Saturday, October 29, 2011

The Usurper's Illustrious Secretary -- Johnson's Milton

One of the very few moments of levity in Samuel Johnson's essay on John Milton is when Johnson asks why every biographer has to make such a big deal about every single house that John Milton ever stayed in. It's almost as if, Johnson says, the act of reciting the places where Milton stayed is a ritual in itself.

If a biographer were to forget one of Milton's houses, Johnson guesses, that biographer would be charged by the other biographers with something akin to heresy.

This is one of the few points in Johnson's narrative of Milton's life where Johnson seems a little bit perplexed by his subject. Nevertheless, even before John Milton died, in 1674, his birthplace was already an attraction for foreign visitors to London. People would come to see Milton's birthplace and then go visit Milton himself.

Another point where Johnson seems to be a bit perplexed is where Milton seems to escape punishment for serving Oliver Cromwell, once Cromwell has been executed and King Charles II returns to London to restore the throne.

In 1649, Oliver Cromwell executed King Charles I. John Milton, whose public activity had been scanty at best, on either side of the Civil War, had become Cromwell's Latin Secretary. Cromwell, who had gained such strength in England at first by stating that he was helping the country fight against Monarchy and for Democracy, now dissolved parliament and took on sole rulership of England, basically as -- not a King, but an Emperor, really -- but under the title of "Protector."

Nevertheless, John Milton, who seems to have been against Monarchy and for Liberty, remained under Cromwell as his Latin Secretary. When certain groups in England had protested against Cromwell's execution of Charles I, Milton actually wrote an essay to try and get the people back on Cromwell's side. Charles II wrote an essay called "Defensio Regis," stating that murdering Royalty is abominable, regardless of the situation. Milton wrote an argument against Charles II's essay, again defending Cromwell for having committed the execution.

In addition, once Cromwell was firmly entrenched as "Protector" of England, John Milton, being Latin Secretary, wrote many of Cromwell's resolutions (official resolutions at that time being written in the basically international language of Latin).

But Milton didn't just defend Cromwell's actions against Royalty and write the laws promoting the "Protector's" policies; he also wrote propaganda-like tracts of praise for Cromwell. In one of these essays Milton even said, "Nothing is more pleasing to God or more agreeable to reason than that the highest mind should have the sovereign power."

This in itself is rather a strange thing to hear. Milton had for most of his life been staunchly against authority. Johnson says, "Milton's republicanism was, I am agraid, founded in an envious hatred of greatness, and a sullen desire of independence; in petulance impatient of controul, and pride disdainful of superiority."

And yet Milton was willing to defend everything Cromwell did.

When Cromwell was killed in 1658 and it became very evident that Monarchy would be restored to England with the return of Charles II to the throne, it also became evident that those people who had been involved with the execution of Charles I would likely be put to death.

England was surprised with Charles II's announcement of the Act of Oblivion, which pardoned everybody who had sided with the rebels, except for those who had been directly involved with the execution of Charles I. However, many people who had had less of a role than Milton in defending the execution were being put to death. Milton was in danger of his life.

Milton had escaped. But he was in bad health, suffering from the gout, and already blind. He couldn't have hidden, Johnson argues, very effectively. And yet he wasn't really pursued, and, except for a rather minor run-in with the law, he was allowed to remain in the shadows until it finally became clear that he would not be penalized at all for anything he'd done.

Johnson assumes that the reason Milton had gotten away with everything he'd gotten away with was simply because he was so talented, as well as being blind and in poor health. Johnson writes, "Something may be reasonably ascribed to veneration and compassion -- to veneration of his abilities and compassion for his distresses, which made it fit to forgive his malice for his learning."

English veneration may be the reason that Milton was let go. It may also have been Milton's international reputation. At the age of thirty, Milton spend fifteen months travelling through Europe, going through France, Italy, and Switzerland, and receiving magnificent acclaim wherever he went. He really was a celebrity. And it seems that he was remembered this way through the years.

But I also think that Milton was let go because of what he stood for. Not his republicanism, or his support for the acts of Cromwell, but the ideals of life that manifested themselves in Milton's career and in what is arguably his greatest work, Paradise Lost.

Milton may actually have taken more time on his travels through Europe. In fact, he had probably, on his travels, been hoping to set himself up for constant work as some kind of an ambassador. He was, among the English, the most elegant speaker of Latin. And Latin was, at that time, basically the international language. But because of the Civil War in England, Milton decided to return home.

However, once Milton returned home, he didn't join an army. He didn't even commit himself to civil service. In fact, he set up a boarding school and spent the years up until the execution of Charles I as a schoolmaster. This is a fact which Johnson relates to us with an air of characteristic disgust.

