John Milton wrote ten thousand lines of perfect iambic pentameter blank verse—while blind—blending Greco-Roman and Hebraic literature with the biblical story in an authentically compelling narrative that people still admire half a millennium later. He’s certainly one of the great poets of history. But he has such a daunting reputation for solemnity that few people read him for pleasure. That’s unfortunate, because it deprives potential readers of experience with his brilliant writing. And it’s unjust to Milton, who, though occasionally dry, also wrote poems full of sensuous beauty, naughty puns, and earnest romantic love.
In fact, his masterpiece, Paradise Lost, is in some ways a touching love story in which Adam chooses to eat the forbidden fruit and be cursed by God, not out of sinful defiance, but because he prefers to live that way with Eve rather than to live forever without her. “I with thee have fixed my lot,” he tells her, before taking the fatal bite.
Consort with thee, Death is to me as Life;
So forcible within my heart I feel
The bond of nature draw me to my own,
My own in thee, for what thou art is mine;
Our state cannot be severed, we are one,
One flesh; to lose thee were to lose my self.1
Although Paradise Lost is his greatest work he wrote shorter works throughout his life, including sonnets, plays, and political essays that promoted classical liberalism, for which he was one of the earliest spokesmen. Among these is Areopagitica, which remains the most eloquent defense of freedom of the press ever written. Another is The Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce, published in 1643, which argued that married couples should be allowed to separate if they find themselves ill-matched. The startlingly modern premise of this argument was that marriage is not just about procreation, but about “happy conversation”—meaning harmony of mind and values.2
In an England ruled by Puritans, this was scandalous stuff, but Milton was no Puritan, and he opposed their efforts to stamp out dancing and to censor literature and drama. Government, he wrote, should “not prohibit . . . innocent freedoms . . . only on account of the abuses to which they may occasionally be exposed.”3 Some of his works, including L’Allegro and Comus: A Masque, celebrated anti-Puritan ideas, and the latter even includes such mischievous jokes as a lady being glued to a chair.
Yet the imposing image of the humorless Milton remains, thanks largely to the way he overloaded his poems with lengthy allusions to Homer, Virgil, and his favorite, Ovid. He modeled his English prose on Latin styles and wrote many poems in Latin. As a result, much of his work is inaccessible today.
A. M. Juster hopes to change that with his new translation of the Latin elegies Milton wrote in his twenties but only published when he was nearly forty. Along with attentive English renderings of sixteen of the poet’s lesser-known works, Juster provides detailed notes that give important context and an introduction that sets readers straight about Milton’s temperament. “We tend to think of him as a grim, aloof ideologue,” writes Juster. But the elegies show us “a witty Milton, an insecure Milton, or a lovesick (even raunchy) Milton.”4
The most interesting of these is elegy number seven, written when Milton was twenty, which portrays the poet as aloof to the distractions of romance until
By chance I noticed one who outshone all the rest. . . .
Venus might have aspired to look this way to mortals. . . .
[Cupid] promptly clung to eyelids first, then the girl’s mouth;
From there he jumps to lips, then rests on cheeks,
And on those parts where this quick archer flits (Oh my!),
He strikes my unarmed chest in countless places.5
The poem ends with the writer begging Cupid to
Kindly grant, if any maiden shall be mine,
That one sharp point shall pierce a pair in love.6
The double entendre is obvious, and it’s tempting to speculate about the possible real-life woman who inspired this. Milton’s first marriage was unhappy—it inspired his book on divorce—and biographers suspect his later relationships were little better. Yet his idealistic vision of marriage—articulated in Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce and in his tender portrayal of Adam and Eve’s love in Paradise Lost—suggests how high a value he placed on romance. At the conclusion of that epic, in fact, he put a revealing thought in the words of the archangel Michael: if Adam will remember always to combine love with virtue, Michael says,
Then wilt thou not be loath
To leave this Paradise, but shalt possess
A Paradise within thee, happier far.7
“Hollywood would never greenlight a film called Milton in Love,” writes Juster.8 True enough. But by making the elegies more accessible, Juster has done much to help readers discover that, in fact, John Milton was one of the great love poets.
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1. John Milton, The Complete Poetry and Essential Prose of John Milton, edited by William Kerrigan, et al., (New York: Modern Library, 2007), 545
2. Milton, Complete Poetry and Essential Prose, 871.
3. John Milton, “The Second Defence of the People of England against an Anonymous Libel,” Constitution Society, http://www.constitution.org/milton/second_defence.htm (accessed July 10, 2019).
4. A. M. Juster, John Milton’s The Book of Elegies (New York: Paideia Institute for Humanistic Study, 2018), iii.
5. Juster, Book of Elegies, 65-67.
6. Juster, Book of Elegies, 69.
7. Milton, Complete Poetry and Essential Prose, 628.
8. Juster, Book of Elegies, iii.