Milton is not “easy reading” for the modern student of literature. Extremely well-schooled in the Bible, the Greek and Latin classics, and the learning of his own time, Milton frequently alludes to materials that were common knowledge for his educated seventeenth century audience but that are usually simply arcane footnotes for today’s readers. The modern reader also confronts vocabulary no longer in use, highly figurative language, and a convoluted syntax influenced by Milton’s lifelong study of Latin. Yet the effort is always worth the trouble; the modern reader who becomes more comfortable with Milton’s style discovers a majesty and delicacy of expression in both verse and prose that can be found in few other authors. In act 2, scene 2, of William Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra (pr. c. 1606-1607, pb. 1623), Antony’s friend, Enobarbus, says of Cleopatra, “age cannot wither her, nor custom stale her infinite variety.” The same can be said of Milton and his literary achievements.
Like Shakespeare, Milton remains a literary giant hundreds of years after his death because he completely mastered the wide variety of literary forms that he attempted. On one hand, Milton perfected the fourteen-line Italian sonnet, which demanded poetic significance in a brief form. On the other hand, he was the last poet in English to rise to the level of Homer, Vergil, and Dante in the epic poem, his massive and flawlessly sustained blank verse of Paradise Lost covering twelve books and more than ten thousand lines. Between these two extremes, Milton wrote “Lycidas,” which the critic Marjorie Hope Nicholson calls “the most perfect long short poem in the English language”; Samson Agonistes, which might be the last great classical (and Christian) verse tragedy; and the “brief epic” sequel to Paradise Lost, Paradise Regained.
In some cases, even Milton’s minor verse has survived the passage of time. For example, in 1631, Milton joined many of his fellow Cambridge students in commemorating the death of Thomas Hobson, the eccentric university “carrier,” who drove a coach carrying students and mail between Cambridge and London for sixty-seven years until his death in 1630. In two poems titled “On the University Carrier,” Milton adopts a witty style very different from the “grand style” associated with his major works, yet he manages a poetic depth and genuine pathos astounding for so slight an occasion.
The “infinite variety” of Milton’s work refers as well to the evocative power of the single line, even the single phrase or word. The poetic force of the emotionally charged and intellectually rich details in all of his poems is sometimes hard for beginning students to see, given the difficult context of Milton’s poetry; however, focusing on some of the more familiar examples of this quality can lead the patient and industrious student to many other examples. For example, at the end of “Methought I Saw My Late Espousèd Saint,” the blind Milton wakes from the dream in which he “sees” her: “But O, as to embrace me she inclined,/ I waked, she fled, and day brought back my night.” The rich, evocative quality in the words “day” and “night” suggests both his grief for Katherine and the crushing burden of his blindness. In his dream, Milton imagines actually seeing Katherine for the first time, since he had married her after the onset of his blindness; but as the literal day returns, he experiences both a literal and a figurative night, on one hand unable again to see, and on the other tormented by his sense of loss and loneliness. “Night” can also suggest the political difficulties that Milton was experiencing...
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in a declining Puritan government. Throughout Milton’s works, the student will find such rich details that reward continued study and revisitation.
Finally, the ageless appeal of Milton’s works comes from his effective treatment of some of the most significant themes that literature can offer. From Comus to Samson Agonistes and Paradise Regained, Milton is investigating the nature of good and evil, the nature of temptation, and the power of reason, patience, and faith to create a meaningful human existence. Milton’s dominant Christian theme beginning with Comus concerns his concept of Providence and the idea that God’s destiny for humans mysteriously includes freedom of choice. At the end of Paradise Lost, Adam and Eve learn that obeying Providence provides them with “a Paradise within thee, happier far.” Yet Milton’s works can be read either within the boundaries of Christianity, as Milton intended them, or in a more secular way, as many twentieth century critics chose to do. As early as 1900, the Scottish critic Sir Walter Raleigh could admire Paradise Lost even though he considered it “a monument to dead ideas.” A more secular reading of the poem finds great pathos in the image of human beings struggling to make sense of a world where death, pain, unhappiness, and failure are daily reminders of a less-than-perfect existence. Milton is essentially attempting to explain the presence of evil in a world that he believes is completely in the control of a benevolent, supernatural deity. Yet his Christian explanation can be secularized and remain very much the same: Evil in the world exists because of the failure of human choice, the refusal to follow reason—the best available guide for human conduct. Finally, however, Milton survives as a great poet of hope, celebrating the power of learning, patience, faith, and endurance. The final scene in Paradise Lost, of Adam and Eve forever banished from the perfection of Eden but conquering their despair and fear to face an unknown, new world, is as powerful an image as any in literature.
