A Matter of Milton

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Over the last three months I have had the great joy and privilege of studying the works of John Milton. I do not think that Milton and I would see eye to eye on many things – I do not like what I know of him as a person. (I mean really, who writes a tract called The Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce because he doesn’t like his wife???) But as many quibbles as I have with Milton himself, his writing is sublime, and he is a genius. His talent cannot be denied. Prose, tracts, sonnets, odes, epics, masques… he masters them all. So I have compiled a number of passages from Milton’s various works I have been reading, in order to share some of Milton’s most profound thoughts.

A couple things about Milton before we get to his writings. He was born in 1608 and died in 1674, so about a generation after Shakespeare. He was fluent in Latin and Greek by age 12. He was a staunch Puritan and advocated against monarchy and episcopal church structure for most of his life (even to the point of publicly advocating for the beheading of Charles I). He was married three different times. He went blind later in life, and the entirety of Paradise Lost was composed in his head and dictated to someone who would write it down for him. He knew the Bible like the back of his hand. And while many of his ideas were radical, Milton’s pursuit of truth, justice, righteousness, and virtue is undeniable.

Treat yourself. Treat yourself to a feast of words and an exquisite command of the English language. Some of these are tricky to understand upon first read, but once understood they are striking. All are statements with which one might disagree, but they are beautifully stated — and so, without further ado, here are some of my favourite passages from the works of John Milton.

~~~~~

“The mind is its own place, and in itself

Can make a Heav’n of Hell, a Hell of Heav’n.” (Paradise Lost 1.254-55)

~~~~~

“The first and chiefest office of love begins and ends in the soul, producing those happy twins of her divine generation, knowledge and virtue” (An Apology for Smectymnuus)

~~~~~

“Abashed the Devil stood,

And felt how awful goodness is, and saw

Virtue in her shape how lovely, saw and pined

His loss.” (Paradise Lost 4.846-49)

~~~~~

“We should be wary therefore what persecution we raise against the living labors of public men, how we spill that seasoned life of man preserved and stored up in books, since we see a kind of homicide may be thus committed, sometimes a martyrdom, and if it extend to the whole impression, a kind of massacre, whereof the execution ends not in the slaying of an elemental life, but strikes at that ethereal and fifth essence, the breath of reason itself, slays an immortality rather than a life.” (Areopagitica)

~~~~~

“He that has light within his own clear breast

My sit i’ th’ center, and enjoy bright day,

But he that hides a dark soul and foul thoughts

Benighted walks under the midday sun;

Himself is his own dungeon.” (Comus 381-85)

~~~~~

“Lives there who loves his pain?

Who would not, finding way, break loose from Hell,

Though thither doomed? Thou wouldst thyself, no doubt,

And boldly venture to whatever place

Farthest from pain, where thou mightst hope to change

Torment with ease, and soonest recompense

Dole with delight” (Paradise Lost 4.888-94)

~~~~~

“Truth is compared in scripture to a streaming fountain; if her waters flow not in a perpetual progression they sicken into a muddy pool of conformity and tradition. A man may be a heretic in the truth; and if he believe things only because his pastor says so or the Assembly so determines, without knowing other reason, though his belief be true, yet the very truth he holds becomes his heresy. There is not any burden that some would gladlier post off to another than the charge and care of their religion.” (Areopagitica)

~~~~~

“Revenge, at first though sweet,

Bitter ere long back on itself recoils” (Paradise Lost 9.171-72)

~~~~~

“Some say no evil thing that walks by night

In fog, or fire, by lake, or moorish fen,

Blue meager hag, or stubborn unlaid ghost,

That breaks his magic chains at curfew time,

No goblin, or swart fairy of the mine,

Hath hurtful power o’er true virginity.” (Comus 432-38)

~~~~~

“And what is faith, love, virtue unassayed

Alone, without exterior help sustained?” (Paradise Lost 9.335-36)

~~~~~

“And were I the chooser, a dram of well-doing should be preferred before many times as much the forcible hindrance of evil-doing. For God sure esteems the growth and completing of one virtuous person more than the restraint of ten vicious.” (Areopagitica)

~~~~~

“so shall the world go on,

To good malignant, to bad men benign” (Paradise Lost 12.537-38)

~~~~~

“for swinish gluttony

Ne’er looks to Heav’n amidst his gorgeous feast,

But with besotted base ingratitude

Crams, and blasphemes his feeder.” (Comus 776-79)

~~~~~

“Truth and understanding are not such wares as to be monopolized and traded in by tickets and statutes and standards.” (Areopagitica)

~~~~~

“with good

Still overcoming evil, and by small

Accomplishing great things, by things deemed weak

Subverting worldly strong, and worldly wise

By simply meek; that suffering for truth’s sake

Is fortitude to highest victory” (Paradise Lost 12.565-70).

