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John Milton: living at this hour?

John Milton: living at this hour?

The freedom of the press is under threat. At Westminster, politicians are making decisions that could severely curtail the ability of writers and printers to publish what they like, when they like. While parliament has all the power to enact statutory regulation and control of the press, there is at least one man ready to use all his eloquence and learning in making a public stand in order to protect its liberty. That man’s name is John Milton. Because, rather than being a rather charged account of the ongoing fallout from the phone-hacking scandal and Lord Leveson’s report into the culture and ethics of the press in 2012, this is the context from which Milton’s most famous and widely read and admired prose work, Areopagitica, emerged in 1644.

A good book is the precious lifeblood of a master spirit

Subtitled ‘A speech…for the liberty of unlicenc’d printing‘, Areopagitica takes its somewhat forbidding title from a speech by the Greek orator Isocrates, advocating increased control of all aspects of Athenian life by the ancient council known as the Areopagus. Milton’s work is an erudite and impassioned response to the Long Parliament’s enactment in June 1643 of a new Licensing Act, which required all books and pamphlets to be read and their contents approved by a government-appointed Licenser before publication.

This kind of censorship was far from new in England. The press had enjoyed only two years of liberty since the repeal of the previous licensing decree, put in place in 1637, during the ‘personal rule’ of Charles I, which differed only in that it vested the power to license or suppress works in the episcopate.

In Areopagitica, Milton presents a history of state censorship, challenging the practicality, as well as the wisdom, of seeking to control human thought and experience, warning that ‘If we think to regulat Printing…we must regulat all recreations and pastimes, all that is delightful to man,’ and asserting that:

It is…liberty which is the nurse of all great wits. this is that which hath rarify’d and enlighten’d our spirits like the influence of heav’n; this is that which hath enfranchis’d, enlarg’d and lifted up our apprehensions degrees above themselves…. Give me the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties.

This sounds fine, but Milton’s idea of liberty is perhaps not our own. While objecting strongly to the pre-publication censorship of writing, and comparing the suppression of books to a ‘martyrdom’, he saw no reason whyoffensive books should not be burned after publication. Nonetheless, Areopagitica has been for centuries one of the most important and convincing assertions of the right to free speech that has become central to our ideal of intellectual and political wellbeing.

Areopagitica itself provides the Oxford English Dictionary with evidence for almost eighty new words and senses—two per quarto page, on average. Among them are the nouns licenser and licensing, the compound adjective slow-moving, the participial adjective beleaguered, and the phrase in the making, when Milton observes that: ‘opinion in good men is but knowledge in the making’.

Reformation and Regicide

John Milton was never short of opinion, and his plea for toleration of heterodox opinions and the continued liberty to print was not an impartial statement of liberal intellectual ideals. In the space between the two licensing acts, Milton had issued a series of polemical writings in pamphlet form, beginning with several anti-episcopal, Presbyterian works in 1641. The next year, in the wake of the almost immediate collapse of his hasty marriage to Mary Powell, he issued four tracts that put the case for freedom to divorce for mismatched couples in forceful and emotive terms. Milton may have felt doubly wronged (and even doubly responsible) for the 1643 act, as the divorce pamphlets were among the dangerous works deemed to have pushed press freedom too far by a parliament dominated by the same Presbyterian faction that Milton had earlier been so quick to defend.

While the divorce pamphlets were controversial and deeply personal, they would be surpassed in the years that followed by much more pressing and contentious material. After the execution of Charles I on 30 January 1649, Milton became the official apologist for the regicidal parliamentary regime. He was probably present in Whitehall on the day that Charles lost his head, and his first pamphlet justifying the trial and execution, The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates, was issued within a fortnight. Milton was given the post Secretary of Foreign Tongues to the new Commonwealth regime shortly after the appearance of the Tenure, but over the course of the next five years, Milton was to lose his sight – in his own opinion, at least – to the stress and exertion of justifying the killing of an anointed king, both in English at home, and in Latin for an outraged European audience. During this period, the words that Milton’s various pamphlets contributed to the English language include depravity, entanglement, irresponsible, disregard, extravagance, and even cooking.

Poems and Paradise

Milton, the son of a well-to-do London scrivener (also called John Milton), was born – according to his own surprisingly precise notes in a family Bible – at 6.30a.m. on December 9, 1608, and his life and writings reflect the upheavals of that century of revolution, religious dissent, and rapid intellectual progress.

