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
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