A Potency of Life

December 9, 2008, marks the 400th birthday of one of the most celebrated poets in the English language, John Milton. Colleges and universities around the world — and, appropriately, even a number of churches and cathedrals — are celebrating the day with marathon readings of Milton’s epic Paradise Lost. Hit the Googles and see if there’s one taking place near you, and then by all means go.

If you’re a fan of, say, Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, or Kevin Smith, you’ll see in Milton the roots of much of their respective mythologies involving God, Satan, and Heaven and Hell. Moore’s epic battles of angels and demons, Smith’s very human archangels and devils, and Gaiman’s charismatic Lucifer Morningstar, for example, can trace their way back to the pages of Paradise Lost. Milton, who was blind at the time he composed the epic poem, dictated much of it aloud to other poets for transcribing — and that’s one of the reasons, I think, why Paradise Lost remains so exciting: Milton had to hear it in his head first before he had it put to paper. The language is colorful and electrifying to the extreme, and — though Milton had no inkling of such a term at the time — incredibly cinematic.

Milton loved the English language, and not only penned some memorable, oft-quoted phrases (most of which are now cliches), but created words we’re still using today. Ever told someone that it’s “better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven”? You were quoting Milton. “A heaven on Earth”? Milton. Ever use the word “dreary”? Milton. “Self-esteem?” Milton. The title of Philip Pullman’s series “His Dark Materials”? That’s taken from Milton, too.

But it’s more than his love of language or his poetry that should endear Milton to writers. Milton was one of literature’s first great political radicals, with strong views on government, religion, and censorship. While it was stodgy government views on divorce (particularly, his own) that spurred Milton to write Areopagitica — drafted as a political speech to be delivered before Parliament — the tract remains one of the most stinging indictments of government censorship, as well as one of the most celebrated defenses of literature:

For books are not absolutely dead things, but do contain a potency of life in them to be as active as that soul whose progeny they are; nay, they do preserve as in a vial the purest efficacy and extraction of that living intellect that bred them.

As good almost kill a man as kill a good book: who kills a man kills a reasonable creature, God’s image; but he who destroys a good book, kills reason itself, kills the image of God, as it were, in the eye.

And though all the winds of doctrine were let loose to play on the earth, so Truth be in the field, we do injuriously by licensing and prohibiting misdoubt her strength. Let her and Falsehood grapple; who ever knew Truth put to the worse in a free and open encounter?

I cannot praise a fugitive and cloistered virtue, unexercised and unbreathed, that never sallies out and sees her adversary, but slinks out of the race, where that immortal garland is to be run for, not without dust and heat.

Go read John Milton. Now.

Happy 400th.

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5 responses to “A Potency of Life

  1. Stephen Parrish

    This was great! Thanks!

    You know, you sound like a biographer. Go figure . . .

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  2. I love Milton–mentioned him in my blog at midnight, too, with a wishful thought that somehow, he faked his own death and lived on ever since, writing forever. If only…

    Great post for a great man. Thanks!

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  3. Brian Jay Jones

    Milton was one of those courses I was required to take in college, and was dreading — and then ended up loving it, not the least of which was because of his aggressive political views.

    Like you, Susan, I keep rather hoping we learn he didn’t really die at 65, but kept right on writing into his 80s. I keep waiting for someone to find the lost manuscript to Paradise Lost IV: The Reckoning in a trunk in Worcester or something.

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  4. Death-balladeer Nick Cave uses the phrase “red right hand” in two separate songs, explicitly crediting Milton for the reference in one of them. I went to look up the phrase in context, and was amazed at the richness of Milton’s language. His verse is not transparent — it took me several readings to take it apart — but it’s meticulously crafted and extremely satisfying.

    Is there an edition of Paradise Lost you recommend?

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  5. Brian Jay Jones

    The version I used in college — and still have on the bookshelf — is The Complete Poetry of John Milton, edited and notated by John T. Shawcross.

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