Today is the birthday (1608) of John Milton, an English poet, polemicist, man of letters, and a civil servant for the Commonwealth of England under Oliver Cromwell. He wrote at a time of religious flux and political upheaval, and is best known for his epic poem Paradise Lost (1667), written in blank verse.
The phases of Milton’s life parallel the major historical and political changes in Stuart Britain. Under the increasingly personal rule of Charles I and its breakdown in constitutional confusion and war, Milton studied, travelled, wrote poetry mostly for private circulation, and launched a career as pamphleteer and publicist. Under the Commonwealth of England, he ceased being thought dangerously radical and even heretical; the shift in accepted attitudes in government placed him in public office, and he even acted as an official spokesman in certain of his publications. The restoration of the monarchy in 1660 deprived Milton, now completely blind, of his public platform, but this period saw him complete most of his major works of poetry.
Plenty has been written on Milton’s life and politics which you can read if it takes your fancy. I’m mainly interested in his theology, both in plain prose tracts and in poetry. Like many writers before him, Milton attempted to integrate Christian theology with classical modes. In his early poems, the poet narrator expresses a tension between vice and virtue, the latter invariably related to Protestantism. In his later poems, Milton’s theological concerns become more explicit.
Milton embraced many heterodox Christian theological views which in earlier centuries would have had him burnt at the stake. He rejected the Trinity, for example, in the belief that the Son was subordinate to the Father – a position related to the heretical Arianism. In his 1641 treatise, Of Reformation, Milton expressed his dislike for Catholicism and episcopacy, presenting Rome as a modern Babylon, and bishops as Egyptian taskmasters.
Through the Republic, Milton often presents England, rescued from the trappings of a worldly monarchy, as an elect nation akin to the Old Testament Israel, and shows its leader, Oliver Cromwell, as a latter-day Moses. These views were bound up in Protestant views of the Millennium, which some sects, such as the Fifth Monarchists predicted would arrive in England. Milton, however, would later criticize the “worldly” millenarian views of these and others.
The Restoration of the Stuart monarchy in 1660 began a new phase in Milton’s work. In Paradise Lost, Paradise Regained and Samson Agonistes, Milton mourns the end of the godly Commonwealth. The Garden of Eden may allegorically reflect Milton’s view of England’s recent Fall from Grace, while Samson’s blindness and captivity—mirroring Milton’s own lost sight—may be a metaphor for England’s blind acceptance of Charles II as king.
Despite the Restoration of the monarchy, Milton did not lose his personal faith; Samson shows how the loss of national salvation did not necessarily preclude the salvation of the individual, while Paradise Regained expresses Milton’s continuing belief in the promise of Christian salvation through Jesus Christ.
Milton had come to stand apart from all sects, though apparently finding the Quakers most congenial. He never went to any religious services in his later years. When a servant brought back accounts of sermons from nonconformist meetings, Milton became so sarcastic that the man eventually resigned his position. Milton did, however, call in the Areopagitica for “the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties” (applied, however, only to the conflicting Protestant denominations, and not to atheists, Jews, Muslims or Catholics). Milton argued for disestablishment as the only effective way of achieving broad toleration.
Milton’s understanding of humanity by itself and in relation to God are crystallized in his classic epic, Paradise Lost.
The poem is separated into twelve “books” or sections, the lengths of which vary greatly (the longest is Book IX, with 1,189 lines, and the shortest Book VII, with 640). The Arguments at the head of each book were added in subsequent imprints of the first edition. Originally published in ten books, a fully “Revised and Augmented” edition reorganized into twelve books was issued in 1674, and this is the edition generally used today.
The poem follows the epic tradition of starting in medias res (in the middle of things), the background story being recounted later.
Milton’s story has two narrative arcs, one about Satan (Lucifer) and the other following Adam and Eve. It begins after Satan and the other rebel angels have been defeated and banished to Hell, or, as it is also called in the poem, Tartarus. In Pandæmonium, Satan employs his rhetorical skill to organize his followers; he is aided by Mammon and Beelzebub. Belial and Moloch are also present. At the end of the debate, Satan volunteers to poison the newly created Earth and God’s new and most favored creation – humankind. He braves the dangers of the Abyss alone in a manner reminiscent of Odysseus or Aeneas. After an arduous crossing of the Chaos outside Hell, he enters God’s new material World, and later the Garden of Eden.
At several points in the poem, an Angelic War over Heaven is recounted from different perspectives. Satan’s rebellion follows the epic convention of large-scale warfare. The battles between the faithful angels and Satan’s forces take place over three days. At the final battle, the Son of God single-handedly defeats the entire legion of angelic rebels and banishes them from Heaven. Following this purge, God creates the World, culminating in his creation of Adam and Eve. While God gave Adam and Eve total freedom and power to rule over all creation, he gave them one explicit command: not to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil on penalty of death.
