In the village of Chalfont St Giles, about forty kilometres north-west of London, stands the last remaining house in which poet John Milton lived. He spent perhaps a year there in 1665, waiting out the Great Plague as it ravaged England’s capital. It is now a museum, a memorial to his prodigious production of poetry and prose – and to his canonical achievement, the epic poem Paradise Lost.
My pilgrimage to Milton’s cottage began with my first experience of Paradise Lost. I say ‘experience’ because my initial exposure to the poem wasn’t in print, but rather through an audio book. I listened to it – all 10,000 lines of verse – in my car driving to and from work. Milton, I like to think, let me come to him. At the time I was listening to whatever audio books I could get my hands on, and I simply worked my way towards Milton’s epic in the same way you eventually reach the less appealing selections in a box of chocolates. Paradise Lost waited, like that lonely but self-assured coffee cream, until I had run out of options.
At Milton’s cottage, I stood in front of a glass cabinet displaying a lock of his preserved hair. I was the only person in the room. This must be a feeling familiar to us all: when you discover something you love, it’s hard to understand why everyone else doesn’t feel the same way. Why wasn’t the cottage crawling with people falling over themselves to get a bit closer to these last remaining strands of John Milton?
When I mention Milton, people start to talk about Shakespeare. Milton was a great writer, I might say. But was he as good as Shakespeare? they fire back. It’s a natural connection. The two did, in fact, walk this earth together: Shakespeare died when Milton was eight years old. It’s even possible they crossed paths outside Milton’s London home on Bread Street. In his provocatively titled book Is Milton Better than Shakespeare?, Nigel Smith suggests the answer is ‘yes’ simply by posing the question. Nor is he the first to do so. The great modernist writer and critic Virginia Woolf, after reading Paradise Lost, wrote:
I can conceive that even Shakespeare after this would seem a little troubled, personal, hot and imperfect. I can conceive that this is the essence of which almost all other poetry is the dilution.
Woolf suggests that Milton represents a kind of concentration of poetic spirit. In 1846, Walter Savage Landor expressed the same idea: ‘A rib of Shakespeare would have made a Milton; the same portion of Milton, all poets born ever since.’ Landor gives Shakespeare precedence, but, like Woolf, sees Milton as supersaturated with poetic essence. All writers after him have been, in comparison, nothing but the weakest of weak tea.
I still talk about my ‘discovery’ of Milton. It’s what it felt like. Of course, my ‘discovery’ was nothing more than an act of colonialism, like planting my personal flag into a literary landscape that had been home to others for centuries. Nevertheless, part of my discovery was that Milton is an esteemed poet but essentially unread in our time. Another part of my discovery was that this had not always been the case. Woolf and Landor contribute to a broader and richer historical tradition of reading and discussing Milton’s work.
The Romantic period undertook the most direct engagement with Milton. In his poem ‘London 1802’, William Wordsworth exclaims, ‘Milton! Thou shouldst be living at this hour: / England hath need of thee’. The poem is more than an ode to Milton’s memory: it is a plea for his resurrection. John Keats, a contemporary of Wordsworth’s, similarly gushed at the idea of Milton. He was inspired to write a poem after seeing those strands of Milton’s hair – the same ones I stood in front of, alone and quiet in Chalfont St Giles. In ‘Lines on Seeing a Lock of Milton’s Hair’, Keats swoons:
[…] I feel my forehead hot and flush’d,
Even at the simplest vassal of thy Power, –
A Lock of thy bright hair!
If Wordsworth and Keats could have foreseen twenty-first-century technology, they might have pondered the possibility of cloning Milton from the residual DNA preserved in that glass cabinet.
What I am still discovering is that although Milton is now essentially unread, his influence persists – just not necessarily in those places it once did. We have appropriated Milton outside the literary canon – into religious discourse, civil rights movements, poetic practice and popular culture, sometimes inadvertently and sometimes invisibly. It’s as if the last 350 years of literary criticism has embedded his work in a collective consciousness that no longer needs to read his words.
Milton’s influence on Hollywood is, with a little knowledge, easy to spot. Taylor Hackford’s The Devil’s Advocate (1997) is less than subtle: its human incarnation of Satan is named John Milton. In the film Se7en (David Fincher, 1995), the murderer leaves a note for the detectives that includes a quote from Milton’s Satan: ‘Long is the way / And hard, that out of Hell leads up to light’. Ridley Scott’s 2017 Alien: Covenant was originally titled Alien: Paradise Lost, and references within the script abound, most obviously in having the android David (Michael Fassbender) quote Satan directly: ‘Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven’. Even Assassin’s Creed (Justin Kurzel, 2016) – a truly awful film – invokes the shade of Milton, more than once quoting the first line of Paradise Lost (‘Of man’s first disobedience …’) in reference to Adam and Eve eating the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge.
