“The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heav’n of hell, a hell of heav’n..” — John Milton, Paradise Lost
I managed to discover, through no effort whatsoever, that today marks the 408th anniversary of the poet John Milton’s birth in 1608 in London. Interesting man, Milton. Best known for Paradise Lost, he had a vast body of poems, plays, political pamphlets, and he was also a historian, and, although personally religious, he favored tolerance, and was opposed to state-sanctioned religion. In fact he favored the the abolition of the Church of England. And the execution of Charles I.
I am not much of a poetry fan – and seventeenth century poetry is a bit difficult to wade through (though certainly not as difficult as, say, that fascinating fifteenth century study of human nature, The Canterbury Tales), I, like many of us have read Paradise Lost and a bit more of Milton’s works over the years. One interesting thing I’ve noticed is that much of what makes up popular modern lore about heaven, hell, angels & demons comes not from the bible, but from Milton. And not just popular lore – over the last 350 years, Paradise Lost, has become conflated with the bible in many peoples minds – I’ve heard people who really should know better quoting from Milton as if it were coming straight from the bible.
And that of course is the interesting thing about Milton, through not just Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained – he told a story, a religious story, but one also of tyranny and war and rebellion and redemption. He told a human story, and set it in the heavens. And this is why we seem so ready to carry his version of that story forward as if it were historical fact. The human qualities. So over the centuries it has, for many people, become ‘fact’. And I find that fascinating on its own (I wonder what Chaucer would have made of it from a human perspective?). Milton will endure as a literary great – perhaps even greater, if less prolific, than Shakespeare, largely on the strength of subject matter that captured not just the imaginations of subsequent generations, but perhaps the very root of their faith.
But, as I noted earlier, Milton, although deeply religious and a great believer in the power of scripture as a guide for life, was very opposed to the stifling of dissent – even religious dissent, and wrote quite a bit against state-sanctioned religion. Since few know of Milton beyond Paradise Lost, that facet of the man has become lost to many.
And of course, the quote above is all about perception – what is is what you perceive it to be.
And, although, I could continue rambling along the path of perception, I think I won’t (now).
Have a peaceful weekend.
John Milton image borrowed from the Encyclopedia Brittanica: detail of an engraving by William Faithorne, 1670; in the National Portrait Gallery, Courtesy of The National Portrait Gallery, London