Why Milton Matters
‘I call therefore a complete and generous education that which fits a man to perform justly, skilfully and magnanimously all the offices both private and public of peace and war’.
John Milton wrote in a wide range of genres, in several languages, and on an extraordinary range of subjects. His was a more general education than is offered at Cambridge these days, and it continued after his seven years here, equipping him with the tools to write some of the most groundbreaking literature ever seen, and to engage as a polemicist on many different social, political, and theological questions. He remade the moral, political, and cultural world around him; without him, the world we live in would look different. One thing he offers, therefore, is a case for an education in the humanities – in languages, in philosophy and history, in literature, music, and art – as a route towards meaningful reflection on human life, and towards a considered contribution to civilisation’s progress. It is a case Milton himself made – based on his experience as a fortunate son of a father who valued learning, as a pupil of inspiring and scholarly teachers, and as a teacher himself – in his tract Of Education.
Milton and the English Language
Every day we use words and phrases that Milton contributed to the stock of the English language. Like other great writers of his period, he used his knowledge of Latin and other languages to suggest words that might have entered English more organically. The Oxford English Dictionary lists over 600 words which Milton was the first to use (at least as far as we know). Some are typical of the poet who so frequently stretched the language beyond its ordinary limits, and did not enter ordinary usage – like infuriate as an adjective or to concise and to epistle as verbs. 135 begin with the prefix un-, which tells you something about Milton’s love of oppositions and, well, unrelenting nature. Many are adjectives derived from verbs, some of which – like chastening and civilising – have stuck. Some belong with his subject matter, like adamantean, arch-fiend, pandemonium, and Satanic; or divorceable and unconjugal; or liturgical; or pedagogism; or prelatise, prelatish, prelatry, and prelatically (from the hated prelates or bishops). Some of his words didn’t quite make it, like unexpensive (inexpensive was preferred) or unreducible. Some sound very odd now, and it seems unsurprising that they were not picked up – like intervolve or opiniastrous. But all his coinages would have sounded that striking once.
Without Milton, the love-lorn among us would not act besottedly; they would neither feel ecstatic nor find things endearing, or even sensuous. But nor would there be a danger of a downward slide into debauchery or depravity, or some lesser sins, like extravagance, or having a flutter.
Without Milton there would be no cooking, nor snatching of a hurried lunch. Meals (and other things) would not be well-balanced, or well-spiced, and cupboards would not be well-stocked. But at least we would not know how to economise and could never be half-starved, or even eat unhealthily.
Fear of change perplexes monarchs.
A good book is the precious life-blood of the master spirit, embalmed and treasured up on purpose for a life beyond.
Who kills a man kills a reasonable creature, God’s image, but thee who destroys a good book, kills reason itself.
Books are not absolutely dead things, but do contain a certain potency of life in them, to be as active as the soul whose progeny they are; they preserve, as in a vial, the purest efficacy and extraction of the living intellect that bred them.
Good, the more communicated, more abundant grows.
None can love freedom heartily, but good men... the rest love not freedom, but license.
Give me the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties.
Our country is where ever we are well off.
It is not miserable to be blind; it is miserable to be incapable of enduring blindness.
Reason also is choice.
Where no hope is left, is left no fear.
They also serve who only stand and wait.
Prudence is the virtue by which we discern what is proper to do under various circumstances in time and place.
The mind is its own place, and in itself can make heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.
Nothing profits more than self-esteem, grounded on what is just and right.
A short retirement urges a sweet return.
Few sometimes may know, when thousands err.
The childhood shows the man, as morning shows the day.
Virtue that wavers is not virtue.
Without Milton, we would not padlock gates, or untack horses, or unfurl banners; there would be no acclaim, but neither would the ungenerous and dismissive among us criticise, which would be as well, since others would not know how to disregard.
Without Milton, our experiences would be less exciting. We would not be awe-struck or jubilant; we would not find things enjoyable or exhilarating or stunning or terrific. But then neither would there be any literalism or literalists, and certainly no complacency.
