The quatercentenary of Milton’s birth was in 2008. The celebratory shenanigans – the conferences, public lectures, biographies and privy pieces of self-promotion that in our wicked age accompany all major anniversaries – are over. But one key question remains unanswered. How is it possible to like Milton?
There is certainly a great deal to dislike. Most people would think of him as an overlearned poet who combines labyrinthine syntax with a wide range of moral and intellectual vices. His views on sex and women, for example, were mostly gruesome. In Paradise Lost he described the perfect union of loving angels with beguiling delight: ‘If Spirits embrace,/Total they mix, Union of Pure with Pure/Desiring’. But in Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce he declared that if mortals didn’t find a perfect spiritual mate they could end up having to ‘grind in the mill of an undelighted and servil copulation’. ‘Grind’ is such a terrible verb to use there. It combines traces of the abject Samson, milling for the Philistines, with simple lack of mortal lubrication in a way that makes you feel it’s a very bad idea indeed to be made of flesh. Even in the prelapsarian world imagined in Paradise Lost women are condemned to a secondary relationship to the divine. Milton’s most dislikeable line – ‘Hee for God only, shee for God in him’ – suggests that Eve spent all day gazing at Adam for shadows of reflected divinity. When Adam eats the apple he is described as being ‘fondly overcome with Femal charm’. Not all of Paradise Lost is quite that hard on Eve, with whom Milton at his kinder moments seems to be almost in love, and whom he sometimes treats as a virtual embodiment of the wayward poetic fancy. But it is not difficult to hear in Milton’s works the grating sound of misogyny emerging through the frictions of the flesh.
Miltonophiles also have to overcome his regrettable tendency to present himself to the world as a prig. His aspirations to be what he calls ‘a Poet soaring in the high region of his fancies with his garland and singing robes about him’ didn’t make him a paragon of modesty. In an autobiographical passage in An Apology for Smectymnuus he described watching his contemporaries taking part in undergraduate theatricals at Cambridge, ‘writhing and unboning their Clergie limmes to all the antick and dishonest gestures of Trinculos, Buffons, and Bawds … They thought themselves gallant men, and I thought them fools.’ What, I wonder, did these ‘fools’ think of John Milton as he watched and judged and yet abstained from their pleasures? Towards the end of his Latin poem on the death of his university friend Carlo Diodati, Milton expresses the fear that he might sound ‘turgidulus’. He then launches into a description of the poems he hopes to write in the future, which include an epic on King Arthur. A Latinist as good as Milton might remind us (though his editors curiously do not) that the single usage of ‘turgidulus’ in classical poetry means something like ‘welling up with tears’ rather than ‘turgid with self-regard’. But once that second sense has taken root in one’s mind it is difficult to extirpate. Was Milton a turgid little prig?
Certainly he had a brutal sense of self-worth, which often comes through in his disputatious works: ‘I mean not to dispute Philosophy with this Pork, who never read any.’ Certainly he knew too much about more or less everything. He was steeped in classical poetry and almost every line he wrote is in close conversation with one source or another. His relationship to Ovid, beautifully explored in a recent book by Maggie Kilgour, is constantly both intimate and transformative.He could animate the bare bones of a biblical text with flesh from Homer or Lucretius. But he could also cite Eusebius and Solinus and Ortelius and Grotius and Bucer and Paraeus, and moreover Leunclavius and Wesenbechius, and many other non-household names too, as though they were his bedtime reading – which they probably were, though it’s not entirely clear how much he saw of his bed.
