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 of the human race.” In 1942, speaking of the tendency of some readers to admire Milton’s Satan more than Milton’s God, C. S. Lewis revealed his own crisp clarity by commenting:

To admire Satan … is to give one’s vote not only for a world of misery, but also for a world of lies and propaganda, of wishful thinking, of incessant autobiography.… Where Paradise Lost is not loved, it is deeply hated.… We have all skirted the Satanic island closely enough to have motives for wishing to evade the full impact of the poem.

Much earlier, in 1804, William Blake named an aspect of Milton that appealed to his own electrifying imagination, calling him Milton the Awakener; and it is on this aspect of Milton’s work that I choose to focus. Can John Milton, dead for three centuries, still retain the power to awaken mankind? In a technological world he could not possibly foresee, can he still inspire us to climb toward the highest reaches of human nature? Having spent more than a decade studying his work, and having been told by certain college students that Milton seems more relevant than much of the contemporary literature they have studied, I think the answer is yes.

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In a poem called “London, 1802,” William Wordsworth described the state of England as he saw it then in terms that perfectly describe America of the Watergate era:

Milton! thou shouldst be living at this hour:

England hath need of thee: she is a fen

Of stagnant waters: altar, sword, and pen,

Fireside, the heroic wealth of hall and bower,

Have forfeited their ancient English dower

Of inward happiness.

We no longer speak of firesides and bowers, of course, and we no longer fight with swords; but the fact can hardly be denied that many American religious organizations (“altar”), military forces (“sword”), artists (“pen”), family units (“fireside”), and government officials (“heroic wealth of hall and bower”) have through corruption forfeited the internal peace that is the reward of integrity. Wordsworth was expressing his faith that Milton’s unselfish commitment to serving God through serving human society would help to re-sensitize the England of his day. Of course he did not hope that Milton’s literal return to life would have straightened out the vices of England. Moses and all the prophets, or even the return of Christ to live as a human being among us, would not accomplish that feat. What Wordsworth meant was that if Milton’s “manners, virtue, freedom, power,” and “cheerful godliness” were alive in the hearts of enough of his countrymen, the corruption would cease.

And indeed, no one has surpassed Milton in portraying the essentially self-defeating nature of corruption. In Paradise Lost he pitted against the Son of God a Satan who embodies destruction, negation, bitterness, and selfish passion, and who in his pettiness sometimes reduces himself to the stature of a nasty brat determined to ruin his parents’ picnic:

To do aught good never will be our task,

But ever to do ill our sole delight,

As being the contrary to his high will

Whom we resist. If then his Providence

Out of our evil seek to bring forth good,

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Our labor must be to pervert that end,

And out of good still to find means of evil.…

[I. 159–65].

Of course, as long as Satan remains “out there,” it is possible to thrill to this kind of evil and the violence it breeds; but as Stanley Fish has shown in his excellent book Surprised by Sin (1967), Milton has constructed Paradise Lost in such a way that the reader is confronted with evidence of his own corruption; gradually he “becomes aware of his inability to respond adequately to spiritual conceptions, and is asked to refine his perceptions so that his understanding will be once more proportionable to truth.…” Satanic corruptions “out there,” the “they” and “them” that are so easy for all of us to adopt, become in the course of an intelligent reading of Paradise Lost the corruptions “in here,” the “we” and “I” that squeeze and disquiet us and force us toward constructive change. Milton the Awakener.

For John Milton, the Bible possessed an authority so great that no other book could begin to equal it, although of course Milton was learned in Greek and Roman classics, Jewish commentators, Church Fathers, Medieval and Renaissance European literature, and the like. So imbued was he with the Bible that for the introduction to his book of theology, De Doctrina Christiana, he provided an epistle that was obviously modeled after those of the New Testament, entitled “John Milton, Englishman, To all the Churches of Christ and to All in any part of the world who profess the Christian Faith, Peace, Knowledge of the Truth, and Eternal Salvation in God the Father and in our Lord Jesus Christ.”

De Doctrina Christiana contains some theological views that have alienated people in some branches of the Christian Church, but Milton’s definition of heresy deserves careful consideration:

I devote my attention to the Holy Scriptures alone. I follow no other heresy or sect. I had not even studied any of the so-called heretical writers, when the blunders of those who are styled orthodox, and their unthinking distortions of the sense of scripture, first taught me to agree with their opponents whenever these agreed with the Bible. If this is heresy, I confess, as does Paul in Acts 24:14, that “following the way which is called heresy I worship the God of my fathers, believing all things that are written in the law and the prophets” and, I add, whatever is written in the New Testament as well.
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Thus, skillfully, Milton points out that even St. Paul was sometimes considered a heretic, and establishes that the only tribunal before which he wants to be judged is that of the Bible without “unthinking distortions”—that is, the Bible carefully interpreted, with full attention to historical context and literary devices. And on this basis he asks his readers, “Do not accept or reject what I say unless you are absolutely convinced by the clear evidence of the Bible.” All of Milton’s doctrinal discussions and the basic doctrines of his poems give one no reason to question the sincerity of what he has said here.

