I am going to be spending a lot of time with John Milton's work over the next month or so. I've just completed these two and am about to finish Sir Thomas Browne's strangely brilliant Religio Medici, after which in the Harvard Classics lineup comes the complete poetic works of Milton in English.
Milton was a very strange man. While Milton was distinctly ranked as a Non-Conformist in his day, he had the hubristic and distinctly Un-Puritanical belief that God had ordained him to be the greatest epic poet in the English language. This was before he'd ever even written a poem.
In the introduction, the author of the introduction (unnamed, so I must assume it's mine host Dr. Charles Eliot) writes:
"In spite of Milton's association with the Puritan party in the political struggles of his time, the common habit of referring to him as "the Puritan Poet" is seriously misleading. The Puritans of the generation of Milton's father were indeed often men of culture and love of the arts, but the Puritans of the Civil War, the Puritans whom we think of to-day in our ordinary use of the term, were, in general, men who had not only no interest in art, but who regarded beauty itself as a temptation of the evil one."
Young John Milton also had a fervent and outspoken devotion to the concept of chastity which he drew from a bizarre reading of Revelation. He believed, if I am understanding him correctly, that the 144,000 written of in St. John's Revelation chapters 7 and 14 are poets or writers (hence the "new song") and that since he (Milton) is clearly to be numbered among them he must retain his virginity. His college chums (if any) at Cambridge said that he was all the time on about virginity. It is difficult to imagine such a person in today's colleges.
Although, left on its own, that part of his personality might not grate too harshly against one's preconceptions of Puritans, but I should also mention that in spite of this early fervent fixation, by the time he left this world he had been married three times. This did not seem to effect his standing as the greatest epic poet in the English language.
I am a bit charmed that he would say things like "I am predestined by God to be the greatest epic poet in the English language" and then turned out to be exactly what he predicted. I'm further charmed by his rhetoric. I heard from Professor John Rogers upon going in to read Milton that one possible key to appreciating his work is to allow yourself to be charmed by his verbosity, logophilia, and his love of his own knowledge. And there was a point early on in my reading where I thought, "My gosh, he's just like me!"
Areopagitica was a speech given by Milton to Parliament in support of unlicensed publishing/printing in England. As you may know, in 1643 Parliament passed a licensing law in which censors would have the first read and veto power over anything published in England. Milton was arguing against censorship from (get this. Also possibly hard for some with modern eyes to imagine) a Christian point of view. There lies the main value of the work for me as every once in a while some Pharisee will inevitably make a disparaging remark against my reading of material that does not bear their preferred Christian label. Previously my response was to re-examine the circles I'm moving in. Milton's arguments range from the importance of seeking wisdom to the true Christian's incorruptibility therefore how all avenues of wisdom should be accessible to censorship smacking of Papism, specifically monasticism and the Inquisition.
Two smacks of irony after the fact: First, this speech was made all the more famous by being widely published. Second, Milton never lived to see the censorship in England slackened. In fact, at the Restoration at the end of Milton's life, censorship became much more severe.
Of Education was written by Milton at the request of his friend Samuel Hartlib. Hartlib requested Milton write down the thoughts he'd expressed in conversation on the topic of educational reform. It reveals a vigorous educational regimen which reveals a lot about Milton's values and the different values of that period of history. For example, Milton recommends languages which include Greek, Latin, and even Syrian. Most charming, I thought, was his exercise portion which included fencing and wrestling. This was meant to prepare the young student for the possibility of warfare. Although, to modern American eyes, fencing is usually reserved for more nerdy elements. I should know. I loved fencing.
Milton also, probably not surprisingly, proves a fellow Classicist. He also stresses a strong foundation in virtue which I suspect Dr. Eliot took to heart while compiling this series of books.
I look forward to the month or so ahead of me with John Milton. He is both an excellent writer and highly entertaining whether or not the latter was intentional.