This was posted originally in September 2007 on my old blogger blog. It appears here just as it was then…
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My friend Bob Zilhaver is the one to blame really. Or perhaps I ought to thank him!
He loaned me some teaching CD’s of actual college courses from The Teaching Company and I got hooked. I’ve now listened through The Life & Writings of C.S. Lewis, Francis of Assisi, and The Life & Writings of John Milton. I liked the C.S. Lewis course so much I bought it and have selected some others for later. They make great company on those horribly long trips in the car.
I just finished the course on John Milton the week before last and decided that if it had really been a college course, I would be reading Milton’s poetry… at least his Paradise Lost, if nothing else. So I went to the library here in Reynoldsville and asked if they had anything by Milton. The librarian actually laughed. She had never been asked for anything by Milton before.
But as part of an old set of classics from the early 20th Century that had been given to the library, she found a book of Milton’s English poetry. So I checked it out.
I have literally struggled through as much as I can stand. I read every word of through all of his early works and actually appreciated his poem that dealt with time, his poem on his reflections on aging when he reached 23, and his short poem “On the Death of a Fair Infant Dying of a Cough” which seemed a healthy way to express grief.
But I confess that my best hope to enjoy poetry is probably if it’s set to music as lyrics. I just didn’t like reading the poems. And I forced my way through almost three pages of Paradise Lost (which is a fair way into the book since he didn’t write this epic poem until after the English Civil War and the time of the Protectorate).
My mind kept swimming. Now I was the one who was lost. I couldn’t focus and I had the same emotions I have had when I tried to make myself eat asparagus or cooked spinach… I know it’s supposed to be good for me but I just can’t convince my taste buds.
SO… I didn’t get much out of reading Milton’s poems. But I really liked the course about him and his writings. He was fascinating!
I especially appreciated the discovery that Milton had already gone blind by the time he actually wrote his most famous works. I find that almost impossible to believe. I, on the other hand, occasionally have trouble remembering details with the help of my eyesight, my Palm Treo and its alarms, and the church calendar. He not only kept the details straight, but knew exactly where he was as he was writing. A great example is line 666 of Paradise Lost is in the middle of a section where Satan is the focus… He knew where he was at all times. WOW! What mental discipline! That’s something I can admire about John Milton.
I was particularly interested in the way Milton so believed in the causes of his day that he actually set aside his poetry for awhile and wrote tracts and pamphlets to help defend his cause… which just happened to be the ouster and execution of King Charles I. He served in the Commonwealth government and when that eventually failed, and the new king was crowned, Milton could have been singled out for retribution. Blind by this point, the new King Charles (son of the one dethroned and beheaded some two decades earlier) spared his life and that’s when Milton went back to his poetry. Milton had actually laid aside his life goals, and knowingly hastened his oncoming blindness, in order to further a cause he truly believed in. Even though he knew that if the Commonwealth ever failed, it would probably cost him his life.
That makes me wonder. What causes am I willing to give my attention to, that I would knowingly risk my life for? I look back in history and don’t know that I would fare well if faced with the situations that confronted John Huss, William Tyndale, or Justin Martyr. They faced persecution and stood their ground… and paid for it with their life. I would like to believe I would stand up for Christ in persecution but I know the weakness in my own heart. That’s something I can admire about John Milton.
But I also found a couple of sad notes as well. He didn’t have a great family life. When he was 33 he married a 16 year old… but it was unhappy and she moved back home with her parents for a while. Milton then spent a lot of energy and time trying to influence the church and government to change their stand on marriage and divorce… claiming God’s law and the Bible as support for his argument. He wasn’t successful in this quest, and only his wife’s later death freed him from his marital vows. He married again and she died as a result of childbirth, and then the child died as well. A third marriage seemed better, but time and circumstances had changed him drastically by then.
As I reflected on this aspect, I wondered how many times we seem to go to Scripture only for support for our latest behavioral choice. Milton wanted desperately to get out of that first marriage and was able to find just the right passages to convince himself that God was on his side. Thankfully, the church of his day (and the government for that matter) didn’t budge in the face of attempt to ‘change God’s mind.’ How often, today, are we (especially us pastors) willing to do the same thing that Milton did back then in order to justify something we have already decided to do. I may not admire Milton for his choice there, but I appreciate the new awareness of my own actions.
I also recognized as I learned more about his family relationships, that I quite often am faced with moments where my outside interests and my ‘job’ can capture my time and attention more than my family… especially my wife. I don’t ever want my wife to feel supplanted by my career… and as a pastor that’s way too possible. I appreciate my study of Milton for the reminder and challenge about my own priorities.
Learning about John Milton (Jr.) and his relationship with his own father (John Milton, Sr.) served as a great reminder to me as well. My own father, Donald Mix, lives away from the rest of the family and is sort of a keep-to-himself kind of guy. And too often, I just let him… Unlike Milton who tried to please his father and seemed to allude to that desire for paternal approval, I have usually let my geographic distance be my excuse to leave that relationship on the back burner. Milton probably did this one better than I do. But I can still change that.
The other big insight I discovered as I listened, and learned, about John Milton, was that he had initially planned on heading to the Anglican Church as a priest. I don’t know if he had felt a ‘call’ and then didn’t follow it, or if he had been trying to please someone else and then steeled himself against the family pressure and decided to follow a different path or perhaps some other explanation. However, I do know that I have many times gone to God with a list of other occupational choices for which I wanted to be considered… Let’s face it: sometimes being a pastor isn’t very enjoyable. There’s a lot of stress. I personally fought against God’s call from age 17 until age 34. I sure do understand Milton opting for a different life.
From what I’ve supplementally read since finishing the course, it seems that Milton actually veered from what we would probably consider orthodox Christianity… it sounds like he believed something akin to Arianism… with a few twists. No matter how great his Biblical poetry was with the Fall (Paradise Lost), Jesus’ temptations (Paradise Regained) and Samson’s end of life struggles and final chapter (Samson Agonistes), I can’t simply trust him and his writing… because his writing and his characters really do reflect his beliefs… even the twisted ones.
Ultimately, I think the greatest thing I picked up from this study of John Milton was the way his writing reflected his written argument and conversation with the ‘fathers’ of his field. He wrote in response and reaction to Shakespeare and others… It was like they were in conversation at times. And that’s how I’ve found a way to truly appreciate studying Milton…
John Milton, thanks for the conversation!
Bob Zilhaver, thanks for the introduction!