For all these reasons De Doctrina Christiana is probably the worst place to begin trying to like Milton. But even this long, late and rebarbative work has a bloody-minded wonderfulness that is all Milton’s own. De Doctrina is a 745-page unpublished (and probably unfinished and unpublishable) systematic theology in Latin, which Milton composed probably in the later 1650s. In it he attempted to derive the truth about God, creation, salvation, justification, church discipline and good works purely from minute analysis of biblical texts, all of which were recalled from memory, since by the time he dictated this work to his amanuenses he was completely blind. The treatise shows Milton’s characteristic delight in refuting errors: ‘How many enormous tomes of Theologasters shall we throw out from God’s temple like pollutants and dust-heaps?’ The Oxford edition presents Milton’s Latin text facing a new English translation. This is on the whole less snappy than the version in the Yale edition of the prose by John Carey (which often adds grunt to Milton’s already pugnacious arguments), but provides an excellent guide to the processes of Milton’s thought. In sharp-edged Latin prose, shaped and structured by the habitual divisions and distinctions of the Ramistic logic in which he had been trained, Milton sets out his beliefs about God, the universe and everything.
Most of these were refreshingly unorthodox. And that’s one good reason for liking Milton: he was never entirely predictable. It’s perhaps a shame that the Oxford editors’ focus is so austerely on the text and the process of translating it that they have no time to provide a brief guide to Milton’s chief heretical beliefs, since many of these were curious and difficult. He did not believe that God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Ghost are coessential and coeternal, since he thought it nonsensical that two distinct beings could share a single essence. He held instead that the Son had an essence distinct from that of the Father and was generated by him in time as the agent of creation. This is a version of the Arian heresy which rumbled through the early centuries of Christian thought. Complex doctrinal positions beginning with ‘A’ were a Miltonic speciality, since his views on salvation were more or less Arminian. Where Calvin believed that God predestined the damned and the saved to hell or to heaven from the beginning of time through no merit of their own, Arminius held that God offered the opportunity of faith in him to all, and foreknew who would accept and who would reject that offer. Milton’s willingness to find support for Arminian views about the process of salvation in the Bible shows that his theology did not follow predictable confessional grooves. In the 1630s and 1640s the word ‘Arminian’ was often hurled out as a term of abuse, and tended to mean, roughly, ‘filthy crypto-papist scumbag’. It was often used by the opponents of Archbishop Laud to suggest that he had pushed the English Church towards the sink pit of Rome and away from the purity of its beginnings.
Milton in his early life seems to have worshipped contentedly in a parish church presided over by a minister of Laudian sympathies, as many ‘conformable puritans’ did in that period. Some biographers believe, as Edward Jones notes in his learned overview of archives relating to the young poet, that Milton lost sympathy with orthodox worship when an inspection of Horton parish church in 1637 required that the raised pew occupied by the Milton family should be lowered and his mother’s monument moved. Whether this is true or not (and it sounds a bit small-minded for Milton) he does seem to have retained a theological Arminianism even late in life. God in Paradise Lost has a preoccupation with human freedom (‘if I foreknew,/Foreknowledge had no influence on their fault’), and does seem to offer the opportunity of salvation to all who choose to accept it. And yet just as we might be persuading ourselves that Milton’s theology of salvation had a Rowan Williamsish inclusiveness and universality to it, God comes out with the strange suggestion that ‘Some I have chosen of peculiar grace/Elect above the rest; so is my will.’ Milton seems to have held a potentially democratic or at least universalist belief that God offers all people the opportunity of salvation, while also thinking there was a special little bit of super-grace left over for really wonderful people. Perhaps for people as wonderful as John Milton. Was even his thinking about salvation coloured by his super-priggery?
At the climax of Satan’s temptation of Eve in Paradise Lost he perplexes her with a series of unanswerable questions, and concludes ‘these, these and many more/Causes import your need of this fair Fruit./Goddess humane, reach then, and freely taste.’ She does, and the rest we know. When faced with all the questions surrounding Milton’s theology it is tempting, in the absence of an apple that might provide all the answers, to decide that if you want to read a poet who seriously messes with your head why not just stick with Sylvia Plath. A good honest depressive is, after all, so much easier to handle than a thwarted don and would-be theologian.
