Monday, December 10, 2007

Happy Birthday John Milton

There's a vignette heard each day on NPR called "The Writer's Almanac." The familiar, to some grating, to others soothing, voice of Garrison Keillor reads a poem. He then details a few literary or historical luminaries who were born, died or published something significant on that date. Here's a text version of yesterday's. I like the poem, and I found the bio of Milton to be interesting.

"On His Blindness" by by John Milton. Public Domain.

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
Lodged 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.'

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of John Milton, (books by this author) born in London (1608), who started writing poetry as a young man, but before his career as a poet could really take off, England began to fall into a civil war, the king was overthrown and a new form of government, known as the Commonwealth was established, led by Oliver Cromwell.

Milton responded to the situation by becoming a pamphleteer. Nobody really knew how the new government would work, and Milton became an advocate for greater civil rights and religious liberty. He wrote about expanding the right to divorce your spouse and he made one of the first comprehensive arguments for the freedom of the press. The Parliament had recently passed a law requiring government approval of all published books. Milton wrote, "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."

Milton eventually took a job as a Latin secretary for the government, translating letters for international correspondence. He was struggling to raise his three daughters, and he was slowly going blind. Then, suddenly, the government he worked for fell apart, King Charles II was restored to the throne, and all the leaders of the Commonwealth were hanged. That summer, a warrant was issued for Milton's arrest, but he was kept in hiding by his friends. His pamphlets were publicly burned. He was eventually pardoned, but he became an outcast, and people said that God had struck him blind for his sins against the king.

Milton was devastated by the restoration of the monarchy, but without a job, he finally had time to devote to his poetry again. He'd long thought that there needed to be an epic poem in English, and he had originally thought it would be about England. But instead, he decided to write the poem about the biblical story of Adam and Eve, and humanity's fall from grace.

He composed the verses in his head, at night, and in the morning he would recite them to anyone near by that would take dictation. He originally called the poem "Adam Unparadised," but he changed the title to Paradise Lost. There was some question as to whether it would be approved for publication by the government, since Milton was such a notorious dissident, but it finally came out in 1667. It begins: "Of Man's First Disobedience, and the Fruit / Of that Forbidden Tree, whose mortal taste / Brought Death into the World, and all our woe, / With loss of Eden, till one greater Man / Restore us, and regain the blissful Seat, / Sing Heav'nly Muse..."

When the poem appeared in print, Milton's contemporaries were astonished. People couldn't believe that a man generally thought of as a washed-up, outcast, political hack had written the greatest work of literature in a generation. The poet John Dryden wrote, "This man cuts us all out, and the ancients too." Milton was 58 years old, and he'd finally become a respected poet.

Reprinted from The Writers Almanac daily newsletter.

1 comment:

Mark Horner said...

Hey Katie, thanks for this post. I do love me some Garrison Keillor.

(Best New Year's Eve ever, last year, seeing a Prairie Home Companion live with Chris and Hannah Cotten at THE Ryman Auditorium, Nashville.)

Along those same lines, I thought you might appreciate my own homage to A Writer's Almanac: