What I was looking for was something light and entertaining, saucy even; and so naturally my hand hesitated, and then reached for and chose The English Poems of John Milton.
John Milton (1608-1674)
The full lips and tender eyes and obvious
concern for his appearance…
could almost be Oscar Wilde? No?
A happy choice as it turned out.
Now I had not looked at Milton since the 1960s… In fact the last time I can remember reading one of his poems was when I visited the teacher, scholar, theatre director, visionary and vibrant champion of Theatre in the Round, Stephen Joseph.
Stephen, who was important in my life for it was he who had encouraged me to take up the theatre as a profession, was very ill at the time. As I was to find out later, he was actually dying, though the full circumstances of this he kept from most of us.
Knowing that Stephen was not well, I had offered to work in his garden – clearing weeds and gathering flowers for the redoubtable Mrs Pemberton-Billing (PB to all who knew her) who kept house for him and was now looking after him. I knew that Stephen loved his garden, but would not be able to take care of it.
So there I was, down on my knees amid the flowers, when Stephen (still wearing his slippers I recall) came outside to see how I was getting on. He had a small book with him and, after some hesitation, asked me if I would read a poem for him. This alone was strange, but I did not question it at the time: and of course, I agreed. The poem was a sonnet by John Milton called simply On his Blindness. And here it is.
On His Blindness
When I consider how my light is spent
Ere half my days in this dark world and wide,
And that one talent which is death to hide
Lodg’d with me useless, though my soul more bent
To serve therewith my Maker, and present
My true account, lest he returning chide,
“Doth God exact day-labour, light denied?”
I fondly ask. But Patience, to prevent
That murmur, soon replies: “God doth not need
Either man’s work or his own gifts: who best
Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best. His state
Is kingly; thousands at his bidding speed
And post o’er land and ocean without rest:
They also serve who only stand and wait.”
Yet once more, O ye Laurels, and once more
Ye Myrtles brown, with Ivy, never-sere
I come to pluck your Berries harsh and crude,
And with forc’d fingers rude,
Shatter your leaves before the mellowing year.
Famous lines indeed. When my Grandma found out that I was studying this poem, she astonished me by launching into these first 5 lines with obvious relish and then the final line., “To morrow to fresh Woods, and Pastures new.” – a line which most of us get wrong. It is probable that, when my Granny was younger, she knew most of the poem by heart for in those days, children were often expected to memorize poems in their entirety.
We studied it at university. And so I began to read it, remembering that once, after an inspiring lecture, I looked up every reference and so compiled my own version. Sadly most of that knowledge is gone now, but I do remember the way that layers of meaning were revealed as I dug out the mythology, and the echoes of classical writers – whose very works themselves become part of the poem’s meaning. It was as good an introduction to the comp;lexity of Milton’s mind as one could wish for.
And why did I do this? Well partly it was because I have a ‘notes and queries’ streak in me which means that I may spend hours chasing down the possibilities of a crossword clue. But more importantly, it was because I was inspired by the example of the Professor of English at Manchester at that time and whose name was … Frank Kermode.
Of all my teachers, and I have been lucky in having many excellent teachers, Frank Kermode stands out both for his scholarship and his capacity to inspire. He was one of those teachers who, when he lectured you, made you feel more intelligent than you really are. (And let it be said that there are some teachers who leave one feeling the opposite.) He taught Milton and Spencer – and I was not alone in hurrying to the library after his lectures on Spencer to check references in pursuit of his allegory.
Here is Spenser looking a bit like the traditional Devil.
But to return to Milton, I can still see Kermode standing in front of the class, his notes seemingly forgotten, and simply talking about Paradise Lost and the traditions which Milton was consciously following; drawing together idea from the renaissance and the reformation; explaining why the Romantics (by and large) found Milton’s work congenial (though Keats was a bit sniffy) and what William Blake was driving at when he said. “The reason why Milton wrote in fetters when he wrote of Angels and God, and at liberty when of Devils and Hell, is because he was a true poet and of the Devil’s party without knowing it.”
