John Milton: The Blind Bard of Christendom
By Gabriel Blanchard
Milton's verse is second only to Shakespeare's in its influence on English literature.
Almost three hundred and fifty years after his death, Milton remains a household name. Though blind by the age of forty-four, not only was he a major literary figure during a formative period of the English language—coming on the heels of Shakespeare and the King James Version, and an elder contemporary of the longest-used Anglican Book of Common Prayer—he was also one of the last authors to write a complete epic, and one of the very few poets to be regarded, even by his ideological and artistic rivals, as earning a stature comparable to Virgil and Homer.
Those rivals have not been held back from extremely different interpretations of Milton’s work, however. His views were highly unorthodox, even for the chaotic environment of the seventeenth century: disestablishing the Church of England, polygamy, and even Arianism were among his causes. His poetry earned admiration in the eighteenth century, but it was not uncritical. His opposition to the monarchy, for instance, led Samuel Johnson to call him “acrimonious and surly.” Beginning with William Blake, the Romantic movement often interpreted him as “of the Devil’s party without knowing it”; it was not until the mid-twentieth century, thanks to the work of more historically grounded scholars like C. S. Lewis and Charles Williams, that this tendentious view was finally put to bed.
His theological writings were prominent in their day (garnering both positive and negative attention during the English Civil War and Cromwell’s subsequent dictatorship), but what he is best remembered for is his poetry. Some of this was cast in dramatic form, like Samson Agonistes, a Greek-style play about the captivity and death of Samson; at other times he wrote brief poems, such as the often-quoted Sonnet XIX, or elegies like Lycidas, a bittersweet pastoral on the death of a friend.
But Paradise Lost is Milton’s best-known and most influential work. Popular ideas of hell to this day, both religious and secular, probably owe more to Milton than any other single source, even the Bible itself. The same is true to a lesser degree of his depiction of Eden and of the war in heaven (though recent vogues in animation have, a little ironically, caused less Miltonic or pseudo-classical and more Biblical imagery of angels themselves to return). However heterodox his beliefs, Paradise Lost is an epic that can appeal to any audience with an education in Christian and classical material. This was partly thanks to an older approach to poetry, especially epic, which classified it almost as a piece of public service rather than as a form of private expression; tailoring the work to the audience, intellectually as well as aesthetically, was accordingly one of the duties of a poet.
This fits neatly into one of the principal qualities that illuminates Milton: a profound love of order. This was one of the defining values of all western culture from antiquity, scarcely disputed until the revolutionary period. The images of mutual and contrasting courtesies between the Father and the Son, God and angels, angels and man, Adam and Eve, are some of the most persistent in his epic; even Satan, in his revolt against the order of heaven, is forced to parody it in hell, because the damned angels cannot function together without that parody. This summary of the whole cultural synthesis of Christianized Europe up until the Enlightenment, combined with the majesty of his verse, justly merits him the place he has assumed in the history of literature.