Where the Bible was silent, however, or where the Bible was sketchy, Milton saw the opportunity to apply sanctified imagination. He was careful to emphasize that where he has filled in imaginative details, he is using the language of accommodation and does not intend to be taken literally (see especially PL V.571–76). For example, Isaiah 14:12 hints at the fall of Satan from a very important position in the angelic host: “How art thou fallen from heaven, O Lucifer, son of the morning.… For thou hast said in thine heart, … I will be like the Most High. Yet thou shalt be brought down to hell.…” Out of this Milton fashioned the stupendous character of Satan that dominates Books One and Two of Paradise Lost, jealous because the Son of God had been revealed to the angels as the glory of the Father, determined to reign in Hell rather than serve in Heaven, leader and destroyer of the one-third of the angelic host that defected at his urging. From the brief suggestion in Isaiah 14 combined with the passage in Revelation 12:7–9 about a war in heaven in which Michael and his angels fought against Satan and his hosts, Milton created a detailed three-day battle culminating in the defeat of Satan by the appearance of the Son in his fiery chariot:

Him the Almighty Power

Hurl’d headlong flaming from th’Ethereal Sky

With hideous ruin and combustion down

To bottomless perdition, there to dwell

In adamantine chains and penal Fire,

Who durst defy th’Omnipotent to Arms [I.44–49].

Anyone who reads aloud that magnificent sentence will notice that the predominant h and p and d and f and b and t sounds require a sudden expulsion of breath that dramatizes for the ear the sudden expulsion of Satan from his high position as Son of the Morning. And anyone who figures out the grammar will notice that the sentence begins with the object (Him), moves from there to the subject and verb, then to the modifiers of the verb, and finally back to the modifiers of the object, so that the whole sentence curls around upon itself like a vast chain—or like an angel falling headlong and flaming out of the sky. What Milton has supplied is a concrete, vivid experience that fleshes out the suggestions made by the Bible. Thus he stimulates us to interiorize the biblical narrative, causing us to experience it on our pulses instead of reading theoretically.

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From the terse narrative of Christ’s temptation in Luke 4:1–13 Milton built Paradise Regained, devoting over nine hundred lines of poetry to the temptation of hunger (in Luke there are only two verses), lavishing over a thousand lines on the temptation of the kingdoms of this world (in Luke, four verses), and dealing with the third temptation, “Cast thyself down,” in a lightning-swift climax that shows a startled Satan (and the reader) that Jesus is in a very special sense the Son of God, “True Image of the Father.” Because of all the details added in the Miltonian account, the reader not only experiences the temptations more thoroughly than he does in reading a sketchy historical account, but also learns to appreciate more deeply the implications of the moral conflict, the parallels between Job and Jesus, and the contrast between the first Adam’s failure in the Garden and the last Adam’s triumph in the wilderness. By means of the dialogue between Christ and Satan, Milton stimulates the moral awareness of the reader. Milton the Awakener.

Milton lived through a civil war that included the execution of the king despite the still widespread belief in the Divine Right of Kings, according to which it was considered exceedingly sinful to raise one’s hand against the Lord’s anointed. It was inevitable, therefore, that Milton had to do some hard thinking about the basis for moral choice. The twentieth century knows something about the easy morality that absolutizes obedience to “the powers that be” and thus justifies immorality and evildoing with the excuse that “I was only obeying orders.”

Milton wrestles with this issue in Samson Agonistes, closely following Scripture to show that Samson had indeed been led of God to marry the woman of Timnah and thus to break the law that forbade the marriage of Israelites to non-Israelites (see Deuteronomy 7:1–3). Judges 14:1–4 makes it clear that Samson’s parents opposed his marriage because of the Deuteronomic law, “but his father and mother knew not that it was of the Lord.” Later, however, Samson assumed on the basis of this one transcendence of the law that he had the right to do the same thing in regard to Dalila—and in this case he was wrong, and suffered immensely for his mistake. Finally, alone and blinded but purged by his suffering, Samson is ordered to entertain the Philistines at the feast of Dagon. He refuses on the basis of the law against participation in pagan worship (Exod. 23:24). When his countrymen urge him to go ahead out of expedience, so that he and Israel will not be further punished by their captors, Samson takes a firm stand against the morality of expedience:

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the Philistian lords command,

Commands are no constraints. If I obey them,

I do it freely; venturing to displease

God for the fear of Man, and Man prefer,

Set God behind … [SA 1372–75].

Yet Samson does go to the feast, because once again he feels “rousing motions” telling him that in this individual case, he is intended to obey the voice of the inner Spirit and disobey the law that ordinarily would apply.

Thus Milton awakens us to the profound implications for the individual conscience that are embedded in the biblical narrative but may have been missed because of the sketchiness of that narrative. And thus he sensitizes us to the awareness that there are no easy answers, that it is with God that we have to do, and that mindless obedience to law cannot and must not take the place of sensitivity to the will of God for us as individuals in individual cases: twice, Samson is right to disobey God’s general law and obey an “intimate impulse.”

