In the third year of our marriage, Jane and I walked into an Antique Shop in Goldsboro, North Carolina. We walked out with a portrait of Milton and his three daughters. That picture has hung in every place we’ve ever stayed. We didn’t know the artist was Hungarian (Michael Munkacsy-a reproduction of course), still less did we know we would one day live in Hungary where Jane would lecture on Art.
While I was a student, I learned that Milton is the second greatest poet in English behind—who else—Will Shakespeare. For the record Geoffrey Chaucer ran a strong third. I do not know who makes these determinations or how authoritative they are but that one sounds reasonable. Paradise Lost is always dreaded (by all but the most literary), and often encountered by students of every generation. A classic has been defined as a masterpiece we want not to read, but to have read. Paradise Lost is nothing if not a classic.
It is not only a poem but a theodicy. That is it is an effort (as the poet plainly admits) to justify the ways of God to man. These apologetic aims were subverted by the reality that Milton did not always deploy biblical arguments. Though his Christianity was highly publicized he was in fact heretical on the doctrine of Christ’s Person. The more serious drawback though (and it’s a shocker) is the charge that Milton made Satan the hero of Paradise Lost. If that were true (my knowledge of the poem is too superficial to weigh in on this one) it would obviously spoil the thing for the likes of simple Christians like myself
I encountered the “Satan as hero” thesis quite by accident just today while reading an interview with the Roman Catholic apologist Dinesh D’Souza, a powerful ally in our conflict with the New Atheists. You may consult Dinesh’s analysis for yourself at http://www.salvomag.com/new/articles/salvo7/7segelstein.php.
My own favorite Milton quotes range beyond Paradise Lost:
In his essay against censorship called “Areopagitica,” Milton contends that truth or virtue is only praiseworthy if it has been tested. And tests only come by battles with antagonistic points of view. Nothing, he maintained, should be banned from the field by decree but rather vanquished in the field by debate.
His arguments, though always appealing and sometimes noble, are not always biblical or wise. But his phraseology is irresistible. About these untested convictions he wrote:
“I cannot praise a fugitive or a cloistered virtue.”
He meant he couldn’t admire a virtue which runs away or a truth which hides. Stirring stuff that.
In “Lycidas,” he wrote the words:
“To scorn delights and live laborious days.”
This is an ideal I’ve always admired but seldom applied. Milton well articulates an approach to work I would aspire to. He writes a similar thing when he characterizes his personal view of his own calling and the legacy he hopes to leave.
“By labor and intense study (which I take to be my portion in this life) joined with the strong propensity of nature, I might perhaps leave something so written to after-times, as they should not willingly let it die” (Reason of Church Government).
I’d say he succeeded.
Happy Birthday, John Milton. We have few poets today and we are the poorer for it.
And we have none like you.