‘Does anyone nowadays admire Paradise Lost?’ When someone asked this in The Guardian’s ‘Notes and Queries’ column last August, my first response was ‘Fine. When you get blinded and imprisoned, we’ll see whether you can write an epic poem.’
But the question demonstrated that John Milton is still much misunderstood, and the question requires a more sincere response: I admire Paradise Lost because its poetic form is pioneering, its language almost edible, its characterisation complex, and its occasional – very occasional – jokes funny (if puns on ‘discharge’ are your thing).
Perhaps beneath all my admiration is relief that Milton finally managed it. He had promised a masterwork – initially an Arthurian epic, then a drama entitled Adam Unparadiz’d – from when he began studying at Christ’s College in the late 1620s. Here, he was the stereotypically aloof self-styled poet: his nickname, ‘The Lady of Christ’s College’, was probably backlash against perceived contempt for his fellow undergraduates.
Given that he now holds sway over the front of King’s College, it’s ironic that Milton claims to have found Cambridge stifling. It’s here that he produced his earliest successes – try On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity for a Christmas poem minus the usual nausea – and made friends with Edward King, whose death would inspire his great elegy Lycidas.
Fear that death could strike the poet at any time, painfully visible in Lycidas, galvanised Milton. His poetry bears the marks of many years’ study in preparation to write, both at his parents’ home and in Italy. Galileo, whom he met there, gets a cameo in Paradise Lost. Milton is often regarded as a difficult poet. T. S. Eliot accused him of “writing English like a dead language”; in fact, Milton’s vocabulary rejuvenates it. Reading Paradise Lost is like returning to a linguistic primordial soup: the connection between words like ‘pendent’ or ‘prescribed’ and their Latin and Greek roots become gloriously apparent. Milton coined almost as many words as Shakespeare, arranging them in a way that gives his poem relentless energy. While the characters of Paradise Lost soar to new places, the reader flies to worlds of new words, where angels ‘roll orbicular’ and ‘cannot but by annihilating die’.
Milton returned from Italy as the civil war was brewing. He had always been staunchly independent – his 1634 play Comus is a revel which sees fit to criticise revelry – but among the republican forces and government, such independence was finally celebrated.
His multilingualism was similarly put to use as Cromwell’s Secretary of Foreign Tongues. His pamphlets, pouring scorn on the English Church and Charles I (even after his execution), are perhaps the revenge of that lonely, serious-minded Christ’s student.
If interregnum politics saw Milton briefly turn away from poetry, that brief period in which his beliefs were vindicated would fuel the post-Restoration masterpieces Paradise Lost and Samson Agonistes. He narrowly avoided execution in 1660, possibly thanks to fellow poet Andrew Marvell, but effectively remained imprisoned until his death.
Milton’s two great protagonists are also prisoners with perverse feelings of liberty: Satan believes that is ‘better to reign in Hell than serve in Heav’n’; Samson, that ‘commands are no constraints. If I obey them, I do it freely’.
John Carey has even argued that Samson Agonistes, which culminates with the hero destroying himself and 3,000 religious enemies by pulling down two pillars, must be reread in the wake of 9/11. Proof, if more were needed, that Milton remains as relevant, powerful and terrifying as ever.