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Malcolm Guite: Poet’s Corner

10 February 2023

Preparing a lecture on Milton, Malcolm Guite seeks to free him from scholarly footnotes

I AM preparing a lecture on Milton; but sometimes I think one shouldn’t lecture on Milton at all — one should simply read him to people out loud, and let that beautiful sonorous poetry, that harmonious interplay between sense and sound, work its original magic on the listener.

My lecture will, I hope, be helpful, will open up some allusions, draw attention to some felicities of language, offer an interpretation that might commend the poem to the contemporary reader. But any sympathetic, resonant, and metrically attuned reading is also an interpretation, and perhaps a better one; for it doesn’t obtrude the lecturer’s particular ideas on the reader. Rather, it leaves space for Milton’s language to rouse its own, perhaps more apt and intimate, associations from somewhere deep within the listener, from depths in them that, until that moment, they didn’t know existed.

This is all the more important because, compared with his immense popularity with ordinary readers in the 18th and 19th centuries, Milton’s reputation and popularity have dwindled. Paradoxically, this is precisely because of the sheer weight of academic debate and interpretation which has been foisted upon him by professional scholars.

You cannot buy an edition of Milton now which is not bristling with learned footnotes. I have one in which, on some pages, there are barely four lines of the actual poem struggling up from underneath three-quarters of a page of annotation and commentary. People now assume that Milton is only for specialists. Yet, once, he was rated second only to Shakespeare, and even in a household with scarcely any other books, Paradise Lost would be there next to The Pilgrim’s Progress and the Bible.

The one scholarly book that really helped me was C. S. Lewis’s slim volume A Preface to “Paradise Lost”, which was just that: a preface that really made you want to turn to the text. One of the most original things that Lewis says in that book is that, whereas it is a commonplace to speak of the majestic organ music of Milton’s grand style, to suggest that the English language itself was his instrument and that he really pulled out all the stops, that’s not quite true.

If Milton is an organist, Lewis says, then it is not so much the language that is his instrument as you yourself, your innermost heart and soul. When he appears to be describing paradise, what he is really doing, according to Lewis, is not so much describing as evoking a buried memory: he is “pulling out the Paradisal stop in you”. It is your own deepest imagination that is playing the music and summoning the images.

I think that this is even truer than Lewis suggests. It is true not just of the passage that he analyses, but of the whole poem, and is clearly Milton’s intention from the outset. Indeed, in the astonishing invocation of the Holy Spirit which opens his poem, Milton says as much. He evokes the two primal acts of creation in Genesis: the first “Fiat lux,” the original illumination, and then the raising up of the firmament, and prays for those two primal acts, enlightening and raising, to happen within the poet and his reader:

. . . What in me is dark
Illumine, what is low raise and support;
That to the height of this great Argument
I may assert Eternal Providence,
And justify the ways of God to men.

This poem, Milton is suggesting, is not just about what happened out there and back then, but about what can happen in here and right now.

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