Paradise deferred: John Milton still divides readers

Next week is the 400th anniversary of John Milton's birth. Epic poet, champion of freedom, attack-dog for the English republic, he still divides readers. Boyd Tonkin looks at his legacy

Never before have I dared to suggest that Simon Schama might be – not wrong, but in sore need of an extra footnote. Viewers and readers of his The American Future may recall its fervent praise for the "Statute of Religious Freedom" that Thomas Jefferson drafted for the state of Virginia in 1779. This trumpet-call for liberty of conscience was, Schama enthused, "arguably the greatest and bravest thing he ever wrote", and a cornerstone of the freedom that America would export to the world. And very fine Jefferson's words sound too, with their affirmation that "Truth is great and will prevail if left to herself". Almost as fine, in fact, as the words written 135 years before by a radical Englishman in the pamphlet that, surely, buzzed somewhere in the back – or front – of Jefferson's brain.

"Let her and Falsehood grapple," proclaimed John Milton in Areopagitica, the 1644 tract against censorship that began the poet's second career as a polemicist: "Whoever knew Truth put to the worse, in a free and open encounter?" From Massachusetts to Virginia, the Londoner's chimes of freedom echoed in revolutionary minds. As Milton's new biographers, Gordon Campbell and Thomas N Corns, put it: "In intellectual terms, Milton is one of the founding fathers of America."

Next Tuesday will mark the 400th anniversary of Milton's birth on 9 December 1608 to a property-dealing family living in Bread Street in the City. But the United States that put some – not all – of his most cherished ideals into constitutional practice seems to be surging ahead in the birthday stakes. Here, we have had solid commemorations at Christ's College, the Cambridge seat of learning where the young prodigy failed to thrive, at the Bodleian Library in Oxford, and at St Giles Cripplegate, the City church – now marooned in the Barbican – where Milton was buried in 1674 despite having stayed away from all churches for 30 years.

In the US, whose founders inwardly digested Milton's thoughts about church, state and liberty, they do things with a little more pizzazz. A few weeks ago, the Williamsburg Art and Historical Center in Brooklyn hosted the "Grand Paradise Lost Costume Ball". Guests in Edenic or Satanic garb celebrated the epic that crowned Milton's career in bittersweet triumph, after the Restoration of the monarchy in 1660 had destroyed the Republican cause to which he devoted almost 20 years as a spin-doctor and civil servant.

The walls were bedecked with 90 works of art inspired by the poem's war-in-heaven set-pieces and its earthly drama of Adam, Eve and the seductive serpent – part of a tradition of barnstorming illustration that dates to John Baptist Medina's engravings in 1688. Later visualisers of the poem include William Blake, Henry Fuseli, John Martin, Gustav Doré; even Salvador Dalí.

Prominent among the modern takes on Paradise Lost were the paintings of Terrance Lindall, who once drew for Marvel Comics and published some of his Milton phantasmagorias in Heavy Metal magazine. A New York Times reviewer surveyed the Brooklyn pandaemonium (a word Milton created) and sneered that the artworks' fleshy style suggested "that the poem made particular mention of ... naked female breasts". Which just goes to show that contemporaries who seek to judge Milton without knowing about him will drop into a pit of their own making.

In Book IV of Paradise Lost, Milton takes care to portray the torrid intensity of sin-free sex between Adam and Eve in their unfallen state. At one point, Eve "half embracing leaned/ On our first father", when "half her swelling breast/ Naked met his under the flowing gold/ Of her loose tresses hid". Innocent bliss, free of death and time – this, rather than year-round sub-tropical harvests, makes his paradise, and makes its loss a howling tragedy only Jesus can redeem. I suspect Milton might have trusted his vision to a heavy-metal illustrator more readily than to any licensed preacher, then or now.

Licensed preachers have more or less given up on Milton. He defeats their categories. Keen on chastity in theory, he married three times (though his daughters spurned him as a tyrant). He rhapsodised over "connubial" passion, and was the opposite of what we call a "puritan". Indeed, he spent years railing against the puritan takeover of the English revolution and their theocratic urge to set up a state religion and persecute "heretics". Oliver Cromwell, whom he served as a letter-writing diplomat and attack-dog in the international pamphlet media, at root agreed. But the ancestors of today's canting "religious right" prevailed in the 1650s. Milton, who hated all "establishments", hated this type too.

The preachers may stay silent, but Milton's critics make a devilish din. One positive effect of the quatercentenary has been the publication of a handful of books that prove how richly contentious this supreme controversialist remains. For the novice, Neil Forsyth in John Milton: a biography (Lion Hudson, £10.99) does his friendly and fair-minded best to make lucid sense of a life and work misted at every turn by the fogs of war – both military and intellectuual. Much more original, but less welcoming to non-specialists, Campbell and Corns's John Milton: life, work and thought (Oxford, £25) goes doggedly about its scholarly work of disenchantment. It aims to drive away illusions and reveal hidden corners of the truth about a "self-contradictory, self-serving, arrogant, passionate, ruthless, ambitious and cunning" writer. Like many scrupulous researchers, they show their quarry a tough sort of love.

Most biographers praise Milton's anti-monarchical tract The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates. In 1649, it lent crucial propaganda muscle to the regicides who had just beheaded Charles I for treason, and so helped win the fiery radical his job – at £288 per annum – as foreign-languages secretary for the new Council of State (later, he worked for Cromwell's Protectorate). Only Campbell and Corns pay equal attention to the Observations on rebellion in Ireland which, in the same year, paved the way for Cromwell's bloody campaigns. Unable to resist a topical spin of their own, they maintain that "Milton produced a tendentious dossier designed to launch and excuse a dubious war of aggression. He would not be the last public servant to do so; though he may, perhaps, have been the first."