First published: 1638 (collected in Poems of Mr. John Milton, 1645)
Type of work: Poem
In the form of a pastoral elegy, Milton mourns the death of a fellow Cambridge student, Edward King, who drowned in the Irish Sea in 1637.
The nominal subject of “Lycidas” is the death of Edward King, a fellow student one year behind Milton at Cambridge, who died when his boat capsized in the Irish Sea on August 10, 1637. In a commemorative volume of poems, Milton saw an opportunity to test his poetic skill and comment on those whom he considered to be the corrupt clergy in his day. He chose the form of pastoral elegy, wherein a shepherd laments the death of a fellow shepherd, because the pastoral elegy was a classic type of poem rooted in Greek and Roman literature that allowed for the presentation of allegorical meaning. As the poet speaks of an idyllic rural life of shepherds, it is understood that he can be talking about contemporary life and universal truths at the same time. Milton uses a traditional pastoral name, Lycidas, to refer to King, and he employs a number of other pastoral conventions.
It is customary to see “Lycidas” as a poem in three parts, opening with a conventional pastoral lament for the premature death of the friend, portrayed as a fellow shepherd. The surviving shepherd has a responsibility to commemorate the friend in song, so he asks the Muses to inspire the song/poem he has now undertaken. This invocation is followed by another convention of the pastoral elegy, the accusation that protective forces (in this case, the pastoral nature deities) failed to prevent the death. In a poem filled with associative leaps, Milton moves at this point to a complaint about being an artist in an unappreciative world. Even Calliope, the muse of epic poetry, was not able to save from destruction her own son, the poet Orpheus, when the mob, or “rout,” disapproved. It is clear, continues the speaker, that the poet’s task in this world is a thankless one. Why then does the poet persist? The pursuit of fame is the most obvious answer, but fame can be denied by premature death, as was the case with Lycidas. The final answer to this line of questioning, provided by Phoebus Apollo, the god of poetic inspiration, is that “Fame is no plant that grows on mortal soil.” True fame is winning the salvation of Jove (or God). With this consolation, the first section of the poem ends.
In the second section of the poem, Milton criticizes the church government of his day, much as he would in his antiepiscopal prose tracts of the early 1640’s. To lead into and allegorize this criticism, Milton begins the section by having his shepherd-poet call forth Triton, spokesman for Neptune, the god of the sea, who explains that Neptune, the sea, was not responsible for Lycidas’s death. Triton reports that the sea and winds were calm that day; the drowning was caused by the defective ship in which Lycidas was sailing, “that fatal and perfidious bark,/ Built in th’ eclipse.” Allegorically, this ship is the church, and Saint Peter, the founder of the Christian church and the keeper of the keys to Heaven, arrives to deliver a stern rebuke. Peter says that Lycidas was far superior to those who dominated the church in Milton’s day, those who do not care about their congregations or flocks: “the hungry sheep look up, and are not fed.” Yet Peter warns that proper punishment awaits these negligent leaders: “that two-handed engine at the door/ Stands ready to smite once, and smite no more.” Exactly to what Milton intends this “two-handed engine” to refer is hotly debated—it is one of the famous “cruxes” of Milton scholarship—but it is clear at least that the punishment will be severe and final.
The last section is far less angry and more clearly pastoral in its setting. The valleys come and bring flowers to spread on the waters of the river Alpheus in memory of Lycidas’s passing. In the final consolation, the poet tells his fellow shepherds to stop their weeping because Lycidas is not really dead. Just as the sun sinks in the west but rises again every morning in the east, Lycidas is rising in Heaven. From this point, Lycidas will be the protective deity of all those who sail the Irish Sea. The lament now done, the shepherd poet, having sung since morning, watches the sun sink below the bay, rises, and departs: “tomorrow to fresh woods, and pastures new.”
Milton’s poem has survived as great art because it is much more than a memorial for a dead friend or even an attack on seventeenth century clergy. Milton transcends these immediate purposes and creates a hauntingly evocative testimony to the fragility of human life. It is a poem about the fear of premature death, a fear that Milton felt keenly, given his great aspirations to become a national poet and his slow progress toward the great epic poem that would fulfill his aspirations. “Lycidas” is a poem that faces the fears of premature death and overcomes them because it is also a poem about rebirth, specifically a Christian rebirth, but also a more abstract rebirth that can give hope to all people, hope that life can be meaningful in the face of corruption, apparent chance, and disappointment. What began in part as a formal exercise, an attempt to demonstrate skill in a classic poetic form, became one of the world’s greatest poems, a personal expression of fear and anger balanced with a final affirmation of faith in cosmic order.
First published: 1667, 1674
Type of work: Epic poem
After being cast out of Heaven, Satan leaves Hell, travels to the newly created world, and succeeds in tempting Adam and Eve to sin against God.