All that is missing, perhaps, is the Hollywood adaptation of Paradise Lost itself. It does seem strange that one of the most famous narratives in English has not been made into a film. It came close, at one point. Legendary Pictures had plans for an adaptation, with Bradley Cooper cast to play Satan, but the film was scrapped in 2012 due to projected budget overruns. I suspect there were also collateral concerns. Surely one of the key issues facing any visual adaptation of Paradise Lost is the requirement for unashamed, full-frontal nudity – the sight of Adam and Eve in unfallen Paradise. I don’t think Hollywood is quite ready. The visual effects that would be required of such a film unfortunately push it beyond the reach of independent filmmakers, who otherwise might have fewer qualms.
Paradise Lost seems to have a special place in the heart of visual artists. Many have taken to their various media to represent Milton’s words, most famously the Romantic poet and artist William Blake. It’s perhaps true that Paradise Lost is a particularly visual poem – itself a strange notion given that it was written after Milton lost his sight. (We are inclined to revere Milton for his poetic achievement even more with the knowledge that he wrote it while blind. However, in doing so he joined with other heralded poets who were also blind, such as Homer and the mythical Tiresias, with whom the poet explicitly identifies himself in Paradise Lost.) The tradition of illustrating Paradise Lost continues, but now extends outside the frame of established figures such as Blake, Gustave Doré and John Martin. In April this year, Spanish artist Pablo Auladell (with the assistance of translator Angela Gurria) published a graphic novel of Paradise Lost, with drawings in charcoal, pencil and pastel. The graphic novel met with highly favourable reviews, indicating that – despite the passage of 350 years – visual artists are not yet done with Milton’s epic.
As Auladell’s publication suggests, Paradise Lost’s appeal extends beyond the anglophone world. Or, perhaps more accurately, it’s the reverse: the non-white, non-anglophone world reaches out to Milton. To some degree it always has, but we are now starting to appreciate just how it’s being employed outside traditional domains. According to the recent academic collection Milton in Translation, Paradise Lost has been more frequently translated in the last thirty years than in the previous 300, with recent translations appearing in fifty-seven languages: ‘from Faroese and Manx to Tamil and Tongan, from Persian and Hebrew to Frisian and Welsh’. The influence of the poem is sparking new theological discussion among Muslim readers, some of whom find resonance with its ideas (and the depth of engagement with Satan, in particular, who is a much stronger presence in the Qur’an than in the Bible). At the same time, such readers are finding difficulty in marrying the poem’s messages (which can very much be read as anti-authoritarian) with theological doctrine, a phenomenon discussed at length in Islam Issa’s 2016 book Milton in the Arab-Muslim World.
Reginald A Wilburn’s Preaching the Gospel of Black Revolt: Appropriating Milton in Early African-American Literature traces the ways that many African-American authors have ‘appropriated and remastered’ Milton’s work. This title suggests, of course, that the appropriation of Milton by black writers has been occurring for some time – that it’s only now being widely recognised is itself significant. The book finds and explores Milton’s presence in the work of Phillis Wheatley, the first published African-American woman poet; Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, a poet, abolitionist and suffragist; and Frederick Douglass, a writer, orator and abolitionist.
What does Milton’s presence, or his appropriation, in another writer’s work look like? Here I would like to bring the study closer to home, by tracing echoes of Milton in the writing of the late New Zealand Māori poet Hone Tuwhare. One of the more famous lines from Paradise Lost is Satan’s description of the difficulty in escaping his dungeon (noted above for appearing in the film Se7en): ‘Long is the way / And hard, that out of Hell leads up to light’. It’s not the content so much as the style that is worth a comparison with Tuwhare’s poem ‘Muscle and Bone of Song’:
And of trees and the river
no more say
that these alone are sources
for the deft song and the sad:
nor the wave-curl and the sun
cross moon wind and hail
calm and storm come.
Joyously I sing
to the young girl’s hip-knock
and taunt: swing-cheerful breasts
shape my hands
to eternal begging bowls.
