Three hundred years ago, one month before his sixty-sixth birthday, probably on Sunday, November 8, John Milton was gathered into the eternal realm he had often written of:
Where the bright Seraphim in burning row
Their loud uplifted Angel-trumpets blow.
The year of his death, 1674, was one of great loss to English poetry, since not only Milton but also Thomas Traherne and Robert Herrick died then. Of the three, only Milton was much mourned beyond the circle of immediate friends. Although Herrick was an Anglican priest, he has long been considered a semi-“pagan” poet; we are only now beginning to appreciate the religious significance of his joyous verse, which affirmed that God is a God of many delights, so that worshiping him turns the mundane into miracle. Thomas Traherne had to wait for his recognition until the first years of the twentieth century, and is increasingly valued for his ecstatic celebrations of the Paradise within and the Heaven under our feet. But Milton has never been eclipsed, though he has undergone many fluctuations in the literary marketplace.
Milton’s work has often been a storm-center because of an imaginative power that is so basic, so probing, so profoundly disturbing that it becomes a Rorschach test for those who read Milton and write about him. In 1688 John Dryden revealed his own generosity, the rare ability to recognize and honor a prophet in his own country, by asserting that Milton surpassed Homer in loftiness of thought and Virgil in majesty, and therefore was a combination of the two of them at their best. In 1838 Ralph Waldo Emerson revealed his own lofty ideals by writing of Milton as “identified in the mind with all select and holy images, with the supreme interests ...1