John Milton is 400 years old this month, and there is justified lamentation that nobody reads him for pleasure. Although Milton is renowned for his learning and complexity, he was also the master of simplicity. Almost my earliest memory of poetry of any kind is singing Milton’s version of Psalm 136 at my kindergarten. ‘Let us with a gladsome mind/ Praise the Lord, for he is kind’, it begins. I liked it, aged four or five, because of its depiction of nature — the ‘golden-tressèd sun’, ‘the hornèd moon that shines by night,/Mid her spangled sisters bright’. (I only wish the hymnal version had included some of the exciting other verses like ‘The floods stood still like walls of glass,/While the Hebrew bands did pass’ or ‘And large-limbed Og he did subdue,/ With all his over-hardy crew’.) Milton’s intellectual sophistication did not prevent his love of the physical, his directness. This Christmas is the right time to enjoy his ode ‘On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity’. Here is the winter scene when the pagan spirits are dispelled at the coming of the saviour: ‘So when the sun in bed,/ Curtained with cloudy red,/ Pillows his chin upon an orient wave,/ The flocking shadows pale,/ Troop to the infernal jail…’. Milton wrote the poem when he was just 21.
A City friend sends me an email of an old joke in new form. From internal evidence, I should say it was composed in the late summer. It is called ‘Cows! A cheerful summary’, and consists of a series of definitions: ‘Socialism: You have two cows. The State nationalises one and gives it to your neighbour. Communism: You have two cows. The State takes both and gives you some milk. Fascism: You have two cows. The State takes both and sells you some milk.