Far closer in spirit to the idolatry that made Milton the idol of Georgian Whigs and Victorian Liberals, Philip Pullman has laboured angelically to rescue Milton from the library stacks and seminar rooms. His own trilogy His Dark Materials (reference: Paradise Lost, Book II, line 916) is inconceivable without the model of Milton's epic imaginings of the pitfalls of proud authority, and the glorious adventures of free will. Oxford has reissued its illustrated edition of Paradise Lost (£9.99) with Pullman's notes. He champions his version of the temptation-and-fall theme as a vindication of "the necessity of growing up, and a refusal to lament the loss of innocence". Pullman agrees with William Blake that witty Satan, not whiny God, wins every rhetorical game – "Better to reign in hell than serve in heaven". For Blake, Milton "was of the devil's party without knowing it".

Now turn to Theo Hobson's Milton's Vision (Continuum, £16.99), a peppery defence of the writer as a lost pioneer of "liberal Protestantism". Hobson combines literary bad manners and big-hearted vituperation – both features of Milton's own polemical prose. He sees any attempt to strip Christian doctrine out of Milton as absurd, and curses Pullman as "the chief cliché-monger of our time". As for Blake's oft-cited one-liner, it is "the silliest thing in the history of criticism". Hobson backs Milton's infamous reluctance to grant Roman Catholics the same liberty as other sects on modern grounds, likening the Counter-Reformation papacy to the "Islamic extremism" that scorns democracy today. Milton still lives in the clatter and smoke of battle.

Take the heart-clutching chamber-tragedy of Samson Agonistes. As his sightless hero pulls down the Philistine temple, does the ageing Milton – dejected by the corrupt court of Charles II – advocate the sort of terrorism that crushes powerful and powerless alike? For all the interior anguish of a work in which the long-blind poet (from "intermittent close-angle glaucoma", Campbell and Corns conclude) imagines Samson "dark, dark, dark, amid the blaze of noon", politics returns.

With Milton, whose lyric drama can make Shakespeare sound dull, it somehow always does. If Samson fails to stir as a parable of political violence, then sultry Delilah's deceptions will rock the critical boats. In her readable and well-balanced biography Milton: poet, pamphleteer and patriot (Bloomsbury, £14.99), Anna Beer deems that "the misogyny of Samson Agonistes does belong to its author". As for Eve in Paradise Lost, she splits the house as utterly as ever – perhaps because she tore Milton apart. Feminist critics such as Diane McColley have argued that Milton's portrayal is not only far less "sexist" than the tradition he drew on, but more respectful than the secular radicals who damn him so glibly. Beer, a reliable guide for newcomers on this and many other issues, insists that "Eve is not demonised after the Fall". Milton "demonstrates her quiet heroism".

The freedom Milton hailed in politics and religion also meant, to the poet, the freedom to fall. He views liberty not as a stroll in the garden but as the root of tragedy – a necessary, uplifting tragedy. Doomed to freedom, Eve and Adam leave paradise to find that the story of humankind begins. "The world was all before them" – the same world of choice, conflict and difficult togetherness that Milton's heirs, from Jefferson to Pullman, have sought to interpret by his lights. "They hand in hand with wandering steps and slow/ Through Eden took their solitary way."

Marvel or misogynist?

Stevie Davies

Novelist and critic

He was 'Eikonoklastes', the breaker of images – and I'm sure he stands behind the West's movements towards freedom of thought, speech and press ... On women, the 'Lady of Christ's' misogyny streaks much of his writing with something dark and painful, born somehow of his own visceral pain. Yet the reader of 'Paradise Lost' can hardly fail to notice the waves of tender feeling,,, in his portrait of Eve ... Wherever you look, Milton is cloven, fissured, riven – and it is in those rifts and flaws that his greatest poetry roots itself. 'Paradise Lost' was prized by American slaves for its libertarianism ... Some of his modern-seeming liberalism springs from the root of his illiberal religious prejudice. His attitude to Islam ... was more tolerant than his attitude to European Catholics.

Anna Beer

Biographer

It can be argued that Milton's religious beliefs informed his political beliefs. Above all, he wished for religious tolerance, freedom of conscience. He would support any political system that would deliver this, and safeguard it ... Above all, however, Milton is fascinated with language and power – he is particularly fascinated with the ways those who exert tyranny are often the best orators. Satan is, of course, the prime example. Milton reminds us ... that the citizens of a free country must have the ability (created by education) to sift the false from the true. Without that, we are prey to tyranny: religious tyranny, domestic tyranny, political tyranny. The three are related constantly by Milton. To insist that we must attend to one, and not the others, is to stunt Milton.

Claire Tomalin

Biographer and critic

The relationship with his daughters is pretty unforgivable. It's terribly sad that they hated him. But, in a sense, the fact that he believed that marriage should be companionate, and that he wrote in favour of divorce, is a good thing. He does show a rather wonderful marriage in 'Paradise Lost'... You read 'Paradise Lost' because it's cracking good story with a wonderful use of language. Satan is a compelling Jacobean villain. On the other hand, you have this exquisite picture of Adam and Eve in paradise ... There will always be, please God, children who have a piece of poetry put in front of them and are enraptured by it. There is something magical about well-written poetry.

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