Without Milton, there would be no attacks, airborne or otherwise; and no exploding artillery. Our far-sighted (or perhaps irresponsible and unprincipled) leaders would not be led by vested interests to take undesirable actions, for which they – when they mean to argue persuasively – can offer only unconvincing reasons. They would not be unaccountable. But after others had done their best to hamstring them, leading to chastening experiences full of unintended consequences, they would not find themselves with the unenviable task of speaking defensively. There would be no embellishing of the truth; and they would not find themselves beleaguered and then embittered.
For the rest of us, things would never be enlightening, much less civilising. We would struggle to describe ourselves and our experiences, for we could no more be hot-headed than cherubic, neither loquacious nor impassive, not moonstruck or unadventurous. There would be no adjustments, no idol-worship, no fragrances or frameworks, no helpfulness or self-delusion, and (mercifully) no pettifoggery. We could never be full-grown, but neither could we know incompleteness or belatedness. There would be no circumscribing of expanses. Zeal would not be reforming or reading matter didactic; rivers (or traffic) would not be slow-moving or ranks serried. We would not describe the countryside as surrounding or ideas as unoriginal or songs as echoing; things could not be awaited or discontinuous.
And, students and teachers note, no great author or difficult topic could ever be thought unexaminable.
It is not only in single words that Milton has left his imprint on the language. The origin of the proverbial phrase ‘Every cloud has a silver lining’ is to be found in lines from Milton’s Comus: ‘did a sable cloud | Turn forth her silver lining on the night?’. The closing line of Milton’s elegy ‘Lycidas’ has also become proverbial: ‘Tomorrow to fresh woods, and pastures new’.
As with Shakespeare, fragments of whose lines are scattered in the titles of novels and films, Miltonic phrases are found – sometimes deliberately alluded to, and sometimes with no idea of their origin – in works of modern fiction, film, music, and art, from Aldous Huxley’s novel Eyeless in Gaza via an ‘Inspector Morse’ episode called ‘The infernal serpent’ to Philip Pullman’s ‘His Dark Materials’. The phrase ‘darkness visible’ has been used as the title not only of a novel by William Golding, but of several other books, a rock album, and an episode of the tv show Hercules. Other phrases that, with slight adjustments, have become proverbial include ‘All is not lost’, ‘fallen on evil days’, ‘The world was all before them’, ‘The childhood shows the man’, and ‘calm of mind, all passion spent’. Such lines are recognisable to many who have never read the works from which they are taken, or anything by Milton.
Broader Cultural Influence
Milton was a musically educated and visually literate polymath whose works engage with modern scientific, theological, and political ideas. His literary writings reflect and impact upon the values of his culture in many ways. As just one example, we can take an area where his influence is perhaps most currently felt…
A flying, shape-changing superhero, magically persuasive, supernaturally powerful – not Sylar from ‘Heroes’ but Satan from Paradise Lost. Milton lived in an age that was looking at the world in new ways, most obviously in its gradual acceptance of a heliocentric cosmos. He had met Galileo on his tour of Italy in 1638, and refers to the astronomer when, in Paradise Lost, he compares Satan’s shield to the moon seen through a telescope. Nineteenth-century illustrations of Milton, by John Martin and Gustave Dore, show visibly how the cosmic scope of Paradise Lost has fired the imagination of readers over the centuries. Ranging from heaven to hell via earth and chaos – offering us man and God, angels and devils – Milton’s authorial vision has an unprecedented and unparalleled scope. He takes epic – with its focus on clashes of culture and ideology and its set-piece battles – and he takes romance – with its wanderings and quests and its encounters with the unknown – and sets them on a cosmic scale. In this he has been followed by some of the most popular and powerful writers and filmmakers of the past century. Would science fiction and fantasy literature have been written without Milton? Would we have The Lord of the Rings or Star Trek or Superman or The Matrix? Certainly Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy could not have been written. And that is a superb example of how the best science fiction and fantasy literature, like Paradise Lost, goes furthest from the everyday in order to say the most fundamental and valuable things about politics, society, morality, and human nature.