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.