To like Milton we really need to go right back to the beginning. And by that I do not mean to the birth of the infant John Milton on a dark December morning in 1608 in a house on Bread Street, London, where the scrivener and keen amateur musician John Milton (Snr) waited to hear his third child scream into life. The best place to begin to like Milton is with his volume of Poems both English and Latin (1645). This was described by its publisher Humphrey Moseley as ‘as true a Birth as the Muses have brought forth since our famous Spenser wrote’ when it appeared in what we now call January 1646. By that date Milton was in his late thirties, an age by which it was quite possible for a 17th-century Londoner to be dead. He had written pamphlets advocating divorce on grounds of mutual incompatibility (which for Milton mostly seems to have meant cases where a man found his wife incompatible with him, rather than the other way around), and was reviled as a libertine for doing so. He was working as a private tutor, having travelled in Italy, having read, having not become a clergyman despite all the reading, and having read some more, having compiled a commonplace book that digests some of his reading, having married, having thought about antiquarianism, having been unhappy in his marriage, and having read some more still. The king had been defeated at Naseby in June 1645 and was taking refuge in Oxford. The nearly kingless nation seemed as though it might have a destiny, but it was not quite clear what that destiny was; and Milton thought he might have a destiny too, but was not entirely clear what that might be either. So he gathered together poems written in English, Italian and Latin, some of which had been composed more than twenty years before.
Why is the retrospective volume of Poems the best place to start if you want to like Milton? The answer is that it shows not Milton turgidulus, or Milton the sage and serious defender of republican learning, or Milton the achieved polymath, or Milton the heretical crank. It shows Milton in the making. In this volume you can hear the swirl of literary influences running through his mind. At this point Milton is willing to ravish the senses rather than simply to suspect them. In Young Milton William Poole describes the 1645 volume as ‘a curious cacophony of radical and conservative voices, anxious to promote both his precocity and prophecy’. That seems exactly right: in this volume potentiality exceeds certainty, and that makes it exciting. It is also one of the most vivid witnesses to the processes of deliberation and interior dialogue by which poets become poets. The volume includes a miscellany of poems, some written, as the headnotes proudly record, when the author was only 15. There are hymns and psalm paraphrases as well as jokey university elegies, grand pastoral effusions, light-fingered Italian sonnets (delightfully translated for the Oxford edition by Andrew McNeillie), Ovidian neo-Latin elegies, two of the best answer poems in English (‘L’Allegro’ and ‘Il Penseroso’), a masque and two of the best neo-Latin elegies ever written in England and probably even in Northern Europe. These pieces were arranged and effectively edited by the young-middle-aged Milton in order to suggest that he had a poetic destiny, which ran from his early ‘Ode on the Morning of Christ’s Nativity’, which starts the volume, to the elaborate Latin elegy to Carlo Diodati which ends it with Milton’s turgidulus anticipation of his future as the British Epic Bard.
In these poems Milton is attempting to work out where he stands both in relation to a classical tradition and to earlier English poets. As a result they are full of audible edits from one poetic style to another. Hearing these edits is part of the pleasure of the volume. Spenser, as Moseley recognised in his preface, was one of the many voices singing in the young Milton’s poetical head. Several poems positioned early in the volume deploy Spenser’s signature 12-syllable alexandrine stanza ending in order to give a weight of wisdom to the young poet’s work. Sometimes this just allows Milton to pack in extra adjectives (‘Soon swallow’d up in dark and long out-living night’, or the overtly Spenserian ‘Of labours huge and hard, too hard for human wight’). Slightly later poems are more artfully Spenserian. ‘On Time’ ends with the saved ‘Triumphing over Death, and Chance, and thee O Time’. The expected ten syllables of the line run out for Time before he is named, and the expansion of the line into an alexandrine has the effect of a jab of the finger: ‘Time’s up, Time’.
