Tuesday 22 January 2008

Milton's 400th birthday

This year marks the 400th anniversary of the birth of John Milton, the greatest poet who has ever lived. There will be lots of celebratory events around the world throughout 2008 (I myself am co-organising a conference here in Brisbane). If you’re lucky enough to be in Oxford this year, the Bodleian Library has a terrific exhibition entitled Citizen Milton.

And over at Cambridge, there’ll be an extraordinary range of events at Christ’s College (this was Milton’s own college). There’s a series of public lectures – the first, on 30 January, is by Quentin Skinner. There are two library exhibitions, Living at This Hour and Milton in the Old Library. And there’ll be performances of Comus and Paradise Lost, as well as a performance of Handel’s oratorio L’Allegro, Il Penseroso, ed Il Moderato (which is based on Milton’s poems).

Later in the year, keep an eye out for the release of a major new edition of Milton’s works, published by Oxford UP, as well as Yale UP’s new Milton Encyclopedia.

If you’ve never read his great poem, Paradise Lost, then you can’t even begin to imagine what you’re missing out on. If you’d like to read it, there’s an excellent online Milton Reading Room, or you might prefer to check out the lovely illustrated edition introduced by that lively modern Miltonian, Philip Pullman (who writes without fetters because he is of the angels’ party without knowing it). And one of my own essays on Milton is also available as a free download from the Milton Quarterly website.

In short, there’s never been a better time to get into John Milton. As far as I’m concerned, life without Paradise Lost would not even be worth living (it would not even be life) – without Milton, I could only sigh and pine:

        “How can I live without thee? How forgo
        Thy sweet converse and love so dearly joined,
        To live again in these wild woods forlorn?” (PL 9.908-10)


michael jensen said...

Hmm... guess I should mosey on over to the exhibition, then...

So: what about a poll on the greatest Christian poet then? We all know what Ben thinks: what about the rest of us?


Les Murray (Australia's own!)

Perhaps more non-English poets better be included. Anyone?

Anonymous said...

I confess, Ben, that I'm one of those for whom Milton was ruined by well-meaning but schoolmarmish teachers. Your high praise has determined me, though. Tonight, I crack open my dusty volume of Milton and make an earnest effort!

Erin said...

Milton!? He's aight.
I'm gonna say Langston B. Hughes to keep this place from getting any paler though I can never betray Eliot ;)

Doug said...

Well, not only do I think Shakespeare should get a mention in Michael's list (though I suppose there's room to debate "Christian") but I would add the Pearl poet, and Langland from the earlier period, and from the most recent I would consider Richard Wilbur and R S Thomas - though for both more time is needed to tell. Sorry, Ben, but for reasons explained on my blog, Milton drops a number of places down any listing.

michael jensen said...

Hmm, Shakespeare, yes... I guess Hamlet is about the most Christian thing he wrote.

I forgot to add Auden, too.

Anonymous said...

Ben and I have been here before. Go over to the side bar and click on "Essential Culture for Theologians" under "Popular Posts", and then click on "[20] Essential Poets for Theologians", where there are some great comments too.

But, yes, it's exciting times for anniversaries of great (Christian) poets: Blake (250) and Auden (100) last year, Milton this year (400 on December 9th).

No question: Paradise Lost is a staggering achievement. It's the epic scale of it that sets Milton apart in the annals of English literature (okay, there is Spenser), dislodges one's jaw, and puts him right up there with Homer, Virgil, and Dante. (Shakespeare doesn't count - he is from another planet.) And then there is the impact and influence of Paradise Lost not only on the English literary tradition (and American - Moby-Dick is inconceivable without it), but also on the way people read the Bible without even being aware that they are peering through Miltonic lenses. Sure, some folk - from Dr. Johnson to Eliot and Leavis (who had political as well as literary axes to grind) - thought Milton's Latinate blank verse corrupted the English language - but even they knew that here was a force of (more than) nature.

Christopher Hill, in his tremendous intellectual biography, calls Milton "a more controversial figure than any other English poet." So kudos too for his heresies, politics - and sexuality (when he was 33 he married a 17-year-old, and after she died in 1652, in 1656 he married a woman 20 years younger)!

So happy anniversary, John!

Ben Myers said...

Yes, Kim: and of course his young wife, Mary Powell, deserted him almost immediately after their wedding — in response to which, Milton sat down and wrote a series of polemical pamphlets in defence of divorce.

