MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

The “Glassy, Cool, Translucent Wave” of Milton

Portrait of Milton attributed to Sir Peter Lely

Portrait of Milton attributed to Sir Peter Lely

In honor of John Milton’s 405th birthday today, the New Republic pulled out this paean to the poet by Allen Tate, dating from October 1931. Tate uses the occasion of the first complete Milton edition – a project undertaken by Columbia University – to address “the place of poetic fiction in the modern mind.” Tate argues that Milton can serve as an important measure:

Milton does not ask us to believe his heavenly fictions in any sense that he did not believe them; Lucifer needs the same quality of belief as “old Damcetas.” He does ask us to exercise as much philosophical insight, passively, as he actively puts into his poetry. His philosophy is neither right nor wrong; it is comprehensive. It covers and puts in its philosophical place the modern shortsightedness that we shortsightedly call the revolution of the human mind, which is said to have made Milton’s poetry obsolete.

There has never been a revolution of the mind: There are only styles in fiction. Milton’s fiction is not in our style, and it seems inadequate to the solution of our problems. It is not diverting; it has no personality. We do not like it because it lacks these modern features; because it is creative in the purest sense. I think it was [Thomas] Warton who said that “Lycidas” was the absolute test of the sense of poetry; it still is. It is well to have one fixed criterion, for there is no abstract formula under the glassy cool translucent wave.


Meanwhile, in an essay for the London Review of Books last spring, a skeptical Colin Burrow pondered the “unanswered” question: “How is it possible to like Milton?”:

There is certainly a great deal to dislike. Most people would think of him as an overlearned poet who combines labyrinthine syntax with a wide range of moral and intellectual vices. His views on sex and women, for example, were mostly gruesome….Miltonophiles also have to overcome his regrettable tendency to present himself to the world as a prig.
The best place to begin to like Milton is with his volume of Poems both English and Latin (1645). This was described by its publisher Humphrey Moseley as ‘as true a Birth as the Muses have brought forth since our famous Spenser wrote’ when it appeared in what we now call January 1646….

Why is the retrospective volume of Poems the best place to start if you want to like Milton? The answer is that it shows not Milton turgidulus, or Milton the sage and serious defender of republican learning, or Milton the achieved polymath, or Milton the heretical crank. It shows Milton in the making. In this volume you can hear the swirl of literary influences running through his mind. At this point Milton is willing to ravish the senses rather than simply to suspect them.

Learning to hear how hard Milton is working in these early poems is a big part of learning not just how to like but (for me anyway) to love the cussed old so and so. I have talked metaphorically of his ‘editing’ together different poetic voices, but this is slightly more than a metaphor, since Milton was a compulsive tweaker and editor of his own writing. He needed to prod his own imagination on, and sometimes (rather like his keenest student, Wordsworth) he felt the need to tell it severely to back off.

Cambridge University site for Milton’s 400th anniversary

Filed under: Milton, poetry

2 Responses - Comments are closed.

  1. John Marcher says:

    “Milton turgidulus”? That made my morning. thank you for that chuckle.

    Burrow has a point with his question “How is it possible to like Milton?” However it’s just as easy to ask how can one not like Milton after reading “Il Penseroso” and “L’Allegro”? The problem is that in most schools people are introdcued to Milton via Aereopagitica- at least I was, and the aversion took years to get over. Wasn’t it Harold Bloom who claimed Milton’s Satan was the most fully realized literary character ever created, or something to that effect? I wouldn’t argue against that.

  2. James Hatch says:

    I do not know why Milton arouses so much defensiveness in critics and readers. We tend to rely too much on prejudice and preconceptions in approaching him. Rather than being a preacher of morality in a narrow sense, he is a humanist with unusually acute perceptions about human nature. His picture of Adam in _Paradise Lost_, for instance, perfectly captures a young, inexperienced man who is (too much) in love with his wife and unable to fully comprehend what obedience to God really means. The strange contradictoriness of the prelapsarian state is perfectly rendered, along with the horror of, and the need for, the Fall. This is not a matter merely of representation (a picture of a character in a situation) but of engagement with the reader (making us occupy a difficult psychological space in which we re-evaluate our feelings and ideas). It is this psychological dimension that attracted the Romantics: Wordsworth applies the same method to his own thinking, but without the same degree of focus. One cannot conceive of the Romantics (Mary Shelley, Percy Shelley, Coleridge, Byron, Blake, etc.) without Milton. But I am simply restating the obvious.

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