Milton's 400th Birthday

This year is John Milton’s 400th birthday, and Stanley Fish has written a post about Ninth International Milton Symposium in London, which touches on the many things to appreciate about Milton.  Here are a couple of good quotes.  First, about why Milton matters:

Rather than being employed for its own sake, the poetry is always in the service of ideas and moral commitments, and it is always demanding that its readers measure themselves against the judgments it repeatedly makes – judgments about the nature of virtue, about the proper mode of civil and domestic behavior, about the true shape of heroism, about the self-parodying bluster of military action, about the criteria of aesthetic excellence, about the uses of leisure, about one’s duties to man and God, about the scope and limitations of reason, about the primacy of faith, about everything.

Apparently, the ghost of Shakespeare hangs over Milton studies constantly.  Another good quote, about the difference between Milton and Shakespeare, referring to the debates over who wrote Shakespeare’s plays:

Jonathan Rosen was getting at something like this when he said in a recent New Yorker piece, “No one would ever wonder whether Milton was really the author of his own work.”

Milton went blind in his mid-forties, prior to writing Paradise Lost: the magnificent epic that Milton is best known for was composed mentally and dictated to a series of secretaries, including one of his daughters and the poet Andrew Marvell, who wrote the poem “To His Coy Mistress,” a standard of English textbooks.

His blindness led him to compose one of the greatest poems in the English language, “On His Blindness,” which I memorized while I was unemployed following graduate school, wondering whether my long education would ever result in productive employment:

When I consider how my light is spent,
Ere half my days, in this dark world and wide,
And that one Talent which is death to hide,
Lodg’d with me useless, though my Soul more bent
To serve therewith my Maker, and present
My true account, least he returning chide,
Doth God exact day-labour, light deny’d,
I fondly ask; But patience to prevent
That murmur, soon replies, God doth not need
Either man’s work or his own gifts, who best
Bear his milde yoak, they serve him best, his State
Is Kingly.  Thousands at his bidding speed
And post o’re Land and Ocean without rest:
They also serve who only stand and waite.

A quick explication: Milton despairs at going blind, feeling that his one “Talent” (his ability as a writer) is now wasted, and, referring to the parable of the talents, fears that Jesus will return and question him as to why he has not put his talent to work.  (The work “fondly” here means “foolishly” – Milton’s retort that he can’t work because he’s blind, in other words, is a pretty stupid thing to say to the Lord of Heaven and Earth.)  The poem turns as Milton comes to realize that God does not “need” his work or “his own gifts” (i.e. Milton’s talent was a gift from God to begin with).  Instead, what God demands is his readiness to serve.  The image changes to a royal court: thousands of courtiers speed to and fro in their service to God, but “They also serve who only stand and waite.” Milton’s readiness would soon be repaid; a few years after this poem, Milton began work on Paradise Lost.

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