~~~~~

“Only with speeches fair

She [nature] woos the gentle air

To hide her guilty front with innocent snow,

And on her naked shame,

Pollute with sinful blame,

The saintly veil of maiden white to throw,

Confounded, that her maker’s eyes

Should look so near upon her foul deformities.” (On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity II)

~~~~~

“Indeed man’s disposition though prone to search after vain curiosities, yet when points of difficulty are to be discussed, appertaining to the removal of unreasonable wrong and burden from the perplexed life of our brother, it is incredible how cold, how dull, and far from all fellow feeling we are, without the spur of self-concernment.” (The Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce)

~~~~~

“Virtue may be assailed, but never hurt,

Surprised by unjust force, but not enthralled,

Yea even that which mischief meant most harm,

Shall in the happy trial prove most glory.” (Comus 589-92)

~~~~~

“Fame is the spur that the clear spirit doth raise

(That last infirmity of noble mind)

To scorn delights, and live laborious days” (Lycidas 70-72)

~~~~~

“Lastly, whatsoever in religion is holy and sublime, in virtue amiable or gave, whatsoever hath passion or admiration in all the changes of that which is called fortune from without, or the wily subtleties and refluxes of man’s thoughts from within, all these things with a solid and treatable smoothness to paint out and describe.” (The Reason of Church Government Urged Against Prelaty)

~~~~~

“I now see

Bone of my bone, flesh of my flesh, my self

Before me; woman is her name, of man

Extracted; for this cause he shall forgo

Father and mother, and to his wife adhere;

And they shall be one flesh, one heart, one soul.” (Paradise Lost 8.494-99)

~~~~~

“Impunity and remissness for certain are the bane of a commonwealth, but here the great art lies to discern in what the law is to bid restraint and punishment, and in what things persuasion only is to work.” (Areopagitica)

~~~~~

“none

But such as are good men can give good things,

And what which is not good, is not delicious

To a well-governed and wise appetite.” (Comus 702-5)

~~~~~

“Hail wedded love, mysterious law, true source

Of human offspring, sole propriety,

In Paradise of all things common else.

By thee adulterous lust was driv’n from men

Among the bestial herds to range, by thee

Founded in reason, loyal, just, and pure,

Relations dear, and all the charities

Of father, son, and brother first were known.

Far be it, that I should write thee sin or blame,

Or think thee unbefitting holiest place,

Perpetual fountain of domestic sweets,

Whose bed is undefiled and chaste pronounced,

Present, or past, as saints and patriarchs used.

Here love his golden shafts employs, here lights

His constant lamp, and waves his purple wings,

Reigns here and revels; not in the bought smile

Of harlots, loveless, joyless, unendeared,

Casual fruition, nor in court amours

Mixed dance, or wanton masque, or midnight ball,

Or serenade, which the starved lover sings

To his proud fair, best quitted with disdain.” (Paradise Lost 4.750-70)

~~~~~

“I hate when Vice can bolt her arguments

And Virtue has no tongue to check her pride” (Comus 760-61)

~~~~~

“Since therefore the knowledge and survey of vice is in this world so necessary to the constituting of human virtue, and the scanning of error to the confirmation of truth, how can we more safely and with less danger scout into the regions of sin and falsity than by reading all manner of tractates and hearing all manner of reason? And this is the benefit which may be had of books promiscuously read.” (Areopagitica)

~~~~~

“So man, as is most just,

Shall satisfy for man, be judged and die,

And dying rise, and rising with him raise

His brethren, ransomed with his own dear life.

So Heav’nly love shall outdo Hellish hate,

Giving to death and dying to redeem,

So dearly to redeem what Hellish hate

So easily destroyed, and still destroys

In those who, when they may, accept not grace.” (Paradise Lost 3.294-302)

~~~~~

“He who would not be frustrate of his hope to write well hereafter in laudable things ought himself to be a true poem, that is, a composition and pattern of the best and honorablest things – not presuming to sing high praises of heroic men or famous cities, unless he have in himself the experience and the practice of all that which is praiseworthy.” (An Apology for Smectymnuus)

~~~~~

“Mortals that would follow me,

Love Virtue, she alone is free;

She can teach ye how to climb

Higher than the sphery chime;

or if Virtue feeble were,

Heav’n itself would stoop to her.” (Comus 1018-24)

~~~~~

Citations from: The Complete Poetry and Essential Prose of John Milton. Eds. William Kerrigan, et al. New York: Random House Inc., 2007. Print.

 

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