But, as much as I think Johnson would like us to think he is disgusted with Milton's choice to be a schoolmaster, it seems pretty obvious throughout Johnson's essay that Johnson believes Milton would not have been able to write Paradise Lost had he not given himself opportunity after opportunity for taking the leisure to study just about any subject that had piqued his curiosity. Milton had to develop a colossal mind in order to write the colossal Paradise Lost.

However, I also think there was a kind of ideal developing -- domestication. As nobility had basically fallen in England, and as republicanism seemed to be rising, I would imagine, a class of people was coming to be recognized as a new type of elite mind: a mind that could live a somewhat social life, while also remaining somewhat "cloistered."

This type of elite mind would be akin to a monk, or a professor. But it would not be tied to the church or the academy. Indeed, in Milton's case, it would not even be tied to the crown, while it could be tied to a political cause -- through the political controversies in which Milton involved himself through is tracts.

The revolution which had tried to carry itself out in England simply carried itself over to America, where it became the foundation for the Democratic Republic of the United States. And it seems to me, although it may not be stated implicitly anywhere, that the ultimate ideal for American life is a kind of domestic life, where a person may be involved to a certain degree with social ideals, while also carrying out a personal, internal, home-based life.

The domestic aspect of life would be, then, more important than the broader aspect of social life. In fact, the domestic aspect of life would be the kind of source from which an individual's methods of action within the larger social realm of life would be drawn. And social life would, for the individual, be directed at two aims: first, to secure a broader social framework for the perpetuation of a continued comfortable domestic life; and second, to secure the individual means (i.e. money) for a comfortable domestic life.

I would argue that as mankind became more conscious of itself on all social levels, the domestic man became more of an ideal -- as something that could achieved by a much larger portion of the population than, say, the noble or the courtier.

And Milton stood for the domestic man, as any kind of domestic man could be. Milton was allowed to live his life because, in spite of its glaring imperfections, it was a representative life, an example of what life could be for all men, if conditions were such that all men could engage themselves in careers such as Milton's.

Milton's Paradise Lost is a domestic drama. I'm influenced by Camille Paglia in my assessment of Milton's Paradise as a Spenserian Bower. The backstory is in some ways like the glittering travels of Milton through Europe, except with the horrific episodes of darkness, which must stand for Milton's eventual descent into blindness (Milton began going blind in 1644, at the age of only 36, and was totally blind by 1652). But, just like in Milton's life, the backstory, as glittering as it is, is only the basis for the main dramatic impetus of the story, that of Adam and Eve being expelled from their Spenserian Bower.

As many people have argued, from John Dryden onward, the real hero of Paradise Lost is the Devil. But it might be possible to think of Adam as all men's conceptions of themselves before they "lose their innocence." Every man has an ideal of raising a family and having a good home. The Devil would, however, be the social man, the "business traveler," let's call him, who has to go out and conduct the dirty work to keep his family going.

When the Devil gets home and gets to play Adam again, he finds he's not as innocent as he used to be. And he can't act as innocent as he used to act. He finds the sin of the outer world has tainted the domestic world. And this knowledge translates to his wife, Eve. God, the greatest ideal of man, ushers Adam and Eve out of Paradise. Adam and Eve, if they want to keep living, have to accept the dirty realities of the world.

But Christ, God's Son, who is the Son of Man, and therefore the ideal son of all couples, is the promise of redemption for the nuclear family. This ideal keeps husband and wife living in the broader social world in order to provide for their smaller, domestic world. Thus Paradise Lost is an allegory for the life that was developing itself through the recent events in England, and that would be the main impetus for the development of American life.

There are plenty of modern American works of art that share this theme, though on a more human level. One of the best is probably the film It's a Wonderful Life. But a more interesting one is the 1967 TV movie The Trap of Solid Gold, the screenwriter for which was best-selling mystery novelist John D. MacDonald.

(I learned about John D. MacDonald through reading Stephen King -- the novel Christine, to be precise. I agree with King that MacDonald deserves tons and tons of attention and adulation.)

By the standards of the day, and according to Johsnon's reckoning of them, Paradise Lost was a major success. "The call for books," Johnson tells us, "was not in Milton's age what it is in the present." Milton illustrates this by pointing out that the demands for the plays of Shakespeare, who, tradition relates, was wildly popular, did not call for the publication of more than 1,000 copies of the collected works from 1623 to 1664.

So, for over 41 years, 1,000 copies of the collected works of Shakespeare were sold. (This, of course, doesn't count the bootleg copies, of which, I've been told in many a Theatre class, there were plenty.) But in two years, the first edition of Milton's Paradise Lost, a total of 1,300 copies, had sold out. This seems to count, for those times, as a great success.