The story of Adam and Eve’s temptation and fall is a fundamentally different, new kind of epic: a domestic one. Adam and Eve are presented for the first time in Christian literature as having a full physical relationship while still being without sin. They have passions and distinct personalities. Satan, disguised in the form of a serpent, successfully tempts Eve to eat from the Tree by preying on her vanity and tricking her with rhetoric. Adam, learning that Eve has sinned, knowingly commits the same sin. He declares to Eve that since she was made from his flesh, they are bound to one another ‒ if she dies, he must also die. In this manner, Milton portrays Adam as a heroic figure, but also as a greater sinner than Eve, as he is aware that what he is doing is wrong.
After eating the fruit, Adam and Eve have lustful sex. At first, Adam is convinced that Eve was right in thinking that eating the fruit would be beneficial. However, they soon fall asleep and have terrible nightmares, and after they awake, they experience guilt and shame for the first time. Realizing that they have committed a terrible act against God, they engage in mutual recrimination.
Meanwhile, Satan returns triumphantly to Hell, amidst the praise of his fellow fallen angels. He tells them about how their scheme has worked and humankind has fallen, giving them complete dominion over Paradise. As he finishes his speech, however, the fallen angels around him become hideous snakes, and soon enough, Satan himself turns into a snake, deprived of limbs and unable to talk.
Eve’s pleas to Adam reconcile the two to a degree. Her encouragement enables them both to approach God, to “bow and sue for grace with suppliant knee”, and to receive grace from God. In a vision shown to him by the angel Michael, Adam witnesses everything that will happen to humankind until the Great Flood. Adam is very upset by this vision of the future, so Michael also tells him about humankind’s potential redemption from original sin through Jesus Christ (whom Michael calls “King Messiah”).
Adam and Eve are cast out of Eden, and Michael says that Adam may find “a paradise within thee, happier far”. Adam and Eve also now have a more distant relationship with God, who is omnipresent but invisible (unlike the tangible Father in the Garden of Eden).
You will have to read the whole thing to glean the poetics above this bald epitome. There are some extremely lofty moments that capture the spirit:
The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heav’n of hell, a hell of heav’n
Better to reign in Hell, than to serve in Heaven.
Solitude sometimes is best society.
Long is the way and hard, that out of Hell leads up to light.
Abashed the devil stood and felt how awful goodness is and saw Virtue in her shape how lovely: and pined his loss
All is not lost, the unconquerable will, and study of revenge, immortal hate, and the courage never to submit or yield.
Never can true reconcilement grow where wounds of deadly hate have pierced so deep.
Each fragment you find that resonates can leave you with a sense of the awe and wonder that Milton felt.
After that, a recipe seems rather lowly, but I found this one in The Whole Duty of a Woman: Or a Guide to the Female Sex (1696), quite the epitome of thoughts about women in the 17th century. The title continues — From the age of sixteen to sixty, &c. Being directions, how women of all qualities and conditions, ought to behave themselves in the various circumstances of this life, for their obtaining not only present, but future happiness. I. Directions how to obtain the divine and moral virtues of piety, meekness, modesty, chastity, humility, compassion, temperance and affability, with their advantages, and how to avoyd the opposite vices. II. The duty of virgins, directing them what they ought to do, and what to avoyd, for gaining all the accomplishments required in that state. With the whole art of love, &c. 3. The whole duty of a wife, 4. The whole duty of a widow, &c. Also choice receipts in physick and chirurgery. With the whole art of cookery, preserving, candying, beautifying, &c. Written by a lady.
I am not sure that Milton would approve of the author’s vision of the contemporary Eve, but the book gives considerable insight into the thinking of the times. You can find the whole text online in a number of places. This is a simple scan of the 1737 printing:
From it I have chosen this recipe:
A Shoulder of Mutton with Oysters.
Stuff your Mutton with strong Oysters, of a moderate size, and sweet herbs, roast it before a pretty quick Fire, basting it with Butter, and saving the Gravy which falls from it, separate from the Fat, make it into a sauce, with Claret, Pepper, and grated Nutmeg, then lay the Oysters that you pull out about the Mutton, Garnish it with Parsly, and slices of Lemon; and so serve it up.
My take on this is fairly obvious. Start with a boned shoulder of lamb – you’re not going to find mutton. Lay it out flat and spread it with freshly shucked oysters and sprinkle liberally with sweet green herbs such as savory and marjoram, plus salt and pepper to taste. Then roll it and tie it firmly with baking twine. Roast at around 400°F, basting frequently until the outside is deeply browned, about an hour, depending on size. Lamb is best when it is pink inside.
Remove the lamb from the roasting pan and cover it with foil to rest whilst you make the gravy. Add flour to the pan in equal quantity to the pan juices and cook over medium high heat to form a roux. Then, whisking vigorously, stir in a mix of claret and stock to make a thick gravy, seasoned with freshly grated nutmeg and black pepper.
Unroll the shoulder on a platter, push the oysters to one side, and slice the meat thickly. Then bathe the platter with the hot gravy and serve garnished with parsley and lemon slices. I’d recommend some boiled new potatoes and poached greens as side dishes.