These early poems also construct a distinct Miltonic mood. Twilight and pastoral, dew and ooze, dibblings in the glebe, these are the stuff of Milton’s early verse. This is not just a topographical and temporal atmosphere, but virtually a grammatical mood too, since early Milton is repeatedly drawn to non-finite forms of verbs. He just loves infinitives and participles, and these help create the temporal suspense and excitement of his early poems. Even the ultimately finite act of triumph over time is a process: the redeemed are described ‘Triumphing’, continually, rather than as having triumphed once and once only over their adversary. Participles also repeatedly serve as adjectives. There are the soon to become cod Miltonic ‘nibbling flocks’ (which Milton seems to have invented, but which went on to chomp their way through most of the pastoral poetry of the 18th century), the ‘slumbring morn’, the ‘labouring clouds’, ‘glimmering bowrs and glades’. Even when Milton directly addresses Time, at the ripe age of 23, as ‘the suttle theef of youth’ he declares that ‘My hasting dayes flie on with full career.’ His days are not ‘wasted’ or ‘ill-spent’. They are ‘hasting’, always running and never quite arriving. The quintessential early Miltonic moment is one in which a series of participles weaves all the world together and creates a rapturous arrest of temporal process which just makes your legs melt with its beauty: ‘The melting voice through mazes running;/Untwisting all the chains that ty/The hidden soul of harmony.’
These apparently simple grammatical preferences had big consequences. They made Milton’s early poems appear to be in time and yet hurtling towards the end of time. In the context of the civil wars of the 1640s this gave them a near apocalyptic thrill: Time is hasting on with full career, but Time is also ending now. The suspenseful musing potency of Milton’s early verse had major consequences for his literary afterlife. Young Milton not only created a characteristic, unending moment of hopeful but incomplete action. He associated that curious temporal space with the process of becoming a poet, and with what Moseley called ‘a poetic birth’. This made his early poems central to the creative activity of later English poets. The timeless stasis of Keats’s ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’, the ‘sprightly race’ of young scholars ‘disporting on thy margent green’ while more sober spirits ‘their murmuring labours ply’ in Gray’s ‘Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College’ are tributes to early Milton and his efforts to imagine time stopping while he and it were for ever hasting onwards with full career. And because Milton was so audibly making himself become Milton in these early poems, that state of stasis-cum-movement came to be identified with the moment of contemplation and creation. Coleridge’s ‘France: An Ode’ (‘Ye Woods! that listen to the night-birds singing,/Midway the smooth and perilous slope reclined,/Save when your own imperious branches swinging,/Have made a solemn music of the wind!’) would have been unimaginable without the early Milton.
But the poems in the 1645 volume also display another side of Milton. This is the ‘buck up and get on with it’ Milton, who insists that ‘Fame is the spur that the clear spirit doth raise/(That last infirmity of Noble mind)/To scorn delights, and live laborious dayes.’ This is not an entirely likeable voice, but it is a vital part of the mix. The appeal of these poems lies in the abrupt way these peremptory tones of virtue intrude. This makes them seem to enact a battle between the world of participles (roving, rushing, plaining, weeping, singing, trembling, glistering, glowing, whelming, gushing, sounding) and those of finite verbs, abstract nouns and virtuous activity. The most direct displays of this inner dialogue can be hard to take, and can even be crude. In A Maske Presented at Ludlow Castle, which is commonly known by the name of its villain, the sensuous enchanter Comus, the chaste Lady (oh, no self-portrait there then, from the poet known as the Lady of Christ’s) hears music, and then abruptly throws off its alluring charms with a string of abstract nouns:
A thousand fantasies
Begin to throng into my memory
Of calling shapes, and beckning shadows dire.
And airy tongues, that syllable mens names
On Sands, and Shoars, and desert Wildernesses.
These thoughts may startle well, but not astound
The vertuous mind, that ever walks attended
By a strong siding champion Conscience. –
O welcom pure-ey’d Faith, white-handed Hope,
Thou hovering Angel girt with golden wings,
And thou unblemish’t form of Chastity.
