December 12th, 2008

Milton's 400th Anniversary

John Milton's 400th birtday is passing off without fireworks or dancing in the streets. They haven't even given him a postage stamp. Newspaper columnists are skirting round the poetry to celebrate his defence of freedom of the press in the Areopagitica. One of these celebrants is Andreas Whittam Smith, the former film censor.

How can you believe in freedom of the press and be any kind of censor?

I haven't read the Areopagitica. I haven't read any of Milton's prose. I haven't ever read more than a couple of books of Paradise Lost. I studied Comus for "A" level and- after initial repugnance- fell in love with it.  I like the sonnet "On His Blindness". When I feel like the world is passing me by I mutter to myself, "They also serve who only stand and wait". It's one of my favourite tags.

A patchy record. I'm not proud of it.

It's obvious why Milton is a neglected classic- he's too heavy and humorless, his theology is moribund,  we don't like- in fact we detest- the god whose ways he set out to justify.  I'd like to say his current eclipse is some sort of passing fashion, but I don't think it is. We read him- if we do- for the gorgeousness of his language- not for anything he has to say about the human condition. He was a man of ideas- many of them bad or half-baked- who subordinated his wonderful imagination to apologetics.