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Tony Grist

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Milton's 400th Anniversary [Dec. 12th, 2008|09:40 am]
Tony Grist
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.
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Comments:
[User Picture]From: ideealisme
2008-12-12 11:15 am (UTC)
I read book 1 of Paradise Lost because the exam question was easy (nobody ever bothered reading it). Then I got hooked and read the rest. You have to check out Book 5 where the Angels in heaven have a massive row and chuck mountains at each other.

I know what you mean about Milton's God - I noticed in the tutorial on Milton I did there were a lot of Northern Protestants - and I wondered briefly if I were selling out, if Milton himself would spit on me if I were on fire.
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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2008-12-12 12:15 pm (UTC)
I do feel bad about not having read the whole of Paradise Lost, Some day, maybe, I'll take a deep breath and plunge in.

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[User Picture]From: ideealisme
2008-12-12 12:18 pm (UTC)
It's one of those things that demands your concentration, yet gives back so much!
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[User Picture]From: wolfshift
2008-12-12 11:53 am (UTC)
Sometimes the "great" poets are pretty awful. There are many literary classics that are only classics because we're told they're classics. I think it's good that the work of people like Milton is being more and more ignored.

There's no point celebrating a poet if nobody finds his work worth reading.

Now if only Tennyson would go out of fashion...
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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2008-12-12 12:17 pm (UTC)
You don't like Tennyson?

Idylls of the King is pretty dreadful (I have actually read it all the way through) but he wrote some killer lyrics.
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[User Picture]From: wolfshift
2008-12-12 12:40 pm (UTC)
Yeah, I can't stand Tennyson. I had to read Idylls of the King (parts of it), In Memoriam, and at least one other major poem of his whose title I can't now remember. His ideas are interesting, but I just find his verse unbearably tedious.

Not that I'm fond of anybody's verse in that period. To my ears and mind, poetry doesn't get interesting until the 20th century, with an exception for Blake.
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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2008-12-12 01:18 pm (UTC)
I admire In Memoriam. Maybe it goes on a bit.

Victorian poets didn't see brevity as a virtue. They had an audience prepared to spend hours over novel-length poems. Then along came T.V.

I love Browning. He's got a modern sensibility. He's just about the first English poet since Shakespeare to use the whole of the language- to write serious (as opposed to comic) poems about "unpoetic" subjects.



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[User Picture]From: haikujaguar
2008-12-12 03:37 pm (UTC)
I miss epic poetry. *sigh*
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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2008-12-12 04:05 pm (UTC)
Maybe its time will come again.

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[User Picture]From: oakmouse
2008-12-12 09:11 pm (UTC)
A volume of Milton has the distinction of being one of two books I have thrown against the wall --- repeatedly. Paradise Lost makes me literally see red; it exemplifies a substantial amount of what I find most appalling in Christianity. I agree totally with the bit Peter Wimsey quoted: Malt does more than Milton can to justify God's ways to man.
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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2008-12-13 10:21 am (UTC)
I could wish he'd concentrated on being a poet- and left the theology to others.

I believe he was thinking at one stage of writing an Arthurian epic. Now that could have been really interesting!
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[User Picture]From: oakmouse
2008-12-13 11:58 pm (UTC)
I could wish he'd concentrated on being a poet- and left the theology to others.

Yes, exactly! I rather like some of his non-theological poems, but once he starts explicating stuff about God I start wanting to hit him.

I'm not sure if it's a good thing he wanted to write about Arthur, or a good thing he never got to it. *g* I'm on the fence on that one.
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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2008-12-14 09:40 am (UTC)
A Miltonic Arthur is hard to imagine. That's one reason it's such a fascinating might-have-been. Presumably if he'd written that he wouldn't also have written Paradise Lost.
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