‘Calling shapes’ and ‘beckning shadows dire’ – those ultra-Miltonic participles become disembodied moral threats on the edges of the Lady’s vision. This is engaging rather than great writing, though, since it seems almost brutally edited together. The Lady abruptly reminds herself that Fame is the spur, that Virtue is the thing, and Chastity with its armour of complete steel is the final resting place of poetic virtue. At the same time Milton is reminding himself that he is not Shakespeare, that the twangling instruments the Lady hears in the wood are not quite the beautiful sounds Caliban hears and fears not in The Tempest. That interior poetic dialogue is the reason Milton can get into your head, and seem to be (as he was for the majority of the Romantic poets) the voice of English poetic tradition as it took stock of itself in the 17th century. He is coming to terms with the exuberance of Shakespeare, taking on the moral asperity of Jonson (the Lady’s careful distinction between things that ‘startle’ and those that ‘astound’ is very much Jonson’s rhetorical and moral terrain: he loves fine distinctions such as ‘Man may securely sin, but safely never’), and is always running with or away from the mellifluous metrical discipline of Spenser.
In the heady days of the 1970s and 1980s this would have been seen as a Freudian psychodrama, as Milton fought with the spirits of his poetical fathers in order to fashion his own poetic ego, and in turn set himself up to become the big poetical daddy of the Romantic poets whom they sought Oedipally to terminate with extreme prejudice. It’s probably the result of something rather more straightforward. Milton belonged to the first generation of English poets who could have owned collected editions of the works of Chaucer, Spenser, Jonson and Shakespeare – and indeed he wrote a particularly wonderful (literally: ‘Thou in our wonder and astonishment/Hast built thy self a live-long Monument’) dedicatory poem for the Second Folio of Shakespeare’s works. For poets learning their craft in the 1620s and 1630s distinct poetic styles were associated with names on the spines of big books. Milton was also trained to write neo-Latin poetry, which was partly an art of suturing phrases from Virgil or Ovid together, changing adjectives while keeping the rhythms of the original, or turning the moral force of a phrase in a way that was designed to be noticed by learned readers. Milton transplanted these skills to the vernacular, and tried to weave his own volume of poems out of the voices of earlier English poets. He did it by a kind of imaginative oscillation between different volumes in his brain. The repeated references to choirs and choruses in his early writing – which Christopher Tilmouth beautifully unfolds in Young Milton – are in this respect a manifestation of his larger poetic design. Milton wants to create a solo voice that could alternately blend into the choir of vernacular poets and then soar above it.
Learning to hear how hard Milton is working in these early poems is a big part of learning not just how to like but (for me anyway) to love the cussed old so and so. I have talked metaphorically of his ‘editing’ together different poetic voices, but this is slightly more than a metaphor, since Milton was a compulsive tweaker and editor of his own writing. He needed to prod his own imagination on, and sometimes (rather like his keenest student, Wordsworth) he felt the need to tell it severely to back off. There is an almost comical late addition to Comus which illustrates this. The Lady resists Comus with a huge aria on temperance. Then Milton inserts a new passage which begins with what is almost a prompt to the poet himself: the Lady says ‘Shall I go on?/Or have I said anough?’ and then does go on, rather a lot. That question – ‘Shall I go on?’, but also the larger question ‘Where shall I go on?’ – is always in the background of these early works, which are punctuated by sharp passages of self-address in which the poet goads himself onwards.
