SAmuel Johnson wrote of poet John Milton’s 10,000-line signature work, lost paradise: “No one has ever wanted it longer than they are.” The sheer length of this epic poem, along with Milton’s densely Latin vocabulary and style and his seventeenth-century religious preoccupations – Adam and Eve, God and Satan – made attacking the pages of lost paradise, or any other of Milton’s many works, a daunting proposition to most people today. Indeed, few university English departments today offer stand-alone undergraduate courses on Milton (1608-1674), once considered England’s greatest poet, surpassing even Shakespeare. The few who try to entice students by tricking Milton into the contemporary politics that most interests their instructors: “gender,” “the poetics of revolution,” and so on. I myself was fortunate enough to have been taught at Milton by a teacher considered hopelessly old-fashioned even decades ago, who simply walked us through the lines, explained Homeric similes and other figures of speech, and pointed out how beautiful it all was.
Joe Moshenska, professor of English at the University of Oxford, also finds Milton’s poetry magnificent, and the highlights of this new biography are his careful and eloquent readings of passages from lost paradise. Milton gradually lost his sight during a career spanning the 1640s as a pamphleteer and, later, bureaucrat, for the Cromwellian side of the English Civil War. During this period, he wrote his famous treatise of 1642, Areopagiticadvocating for freedom of the press, as well as fiery tracts advocating the beheading of King Charles I in 1649.
By 1652 Milton was completely blind, and it was only after this – and the Restoration of 1661 which finished him off politically, in addition to sending him briefly into hiding and even being imprisoned for a short time – that he started working on his two greatest works, lost paradisepublished in 1667, and his Greek tragedy Samson Agonists on the Fall of the Biblical Hero, published in 1671. He must have dictated these and other works, and as Moshenska points out, the trope of blindness runs through both. Samson was blinded – “eyeless in Gaza” – just as Milton was, and in lost paradise, the themes of darkness and light operate on many levels, including the poet’s contemplation of his own obscured condition which he hopes with divine inspiration to transcend: Radiate, plant eyes therein…that I may see and say / Things invisible to mortal sight. Moshenska comments that these lines “repeat[e] in their own tumultuous beauty the phenomena that Milton can no longer experience.
Moshenska explains that the very title of her book, Make the darkness brightdrift of a line in lost paradise in which Belial, one of the fallen angels who plots with Satan to destroy Adam, Eve and their happiness in Eden, is of the opinion that the “horror” of hell “will fade away, this light of darkness”. Moshenska connects the line to Milton’s own poignant experience of his condition.
Alas, however, Moshenska’s real focus in this biography turns out to be less Milton than Moshenska himself. The two share the same initials, JM, as Moshenska points out, and so we learn a lot, a lot, about Moshenska as the book unfolds: that he is an “atheist Jew” by way of religion ( he mentions it three or four times). ); the names of his Yiddish-speaking grandparents and a list of their Yiddishisms; who was his favorite 1960s folksinger (the now-forgotten Leon Rosselson); how he probably voted on Brexit (“stubborn English nationalists”); his excursions around London and its environs with a certain “Sean”, his former sixth form English teacher, as they visited the sites of the various houses in which Milton lived to carry out research on the book of Moshenska; further excursions in 2020 as Moshenska retraced a grand tour of the great cities of France and Italy that Milton undertook in 1638 and 1639 after achieving high honors at Cambridge; and which he hasn’t quite finished retracing because COVID-19 banned him from Naples, the southernmost point of Milton’s tour.
Milton recorded in his family Bible that he was born on December 9, 1608, at “half an hour after 6 o’clock in the morning”. This inspired Moshenska to do extensive research on 17th century wall clocks and their mechanics (the results including a photo of such a clock sent to her by a clock expert and some Moshenska thoughts on the interest Milton’s poetics for time, occupy 21 pages of his book), then write an opening chapter in which someone downstairs in the family home notices that the minute hand is exactly between VI and VII just when baby Milton lets his birth moan upstairs. The problem: There is no evidence that the Milton family owned any kind of clock. As Moshenska points out, the family lived just a 10-minute walk from St Paul’s Cathedral, then a Gothic building that burned down in the Great Fire of London in 1666. Isn’t it more likely that, rather than looking at a clock on a dark December morning, anyone heard the church bells ringing?
Moshenska begins each chapter of his book with a similar setting that ranges from mostly to entirely fictional and often includes himself. Milton’s father, John Milton Sr., a successful writer by trade, was also an accomplished amateur musician. So Moshenska says he decided to take piano lessons, even though the piano wasn’t invented until 1700, long after both John Miltons had died. There is a fascinating blow-by-blow account of a table conversation in Paris in 1638 between Kenelm Digby, a prominent English Catholic intellectual in exile—a “gloomy” man with “unkempt hair” dressed “entirely in black”— and the ferociously anti-Catholic Milton. But, you guessed it by now, there is no evidence that the two met in life, although Milton, at least according to his own account, did meet Galileo and other Italian notables in the arts and science in Italy.
Elsewhere, Moshenska’s very 21st-century concerns intrude on her efforts to recreate the 17th. Milton was known as the “Lady of Cambridge” while studying there, probably due to her good looks and very fair skin, and he had close friends with other men. Two of them died in the late 1630s: Charles Diodati, for whom he composed a Latin elegy, and Edward King, who inspired one of his best-known and finest English poems, the Pastoral Lycides. Moshenska therefore assumes that Milton was, if not exactly homosexual, at the very least “queer”. Since Milton was married three times in his lifetime, with each wife hot on the heels of the last, “queer” doesn’t seem quite the adjective.
Milton’s theology was idiosyncratic. He could not align himself with any of the boiling currents of Christianity in his tumultuous times, although most of his English poetry was religious: Samson, lost paradiseand a shorter continuation of the latter, Paradise found, which focused on the temptation of Christ by Satan in the desert. He wrestled with the great theological problems of monotheism: how a good God can allow evil and why, if God is omniscient, he nevertheless creates human beings whom he knows will be damned. milton wrote lost paradise, as he said in one of his best-known lines, “to vindicate the ways of God unto men.” Still, Moshenska can’t take any of this seriously. Milton’s God, for Moshenska, is simply “harsh, cruel, strident that justifies itself”. It’s just superficial.
And yet, Moshenska, with her sensitive readings of Milton’s verses, has done a service: arousing the thirst to read more about the 17th century colossus. Milton is indeed a difficult poet, not only Latin, but composing English poetry as if it were Latin or Greek. For him, lost paradise was to be a classical epic, in the tradition of Iliad and the Aeneid. He reveled in the classic trope of hyperbaton: rearranging the normal order of words to make them more beautiful and meaningful: “…he plants eyes…that I may see and say / Things unseen in the sight of mortals.” Using his blindness, he could paint vivid pictures in the minds of his readers as well as his own, and he had the alertness of a blind man to the sonic cadences of sound. Samuel Johnson, who admired enormously Milton, said it best: “His great works were executed in discount and in blindness, but the difficulties disappeared at his touch; he was born for all that is painful; and his work It is not the greatest of heroic poems, only because it is not the first.
Charlotte Allen is a writer from Washington. His articles have appeared in keelthe the wall street journal, USA todayand the Los Angeles Times.