Books LIVE Community Sign up

Login to BooksLIVE

Forgotten password?

Forgotten your password?

Enter your username or email address and we'll send you reset instructions

Books LIVE

Sunday Read: Colin Burrow Sifts Through John Milton’s Poetry in Search of Reasons to Like Him

In an article for the London Review of Books Colin Burrow looks to works by the 17th Century English poet, John Milton, to address the one key question which he says has not yet been answered: “How is it possible to like Milton?”

The Complete Works of John Milton: Volume IIIThe Complete Works of John Milton: Volume VIIIYoung Milton

Burrow says that “Most people would think of him as an overlearned poet who combines labyrinthine syntax with a wide range of moral and intellectual vices.” Starting out with Milton’s views on women Burrow turns to “Paradise Lost”: “Milton’s most dislikeable line – ‘Hee for God only, shee for God in him’ – suggests that Eve spent all day gazing at Adam for shadows of reflected divinity” and finds that “it is not difficult to hear in Milton’s works the grating sound of misogyny emerging through the frictions of the flesh.” Burrow then looks at Milton’s unfortunate tendency to come across as a prig and his “brutal sense of self-worth”, concluding that in order to “like Milton we really need to go right back to the beginning”.

This beginning, Burrow says, can be found in Young Milton: The Emerging Author, 1620-1642 by Edward Jones, which looks at the works that allow us to be “vivid witnesses to the processes of deliberation and interior dialogue by which poets become poets.”

The quatercentenary of Milton’s birth was in 2008. The celebratory shenanigans – the conferences, public lectures, biographies and privy pieces of self-promotion that in our wicked age accompany all major anniversaries – are over. But one key question remains unanswered. How is it possible to like Milton?

There is certainly a great deal to dislike. Most people would think of him as an overlearned poet who combines labyrinthine syntax with a wide range of moral and intellectual vices. His views on sex and women, for example, were mostly gruesome. In Paradise Lost he described the perfect union of loving angels with beguiling delight: ‘If Spirits embrace,/Total they mix, Union of Pure with Pure/Desiring’. But in Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce he declared that if mortals didn’t find a perfect spiritual mate they could end up having to ‘grind in the mill of an undelighted and servil copulation’. ‘Grind’ is such a terrible verb to use there. It combines traces of the abject Samson, milling for the Philistines, with simple lack of mortal lubrication in a way that makes you feel it’s a very bad idea indeed to be made of flesh. Even in the prelapsarian world imagined in Paradise Lost women are condemned to a secondary relationship to the divine. Milton’s most dislikeable line – ‘Hee for God only, shee for God in him’ – suggests that Eve spent all day gazing at Adam for shadows of reflected divinity. When Adam eats the apple he is described as being ‘fondly overcome with Femal charm’. Not all of Paradise Lost is quite that hard on Eve, with whom Milton at his kinder moments seems to be almost in love, and whom he sometimes treats as a virtual embodiment of the wayward poetic fancy. But it is not difficult to hear in Milton’s works the grating sound of misogyny emerging through the frictions of the flesh.

Book details

  • The Complete Works of John Milton: Volume VIII: De Doctrina Christiana by John K Hale, J Donald Cullington, Gordon Campbell, Thomas N Corns
    EAN: 9780199234516
    Find this book with BOOK Finder!
 

Recent comments:

  • <a href="http://kelwynsole.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Kelwyn Sole</a>
    Kelwyn Sole
    March 10th, 2013 @12:16 #
     
    Top

    Oh no. The ghosts of TS Eliot (1936 article) and FR Leavis (1945 article) are back with us. I thought they'd been got rid of for good.....amazingly flat, ancient representation of Milton's work. There is an argument, which I'm partially convinced by, that one of the reasons Milton gets trashed over and over again is political - this is the guy who justifies the whacking of Charles I; and he's a pamphleter for the English Revolution (Terry Eagleton, in a poem on English poets, says something to the effect that "there's only three names / can be saved from this dismal set; / Milton, Blake and Shelley, / will smash the ruling class yet" (?!?)).
    On the contrary: one of the most noteworthy ideologue's of early modernity, JM also contains within himself all its contradictions. For instance, gender; when you teach him, you have to ask students what to make of 'He for God only, Shee for God in him' vis-a-vis "among unequals, what delight?" Surely they contradict each other?
    And the same for his views on democratic politics, environmentalism (as we now call it), colonialism, etc etc - this is precisely what makes him interesting. His contradictions are mirrored in the way modernity is shaped and progresses, and thus affects us all in the world in which we live, even today. We all live in the morass caused by these contradictions.

    Bottom

Please register or log in to comment


» View comments as a forum thread and add tags in BOOK Chat