In the tradition of the epic poem, Paradise Lost begins in medias res, in the middle of the story, showing in the first two of twelve books how Satan and his followers gathered their forces on the burning lake of Hell and sought out the newly created race of humans on Earth. (The revolt and resulting war in Heaven that preceded this action and earned the devils their place in Hell is reported in books 5 and 6.)
In book 3, God observes Satan traveling toward Earth, predicts the fall of human beings, and asks for someone to ransom them. Christ, the Son, accepts. In book 4, Adam and Eve are introduced, as Satan lies hidden in the Garden of Eden. Satan appears in Eve’s dream, encouraging her to taste of the forbidden Tree of Knowledge, and in book 5 God sends the angel Raphael to warn Adam and Eve of their danger. Raphael begins the story of Lucifer’s revolt in Heaven, which he completes in book 6, and in book 7 Raphael tells of how God responded to Satan’s revolt by creating a new world, the earth, and a new race in Adam and Eve. In book 8, Adam describes to Raphael his and Eve’s creation, and Raphael delivers his final warning and departs. Book 9 tells the story of Satan’s successful temptation of Eve, the eating of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, and the resulting discord between Adam and Eve. In book 10, Christ passes judgment on Adam and Eve, and Sin and Death build a bridge from the gates of Hell to Earth as Satan is returning to Hell. At the end of book 10, Adam and Eve resolve their discord and petition God for forgiveness, which is granted in book 11 as God sends the archangel Michael to give Adam a vision of the future for humans. In book 12, after the vision of Christ’s sacrifice and redemption of the human race, Adam and Eve are expelled from Eden.
This brief synopsis, of course, does not communicate the grandeur and emotional intensity of Milton’s great poem. Milton begins Paradise Lost with two captivating books set in Hell and featuring Lucifer, or Satan, who rallies his defeated forces and vows eternal war on God before journeying toward Earth to destroy Adam and Eve. In Hell, Satan has a kind of heroic splendor, and such apparent grandeur led English Romantic poets such as William Blake and Percy Bysshe Shelley to identify with Satan as a tragic rebel and to proclaim that Milton subconsciously admired Satan. Although Milton’s subconscious mind must forever remain a mystery, this interpretation is very dubious, and generations of readers misled by Blake and his followers should read the poem more carefully. Milton began his epic with this larger-than-life portrait of Satan in order to provide God (who will obviously win) with a worthy adversary. Yet Satan’s pseudoheroic size is severely diminished in all of his appearances outside the first two books, and by the end of the poem Satan is not at all prominent, the heroic focus having shifted to the figure of Christ and the tragic focus having shifted to Adam and Eve. By the end of the poem, Satan is defeated and overshadowed by the larger themes of redemption and human responsibility.
One of the main causes of this Romantic distortion of Paradise Lost is the contrast between the first two books and book 3, where God the Father delivers theological lectures and clears Himself of blame for the Fall that He foretells but does not predestine. Compared to Hell and Satan, the figures of God and Christ the Son discoursing in Heaven seem dull, at least to most modern-day readers. It is almost with relief at the end of book 3 that the reader finds Milton returning to the description of Satan, who nears the Earth and passes through what is called the Paradise of Fools.
Only when the reader meets Adam and Eve is there a narrative interest to compete with Satan’s pseudoheroic stature, but the success of Milton’s poem comes from the fact that the two human characters, who finally become much more interesting even than the diabolical Satan, are domestic rather than heroic figures. Gradually, Adam and Eve become characterized as much by their conflict with each other as by their conflict with Satan. In what are now seen as strikingly sexist characterizations, Milton describes Adam as “for contemplation . . . and valor formed” while Eve is formed “for softness . . . and sweet attractive grace.” Yet the love between them is so convincingly real that even Satan is jealous as he watches “these two/ Imparadised in one another’s arms.” When Eve falls to Satan’s temptations in book 9, she is attempting to rise toward Adam’s supposedly superior status, and when Adam accepts sin and death with her, knowing the consequences, he does so out of “uxoriousness,” or excessive love for and submission to a wife. The immediate consequence is domestic bickering, each blaming the other for what has happened. Then Eve initiates a reconciliation, Adam suggests praying for forgiveness, and the poem ends with the first married couple walking “hand in hand” out of Paradise.
