Periodically, brushfires sweep through the sequoia forests of California. Rangers once feared that the fires would harm the sequoias; instead, the fires not only cleared out the smaller trees and underbrush; they actually strengthened the sequoias. Such is the case with John Milton in the contemporary culture wars.
Born 495 years ago on December 9th, he continues to tower like a sequoia in the landscape that is Western Literary History. For the last 30-40 years, the English literature curriculum has been the site of a raging fire. Whom should we include in the canon? Whom should we exclude? John Milton has often been at the center of this debate.
Some academics regard John Milton as the most distasteful of all writers in the traditional canon, so much so that they pound a steady drumbeat of criticism: he’s a misogynist! he’s a Puritan prude! he writes about biblical material! and he’s no longer relevant! Some would even like to see him extirpated from the curriculum. It is as though they have splashed kerosene against the base of this sequoia and danced around it, hoping the tree would burn.
But to no avail. The fire has only strengthened it, and, like that 300 foot sequoia, Milton towers over above them, impervious to their attacks. Milton’s detractors will come and go like the underbrush that periodic fires clear away, but he continues to endure.
Why? Quite simply, Milton is one of the most talented–and certainly the most erudite–writers in the English language. Like a colossus, he strides over literary history past and future. His work preserves and promotes the towering writers of Western Civilization who preceded him, such as Homer, Virgil, and Dante. At the same time, subsequent writers must learn from him and pay homage to his achievement. Here are three of his greatest accomplishments:
Milton’s masterpiece is Paradise Lost (first edition, 1667). It is a history of the universe synthesized from the Bible, then retold in the format of an epic poem. It deals primarily with the temptation and fall of Adam and Eve at the hands of the fallen angel, Satan. Although Milton’s theology requires that Satan be the villain, Satan remains one of the most complex, intriguing, and fascinating characters ever created.
Paradise Regained (1671) adapts the story of the temptation of Christ in the desert (Matthew 4:1-11; Luke 4:1-13). The poem emphasizes Jesus’ humanity. As Jesus overcomes each temptation, the poem shows him gradually realizing that his role is to be the Savior of humankind
Samson Agonistes (1671) adapts the story of Samson (Judges 13-16) into a play modeled after that of the ancient Greeks, complete with a chorus. It picks up the action after Samson has been shorn of his hair, blinded, and imprisoned. The play focuses upon Samson’s victory over his own despair and his pulling the Philistine theater down upon himself and the Philistines inside it. It is ultimately a story of triumph.
Despite the efforts of his detractors, Milton still thrives. Entire graduate seminars are devoted to his works alone. Anthologies of English literature, the staple of undergraduates, still include many of his minor poems and, of course, sections of Paradise Lost. And Milton scholars continue to produce books, scholarly articles, and conference presentations. Why? It’s simple: He is second only to Shakespeare as the best writer in English. Perhaps C.S. Lewis said it best: “in Milton is everything you get everywhere else, only better.”