Travelling into Chaos

Lachlan Mackinnon is outraged by foggy prose and incoherence in a new study of Milton. Eden Renewed: The Public and Private Life of John Milton by Peter Levi, Macmillan pounds 20
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Milton was born in 1608. As A.N. Wilson pointed out in his Life of the poet, no audience had yet seen The Winter's Tale or The Tempest. It is just conceivable that from his nursery window the child might have seen Shakespeare and Ben Jonson on their way to the Mermaid Tavern, though he would never have known. Born to a professional family, Milton was educated at St Paul's, which had been at the forefront of the humanist revolution in education; whether he ran across the then-Dean of St Paul's, John Donne, is also unknown. He went to Christ's College, Cambridge, already a fledgling versifier. There followed five years of private study, said by Milton to have been spent in Horton, and travels, especially to Italy, where he probably met Galileo, and was certainly acclaimed as a Latin and Italian poet.

On hearing that the Civil War had broken out, Milton returned to England in 1639. He was made Secretary for the Foreign Tongues, responsible for diplomatic correspondence, under Cromwell in 1649. He was allowed help in this job after he became completely blind in early 1652.

After the Restoration, he was briefly in hiding, but then lived his days out peacefully, dying in 1674. He had been an energetic controversialist; among other things, he was the first Englishman to argue for divorce on the grounds of incompatibility. He had also, by common consent, been the greatest poet of his age. His crowning work, Paradise Lost, was the finest literary fruit of the Restoration.

I spell the story out like this because the uninitiated reader might well find it difficult to fillet it out of Peter Levi's book. As a poet, a critic, a professional classicist and man of letters, Peter Levi might seem the obvious choice to write Milton's biography. We expect the sensitivity of his marvellous critical essay The Noise Made by Poems (1977) to be married to exceptional learning. No such luck. Levi is sniffy about Milton's learning, though as he provides no evidence of the poet's ignorance and his study is graced by neither notes nor bibliography, we must take this on trust. He is equally unawed by Milton as a poet. At one point he takes it upon himself to correct two lines of Paradise Lost where he finds "unmetrical nonsense", thereby wrecking what looks to me like a characteristically subtle and deliberate effect.

These are only details, though. More worrying is the incoherence of much of the writing. Paragraph after paragraph goes by in a jumble of fact and assertion with, often, little relevance to the subject. The conjunctions "so" and "since" are sadly abused, as in the dictum that "Since they are naked, Adam has shoulder-length hair, and Eve's is long enough to veil her beauties, but only down to the waist: it is important that they are unashamed." The sequence of ideas here is simply askew.

The reader is treated just as cavalierly. Of a piece of Milton's prose, Levi writes that "The argument is arcane if only because it touches on the even queerer opinions of Lancelot Andrewes, and those of Ussher on the Seven Churches of Asia." Levi explains absolutely none of this: the next sentence reads, "The Civil War was starting". A passage in ecclesiastical history has been "treated honestly only by A.L. Rowse", Levi tells us, and at that moment we recognise the model for this blustering and foggy prose.

Like Dr Rowse, Levi is sceptical of authority. He acknowledges Alastair Fowler's commentary on Paradise Lost as "standard" but observes that it "does, however, exhibit some alarming eccentricities". Levi points to none of these, which is a pity, because a proper reading of Fowler would have saved him from some egregious nonsense about the poetry. To take one instance: when Satan leaves Hell to seek revenge in Paradise Lost, he travels through Chaos until he sees heaven "And fast by hanging in a golden chain/ This pendant world." "The earth", Levi explains, erring; it is, as Fowler notes, "the whole created universe" as opposed to the possibly uncreated Chaos and the rejected Hell. A schoolchild might make this blunder, but it would not pass unrebuked.

For reasons which are not entirely clear, 53 pages of appendix contain Cowper's 18th century translations of Milton's Latin and Italian poems. It is pleasing to have them. Otherwise, the book is a disgrace. I cannot imagine a reader who could gain anything of value from this farrago, and am concerned that it might fall into the hands of the young and uninformed, to whom it could only do harm and from whom it should be kept by all means.