Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Heretic Pride: The Radicalism of John Milton (pt. 1)

"Bereft of air the earth trembles wide
Cracks all mountains high
Soaring demons now swarm the skies
In awe and heretic pride"

-Aura Noir, "Black Deluge Night" 

You would be hard pressed to find a writer who better represents the stodgy Lit-department canon than Milton. Shakespeare? Canon, certainly, but everyone knows that he put lots of dirty jokes in his works and the notion of Shakespeare as rebel is more popular now than the idea of him as establishment ever was. Eliot , Pound, and Joyce are all contenders for most obtuse and elevated, but the fact that Madonna has a tattoo of the last line of Ulysses and eight thousand hipsters have tattoos of some line in "Prufrock" that they think applies to them kind of work against that notion.

Milton, meanwhile, is pretty much everything that stodgy should be, at least on the surface. His masterwork is a huge, dense epic poem in the Homeric tradition, he was deeply religious, went to Cambridge, and of course has been held up as The Great British Epic Poet, every word of which pushes him one step further away from being hailed as the King of Badasses (previous title-holders: Teddy Roosevelt, Sonny Chiba, Yukio Mishima).
Not pictured: Secretary of the Interior Alexander "RoboCop" Murphy.
All this somehow seems to forget several key facts about John Milton: he was a liberal revolutionary, one of the first ardent defenders of a free press, had three wives, and, oh yeah, advocated for beheading a king that most citizens thought probably received his orders directly from God. And his masterpiece--that long, dense poem about religion--was for its time, and still remains, one of the most impassioned defenses of liberty, freedom, and anti-authoritarianism ever penned. He had more in common with Joe Strummer and Hunter S. Thompson than he ever did with any academic or politician.

And, since the main mission of this new blog is to prove how much the canon kicks ass, and that these old dead writers have their reputations for a reason, he's the perfect candidate for its inaugural entry.

First, we have to say some words about John Milton's father (also named John), who was a historically noteworthy man in his own right. A well-respected composer, John Sr. also established something of a family tradition as a young man by converting to Protestantism, and was thrown out of his home by his devout Catholic father for reading the bible in English rather than Latin. Granted, his son would go on to make English the language of a huge amount of radical theology, but still. Baby steps.

John Sr. was also a mover in the London theater scene at the time, due to his financial standing and love of the arts. Let's reiterate. Theater manager, late-16th early 17th century. You know what that means.
No, dumbass. It means that John Milton Sr. frikkin' hung out with Shakespeare, and knew him well enough--and was a talented enough writer--that he got to write the introduction for the first published collection of Shakespeare's plays. Now, that's pretty kickass if you're a young man who wants to be a poet. Just imagine your dad  saying "oh yeah, I had this poet buddy once. Old Billy Shakey. Pretty fun guy--christ, the women he slept with though."
"Now, I dunno if Shakespeare killed Nancy...but he should've."

So John Jr. was already set up for greatness: a father who loves the arts, can afford to send him to school and support him while he writes, and knew arguably the greatest English poet to ever live. Actually, no. Make that definitely. Because I don't think Shakespeare is the greatest English poet to ever live--the man's plays are of course the masterpieces that created modern English, but the sonnets, while good, aren't the best. The best is the contemporary poetry of John Donne--the intensely intelligent, ambitious, and maddeningly imaginative poet responsible for works like "A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning," "The Good-Morrow," and probably the greatest sonnets ever written in any language.

And, for much of John Jr.'s young life, Donne was the preacher at St. Paul's, just a few blocks away from the Milton home. So, to reiterate: the shadows of England's two great poets of the day, a Cambridge education, a wealthy and encouraging father: Milton was the poetic equivalent of a Kennedy.

Of course, it's hard to hold on to the light of imagination when you have to go learn Latin at Cambridge, but Milton did his best. His academic performance seems to have been exceptional, with one exception-- a brief suspension following a heated argument with his professor, seemingly over either Latin poetry or theology. Looking back, we can probably safely say that he was right.

