John Milton, Englishman

John Milton, Englishman

John Milton, Englishman

John Milton, Englishman

Excerpt

The object of this book is to describe the individual, John Milton, in those aspects of his personality which relate most closely to his function as an English poet. Nothing we know about him or the times in which he lived is really irrelevant to modern interest, and the most accidental details of his personal and literary career are worth the pains which an army of investigators has taken to assemble them. There are, however, central issues which must determine a selection amid a body of material so vast. These issues inevitably reflect a contemporary sense of value.

Actually, Milton's fame, which is said always to have been more or less a matter of politics, is as much so today as it ever was. If seventeenth century Puritanism and the English civil war seem more remote to us than they did to Johnson or Macaulay, it is only that the debate has been transferred to a larger and more philosophic stage. There are three reasons for Milton's remaining a controversial figure: He gave such eloquent answers to questions that still divide mankind. He made his own character an issue in the public causes for which he fought. And as a poet he did not detach himself from his imaginative creation. The present writer is less interested in evaluating Milton as an artist, a thinker, or a man than he is in explaining the processes of a creative personality, but he does not expect or particularly wish to escape what others have failed to escape: the betrayal of an attitude. As an American, familiar with England and English tradition chiefly through books, he sees Milton with a difference. As an ob- server of the current world of revolution and reaction, peace and war, he interprets the great protagonist of the struggles of another age in the light of behavior he has observed.

The emphasis implied in the title is one which Milton himself suggests. On his way home from a year of foreign travel he signed himself in a friend's autograph book in Geneva, Johannes Miltonius, Anglus, adding an ethical couplet from his own writings and the motto: "Coelum non animum muto dum trans mare curro"--"I change my sky but not my mind when I cross the seas." The mind which he did not change was the mind of a man of virtue and an English patriot. Milton inherited the emotions and the ideology of a great nationalistic movement which had identified itself with the cause of religious reformation and had appropriated the cultural and intellectual energies of the revival of ancient learning. He aspired in youth to celebrate his country's glories, beautifying old tradition as Spenser had done before him, and rivaling in his mother tongue the greatest achievements of other lands. In manhood his devotion was to what he believed to be the peculiar purposes for which God . . .

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