Boyd Tonkin

Why Milton still matters

Paradise Lost can still speak to readers on its 350th anniversary – even if its champions sometimes seem to lose faith

Why Milton still matters
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Just 350 years ago, in April 1667, John Milton sold all rights to Paradise Lost to the printer Samuel Simmons — for £5, with another £5 due once Simmons had the first run of 1,300 copies off his hands. That sounds like a bargain for the 12-book epic poem of Satan’s war with Heaven, Eve’s ‘fatal trespass’ and the expulsion from Eden that soon became a monumental pillar of the literary canon. Samuel Johnson — who as a Tory deplored Milton’s revolutionary politics — placed it first (for design) and second (for execution) ‘among the productions of the human mind’.

Some readers, though, have always found it dear at any price. Deeply torn between his awe at the ‘wonderful performance’ of Paradise Lost and his horror at the ideas of this ‘acrimonious and surly republican’, Johnson in his Life of Milton leads the prosecution as well as the defence. ‘Its perusal is a duty rather than a pleasure,’ he sniffs. ‘We read Milton for instruction, retire harassed and overburdened, and look elsewhere for recreation.’

Boyd Tonkin is joined by Sam Leith to consider Milton's cultural relevance:

As the sort-of anniversary nears, even Milton’s champions put on apologetic airs. Professor John Carey, who made his name as a scholar with a brilliant edition of Milton’s shorter poems, has now abridged Paradise Lost into a reader-friendly 230-page volume, The Essential Paradise Lost. Carey neatly condenses the argument rather than just cherry-picking an assortment of golden goals from the untiring dazzle and swagger of its verse. Even this lifelong Miltonian, however, kicks off with a cringe, sighing that ‘almost no one reads it’ now.

Enough. Milton, as much as Shakespeare, remains our contemporary. As Wordsworth put it in a sonnet from 1802, ‘Milton! thou shouldst be living at this hour:/ England hath need of thee.’ One half of a nation almost as bitterly — if not as bloodily — divided as in his day needs to understand how the blind, scorned radical, ‘though fallen on evil days… In darkness, and with dangers compassed round’, channelled his dismay at the failure of England’s revolution and the restoration of monarchy into a masterpiece that finds salvation through despair. In 1660, Milton was arrested, imprisoned and might have gone to his death as an impenitent regicide without a few well-placed admirers. His epic, with its aim to ‘assert eternal providence/ And justify the ways of God to men’, climbs from his pit of disillusion to find meaning and hope in calamity. A hero for Remainers, then.

The other camp should ponder the lessons of a world-class intellectual who, as Cromwell’s secretary for foreign tongues after 1649, set out to persuade the Continent’s smartest minds that the English had not taken leave of their senses and become a rabble of savage pariahs by slaughtering their king. He had his work cut out: his first Defence of the English People (1651) — now there’s a shrewd spin-doctor’s title — fed bonfires in Paris and Toulouse. As polite society from Madrid to Stockholm shuddered at the barbarous island, he wielded all his learning and eloquence to defend its peculiar path. So perhaps a beacon for Leavers, too.

Both sides ought to heed the disdain that Milton always voiced for the tyranny — whether exercised by kings, clerics, generals or indeed parliaments — that tramples on individual liberties. Mere majorities meant nothing to the old malcontent. What we think of Satan can shift almost line by line in Paradise Lost — this fluid, protean charisma makes him one of the greatest characters in all literature — but he does have a tendency to bang on about his popular mandate for rebellion against God. He once claims that ‘well nigh half’ the angels follow him; elsewhere, it’s ‘a third part of the gods’. In any case, the divine loyalist Abdiel sternly insists that ‘few sometimes may know when thousands err’.

In Areopagitica, his great anti-censorship polemic written in 1644 against not the king’s but Parliament’s curbs on free speech, Milton maintains that one breath of truth can topple a citadel of lies — or, as we now say, alternative facts. Common opinion carries no weight with him. ‘Let her and Falsehood grapple,’ he thunders, ‘Whoever knew Truth put to the worse, in a free and open encounter?’ Sadly, the history of electoral propaganda suggests otherwise. Still, Milton stirringly stands up for frank, uninhibited, even offensive debate as a road to wisdom in itself, since ‘I cannot praise a fugitive and cloistered virtue… that never sallies out and sees her adversary but slinks out of the race.’