On the other hand, Milton has also built into his drama a stern warning about too easily assuming that we are above the law, for in the case of his liaison with Dalila, Samson erred disastrously. “I thought it lawful from my former act,” he cries (SA 231), but he must nevertheless take the responsibility and suffer the consequences. “Whatsoever is not of faith is sin.” Samson Agonistes is, among many other things, a profound study in moral responsibility. Milton the Awakener.

Although Milton’s theories concerning women and the relation between the sexes were largely conventional, his own practice was as liberal as his hierarchical interpretation of the Bible and the universe would allow him to be. (On this subject, see my article “Milton and Women’s Liberation” in the December, 1973, issue of the Milton Quarterly.) But in his metaphors of inspiration, Milton is truly electrifying. He pictures his Heavenly Muse—that is, the inspiration for his poetry—very clearly in terms of the Son of God in the invocations to Books One and Three of Paradise Lost, yet in Books Seven and Nine he pictures this same Muse in female terms (see William B. Hunter, “The Heavenly Muse,” in Bright Essence: Studies in Milton’s Theology, 1972). Thus he imaginatively embodies the implications of Scripture, in which John 1:1–2 identifies Christ with the Logos, the Wisdom of the Old Testament, which of course was personified in the Book of Proverbs as female.

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Although Milton could not allow himself consciously to accept the egalitarian implications of the fact that the Bible sometimes presents God or his attributes in female terms (cf. Num. 11:12, Isa. 66:13, Luke 15:8–10) in order to make clear that God is literally neither male nor female, his poetic imagination soared far above his conscious theorizing. As much as any poet or mystic and far more than most, Milton freed himself from the tendency to anthropomorphize God. His metaphors challenge us to do the same, to abandon our traditionally sexist assumptions about the nature of God and to put into practice Paul’s liberating vision of a classless, non-sexist Christian society (Gal. 3:28). Milton the Awakener.

And Milton challenges us to a more profound definition of heroism than that prevalent in modern society, where strong-arm tactics still prevail and where money still makes the man. For the subject of his great epic Milton thought about and consciously rejected militaristic heroes, in favor of “the better fortitude/Of Patience and Heroic Martyrdom” (IX.31, 32). The code of his hero is simple and Christ-like:

Henceforth I learn, that to obey is best,

And love with fear the only God, to walk

As in his presence, ever to observe

His providence, and on him sole depend.…

that suffering for Truth’s sake

Is fortitude to highest victory,

And to the faithful Death the Gate of Life.… [XII. 561–71].

It is easy to grow dull to such values because of the aggressive self-serving constantly demonstrated in the society in which we live. Milton the Awakener.

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And by his own standards, Milton was himself a hero, though he would have been too graceful to call himself one. The justly famous sonnet on his blindness records his turmoil at finding himself blind before he had written any of the major works that “intimate impulse” told him it was his destiny to write. He feels a natural rebellion, wondering whether God will expect him to do a full day’s labor after denying him light;

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.

“It is, after all, not ultimately necessary that I be the one to write Paradise Lost,” Milton concludes. “It is only necessary that the will of God be done, even if that means for me a life and death of utter obscurity.” It is harder, of course, to “stand and wait” than to “post o’er Land and Ocean.” The “posting” may be hard, but at least it gives us a sense of importance. Looking blindly into his own future, Milton could say with his great contemporary, Sir Thomas Browne, “Thy will be done though in my own undoing.”At the same time, Milton sweeps away our spurious and egocentric reasons for serving God: “God doth not need/ Either man’s work or his own gifts.” This is a recognition that God did not need John Milton to write Paradise Lost. The same One who had given the poetic fire to John Milton could just as well have given it to John Doe had Milton chosen to be careless with the gift. We need not flatter ourselves with an inflated sense of our own importance, whether we are one of the messengers or one of the sentinels; God is sovereign, and cooperation with the divine will is a privilege arising out of God’s love rather than God’s need. This may be a somewhat deflating vision, but it is a realistic and healthy one, since it asserts that individual importance stems from a love relationship with the Creator rather than from what we do or do not accomplish.

In Walden, Henry David Thoreau wrote:

Morning is when I am awake and there is a dawn in me. Moral reform is the effort to throw off sleep.… The millions are awake enough for physical labor; but only one in a million is awake enough for effective intellectual exertion, only one in a hundred millions to a poetic or divine life. To be awake is to be alive.

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Milton the Awakener is also Milton the Enlivener. And this month, three hundred years after his death, we can continue to be grateful that there was a man sent from God, whose name was John.

Bibliographical Note

The quotations of Milton’s work are from what I consider to be the finest general text, Merritt Y. Hughes, John Milton: Complete Poems and Major Prose (Odyssey, 1957). The best complete edition is edited by F. A. Patterson, The Works of John Milton (Columbia University Press 1931–38), though the six volumes of The Complete Prose Works of John Milton now available from Yale University Press contain very helpful introductions and explanatory notes. The indispensable biography of Milton is that by William Riley Parker, Milton: A Biography (Clarendon, 1968).

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