This rich quality of domestic tragedy has helped make Paradise Lost significant and powerful for twentieth and twenty-first century readers. It also may have had some effect on the creation of the modern novel. It can be argued that eighteenth century writers, overwhelmed by Milton’s achievement in Paradise Lost, were too intimidated to attempt again the epic scope in poetic form. Since no one was going to be able to surpass Milton in verse, the artistic impulse to work with epic size shifted to prose, and the novel was born in the eighteenth century with Daniel Defoe, Samuel Richardson, and Henry Fielding. Certainly by shifting the epic subject from the traditional subjects of war and valor to marriage, Paradise Lost elevated domestic subject matter for centuries to come.
First published: 1644
Type of work: Essay
Milton addresses the English Parliament and urges it to protect the freedom of the press by not permitting the licensing, or censorship, of books.
Areopagitica is the most famous of Milton’s prose works because it has outlasted the circumstances of its original publication. On June 14, 1643, the English Parliament passed a law called the Licensing Order, which required that all books be approved by an official censor before publication, and on November 23, 1644, Milton wrote Areopagitica, pleading for the repeal of the law. His arguments were not successful—official censorship of books in England lasted until the nineteenth century—but Areopagitica has long been an inspiration for those demanding a free press. In fact, its arguments against censorship are nearly as fresh and convincing today as they were in the middle of the seventeenth century.
Milton realized how difficult it would be to change Parliament’s opinion, so he marshaled his argument with great subtlety. His title alludes to a famous speech by the Greek educator Isocrates, and Milton uses a classical argumentative structure and many techniques of classical rhetoric that would have commanded respect from his seventeenth century audience. Yet the modern reader, unaware of classical rhetoric, can still marvel at the cleverness and logic that Milton uses to persuade his contemporary lawmakers. He begins by praising Parliament for its defense of liberty in the past. He then offers a historical review of censorship, pointing out that freedom of the press was highly valued in ancient Greece and Rome. Milton traces the tradition of tyrannical censorship to the Roman Catholic Council of Trent and the Spanish Inquisition, both of which found few champions among the members of the English Protestant Parliament. As Milton points out, the Roman Catholic church was a traditional enemy of the freedom-loving Parliament.
Milton’s next tactic is to disarm the argument that censorship serves society by destroying bad books. In a world where good and evil are often intermingled and difficult to discern, the reading of all books—good and bad—contributes to the human attempt to understand and pursue Truth. God gave human beings Reason as a reliable guide, and judgment is the exercise of Reason; true Christian virtue rests in facing trials and choosing wisely. In one of the most famous passages from Areopagitica, Milton says:He that can apprehend and consider vice with all her baits and seeming pleasures, and yet abstain, and yet distinguish, and yet prefer that which is truly better, he is the true warfaring Christian. I cannot praise a fugitive and cloistered virtue, unexercised and unbreathed. . . . That which purifies us is trial and trial is by what is contrary.
Milton then shows that external restraint is futile in the attempt to make human beings good. The temptations to evil are infinite, and to protect humans from all harm, the number of censors would have to be infinite as well. Even if censorship were limited to books, too many censors would be required for the great number of books to be examined, and the work of reading so many bad books would be tedious drudgery. Those best qualified to judge would be disinclined for this work, and censorship would fall to ignorant and less qualified men.
Milton’s final points are that censorship will discourage intellectual activity, impede the pursuit of Truth, undermine the nation’s respect for scholars, and cast doubt on the ability of ordinary persons to think for themselves. Furthermore, censorship will limit the pursuit of new truths since its activity is by nature conservative; only accepted truths would ever pass examination. Yet truth is never stagnant and never simply accepted uncritically from an external authority. Human beings come to know Truth from constant testing and discussion, a process that can be tolerated because Truth is so powerful: “And though all the winds of doctrine were let loose to play upon the earth, so Truth be in the field. . . . Let her and Falsehood grapple; who ever knew Truth put to the worse, in a free and open encounter?”
In the face of such eloquence, there is only one disappointment in Areopagitica: Milton is not willing to give the same freedom from censorship to books espousing Roman Catholicism. Milton, most Puritans, and many Englishmen saw Catholicism as tyrannical, even evil. In his journey to Italy, Milton had seen a Catholic government imprison Galileo for asserting that the earth was not the center of the universe. In England, on November 5, 1605, the Roman Catholic conspirator Guy Fawkes had come dangerously close to blowing up the king, his ministers, and Parliament with twenty barrels of gunpowder (the Gunpowder Plot). It stands to reason that a lawful society cannot tolerate what would destroy it, and the radically Protestant Milton saw Roman Catholicism as a serious threat to social order: “I mean not tolerated Popery, and open superstition, which as it extirpates all religions and civil supremacies, so itself should be extirpate, provided first that all charitable and compassionate means be used to win and regain the weak and the misled.”
In spite of this flaw in Milton’s argument, Areopagitica remains one of the most eloquent defenses of an essential social freedom and therefore an invaluable document in the history of Western society.