Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Happy Birthday Milton

Today is John Milton's birthday. As a good feminist, I should hate him. He wasn't kind to his wife and daughters.

Of course, he wasn't kind to anyone, was he? Am I required to hate all literature produced by jerks? That would exclude a lot of literature.

Still, it's interesting to me how through the ages, male writers get to be self-centered jerks, and female writers still have to get the laundry done. Of course, I'm biased--but I announced that fact in the second sentence.

I can't imagine treating the people I love the way some famous writers have. How do those people sleep at night? I know, I know, they're jerks, and jerks don't care. Sigh.

But back to Milton. It's interesting that in his day, his political writings were more famous, but today, of course, we remember him primarily for Paradise Lost. Even people who don't know that they know Milton do know Milton. Ask people what kind of fruit Eve ate--they'll say it was an apple. Now go back and read Genesis. It was an unnamed fruit. Milton was the one who named it.

I'm an English major, so I love Paradise Lost. I love the idea of Satan as the epic hero. I love that Milton made Adam such a puny character. There are lines in Paradise Lost that take my breath away (but my old Norton anthology is at work, so I can't cite them now).

The only Milton I've memorized is this line from "Lycidas": "The hungry sheep look up, and are not fed." I found that line as the epigraph of a book, The Sheep Look Up, recommended to me by my favorite history professor. It's stayed with me, even though I can't remember much about the book except it was an apocalyptic dystopian kind of thing, perfect for my mood in 1986--little did I know how much the world was about to change. I assumed that the wall would forever separate East from West, that Nelson Mandela would die in jail, that we'd all die in a nuclear blast.

So, happy birthday Milton. Maybe today, in the midst of work hecticness, I'll take a Milton break. I'll ponder the idea that it's better to reign in Hell than to serve in Heaven. I'll think about the attractive leaders that we follow to the brink of destruction. I'll think about Milton's commitment to free speech and to divorce and where that passion has led. Maybe I'll write a poem that encompasses these themes. Or maybe, just for today, I'll say, "Well, Milton already did that, so let me read a chunk of Paradise Lost and raise my forbidden apple in tribute."

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