"This day, I saved the Latin tongue / and what, pray tell, hast thou since done?"

Milton produced two major poems in his college years and shortly afterward. The first of these, "On the Morning of Christ's Nativity," is also the first complete poem he composed in English--and as a debut, it's pretty astonishing. Like Kanye West, Milton's first solo work makes it clear that he's arrived and is going to be fighting hard and playing for keeps.

Although the theological content is pretty interesting--especially the sad moment when the nymphs of Greco-Roman myth flee Christ's coming, showing a pain of Milton's at turning away from the tradition of Ovid and Virgil, who he loved, in order to glorify the Christian God--the poem's true strength is the way that Milton announces himself. In the beginning, and in letters to his college friend Charles Diodati, the young Milton proclaims his destiny: to be the great English religious poet, to dedicate his life to an art in the service of a higher power, and to, someday, write a great work to lay at the feet of God and his countrymen. Even more than these sentiments, his choice of English, rather than Latin, is astonishing; although trained as a Classicist, Milton here announces his intent to tell the story of Christ in a language for the common man, and to prove that English could create verse poetry as rich as Italian or Latin, a claim that very few outside of Shakespeare or Donne had the audacity to attest to.

And the little shit was in college. I'm a college student right now, and I'm proud if I can write a poem that has a working rhyme scheme or isn't just a John Darnielle song translated into Japanese and back. Milton, meanwhile, is devoting himself to writing an epic that will make English the prime language of religious poetry.
And also inspire like 90% of Nick Cave's career, which is pretty awesome too.
His other major work as a young man, "Lycidas," is a little harder to deal with. The basic premise is simple: Milton's former classmate Edward King drowned at Sea, and Milton, as the best poet of his class, was asked to provide an elegy mourning King.

Along the way Milton decided that it was also the appropriate time and place to attack the established clergy of the Anglican Church and their subservience to the Crown, because when you're in college you don't get that that's a dick move. The poem becomes, not just an elegy for King (who Milton never really knew), but a celebration of his potential: Milton saw his generation of angry protestant youth as being one who could really tear shit up, and King not just as a man but as a fellow Englishman cut down in his prime.

Although not a masterpiece--and probably the weakest of his great works (which still places it above most people's best, just as Ringo's solo career still blows The Monkees out of the water)--there's some intriguing moments of confused genius here. One of the greatest moments is where, as an extension of the pastoral and religious imagery (like many poets, Milton at this point loved poems about shepherds, farmers, and good country people, and puts "Lycidas" in that genre), he casts the corrupt clergy as wolves feeding sheep empty calories in order to fatten them up (l.125). It's a brilliant combination of the pastoral genre and the idea of Christ as Shepherd, and a pretty vicious attack on the church. And then he makes the argument that this bad food makes the sheep gassy and their flatulence poisons other sheep who don't even listen to the wolves, which, as a metaphor for the societal harm caused by false religion, is a pretty catastrophic failure.

Or perhaps he was merely centuries ahead of his time.
Like the Nativity Ode, though, "Lycidas" is astonishing in its Englishness. In the beautiful passage at the end he casts St. Michael as a guardian of England, asking him to look away from the scary Catholics to the South and find King's body pitching among the waves (l. 163), and in the procession of gods and spirits mourning King he creates Camus, a spirit of the river Cambridge covered with pig iron and seaweed (l. 103). It doesn't always work-- for ever brilliant line in "Lycidas" ("Where thou perhaps under the whelming tide / Visit'st the bottom of the monstrous world") there's also one that either falls far short or is just kind of goofy (With Nectar pure his oozy Lock's he laves"). Still though, as a piece by a recent college graduate, it's a pretty significant achievement.

In Part 2: The English Civil War and Paradise Lost


  1. a.) loving the fact that there won't be a lack of writing after the Gutrotter's end.

    b.) this is a great, great idea.

    c.) you had me at "Like Kanye West..."

  2. Also our blogger portraits look hilarious having a discussion.

  3. holy christ, you're right!!

    seriously tho. we should seek help.