In this as in almost every other respect ‘Lycidas’ is the climactic poem in the 1645 volume, where it appears last in the sequence of English poems – a sequence the Oxford editors, quite rightly, follow. Later 17th and 18th-century editions of Milton’s verse tended to put it first, as his prime anthology piece and greatest hit, but ‘Lycidas’ gains immeasurably from being read in its original position. By 1645 Milton wanted the poem to sound like a prophecy of (as he put it in his headnote) ‘the ruine of our corrupted Clergy then in their height’. But when ‘Lycidas’ is read in the context of young Milton’s other works it sounds less sure of itself, and all the better for it. It contains the sudden harsh intrusion of the ‘Pilot of the Gallilean lake’, who makes the rivers and flowers of pastoral shrink away while he denounces the English clergy, and threatens the ever mysterious ‘two-handed engine at the door’ (which John Leonard in Young Milton convincingly argues is not so much a sword which is literally at the door as a threat of the imminent separation of wheat from chaff by a kind of apocalyptic flail). ‘Lycidas’ is not the stilted exercise in vernacular pastoral that Samuel Johnson was to deplore and which generations of schoolchildren had reluctantly to endure as the voice of ‘classic English poetry’. It makes audible the sutures which hold together Milton’s poetic identity. So when the poet fears that death will slit ‘the thin-spun life’ the god Apollo intrudes his voice into the poem with ‘But not the praise,/… and touch’d my trembling ears’. Intrusive voices in Milton’s early verse often ‘but’ in, with a firm grammatical marker that they are bringing a new perspective. As Milton and his readers all knew, Apollo’s intervention is a direct allusion to Virgil’s Sixth Eclogue (and through that to a passage from the learned Alexandrian poet Callimachus) in which the god encourages the poet to write short poems. That allusion is not another bit of pedantic Milton showing off. It illustrates just how much Milton the vernacular poet learned from writing his neo-Latin verse: writing Latin poetry taught him how to use an audibly rough edit to signal a poetic allusion. That learned trick co-operates with the unsteadiness of young Milton. He wants to splice together different poetic voices. The voice of human lament and uncertainty is set abruptly against the voice of a god. The voice of a poet turgidulus, with self-regard or with tears, is abruptly replaced by a voice of apocalyptic threat. The effort of stitching different voices together makes Milton’s early verse less awe-inspiringly assured than Paradise Lost, but it also makes it infinitely more touching. It is young writing, which is full of aspirations and which openly displays the efforts that went into making it.
Scholarly editions tend to be at least a decade behind the dominant ways of thinking about the texts they present. That’s mostly a good thing. The weightiness of the big blue Oxford editions of English texts, slightly over three kilos of which are stacked on my desk as I write, serve partly to counterbalance fashion. The edition of Milton’s Shorter Poems has so many solid virtues that it might seem churlish to do more than doff a humble cap in its direction – though the editors really ought to have ensured that inverted commas before ’tis were the right – which is to say the wrong – way about, which they often aren’t. The poems are presented elegantly on the page, with short but clear notes at the back. But with no index of first lines this is, I fear, an edition to be studied rather than used. It includes at its end a cornucopia of transcriptions from the Trinity Manuscript and of early versions of Comus. These are available elsewhere, but are difficult to gather in a single place, and they give generous space within the volume to Milton the tentative reviser. But the form in which these manuscript versions are presented makes it very hard to get inside the creative processes of early Milton. The collation of textual variants at the foot of each page records the readings of Milton’s final manuscript versions. It does not, however, record the words he crossed out. These would surely have been of more interest to most readers than painstaking lists of extremely minor differences between the 1645 and 1673 printed editions, most of which reflect the foibles of compositors rather than the revising pen of the poet (so we learn that in 1645 ‘The Nativity Ode’ reads ‘twise-batter’d’ but in 1673 it read ‘twice batter’d’). Since Milton was sand-blind by 1673 this kind of trivial difference is very unlikely to derive from him. In the earliest surviving version of ‘Lycidas’ Milton said that his ‘forced fingers rude’ ‘crop yor young leaves’. He then revised that phrase – a touch too crude, a touch too consciously youthful – to ‘shatter yor leaves before the mellowing year’. One needs rather a lot of fingers, forced, rude or otherwise, to flip back and forth and find the places where Milton changed his mind, and to discover that, for instance, the youngish Milton altered ‘the garish columbine’ of the early version of ‘Lycidas’ into the more sober ‘well-attir’d woodbine’.
That reluctance fully to register the tentativeness of early Milton extends into Barbara Lewalski’s expert introduction and notes. As a result the Milton represented in the Oxford edition of the Shorter Poems is not a young poet nervily shaping his talent and hearing the voices of earlier poets in his head. Nor is he the reactive and uncertain figure so persuasively evoked in many of the essays in Young Milton. Instead he is the Milton of 1645, a more or less committedly radical church reformer and prophet. He becomes, rather prematurely, Milton as he eventually wanted himself to appear: a stately neoclassical godly republican edifice grounded on a comprehensive knowledge of everything.