions are large but in­suf­fi­ciently fur­nished apart­ments filled by heavy con­ver­sa­tion.’’ Milton’s dis­lodge­ment, F. R. Leavis an­nounced in 1933, ‘‘ was ef­fected with re­mark­ably lit­tle fuss’’.

There was none of the ap­pa­ra­tus of Shake­spearean stud­ies sup­port­ing Milton, none of the year­books, jour­nals, in­ter­na­tional con­fer­ences. They did not ap­pear un­til the 1970s.

When I took up a lec­ture­ship at the Uni­ver­sity of Syd­ney in 1963, Sam Gold­berg, the pro­fes­sor of English, asked me what I would like to lec­ture on. ‘‘ Any­thing but Milton,’’ I said. ‘‘ Right,’’ Gold­berg said, ‘‘ Milton it is. I don’t want any of the Mil­ton­ists lec­tur­ing on him.’’

The Mil­ton­ists were a mixed lot. C. S. Lewis — he of Shad­ow­lands as played by An­thony Hop­kins — had writ­ten an ex­traor­di­nar­ily wrong-headed de­fence of Milton, ar­gu­ing he was a poet who loved or­der, hi­er­ar­chy and all the other con­ser­va­tive virtues. It was not un­til Christo­pher Ricks, best known now as a Dy­la­nol­o­gist, wrote Milton’s Grand Style ( 1963) that the Eliot-Leavis case was re­futed.

Ricks showed con­clu­sively the rich­ness, sub­tlety, sen­si­tiv­ity, com­plex­ity, wit and irony of Milton’s lan­guage. Like all th­ese crit­ics, he stayed clear of the pol­i­tics, al­though pol­i­tics had al­ways been the sub­text of the ar­gu­ments. It was left to Ox­ford his­to­rian Christo­pher Hill to bring the po­lit­i­cal Milton back into fo­cus in Milton and the English Revo­lu­tion ( 1978). Hill re­stored Milton as a rev­o­lu­tion­ary as­so­ci­at­ing with other rad­i­cals, read and ad­mired by them and never re­pu­di­at­ing the ‘‘ Good Old Cause’’. Young fo­gey nov­el­ist A. N. Wil­son promptly is­sued a quick brief life in an at­tempt to res­cue Milton from the rad­i­cals.

More re­cently, the bat­tles have be­come quite es­o­teric. Texas pro­fes­sor Bill Hunter, an ex­pert on Milton’s Latin text on Chris­tian doc­trine, told me he had a dream one night. What if Milton was not the au­thor? The text had been pub­lished anony­mously. On wak­ing, Hunter looked into the ev­i­dence for Milton’s au­thor­ship and found that there wasn’t any. Mil­ton­ists are bit­terly di­vided over the is­sue.

Ge­orge Han­del wrote an ex­quis­ite set­ting of Milton’s youth­ful po­ems L’Allegro and Il Penseroso , get­ting li­bret­tist Charles Jen­nens to write a third part, Il Moder­ato : the sort of mid­dle way the 18th cen­tury cel­e­brated af­ter the rev­o­lu­tion­ary tur­moil of the 17th cen­tury. Haydn’s The Cre­ation is drawn from Par­adise Lost , the text haunt­ingly mu­tated since it had been trans­lated into Ger­man and back again into English.

Among the painters, John Martin was fa­mously in­spired by Milton’s vi­sions of Satan and hell. Gus­tave Dore is­sued a splen­did se­ries of en­grav­ings il­lus­trat­ing Par­adise Lost . And Soviet film­maker Sergei Eisen­stein wrote a sce­nario based on the poem’s open­ing.

Milton’s great­ness tran­scends his par­tic­u­lar pol­i­tics. In his life­time he was more ad­mired abroad than in Bri­tain, an early bi­og­ra­pher records. But con­tem­po­raries of all po­lit­i­cal com­plex­ions ad­mired his work: Davenant, An­drew Marvell and John Dry­den. Dry­den turned Par­adise Lost into an opera, The State of In­no­cence . It was writ­ten but never per­formed: the lack of cos­tumes might have been a prob­lem for the the­atre in those pre-Hair days.

‘‘ Milton! thou shouldst be liv­ing at this hour, Eng­land hath need of thee,’’ William Wordsworth wrote in 1802, dur­ing one of Bri­tain’s more re­ac­tionary, re­pres­sive pe­ri­ods.

He had a point. Michael Wild­ing is emer­i­tus pro­fes­sor at the Uni­ver­sity of Syd­ney. His books in­clude Dragon’s Teeth: Lit­er­a­ture in the English Revo­lu­tion ( Ox­ford) and Milton’s Par­adise Lost ( Syd­ney Uni­ver­sity Press).

Satan has all the best lines: Gus­tave Dore il­lus­tra­tion for Par­adise Lost , 1866

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