Every once in a while I get a blog piece from an author that I am so excited about I am compelled to post it immediately, today’s piece fits that bill. Philip Pullman, best known as the author of The Golden Compass, which is in theaters now, also wrote the introduction to the Oxford edition of Milton’s Paradise Lost. Today, it is my great honor to post Pullman’s thoughts on Milton in 2008. Enjoy!
Four hundred years after the birth of John Milton, he still lives, his example still inspires, his words still echo. Paradise Lost is played on the stage, is sung to music, is choreographed for a ballet; it is an audiobook, it is the subject of countless theses and dissertations, and on the very morning that I’m writing this, an invitation arrives to the private view of an exhibition of paintings and prints called The Fall of the Rebel Angels, whose iconography is unmistakable.
Paradise Lost is the great central work, of course, but Milton’s life was far more than Paradise Lost. It’s important to remember how politically engaged his life was – engaged to the point of considerable personal danger: after the Restoration in 1660 he was arrested and imprisoned, and might easily have fared much worse. But he never abjured his republicanism, despite the changed temper of the times, despite the re-introduction of censorship and the persecution of authors and printers known to have supported the republican cause.
He was not without his supporters. When his books were ordered to be burnt, the Bodleian Library in Oxford managed to conceal their copies of such inflammatory pamphlets as The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates. John Rouse, Bodley’s Librarian, had anticipated such an order years before, and arranged for their titles to be omitted from the catalogue. A similar concealment happened later in 1683, when a panic about a plot to kill the King stirred the Convocation, the governing body of Oxford University, into interdicting “all members of the University from the reading of the said books” and requiring them to be burnt in the Schools Quadrangle. That was not the university’s finest hour, perhaps, but it might have been one of the Bodleian Library’s.
And it was when his personal and political fortunes were at their lowest ebb – when he was blind, and poor, out of official favour, a widower with three dependent daughters – that he began the work for which he is most remembered today, and set about to pursue ‘Things unattempted yet in prose or rhyme’, and ‘justify the ways of God to men.’
He was in his fifties, and had published many poems already, some of which (Lycidas, L’Allegro, Il Penseroso, Comus) are among the loveliest of all English verse. He would be remembered still as a poet if he had been executed under the Restoration, and had never begun Paradise Lost. But in that great poem he found a theme and a metre that matched every fibre of his genius. From the magnificent opening showing the defeated rebel angels chained on the burning lake, through their plan to travel to the newly-created earth and seduce the ‘new race called Man’, to the superb psychological drama of Satan’s temptation of Eve and its consequences, to the sad but resolute music of the closing lines, Paradise Lost is unmatched. It is the greatest poem by England’s greatest public poet.
Possibly, if the Commonwealth had been a success, if the Restoration had never happened, if the English Republic had been steady and just and lasting, Milton might never have written Paradise Lost; he might have been employed on state business, on diplomacy, a senior civil servant too busy and successful to turn to private verse. In which case it could be said that the monarchy is the price England has paid for the existence of Paradise Lost. Doubtless it has been a steep price, but doubtless it was worth it.