Johnson really only gives positive critical attention to three of Milton's works: L'Allegro, Il Penseroso, and Paradise Lost. L'Allegro and Il Penseroso are short poems, about which Johsnon says, "Every one that reads them reads them with pleasure." Both poems take the attitude of an academic intellectual. L'Allegro looks at the more joyful side of life. Il Penseroso looks at the more contemplative side of life.

Every once in a while I get the idea in my head that I can actually make a habit out of memorizing poetry. And about ten years ago, when I got this idea, I memorized L'Allegro and Il Penseroso, which I found to be delightful poems -- both of them. Johnson says, "No mirth can, indeed, be found in his Melancholy; but I am afraid that I always meet some melancholy in his mirth." I disagree. Both poems seem joyful to me. Il Penseroso is too colorful to be too melancholy.

However, I will state this one thing about Il Penseroso. It presents the life of a student as very similar to the life of a monk. And -- I'm not claiming to have anything like even a rudimentary knowledge of history -- but it seems to me that, in the Middle Ages and maybe for a while after that, when families had smart sons, and they wanted their sons to distinguish themselves, they sent them to monasteries.

But the life of the monastery was followed up by the life of the academician. In the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, it seems to me, nobility was decaying and a new kind of social structure was allowing people from a wider run of life to work their way up through the world -- in the court. In addition, commerce was becoming a more and more important force in social life.

I'd believe that L'Allegro and Il Penseroso are Italianate, joyful farewells to the previous form of social life, while Paradise Lost is a kind of looking forward to the new form of social life. The social structure of Elizabeth I's reign was a kind of bridge to what would follow through and then after the reign of Oliver Cromwell.

Johnson's praise of Paradise Lost is the praise of awe. In fact, Johnson seems to have been stunned by Milton's work. Johnson, overall, seems to have two reactions to Milton as a person: indifference and loathing. As a schoolmaster, Johnson seems to regard Milton as inconsequential. Milton was born as a gentleman. He traveled Europe and was a celebrity. He came back to England during the Civil War and became a schoolmaster. Why didn't he act like a gentleman? Well -- he didn't. And, as a schoolmaster, he was, to Johnson, inconsequential.

But as Cromwell's Latin Secretary, Milton was loathsome to Johnson. It wasn't just as Cromwell's Latin Secretary, but as the writer of venomous, spiteful essays. These essays, Johnson argues, show Milton as being quite learned, but rather self-centered and, really, pusilanimous.

One of the two best examples of how Milton's tracts raised Johnson's ire would be the essays Milton wrote in favor of divorce. These treatises were written after Milton's first wife ran off from home and wouldn't return. Milton wanted a divorce, but wasn't granted one by the Presbyterians. So he wrote (without having the then-required license to do so) a series of tracts in favor of divorce. Johnson felt this kind of action was totally unnecessary.

The Presbyterians didn't allow Milton to get his divorce. But the parliament did. Milton, who'd supported the Presbyterians, now turned his back on them, saying that "New Presbyter is but Old Priest writ large." Milton ended up not getting his divorce. He took his first wife back, and, in fact, taking good care of her family when, in the midst of the Reformation, the Royalist family experienced hardships.

Nevertheless, barring Milton's noble charity toward his wife and family, Johnson found this whole episode a repulsive example of Milton's spitefulness and narrow-mindedness.

The other great example of Johnson's distaste for Milton's overall character in public life was his reaction to the series of treatises Milton put out in defense of Cromwell's actions against Charles I, especially his retort to Charles II.

Probably the most exemplary statements by Johnson is, "The rights of nations and of kings sink into questions of grammar, if grammarians discuss them."

This reaction is to Milton's preponderance to judge Charles II's arguments by the grammar and style he employed, rather than by the logic and force of the arguments themselves.

However, I'd argue that the righs of nations and of kings are, in fact, questions of grammar, at least on some level. In the United States, anyway, our set of laws is known as the U.S. Code. A Code is a language. Even if our set of laws weren't a code, they'd be a morality. And a morality is a social technology. It might not be a material technology, but it is a social one. All technologies are built out of the language used by the people who have created the technologies. And so the questions of technologies, including social technologies, are, in fact, a question of language -- especially of grammar.

I'd argue that a better understanding of grammar would not only improve the understanding of our laws and rights, but that an improved development of grammar would be one of the few things that could actually help us continue to improve our laws and enhance our rights. So questions of grammar are extremely important when dealing with questions of the rights of nations and of kings.

Not that I can say much in this regard. I know how bad my grammar is.

