It’s the birthday of poet John Milton, born this day in 1608. I always try to observe it in some fashion, perhaps by reading some portion of Paradise Lost or Paradise Regained, or simply announcing it to the world, as I am doing here.
Milton was far too stern, too crabby, too rigid in his ideas to be to everybody’s taste as poet–or so he appeared to be. Yet, there are clues within his behavior that suggest he was more genial than later generations have allowed him to be. Although he insulted his first wife, Anne Milton, calling her an “image of earth and phlegm,” and used her as the unspoken model for the idea of divorce based on incompatibility in The Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce, the fact remains that she went back to him after separating herself from him for a time. Milton married two other women in his lifetime, and seems to have been happy with each one, and they with him.
This is a man who could have pursued a career in music had he chose; a man cheerful enough (and brave enough) to sing when a fit of painful gout was upon him. Such a man cannot be all bad, and Milton was not.
What strikes me most about Milton is not his learnedness (on display in every line he ever wrote) or his radicalism (ahead of his time though he was in both marital relations and theology) but his calmness, which comes through most especially in the syllables of the iambic pentameter dialogue between God the Father and the Son in Book III of PL; the stress of the lines simply never falls where we think it must, but the Son’s sacrifice is still strong and clear:
“Behold mee then, mee for him, life for life / I offer, on mee let thine anger fall; / Account mee man; I for his sake will leave / Thy bosom and this glorie next to Thee / Freely put off, and for him lastly die.”
Jesus’s entire performance in PR is like this. The Son, even in the wilderness, deflects the expected pressure or emphasis on the personal, the “I and me” of suffering and and temptation, and focuses instead on the human objects of His sacrifice. Violent and revolutionary though Milton’s times were, the victory by the Almighty was, in his eyes, assured.
Except that the victory was not a physical one, to be accomplished by swords or guns or the sacrifice of blood. The victory was to be entirely spiritual. I cannot say exactly what weight Milton placed on all the words of Jesus, but Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained stand as Milton’s extraordinary interpretation and embodiment of Christ’s mysterious statement, “The Kingdom of God is within you.” All of human experience–our knowledge, our love–was pointed toward achieving, not heaven on earth, but “the Paradise within, happier far”–a radical notion, perhaps, but a strikingly-reachable goal for many of us, one worth striving for.