Kermode let us see what Milton had to offer, and the background that let one enjoy him – though of course one could just sit back and let the language flow. . I remember how stunned I was to discover that Milton was fluent in Latin, Greek, Hebrew, French, Italian and probably Dutch and studied old English. And yet that scholarship does not stop one enjoying his works, though it can be a bit intimidating. He was, as Blake saw, a ‘true poet’, and it is the energy in his language and in his vision – of which more presently – which communicates
Undoubtedly, the genial intellect of Kermode and the scholars he assembled round him in the English Department, explain why that time at Manchester was so pleasant and so fruitful and so enjoyable not just for me but for all of us I think … and why I am on occasion sad for the friends I had at that time of poetry and skylarking, and have now lost …
… we have wandered far from Lycidas, but in a way we have come back to it. So to new fields…
I leafed on and finally came to one of my favourite poems On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity. Milton was 21 when he wrote it.
The face of Milton with whom we are more familiar.
He looks as though he has the cares of
the whole world on his shoulders. Is this how
he wanted to be seen or remembered?
Now look again at the first portrait.
Immediately one can feel his youthful exuberance: Christ is coming to clean up the world, and put it to rights. Everything will change. The old Gods will be booted out, and a new kind of peace established.
As though to impress us, Milton has adopted a tricky rhyme scheme – which sometimes works and sometimes doesn’t – and yes, he does show off his scholarship … But that can be forgiven in a young man who is just setting out in life, prepared to teach himself if necessary, and with a vision of the things he wants to say and do in the years to come.
I was struck most forcibly by the fact that already one can see the revolutionary in him. He was a man made for opposition, for the defending of principles. With little adjustment one can replace Christ with the Paliamentary revolution which was soon to come and wipe the slate clean. In this scenario, the old Gods and nymphs etc. can be equated with the Royalists, and ultimately with the execution of a monarch. Suddenly poetry has come of age, and the stakes are high. Soon the revolution will founder, and our poet will be forced into hiding to save his life with the coming of the Restoration. Look at that second portrait.
But all that is in the future. I read on, caught up again in the vividness of Milton’s imagination. Here is the effect of the coming of the ‘Prince of Light’.
No war, or battail’s sound,
Was heard the world around;
The idle spear and shield were high uphung;
The hookèd chariot stood,
Unstained with hostile blood;
The trumpet spake not to the armèd throng;
And Kings sat still with awful eye,
As if they surely knew their sovran Lord was by.
But peaceful was the night
Wherein the Prince of Light
His reign of peace upon the earth began.
The winds, with wonder whist,
Smoothly the waters kissed,
Whispering new joys to the mild Ocean,
Who now hath quite forgot to rave,
While birds of calm sit brooding on the charmed wave.
And then suddenly I came to a verse I was not expecting. Indeed, it is the last line which captured me.
For, if such holy song
Enwrap our fancy long,
Time will run back and fetch the Age of Gold;
And speckled Vanity
Will sicken soon and die,
And leprous Sin will melt from earthly mould;
And Hell itself will pass away,
And leave her dolorous mansions to the peering day.
I remember the first time I read this and the sudden shock of seeing the dirty cells and torture chambers and rat runs of Hell revealed in the sunshine of a new day. I think in the back of my mind I held those images from the war, – whether Dresden or Coventry – of buildings seen from the sky, with their roofs burned off, and which stared up at us like so many empty eyes.
I knew the line was from Milton, but I had forgotten from which poem, and when I found it again. it had lost none of its power to shock.
So that was it. That was my light reading. I closed the book and settled down, glad of the chance that had brought so many rich memories. Glad too that I had met up again with this writer who had such a rich command of English. It is not to everyone’s taste, I know that; but it can still stir the spirit.
All this and I have not really mentioned Paradise Lost…
As I fell asleep I thought that perhaps I was among the few who had originally read Paradise Lost because I was held by the plot.