The Legacy Of a Poet: Milton! Thou Should Be Living in This Hour.

Listener: 7 May, 1994.

Keywords: Literature and Culture;

Economists were once thought to be among the liberal and progressive sections of the intelligentsia. Today they are thought of as curmudgeonly philistines. As a mild protest I thought I should write about the poet and pamphleteer John Milton, who lived in the 17th century, more than 100 years before the word economy gained the meaning it has today. England then had about the same population as New Zealand today, but it was more rural, with London, the largest city, about half the size of Christchurch.

They were turbulent times. Milton lived through the Civil War and the Restoration. The turmoil was seemingly about religion, but the prosperity of the preceding Tudor times had created new economically powerful social classes, who demanded political representation. Meanwhile, the invention of printing made the Bible available, in the English vernacular, to every literate man and many women (those of ranking below gentlewomen were at times forbidden to read it). This heady mixture of a new social structure and a new ideology was inflamed by a weaker economic performance. The King’s “think big” military excursions into the Continent did not help. There was erratic and illegal taxation, borrowing and inflation.

Milton’s father was a scrivener, almost a primitive form of merchant banker. Milton had a good education, including Cambridge University. In those days the government was trying to bring the universities under tighter control. The universities themselves were failing to keep pace with intellectual developments, and the greater control from on top tended to make for conformity, playing safe, careerism and idleness. Milton was a superb Latin scholar and later became Latin secretary to Parliament.

But he is most remembered as a poet, the : greatest modern epic poet, for his Paradise Lost. Paradise Regained and Samson Agonistes. Yet his poetry came in two periods separated by two decades in which he wrote hardly any at all. In those days censorship was rife, even though England was thought more liberal than most of. the Continent. In 1632 a man was imprisoned for importing Geneva Bibles. (Archbishop Laud had the temerity to explain that this was in the interests of English printers.) Oppression was widespread. When a close friend of Milton’s toasted the assassination of the much-hated chief adviser to Charles I, he lost his ministry post and degrees, was fined the princely sum of £2000, pilloried, imprisoned for more than two years and sentenced to lose both ears (although the mutilation was remitted).

The allusiveness of his poetry enabled the discussion of public issues, without being so clear as to lead to a prosecution. Obscurity and ambiguity were essential if one had anything to say.

However, when the censorship laws were repealed in 1640, Milton turned to prose. He still got into trouble, as with his pamphlet on divorce, which argued that romantic attachment should be the basis of marriage.

His best remembered work of this period was Areopagitica which is even today quoted as a defence of freedom of the press.

“As good almost kill a man as a book: who kills a man kills a reasonable creature, God’s image; but he who destroys a good book, kills reason itself, kills the image of God, as it were in the eye.”

He also argued, practically, that freedom would ensure the ultimate triumph of truth.

Milton was most hated for his support of the regicide of Charles I in 1649. He was (literally) a republican. Faithful to his beliefs, he was still publishing his argument at Restoration in 1660. It was a reckless thing to do, and he went into hiding. Less fortunate associates were hanged, drawn and quartered.

Censorship was reimposed and Milton returned to poetry, to give us those wonderful, if solemn epics. For many years they were thought to be very orthodox accounts of Christianity, such is their ambiguity. But a religious tract that he wrote at about the same time, Of Christian Doctrine, was so heretical that its publication was suppressed, despite it being in Latin. (It was first published 151 years after Milton’s death.)

Milton was not an original thinker, but he was an independent one, developing his own synthesis of others’ ideas. As one of the great masters of the English language, he expressed his ideas with force and fluency, and – near enough – for eternity. The subtitle to this column is from Wordsworth. More recently, our Rex Mason described a lineage of English poets “Shakespeare; Milton, Keats are dead  …” concluding, “Boldly bring I up the rear.”

But as marvellous a writer Milton was, I honour him most for his integrity under difficult life-threatening circumstances. He said what he had to say, as well as those circumstances permitted.

Events and persons from a third of a millennium ago may seem irrelevant today. Yet the 1689 Bill of Rights is part of New Zealand law. Milton, and contemporaries such Bunyan, Hobbes, Locke, Newton, and Winstanley, are still read. On the shoulders of these giants we see so much further. They are a part of this country’s heritage.

The column finished with: “The Milton books in the Heritage Collection of Wellington’s Alexander Turnbull Library are one of the best corpora of his works in the world and are soon to be displayed in the exhibition That Serpent Milton, which opens on August 5.” What most readers did not know was at the time there was a Treasury paper which advocated the selling off of the Library’s collection which was not New Zealand or Pacific on the basis that it – including the Milton collection – was not a part of the country’s heritage. As a result of the column, the paper was leaked to The Listener and the resulting article by Anthony Hubbard generated a political reaction which promptly put a stop to that philistinism. The story is detailed here.