It may have seemed strange to begin a post on Milton by talking about one of his prose works, rather than the more famous, at least nowadays, Paradise Lost or Samson Agonistes, but Milton’s reputation as a poet was slow to develop in comparison with the explosive impact of his earliest prose works. This may have had more to do with fashionable artistic reticence as with any lack of confidence on the poet’s part. Many of the poets of the early seventeenth century (John Donne is a notable example) viewed print as vulgar, and preferred, as gentlemen, to circulate their poems in manuscript, as Henry Meres describes Shakespeare doing in the 1590s with ‘his sugar’d Sonnets among his private friends’.

Milton’s earliest poetic works to appear in print (On Shakespear in the Second Folio of 1632, and A Mask presented at Ludlow Castle, now usually known as Comus, in 1637) were published anonymously, and Lycidas, published in 1638 in a volume commemorating one of Milton’s Cambridge friends, Edward King, was signed, like his early pamphlets, ‘J.M.’

His first collection of Poems, and the first work to bear his full name on the title page, probably appeared in early 1646, and it is fitting that this volume of his early works was issued in the uncertain breathing-space between the First and Second Civil Wars. In it, the Milton with whom we’re all probably most familiar – Milton the republican pamphleteer, the puritan poet of Paradise Lost, the serene and austere English Homer or Virgil – is barely visible. The aristocratic entertainment Comus, claimed here by its author for the first time, was accompanied by poems in praise of members of the aristocracy, and the lush imagery and musicality of Lycidas, L’Allegro and Il Penseroso seem be all of a piece with the Cavalier spirit and Arminian theology of the age and immediate family context (the elder John Milton was a keen musician and composer, with High-Church religious sympathies) that produced them:

…Let my due feet never fail
To walk the studious Cloysters pale…
There let the pealing Organ blow,
To the full voic’d Quire below,
In Service high, and Anthems cleer,
As may with sweetnes, through mine ear,
Dissolve me into extasies,
And bring all Heav’n before mine eyes.

If the issuing of Poems in 1645 was designed to help Milton to hedge his bets at a moment of political uncertainty, it also, ironically, allowed Milton to realize the wish expressed in the last line of the above extract from Il Penseroso. Having narrowly escaped prosecution and probable execution by the forces of the restored monarchy in 1660, Milton’s retirement to the country and enforced exclusion from public life allowed him the time and peace to compose one of the greatest and most challenging poems in English literature. Paradise Lost brings not only all heaven, but also the whole of earth, hell, and space (Milton was the first to use the word in the sense of ‘outer space’) before the eyes of the reader who, along with Satan, manages to escape from Pandemonium in Books 1 and 2.

Despite its vast framework and its epic structure, Paradise Lost sees Milton revisiting the themes of the earlier pamphlets in his depiction of the tender ‘wedded love’ of Adam and Eve, which it might be argued offers the exiled couple as much hope as the foreknowledge of God’s plan granted to Adam by the archangel Michael before their eventual departure from Paradise:

Some natural tears they dropped, but wiped them soon;
The world was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and providence their guide:
They hand in hand with wandering steps and slow,
Through Eden took their solitary way.

Almost from the first, Milton’s stately blank verse style in Paradise Lost was recognized as distinctive, and hailed as a new gold standard for serious English verse, earning both its subject matter and style the epithet Miltonic only 34 years after his death. Despite this, even Milton’s admirers have often questioned the complexities of his syntax, with critics as diverse as Dr Johnson and Ezra Pound objecting to Milton’s heavy use of the inversion of natural word order, or hyperbaton, in constructions such as God’s assertion of the Son’s share in his own power: ‘Him who disobeys, me disobeys’. Pound famously attributed such departures from the natural word order of English to Milton being ‘chock a block with Latin’, and Latinate is one of the adjectives most often applied to the style of Paradise Lost, by critics and admirers alike. While it’s impossible to say how much Milton’s grammatical structures owe to Latin, we can say that the OED confirms that of the more than 600 words which currently have Milton as the first cited author, around thirteen per cent derive from a Latin source.

Throughout Milton’s career there are contradictions, between his shifting political and theological standpoints, between his lush and sensuous early verse and his puritanical reputation. In his vocabulary, we can detect the negativity of the professional controversialist (more than 130 of the words for which the OED currently cites Milton as a first use are formed on the prefix un, including unoriginal, unadventurous, and ungenerous), but he also provided us with the more positive beaming, ecstatic, enjoyable, and endearing. As for Blake’s charge that he was ‘a true poet’ because he was ‘of the devil’s party without knowing it’, Milton can’t be held responsible if his early use of the noun flutter and the verb freak (which in Milton’s day meant ‘to variegate’) allowed later linguistic innovators to make a small bet, or to freak out. Clearly, the devil makes work for idle words.

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