Monday, December 9, 2013

Birthday Boy John Milton and His Christmas Contribution

Milton age 21 in 1629, about the time he wrote his Nativity poem

English poet, theologian, and political radical John Milton was born on December 9, 1608 in Cheapside, London under the sign of the Spread Eagle inn.  His father, also named John, came from a fairly wealth Catholic family but had been disowned after throwing his lot with the emerging Protestants.  He was a successful and popular composer whose madrigals dedicated to Queen Elizabeth I made him comfortable enough to offer John, his very promising second surviving son, a first class education.

The elder Milton passes his passion for religion to his son.  Young John was educated at St. Paul’s School and Christ College, Cambridge with an eye to joining the Anglican clergy.  At school he showed an amazing facility for languages, both classical and modern.  He mastered Hebrew, Greek, Latin, and Old English as well as Italian, French, Spanish and Dutch.  He was soon composing original poetry in Latin and Italian as well as English.

Milton abandoned his plans to join the priesthood and determined to self educate himself.  He retreated to his father’s ancestral home in Buckinghamshire for six years of intensive study.  Not only was he said to have read “every book that could be found in England,” he undertook an intensive study of the Bible, including familiarity with the earliest available texts in Hebrew and Greek.  While in the seclusion of his studies, he published his first poems including On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity, On Shakespeare, L'Allegro, Il Penseroso, and the pastoral elegy Lycidas.

In 1638 Milton embarked on a 16 month tour of France and Italy, where he sought out and met many of the leading intellectuals, poets, and philosophers of the late Renaissance.  Perhaps most influentially, he met the astronomer Galileo, whose persecution would inform his later crusades against censorship.

Returning to England, Milton took a 16 year old wife, Mary Powel.  It was not a happy marriage and despite giving him three daughters the two lived apart most of the time until her death.  This unhappy chapter in his life would lead to writing pamphlets in defense of divorce, which were a scandalous among his fellow Protestants as with Catholics.  Milton married two more times.  To a second wife who died in childbirth and to Elizabeth Minshull in 1662 who remained at his side through his last years.

When the English Civil War broke out in 1642, Milton largely abandoned his poetry to throw himself into the struggle as a passionate Puritan and Parliamentarian.  He became one of the leading pen men of Protestants, writing widely circulated tracts.  His pamphlets advocated freedom of the press, populism, and defended the regicide of Charles I.  When Oliver Cromwell came to power in 1746 he was rewarded with the important post of Secretary for Foreign Tongues under the new Commonwealth and its official propagandist.  Despite increasing disillusion with Cromwell for his dictatorial ways, Milton continued to work diligently even as his eyesight failed.  He continued his work even after going totally blind in 1651.  His assistant Andrew Marvell read his correspondence for him and took his dictation.  He would continue to rely on Marvell even after loosing his position.

When the Commonwealth was overthrown in 1600 and Charles II installed on the Throne, Milton, who was famous for his defense of the execution of the King’s father, was arrested and briefly imprisoned.  The king, however, favored a policy of reconciliation—and privately supported religious tolerance—and Milton was released upon the payment of a fine and a promise not to engage in further political writing.

Milton retreated with his family and the loyal Marvell to Buckinghamshire where he began work on his greatest achievements—the epic blank verse poems Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained.  By this time Milton had abandoned Calvinistic Puritanism and become an Arian, the crypto-unitarian theology that denied the Trinity and the idea that Christ was of the same substance and co-equal with God the Father.  Public expression of Arianism was considered heresy and blasphemy punishable by death.  Undeterred, Milton proclaimed his position in the very opening lines of his masterpiece, “….till one greater Man Restore us, and regain the blissful Seat…”

The poem showed Satan as a tragic, almost heroic figure, while ultimately acknowledging God’s grace and goodness and the agency of a human Christ as a redeemer.  It also included much thinly veiled political commentary.  The publication of Paradise Lost was delayed by the Black Plague and the Great Fire of London until 1667.  Despite the defenders of orthodoxy complaining that Milton had gone mad, the book was a widespread success.  Milton followed with Paradise Regained and the tragedy Samson Agonistes both published in 1671 but not as successful.

Increasingly frail, Milton spent his last years trying to put his papers in order in the hopes of the eventual publication of his complete works.  He died peacefully in Buckinghamshire on November 8, 1674.

Today Milton is regarded second only to Shakespeare in the pantheon of British letters.  His work was enormously influential on the English Romantic Poets, some of whom tried their hand at epic poetry as well.  Both his political pamphlets and his poetry were inspirational to the American Founding Fathers, particularly to Thomas Jefferson and his fellow Virginians.  In the 19th Century cheap popular editions circulated so widely that many began to look upon the tale of the Fall of Satan as virtual scripture.  Even today some Fundamentalists quote from the poem without seeming to realize the origin of the words—or Milton’s wildly different worldview from their own. 

Since it is also the Christmas season, why not include Milton’s nativity poem?  It is an early effort, written in his 20’s when he was still an orthodox Puritan—religious views which he would later modify considerably.  Not often seen by non-specialists, it is still worth a peek as an example of a great, but developing mind.  This is the introduction of a long poem.

Ode on the Morning of Christ's Nativity

This is the month, and this the happy morn   
Wherein the Son of Heaven’s Eternal King  
Of wedded maid and virgin mother born,     
Our great redemption from above did bring; 
For so the holy sages once did sing             5
That He our deadly forfeit should release,    
And with His Father work us a perpetual peace.       
That glorious Form, that Light unsufferable, 
And that far-beaming blaze of Majesty         
Wherewith He wont at Heaven's high council-table   
To sit the midst of Trinal Unity,        
He laid aside; and, here with us to be,           
Forsook the courts of everlasting day,           
And chose with us a darksome house of mortal clay.           
Say, heavenly Muse, shall not thy sacred vein          
Afford a present to the Infant God? 
Hast thou no verse, no hymn, or solemn strain          
To welcome Him to this His new abode,       
Now while the heaven, by the sun’s team untrod,    
Hath took no print of the approaching light,   
And all the spangled host keep watch in squadrons bright? 
See how from far, upon the eastern road,      
The star-led wizards haste with odours sweet:          
O run, prevent them with thy humble ode     
And lay it lowly at His blessed feet;   
Have thou the honour first thy Lord to greet,           
And join thy voice unto the Angel quire       
From out His secret altar touch’d with hallow’d fire.           
—John Milton          

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