It really surprises me, anyway, that Johnson, who seems so adverse to any sort of entry Milton makes into the public sphere, would be so angry at him for having chosen such a reclusive career as a schoolteacher. I'd think that Johnson would consider it to be quite fortuitous -- that Milton busied himself so much with prattling at little boys that he couldn't spend even more time prattling at Britain.

Then again, perhaps Johnson simply felt that if Milton had only involved himself in public life as much as he should have felt obliged to do, as a gentleman, his understanding of the situation in England would have led him to hold an opposite opinion regarding what his role should have been in that situation.

This seems to make itself felt in one of Johnson's sole criticisms of Paradise Lost, which as I said, was a work that seemed to have stunned Johnson with awe. Johnson says that since "human passions did not enter the world before the Fall", "the plan of Paradise Lost has this inconvenience, that it comprises neither human actions nor human manners."

Johnson really doesn't see Paradise Lost to be a drama of humanity at all. In fact, any drama Milton creates, Johnson sees as inhuman -- sometimes, as in "Comus," to be absurdly inhuman.

I think Johnson looked up to Milton, because Milton held so firmly to an ideal -- the ideal, the Protestant ideal of logic and rationality as the basis for spiritual principles. I think Johnson saw Milton as being so inhumanly devoted to these principles that he was blind to the very human flaws in Cromwell. And so, in a sense, Johnson would have seen Milton as so elevated and idealistic that he simply couldn't see how the ideals he was acting on had such a dangerous human effect.

Again, Johnson says, "The want of human interest is always felt."

This is Johnson's only major criticism of Milton's work. And it mellows down a bit, into a quote which I believe is even more telling of Johnson's attitude toward Milton. Johnson says that the perusal of Paradise Lost "is a duty rather than a pleasure. We read Milton for instruction, retire harrassed and overburdened, and look elsewhere for recreation; we desert our master, and seek for companions."

In fact, Johnson's awe-struck criticism of Milton can be seen to merge with his awe-struck praise of Milton's work. "Reality was a scene too narrow for his mind. He sent his faculties out upon discovery, into worlds where only imagination can travel, and delighted to form new modes of existence, and furnish sentiment and action to superior beings, to trace the councils of hell, or accompany the choirs of heaven."

This is only one in a whole series of sparkling panegyrics Johnson devotes to Milton as the creator of Paradise Lost. I'd like to give a couple more, as I think that they not only evince the idea Johnson seemed so obstinately to hold to regarding Milton's greater personality, but that they also give some of the basic elements of what Johnson believe makes a good poem and a good poet.

"The thoughts which are occasionally called forth in the progress (of the poem) are such as could only be produced by an imagination in the highest degree fervid and active, to which materials were supplied by incessant study and unlimited curiosity. The heat of Milton's mind might be said to sublimate his learning, to throw off into his work the spirit of science, unmingled with its grosser parts."

And:

"From policy and the practice of life he has to learn the discriminations of character and the tendency of the passions, whether singly or combined; and physiology must supply him with illustrations and images."

And:

"Nor yet is he a poet till he has attained the whole expression of his language, distinguished all the delicacies of phrase, and all the colors of words, and learned to adjust their different sounds to all the varieties of metrical modulation."

Of course, in Paradise Lost, Milton is assumed by Johnson to have attained this goal. However, the greatest, most beautiful passage on Milton's achievements, is, in my opinion, the one below:

"He had done what he knew to be necessarily previous to poetical excellence: he had made himself acquainted with 'seemly arts and affairs," his comprehension was extended by various knowledge, and his memory stored with intellectual treasures. He was skillful in many languages, and had by reading and composition attained the full mastery of his own."

How Milton was supposed to have reached this level of almost sorcerer-like mastery without taking such a long time before going out into public life, and without affording himself the advantages of study which being a schoolmaster would provide him, I certainly don't know, and I'm not sure if Johnson knew, either.

Nevertheless, I think the greatest testament to Milton was the fact that people would come -- from other countries! -- to visit Milton, to read to him in his blindness, for the advantages, not only of being able to say they'd read to him, but of knowing what it was he'd read, and of being able to talk to him about it. Milton, who sat there, sideways in his elbow chair, leg slung over the arm of the chair, talking with all kinds of people, a schoolmaster for the whole world.

It wasn't just Johnson who was in this perplexed awe regarding Milton -- there were nations full of people who felt the same way Johnson did.

Well -- here's an interesting quote by Johnson. "All mankind will, through all ages, bear the same relation to Adam and Eve."

And I think this is what says it about Milton. He was writing the future. He was writing what social conditions were bringing to light. It may not have been the world people wanted to see in the future. But it was the world of the future. And people were already beginning to relate to it, to be a part of it. Milton was their spokesperson. And people honored him for it.