Wednesday, December 10, 2008

EDW: John Milton

Coming slightly late to the great man's 400th birthday party, but there has been a superfluity of comment on his works – with commentators across the board, from Theo Hobson and Terry Eagleton in the Guardian, through Boyd Tonkin in the Independent to AN Wilson (since disembowelled) and Simon Heffer (sounding a little surprisingly sympathetic towards what Marxists used to call the English Revolution) in the Telegraph – all eager to claim the man for their own worldview.

I don't wish to add to this babel. Not least because if you don't appreciate his importance, I doubt I'll be the one to change your minds, and if you do then there's no point in boring you with it. Besides, the best line about him remains Blake's observation that he was of the Devil's party, but did not know it.

Satan is key to it all, of course, the defiance of the perpetual tyrannies of existence, the unfulfilled and unfulfillable aspirations (the perpetual fate of revolutionaries that; Milton was no great lover of the Cromwellian oppression that replaced the Stuart one), are all there – along with the Charles I-like over-inflation of one's own importance and powers, the unreasonable self-righteousness. It's the human condition captured in the supposed arch-enemy of man.

If a shower of contemporary hacks can reflect these contradictions, then so can some of the great poets who followed Milton: without Milton I doubt we should have Byron's Vision of Judgment or Baudelaire's Litanies de Satan. No Blake either, of course. Even if one dismisses the preposterous notion that Milton was better than Shakespeare, this range of influence does support the case for regarding Paradise Lost as the true English national epic (then again, why do the English need one?).

Although I most often use the term puritan as one of abuse, Milton represents another, better side to that complex skein of non-conformist thought – independent-minded, inquiring, free-thinking, unbending and unwilling to put conscience to one side. In other words, a libertarian if not a libertine. Besides that, one cannot wholly dislike a man who spent several years travelling, studying at university and a further six doing little except reading books in preparation for his career as a poet. That's the sort of work ethic I admire.

As for the poetry itself: he might go on a little for modern tastes (that's what you get copying Roman epics rather than the Greek lyricists and epigrammists) but there's a grandeur matched with a sinuous subtlety in those mighty lines.

Fallen Cherub, to be weak is miserable,
Doing or suffering: but of this be sure--
To do aught good never will be our task,
But ever to do ill our sole delight,
As being the contrary to his high will
Whom we resist. If then his providence
Out of our evil seek to bring forth good,
Our labour must be to pervert that end,
And out of good still to find means of evil;
Which ofttimes may succeed so as perhaps
Shall grieve him, if I fail not, and disturb
His inmost counsels from their destined aim.
But see! the angry Victor hath recalled
His ministers of vengeance and pursuit
Back to the gates of Heaven: the sulphurous hail,
Shot after us in storm, o'erblown hath laid
The fiery surge that from the precipice
Of Heaven received us falling; and the thunder,
Winged with red lightning and impetuous rage,
Perhaps hath spent his shafts, and ceases now
To bellow through the vast and boundless Deep.
Let us not slip th' occasion, whether scorn
Or satiate fury yield it from our Foe.
Seest thou yon dreary plain, forlorn and wild,
The seat of desolation, void of light,
Save what the glimmering of these livid flames
Casts pale and dreadful? Thither let us tend
From off the tossing of these fiery waves;
There rest, if any rest can harbour there;
And, re-assembling our afflicted powers,
Consult how we may henceforth most offend
Our enemy, our own loss how repair,
How overcome this dire calamity,
What reinforcement we may gain from hope,
If not, what resolution from despair

Just don't, for goodness sake, bother with Samson Agonistes.

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Anonymous The Man From The Daily Mail said...

Oh c'mon Dornan, get a grip, you give it all the Theo Hobson, Terry Eagleton, Boyd Tonkin, AN Wilson, Simon bloody Heffer talk.

But you mention the most insightful provider of cultural and political insight this side of the apocalpyse.

Do you fuck?

7:56 am  

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