Much has been made of the inversion present in Milton’s verse and how it varies from the more idiomatic ‘Long and hard is the way’ or even ‘The way is long and hard.’ (My position is that these inversions were not driven by poetic need; Milton was a good enough poet to have, if he had wanted to, used more idiomatic structures within his poetic scheme.) TS Eliot famously derided Milton’s non-idiomatic style, claiming that Milton’s work can only be a bad influence on future poets (see Eliot’s essays ‘Milton 1’ and ‘Milton 2’).
Eliot, then, did not foresee Hone Tuwhare. We see the Miltonic style in Tuwhare’s lines ‘And of trees and the river / no more say’ and ‘the deft song and the sad’ – lines that essentially mirror ‘Long is the way / and hard’. We might, of course, read this as Tuwhare slavishly mimicking Milton. But what I see is Tuwhare appropriating Milton’s style for new poetic ends. Tuwhare’s poem critiques the old inspirations for poetry – no longer are trees, rivers, waves, sun and the ‘cross moon wind and hail’ the stuff of verse. Indeed, no longer is the Miltonic style itself useful for poetry. Instead, Tuwhare’s verse turns to the human and the physical – the sexual – for its material, and in doing so the poem transitions out of the Miltonic style into the more conventional English idiom (though still poetic and a little obscure). The last traces of Milton disappear after the grammatical inversion ‘Joyously I sing’; the remainder of the poem comes directly at its subject: ‘the young girl’s hip-knock / and taunt: swing-cheerful breasts / shape my hands / to eternal begging bowls.’ To borrow a word from the poem itself, this seems a deft convergence of idea and language. Tuwhare is having it both ways, invoking Milton and then dismissing him, and finding meaning and truth by laying this process bare on the page.
Once you start casting around for Milton’s enduring relevance, you find it everywhere. In Paradise Lost, Milton reconstructs the Garden of Eden for our benefit; the whole poem – all 10,000 lines – is written to ‘justify the ways of God to men’. Within Eden he places Adam and Eve, who, according to the constraints of the Judeo-Christian myth, will be tempted by the serpent and fall. Listen to Milton’s unfallen Eve, after Adam says they must restrict their activities in the Garden because they have an enemy (Satan):
If this be our condition, thus to dwell
In narrow circuit straitened by a foe,
Subtle or violent […]
How are we happy, still in fear of harm?
Milton’s Eve concisely explains why she and Adam should not succumb to fear, lest their fear curtail their God-given freedom and happiness. This sentiment bears repeating through history, and its pertinence endures. In her 2015 essay ‘Fear’, Marilynne Robinson echoes Eve’s words in a thoughtful and thorough examination of the state of gun violence in the USA. Margaret Atwood likewise paraphrases Eve: in ‘We Are Double-plus Unfree’, an essay published the same month as Robinson’s piece, Atwood reflects on the consequences of surrendering your freedom in an effort to ensure safety:
Minus our freedom, we may find ourselves no safer; indeed we may be double-plus unfree, having handed the keys to those who promised to be our defenders but who have become, perforce, our jailers.
Milton’s Eve, in a few short lines, dismantles the political rhetoric of fear so elegantly that it ought to put the matter to rest forever. The graceful rhythms that begin her declaration; the wordplay of ‘narrow circuit straitened’; the release from the iambic metre into the strong, purposeful stresses on ‘How are we happy’ – the phrase that concentrates attention on the crux of the issue. Again, as with Tuwhare, we read a sublime convergence of idea and language. Milton’s thinking, expressed in Eve, is deeply perceptive, and as relevant in the aftermath of the Las Vegas shootings as it was in the wake of the Restoration in the late seventeenth century.
I brought myself to Milton’s cottage in Chalfont St Giles during my PhD study. I was writing a novel fictionalising Milton’s life while completing Paradise Lost. I’m still writing it, I guess, in the sense that a piece of work is never complete until it’s published – or abandoned. The visit to his cottage was for research, and for inspiration. In the end I failed to feel the full sweep of emotion that overcame Keats at the sight of Milton’s ‘bright’ hair (it’s grey). I’ve also become hesitant to endorse the idea, first floated unknowingly by the Wordsworth of my imagination, that we ought to pursue Milton’s resurrection through advancements in cloning techniques. However, in the ensuing months and years I have taken a great deal of inspiration from the discovery that, though Milton may be widely unread, he is not unfelt. Milton echoes through the centuries, even if we don’t put his name to the resonance.
If you enjoyed this essay, buy the issue