The Modern Milton

On this day in 1667 John Milton’s Paradise Lost was registered for publication by printer Samuel Simmons. Milton’s agreement with Simmons — five pounds at signing, another five for each 1,500 copies sold on a first edition of 4,500 — is the earliest known author’s contract. At this point, the fifty-eight-year-old Milton had been totally blind for fifteen years, probably from glaucoma. His habit during the decade it took to write Paradise Lost was to compose at night and then present himself each morning to a scribe — a nephew, daughter, or secretary — to be, as he put it, “milked.”

Having vigorously argued the republican cause, Milton was in some danger when the monarchy was restored in 1660. Some wanted him arrested, even drawn-and-quartered, and most who opposed his politics also opposed his poem.  At the beginning of Book VII, Milton reiterates his double defiance — of his enemies’ “barbarous dissonance,” and of his own physical handicap:

…I Sing with mortal voice, unchang’d
To hoarce or mute, though fall’n on evil dayes,
On evil dayes though fall’n, and evil tongues;
In darkness, and with dangers compast round…

But Milton had always been in the eye of one storm or another. Twenty years earlier he had argued against the censorship conventions of the day, and proposed the unconventional idea that marriage was made for more than procreation and could be unmade for reasons other than adultery. When Puritans or political rivals railed at these proposals, Milton railed back at the “barbarous noise” made by the “owls and cuckoos, asses, apes and dogs” who opposed him, or change.

The modernity of Milton’s iconoclasm is the primary focus in David Hawkes’s John Milton: A Hero of Our Time (2009). Milton saw himself as ahead of his time, and Hawkes sees him as just right for ours:

Capitalist society is idolatrous to a degree surpassing the worst nightmares of seventeenth-century iconoclasts.… For example, the concern of today’s politics with style over substance, with perception rather than reality, is obvious and undisguised. The rise of the image has often been linked to a relativist, pragmatist morality that can conceive no absolute, ultimate truth underlying rhetorical signification, and to the spread of popular materialism: the widespread assumption that the world of appearances is the only reality.… Images rule our world, and a world ruled by images needs an iconoclast.

Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.

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