This episode prompted E. M. W. Tillyard to make the famous remark that if Milton had been Adam, he would have immediately eaten the forbidden fruit and then written a pamphlet to justify the act.

Anonymous said...

Yup, and on the subject of divorce Milton also published a translation of some of Martin Bucer's stuff in his defence. Mind, Mary rejoined him, and they had three daughters and a son (who died in infancy). Then again, debate still rages around how he treated them - nice guy or bully? When Milton married Katherine (who bore him another daughter), he'd been blind for four years. Another thing he had in common with Homer (the Greek, not the Simpson, whose domestic life Milty would have envied).

Anonymous said...

Is there any edition of Paradise Lost that you especially like--quality of the texts and notes, etc.--for general readers?

Anonymous said...

Ben, your religious and cultural provincialism is showing.

I am sure people from other high cultures would dispute your notion re Milton being the "greatest" poet that ever lived.

What about all the other great, essentially poetic, epics of Western culture-- to say nothing of those from Buddism, Hinduism and Zoroastrianism.

Or the devotional poetry of the Hindu tradition, especially the Krishna tradition.
The work titled Jnaneshvara by Jnaneshwar for instance.

Ben Myers said...

Hi Anon: yes, of course I'm provincial (where's the fun otherwise? — if you're too open-minded, all the ideas fall out). Karl Barth once remarked that Mozart's sound is "the primal sound of music absolutely" — not merely an isolated phenomenon of music but the pure musical Ding an sich. That's pretty much how I feel about Milton's poetry....

Patrick: I myself have three favourite editions. Alastair Fowler's edition of Paradise Lost (Longman 1968) has the best and most comprehensive annotations — it's indispensable, especially on the classical background. But when I'm reading Milton's poetry, I always use Helen Darbishire's Poetical Works of John Milton (2 vols, Oxford UP) — this has no annotations, and it's a beautifully elegant text which tries to reproduce Milton's own idiosyncratic system of spelling, capitalisation, etc. The other edition which I regularly use is Roy Flannagan's Riverside Milton (Houghton Mifflin 1998). This is by far the best and most attractive recent edition — at 1200 pages, it includes all the poems, good selections from the prose works, as well as the early (17th-century) lives of Milton. Flannagan's introductions and annotations are extensive and very helpful, but the book's layout is still very clean and attractive (since the pages are quite huge)l and there are even some lovely illustrations. Prose is printed in double columns, and poetry is printed in a single column with lots of surrounding white space; and for Milton's Greek, Latin and Italian poems, a translation is printed opposite the original text.

So anyway, if you want a really good student's edition, then the Riverside Milton is probably the one to get. But if you're just thinking of picking it up for the first time, then you'd be fine to stick with the Penguin edition (which is easily affordable, with light but reliable annotations).

::aaron g:: said...

Why go off to Cambridge to hear about Milton when you can go to UQ? !

Ben Myers said...

Good point, Aaron. We may not have Quentin Skinner, but we do have nice sunny skies (most of the time), and the nicest beaches your toes will ever touch.

::aaron g:: said...

"We may not have Quentin Skinner, but we do have...Ben Myers."

Ben Myers said...

Come on, Aaron, now you're just frightening people away!

Matt said...


Will the conference you're organizing issue a call for papers? Or did I miss out on that already?


Ben Myers said...

Hi Matt. Since the format of the event will be a symposium with a relatively small number of papers (no parallel sessions, etc), we've invited specific speakers rather than issuing a call for papers. If you're interested in participating, though, you can certainly email me for further info.

Ben Myers said...

Actually, since posting my earlier comment about Milton editions, I've discovered that there's now a new student edition which looks a good deal better than the Riverside Milton. I don't have a copy of this yet, but it really looks excellent (and it's far more affordable than the Riverside Milton, too):

William Kerrigan, John Rumrich, Stephen M. Fallon (eds.), The Complete Poetry and Essential Prose of John Milton (Modern Library, 2007; 1400 pp.).

Anonymous said...

Yes, Ben, the new Modern Library Milton is great--cheaper, but far better produced than, the Riverside Milton. The selections from "Christian Doctrine" allow you to essentially read the whole thing, with good notes relating to Paradise Lost, shortened mostly only by mercifully abbreviating long quotations.

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