Politics aside, Paradise Lost needs new readers not so much for its gorgeous Technicolor splendour of its descriptive verse — the ‘grand style’ of which academics make so much — as for the intimate, all-too-human drama at its core. When, in Book 9, Eve tells Adam that she has scoffed the forbidden fruit, she makes it sound like the latest designer drug popped in a Mayfair club: ‘opener mine eyes,/ Dim erst, dilated spirits, ampler heart’. In any case, she has only yielded to the serpent’s tempting after God and Adam have droned on about her subordinate status.

The Class A snack will not only deliver ‘knowledge of good and ill’ but reset their relationship, ‘the more to draw his love,/ And render me more equal… for inferior who is free?’ Impervious to this proto-feminist logic, Adam — who has just picked a pretty bouquet of Paradise’s finest blooms for his consort — is poleaxed when he hears what she has done: ‘horror chill/ Ran through his veins, and all his joints relaxed./ From his slack hand the garland wreathed for Eve/ Down dropped, and all the faded roses shed;/ Speechless he stood and pale…’ The screenplay writes itself.

Plenty of scenes in Milton’s epic — each as human, vivid and dramatic as this — will make lovers of the poem wonder why Hollywood has failed to bring Satan’s war with heaven, the idyll in the garden and the fatal, necessary Fall to a cinema near you. After all, illustrators from William Blake to Salvador Dali by way of John Martin, the Romantic painter of Miltonic fantasies, have plundered the epic with glee.

A few years ago, it very nearly happened. Greek-Australian director Alex Proyas planned a film of Paradise Lost with Bradley Cooper as Lucifer and Casey Affleck — an Oscar-winner last month — as the angel Gabriel. Reportedly, the studio balked at the special-effects budget. Audiences raised on Lord of the Rings-style wide-screen wizardry should relish Milton’s cosmic scenery and spectacular battles. Besides, the whole gigantic yarn turns on a love story beyond the reach of Tolkien — or of George R.R. (Game of Thrones) Martin.

In Milton’s theology, Eve must choose to succumb to temptation for the Son to redeem mankind. Free will leads to her happy fault — felix culpa — and makes her the heroine, not the villainess. Around these bare bones of doctrine Milton fleshes out an extraordinary woman who grabs a lion’s share both of the poem’s loveliest lines and its most compelling arguments. Couples approaching a marriage ceremony and in need of some nuptial verse should think about dumping Shakespeare’s over-familiar Sonnet 116 in favour of Eve’s love-hymn, ‘With thee conversing I forget all time…’

These days, Eve more than Lucifer will strike readers as the epic’s truly bold spirit. It’s the ego-bloated Satan, after all, who preens like a junior minister at a drinks party: ‘Know ye not me?’ But from Blake (with his evergreen verdict that Milton was ‘a true Poet and of the devil’s party without knowing it’) to anti-Christian critics such as William Empson (in his book Milton’s God), the glamorous Satan of Paradise Lost has never lacked for fans. More recently, Philip Pullman mined this seam again when he upended the poem’s official theology in his Miltonic trilogy His Dark Materials (the title comes from Book 2, line 916). Pullman, though, plants not a devilish superstar but the bright, questing, Eve-like Lyra Belacqua at the heart of his story. Carey overlooks Pullman, the beloved bestseller who out-heresied the crabby old dissenter.

Other archangels of pop culture have done their resurrectionary bit for Milton. In 2015, the title track of Rattle That Lock, a chart-topping solo album from Pink Floyd guitarist David Gilmour, drew on Paradise Lost in lyrics that urge us to ‘lose those chains… From the burning lake or the eastern gate, You’ll get through it.’ Eve’s sentiments precisely. As for Nick Cave’s classic number ‘Red Right Hand’, with its sulphurous god-demon and his ‘catastrophic plan’, it now feeds a Miltonic phrase and concept (Book 2, line 174) into the imagination of everyone who watches the credits of Peaky Blinders. So Carey’s sense of his hero’s invisibility may err on the side of gloom. Thomas Shelby, that series’ dark avenging prince from the gangland hell of Birmingham, has yet to declaim ‘Evil, be thou my good.’ The Blinders return in the autumn. Just give him time.

Boyd Tonkin is a former literary editor of the New Statesman and the Independent.