Sunday, January 4, 2009

The Milton Season

“Once you do tune in [to Paradise Lost], your life is changed for good.”

John Milton WHO? was the response I got most often in 2008 when I told people it was the 400th anniversary of his birth. And not just your everyday person with little interest in history or literature—there was nothing about Milton at the Museum of London even though two autobiographies were published in 2008. Now, he did get his degree in Cambridge but he spent most of his life in and around London. He was born in Bread Street in 1608, went to St Paul’s school (pre-Christopher Wren, of course) where he worked extremely hard (he stayed up late reading by candlelight, no doubt affecting his eyesight, in order just to be on par with the other students). His father was a merchant and amateur musician who believed in the value of a good education. He read and spoke several languages and wrote a great deal before going blind in the 1650s, when he turned to amanuensis like Andrew Marvell and his own daughters. He, of course, wrote his magnum opus Paradise Lost after complete blindness had set in.

There are so many interesting facts about Milton, yet he is in large part forgotten. I studied him some in my survey of English literature before taking an entire course devoted to him. I am indebted to Dr. Cheryl Fresch who taught that course for instilling a love of this poet. It was the last Milton course she taught before retiring. My friend Johanna was in that course with me, the first one we’d been in together since 8th grade, and it was a lot fun doodling all over each other’s textbooks with irreverent notes and drawings. It was during that course that I had the idea to adapt some of Milton’s life for film (people have tried in the past to dramatize Paradise Lost).

Book 9
How can I live without thee, how forgoe
Thy sweet Converse and Love so dearly joyn’d,
To live again in these wilde Woods forlorn?
Should God create another Eve, and I
Another Rib afford, yet loss of thee
Would never from my heart; no no, I feel
The Link of Nature draw me: Flesh of Flesh,
Bone of my Bone thou art, and from thy State
Mine never shall be parted, bliss or woe.

The BBC succeeded, though, in giving this poet his proper due in 2008. In what they called the Milton season, our lady of Christ College
[1] was all over the airwaves. Here’s what I managed to catch.

Radio 3

Words and Music: Darkness Visible—John Milton’s Adventurous Song—This was a series of excerpts from Paradise Lost and other poets’ works set to music in order to make concrete Milton’s situation when he was blind and attempting to compose.

Philip Dodd dramatizes Samson Agonistes—I missed this as I had gone back to America, which is too bad since I’ve never read Samson Agonistes.

Catherine Bott on the Early Music Show explores Comus—Comus is the masque Milton wrote in 1634 for the Earl of Bridgewater’s family who had a castle in Ludlow, on the English-Welsh border. (You better believe I visited it when I was in that area in November 2006.) I really like Comus. Few masques resonate with us today since they are less dramatically satisfying than the drama Shakespeare and his successors created, but Comus is tricksy. Comus himself, the villain, is a bit of a warm-up for the Satan of Paradise Lost. The Lady is a strong female character, as is Sabrina the Spirit of the Lake:

Sabrina fair,
Listen where thou art sitting
Under the glassy, cool, translucent wave,
In twisted braids of lilies knitting
The loose train of thy amber-dropping hair;
Listen for dear honor’s sake,
Goddess of the silver lake,
Listen and save.

For the program, Catherine Bott visited Ludlow Castle and played some tracks of Henry Lawes’ music from the masque (which I had never heard before).

Radio 4 had a weeklong series on John Milton the Essayist, in that every day in The Essay slot, a scholar, writer, educator, etc, talked about something Milton had written. It was very educational.
· Martyn Crucifix on the Treatise of Education—We read many of Milton’s essay/prose pieces in the Fresch course, but I didn’t remember the Treatise of Education very well. This was a nice refresher. Milton was heavily into the classics, especially Latin, and he loved Italy. His ideal educational system was rigorous but wide-ranging.
· Sharon Achinstein on Divorce—Milton’s first marriage was a disaster. His father had loaned money to another man, whose daughter Milton ended up marrying. She was younger than he was, and after the wedding, she actually returned to her parents’ house and would not stay with Milton. This was in the midst of the Civil War, further complicating matters. I don’t know enough about it to pretend to know why she was so opposed to the marriage. The consequence, though, was that Milton wrote a Treatise on Divorce. He advocated divorce be available to people of either sex if marriage was unhappy and was quite a forward thinker in this respect. The Treatise, actually, offers little biographical insight—he kept his personal feelings on his failed marriage out of it. (He went on to marry two more times.)
· Andreas Whittan Smith on Areopagitica—Despite the perplexing-sounding title, Areopagitica [air-ee-o-puh-jit-iht-ka] is one of Milton’s most enduring, most radical pieces. It argues for freedom of speech, à propos since during the Civil War, some of Milton’s works were condemned, especially in Europe. It was interesting to hear it described by a man who once edited a liberal newspaper (I forget which one) and now works on the UK Censor Board for movies. The parallel with Milton is pretty obvious: Milton writes Areopagitica after having worked for Cromwell.
· Tom Paulin on the Second Defence of the English People—My mom didn’t think much of Milton after she found out he worked for Cromwell and wrote to justify regicide. Neither did Salmasius, a French writer who attacked Milton in pamphlet form and said that his ugliness

[2] and blindness were a direct result of his supporting Cromwell. In it, Milton commends the English people for recognizing tyranny and overthrowing it. Though I myself prefer Milton’s drama and poetry in general to his essays (with the exception of Areopagitica) I remember his defense being systematic and calm. You can read a good summary of it here:
· Annabel Patterson on Milton in America—I hadn’t given much thought to Milton’s reputation in America. I always thought he would be more recognized in Britain than the U.S. and while that’s probably the case, I found this essay very interesting because it noted that John Adams was a great admirer of Milton. The two writers and statesmen probably found each other’s beliefs coincided more often than not. Both did not want mob rule; Milton has a touch of snobbishness to him, and those who have seen HBO’s John Adams will recognize one of the chief reasons that Jefferson and Adams fell out was their amount of trust in the common person.

I decided to see some Milton sights while I was in London over New Year, forcing my kind-hearted hosts to go with me. We saw St Paul’s Cathedral (I’d have to do some research to find out how it looked in Milton’s boyhood) and found the plaque in Bread Street that commemorates his birthplace. We also visited St. Giles Cripplegate, his parish church, and where he’s buried. Unfortunately we went late on New Year’s Day so the church wasn’t open. Not far from it is a plaque that marks where the first German bomb fell in London in 1940. The entire area was razed but St. Giles, miraculously, survived.

I hope to go back to London, Cambridge, Ludlow, and the other Milton house in Chalfont St. Giles to do more research.

In the meantime, some cool Milton links:

St Giles Cripplegate
Annotated Listing of All Milton's Works
The John Milton List serv (I am on it ... for Milton's birthday, one person made a devil's food cake and an angel food cake and patterned them with apples!)
Christ College Cambridge's Listing of Milton celebrations
Some illustrations of Paradise Lost
Comus, by Welsh artist Frank Brangwyn

[1] One of my favorite facts about Milton is that he acquired this nickname while going to Christ College in Cambridge because of his long hair and a certain effeminate air. It always made me smile though it also made me feel sorry for him! He once wrote to a friend that he felt a third of his classmates in Cambridge wished him ill!
[2] In the surviving portraits he doesn’t seem particularly ugly—here is how the writer puts it: “a great stinking pestilence, an impious tormentor, a gallows slave, a dark pettifogger, an ulcer to the church and a poison to religion.”

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