Why read Milton?

OF Mans First Disobedience, and the Fruit
Of that Forbidden Tree, whose mortal tast
Brought Death into the World, and all our woe,
With loss of Eden, till one greater Man
Restore us, and regain the blissful Seat,
Sing Heav’nly Muse, that on the secret top
Of Oreb, or of Sinai, didst inspire
That Shepherd, who first taught the chosen Seed,
In the Beginning how the Heav’ns and Earth
Rose out of Chaos: Or if Sion Hill
Delight thee more, and Siloa’s Brook that flow’d
Fast by the Oracle of God; I thence
Invoke thy aid to my adventrous Song,
That with no middle flight intends to soar
Above th’ Aonian Mount, while it pursues
Things unattempted yet in Prose or Rhime.
And chiefly Thou O Spirit, that dost prefer
Before all Temples th’ upright heart and pure,
Instruct me, for Thou know’st; Thou from the first
Wast present, and with mighty wings outspread
Dove-like satst brooding on the vast Abyss
And mad’st it pregnant: What in me is dark
Illumin, what is low raise and support;
That to the highth of this great Argument
I may assert Eternal Providence,
And justifie the wayes of God to men. …

That was the first few lines of possibly the greatest poem written in the English language:  Paradise Lost by John Milton. Along with Dante (Durante degli) Alighieri, Milton can arguably be said to have invented the details of the Christian myth that writers of the Bible inadvertently glossed over. For the most part, a lay person will attribute to the Bible and to God events detailed in the fiction of poets like Dante and Milton. Some of the most endearing attributes of the Heavenly Father are actually based on the need to find a word with the correct number of syllables or a word that maintained the rhyming scheme.

So the first reason to read Milton is to go to the source of a great deal of the basis for modern Christianity.

But who was this man John Milton?

Milton was actually a very interesting guy, despite his association with the Puritans and the Interregnum. One important thing to remember about Milton was that he came from a wealthy family and really didn’t have to work at his civil service job but was free to apply himself to his many political, social, and religious treatises … and his poetry, of course. I tumbled for Milton after reading Lycidas:

YET once more, O ye Laurels, and once more
Ye Myrtles brown, with Ivy never-sear,
I com to pluck your Berries harsh and crude,
And with forc’d fingers rude,
Shatter your leaves before the mellowing year.
Bitter constraint, and sad occasion dear,
Compels me to disturb your season due:
For Lycidas is dead, dead ere his prime
Young Lycidas, and hath not left his peer:
Who would not sing for Lycidas? he knew
Himself to sing, and build the lofty rhyme.
He must not flote upon his watry bear
Unwept, and welter to the parching wind,
Without the meed of som melodious tear. …

I was in a seminar that met once a week at the professor’s apartment off Wilshire and a dozen students took apart L’Allegro and Il Penseroso (and maybe Comus) over several weeks complete with mulled wine and lemon cookies. Milton was perhaps a little old fashioned (although we considered a word like “groovy” very hip back then) and terribly religious, but this was strong poetry and we loved it. Milton, if you recall, went blind and wrote many of his major works in his head at night and had his loyal daughters transcribe his dictation the next morning. Word was that Milton was not a very lenient parent but here is the little poem he wrote about his infirmaty called, On His Blindness:

WHEN I consider how my light is spent
E’re half my days, in this dark world and wide,
And that one Talent which is death to hide,
Lodg’d with me useless, though my Soul more bent
To serve therewith my Maker, and present 5
My true account, least he returning chide,
Doth God exact day-labour, light deny’d,
I fondly ask; But patience to prevent
That murmur, soon replies, God doth not need
Either man’s work or his own gifts, who best 10
Bear his milde yoak, they serve him best, his State
Is Kingly. Thousands at his bidding speed
And post o’re Land and Ocean without rest:
They also serve who only stand and waite.

So another reason to read Milton is that he is a great poet and an interesting man in an interesting period of English history. But if you think he looks like he played keyboards for The Grass Roots, remember, he was on the side with Oliver Cromwell. Look them both up for not only a history lesson but also some of the best poetry and most intense political writing in English (actually, Milton wrote a lot in Latin so be prepared).

2 thoughts on “Why read Milton?

  1. I find no cogent reason to devote time to reading John Milton. And what is worse, people write articles titled “Why Read Milton” which are abysmal failures. They fail completely. If you disagree and wish to enlighten me kindly contact me below.


    1. Back in the pre-Google days one of my go-to reading groups on Excite! regularly insisted that teaching Shakespeare was a waste of time and furthermore that it took time and effort away from more relevant and productive study of authors such as Stephen King and John Grisham. I have always considered Hemingway a hack novelist and science fiction terminally boring. There’s just no accounting for taste. I’m hardly the person to justify the ways of Milton to you.


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