Letter: Literary heritage: where lessons in Milton could lead: From Mr GAVIN GRIFFITHS

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The Independent Online
Sir: John Marenbon's desire to force Milton down our gullets for English A-level (12 December) seems eccentric, but arguably exposes a failure of courage. To read Shakespeare well you need an acute sensitivity to language, sharp moral awareness and a willingness to remain content with ambiguity: you don't need slabs of knowledge about Elizabethan theatre-going habits or a detailed mental map of Tudor government and finance.

To read Milton, however, you do need to know lumps of stuff about religion (specifically Puritanism) and Greek and Roman myth. An acquaintance with the politics of the Civil War also comes in handy. These things may be gripping, of course, but they have little to do with the correct appreciation of literature.

The study of English has always upset the right and the left because it seems so nebulous. You don't end up knowing any useful facts. Milton would force facts upon us and, in that way, would be nice and safe.

I would suggest Dr Marenbon adds Dickens's Hard Times to his Christmas list of improving books. Then he might realise how closely his attitude mirrors that of Thomas Gradgrind: 'You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon facts: nothing else will ever be of any service to them.'

Yours sincerely,


Head of English

Westminster School

London, SW1

12 December