John Milton himself wrote “Let me not be useless, whatever remains for me in this life.” While his major work, Paradise Lost, has often been misunderstood over the centuries, no one who has even a passing acquaintance with this and his other writings would regard his life as useless. But the question remains: what is the value of Milton?
To answer this, Professor John Leonard of the University of Western Ontario (London) has penned this concise book. He has the distinction of having written the longest book ever on the subject of Paradise Lost (in 2 volumes, with a third in the formative stages). At 161 pages, this book is the exact opposite, and is geared to modern readers who may not be aware of Milton's entire panoply of work. While PL consumes 2 chapters, others focus on its sequel (Paradise Regained), Samson Agonistes, his political prose, and minor poems.
I will offer a delicious nibble of each chapter. In Paradise Lost, Leonard prefaces an “epic simile” by saying “Paradise Lost contains many grand vistas, but few are as exciting as the sight that now greets Satan's eyes.” The sight is nothing less than “a magnificent spectacle of interstellar space as Milton imagines it actually is.” The passage begins as Satan
Looks down with wonder at the sudden view
Of all this world at once. As when a scout
Through dark and desert ways with peril gone
All night; at last by break of cheerful dawn
Obtains the brow of some high-climbing hill,
Which to his eye discovers unaware
The goodly prospect of some foreign land
First seen, or some renowned metropolis
With glittering spires and pinnacles adorned,
Which now the rising sun gilds with his beams.
“The simile,” writes Leonard, “is so beautiful, it is easy to miss the implications of 'scout'. Satan is likened to a military scout. The comparison is apt, for he is reconnoitering ahead of Hell's army. Wordsworth seems to have missed the ominous implications.” If even Wordsworth did not grasp the full meaning, it is no wonder the vast majority of Milton's readers also fall short. I have given the full quote above as it also leads Leonard to a discussion of man's belief that the cosmos was blue, like the daytime sky, rather than black, as we now know it is: the blackness of space.
“For modern readers, the most surprising feature of the 'metropolis' simile is the comparison of deep space to a sunlit landscape.” In 2016 Dr. Leonard asked me to investigate when humans first realised the sky is really black. He has been asking this question of astronomers for many years without an answer. Earlier this year I discovered the answer, and it will be the subject of a paper I am now writing.
Leonard specifically addresses the question of value in his chapter dealing with political prose. “Many modern readers value Milton because they see him as a pioneering champion of liberty.” Of course most of those readers are radicals who would be willing to sow untold chaos in pursuit of their goals. The political legacy of Milton is surely where his value is questioned most.
Another aspect of value is examined in the chapter on the minor poems, and it must surely be applied to Milton's other poetic works. “If dead poets are to have value, we should allow them to have values that differ from our own. That said, their language also differs from ours, and even slight changes in language can create significant misperceptions of values and value.”
The perils of such misperceptions are obvious in Leonard's discussion of Samson Agonistes, which has been subjected to a major 'revisionist' interpretation in recent years. These revisionists say that Samson caused the deaths of the Philistines in the temple as if he acted alone, “without God's help.” A study of the revisionist camp has led him to a sweeping conclusion. “I have dwelt on Samson's final moments to give a sense of the revisionists' desperation, their need to clutch at any straw. My own view is that they lose every interpretive battle.” But he offers no solace to the traditional view of the play either. Rather, he hews to a third approach, the quite unfashionable one proposed by the English literary critic William Empson (1906-1984) that appears to make God wicked. “How could a poet holding Milton's beliefs make God wicked?” asks Leonard. Empson claims Milton is too honest a poet to conceal the truth.
So what is the value of this debate for today? Leonard puts it baldly: “Samson is terrible. He worships a God of Terror and whole armies have fled before him, terrified. Since 2001, both traditionalists and revisionists have been so anxious to distance Milton from terrorism that they have forgotten that tragedy needs terror.”
As an insightful look at the value of Milton, this book amply lives up its title. Anyone who is frightened by the complexities and length of Milton's works would do well to read this slim book first. It will surely inspire many to delve into that long-ago world of the 1600s that is still so relevant today.
The Value of Milton (161 pages) is $27 paperback ($76 hardback) from Cambridge University Press.