John Milton is revered for his poetry, but he was a cold, dismissive misogynist
MAKING DARKNESS LIGHT: THE LIFE AND TIME OF JOHN MILTON
by Joe Moshenska (base £ 25, 464 pp)
American writer and humorist Mark Twain said in a 1900 speech on “The Disappearance of Literature” to his audience: “I don’t think any of you have ever read Paradise Lost, and neither do you.”
If you’ve struggled through Paradise Lost in your English class at school – or any of John Milton’s epic works like Samson Agonistes or Paradise Regained – you’ll know exactly what Twain was talking about. Milton’s language may be powerful and beautiful, but along the way you have to deal with its dense metaphors, labyrinthine sentences and strange wordings. The poet TS Eliot liked Milton so much that he claimed he was “violating the English language”.
Joe Moshenska, Professor of English Literature at Oxford, wrote a biography of the poet John Milton (pictured)
For many admirers, Milton ranks second after Shakespeare as Britain’s greatest poet of all time. Wordsworth adored him: ‘You had a voice whose sound was like the sea / Pure, like the bare sky, majestic, free.’ Yet, as this book admits, Milton “has probably evoked more dislike and antipathy than any other English poet.”
Born in 1608, Milton grew up in a wealthy London household and was a brilliant linguist even as a schoolboy, fluent in Latin, Greek, Hebrew and Italian. After graduating from Cambridge University, he decided to become a poet and spent years immersing himself in theology, philosophy, science, history and literature.
In his late twenties he wrote the pastoral poem Lycidas, which was very well received. After two years of traveling in France and Italy, he began to work as a schoolmaster and taught children from wealthy families. In 1642 he married 15-year-old Mary Powell, but the marriage lasted only a few weeks before they fled back to their family.
Author Joe Moshenska suggests that the problem wasn’t just the couple’s 18-year age difference. Milton would often beat up his students when they were naughty or not concentrating, and Mary hated that. Other biographers have suggested she left because the virgin Milton, traumatized by the reality of a flesh and blood woman, found that he was impotent.
Either way, their brief association was widely talked about and cemented Milton’s reputation as a “joyless prudish misogynist,” as Moshenska puts it. This episode is believed to have inspired George Eliot’s portrayal of the marriage of the cold, cerebral Mr. Casaubon and the lively Dorothea Brooke in Middlemarch.
Meanwhile, the country was heading for civil war as Charles I tried to impose his will on a rebellious parliament, and Milton, who was decidedly anti-monarchical, gained a reputation as a radical, outspoken writer. In 1645 Mary and her family were forced to leave war-torn Oxfordshire for London. Somehow the couple reconciled and had two daughters.
Pictured: An illustration by Arthur Rackham inspired by Milton’s Comus
In January 1649, King Charles, wearing an extra shirt to keep himself from shivering in the cold, was taken to the scaffold and executed. Milton, who enthusiastically defended the people’s right to hold their rulers accountable, became a major figure in Cromwell’s regime and was appointed Secretary of Foreign Languages, in charge of translating government correspondence into Latin and other languages. In his spare time he wrote on a variety of subjects, including two haunting pamphlets on the need for divorce law, and his Areopagitica, published in 1644, was a stirring defense of the freedom of the press. More than a century later, it would help shape the first amendment to the US Constitution on freedom of expression.
In his early 40s he had lost sight in both eyes and could only continue his amazing work with the help of assistants. “Even when his eyesight deteriorated, he remained convinced that he was doing God’s work and helping the nation,” wrote Moshenska. Around this time he wrote the sonnet “On His Blindness”, which contains the famous poignant line: “You also serve those who just stand and wait”.
Mary died shortly after giving birth to their third daughter, and in 1656 Milton married the second wife, Katherine, who died two years later. To add to his problems, Milton, a leading Cromwell supporter, had to go into hiding in the face of the impending restoration of the monarchy.
He was detained in the Tower of London for a few weeks and must have feared for his life, but was released after paying a hefty fine. He spent the rest of his life quietly writing poetry.
His most famous work, Paradise Lost, began in the late 1650s and was finally published in 1667. The poem is written in empty verse and has over 10,000 lines. It has two main narrative threads: one about Adam and Eve and their expulsion from Eden, the other about Satan and the fallen angels.
Controversial, Milton made Satan a charismatic and compelling figure. William Blake claimed that Milton was “of the devil’s party without knowing it”.
Since then, Paradise Lost has been divided. Samuel Johnson considered it one of the “highest achievements of the human mind,” while Edgar Allan Poe flicked that it could only be enjoyed as “a series of smaller poems”.
MAKING DARKNESS LIGHT: THE LIFE AND TIMES OF JOHN MILTON by Joe Moshenska (base £ 25, 464 pp)
Philip Pullman recently selected a quote from it, “His Dark Materials,” as the title of his children’s trilogy – written in part to evoke the Paradise Lost atmosphere he had loved since childhood.
It’s not the job of a biography to please the subject, of course, and in Making Darkness Light Milton seems like an absent, dismissive figure. The women in his life remain shadowy, but what is known is that Milton fell out with all of his three daughters at the end of his life.
Moshenska, Professor of English Literature at Oxford, explains that this book is not just about Milton’s life, it is about what it means to live and teach with the work of a writer and to be tutored by the work of a writer a biography in which the author repeatedly comes to the fore.
This means that the reader will get Moshenska’s reaction to Milton’s letters, accounts of his travels to places Milton visited, and even imaginary conversations. “What evidence is there that this dinner or something like it ever took place? None at all, ”he says cheerfully at one point. ‘I have to admit to a certain indulgence.’
Some readers may find this wonderfully original; I wish he had spent more time filling in the historical context. Milton lived in a time of turmoil, but she doesn’t come to life.
Moshenska comes into its own when he talks about Milton’s writing. He admits that he doesn’t like the way Milton “appears to want to beat me or whoever reads his works with his erudition and eloquence,” but he argues that his poetry is too colorful to deserve the darkness that she fell into.
Generations of schoolchildren may disagree, but reading Milton, he explains, “is valuable and fascinating. . . something worth doing, something worth investing time and energy in ”.