John Milton’s Paradise Lost is the greatest work ever written in the English language. It might easily seem absurd, therefore, to spend time justifying its importance, especially when the question of justification is this work’s own most explicit topic, tested at the edge of impossibility, where the entire poem is drawn. Perhaps it makes more sense, preliminarily, to narrow our ambition, seeking only to justify the words of Milton to modern men, especially to those for whom modernity has become a distressing cultural problem.
In regards to what is today called the Cathedral, Milton is both disease and cure. Both simultaneously, cryptically entangled, complicated by strange collisions, opening multitudinous, obscure paths.
As the most articulate anglophone voice of revolutionary Puritanism, he arrives amongst Carlyleans in the mask of “the Arch-Enemy” (I:81) and “Author of Evil” (VI:262): a scourge of clerical and monarchical authority, a pamphleteer in defense of regicide and the liberalization of divorce, an Arian, and a Roundhead of truly Euclidean spheritude.
Yet his institutional radicalism was driven by a cultural traditionalism that will never again be equaled. Milton comprehensively, minutely, and unreservedly affirms the foundations of Occidental civilization down to their biblical and classical roots, studied with supreme capability in Hebrew, Greek, and Latin, and vigorously re-animated through modulations in the grammar, vocabulary, and thematics of modernity’s rough emerging tongue. His devotion to all original authorities stretches thought and language to the point of delirium, where poetry and metaphysics find common purpose in the excavation of utter primordiality and the limits of sense.
Designed in compliance with “Eternal Providence” to “justify the ways of God to men” (I:25-6), the linguistic modernity of Paradise Lost soon required its own justification, in the form of a short prefatory remark entitled The Verse. Here, Milton characteristically insists that radicalism is restoration, breaking from a shallow past in order to re-connect with deeper antiquity.
… true musical delight … consists only in apt numbers, fit quantity of syllables, and the sense variously drawn out from one verse into another, not in the jingling sound of like endings — a fault avoided by the learned ancients both in poetry and in all good oratory. The neglect then of rhyme so little is to be taken for a defect, though it may seem so perhaps to vulgar readers, that it rather is to be esteemed an example set — the first in English — of ancient liberty recovered to heroic poem from the troublesome and modern bondage of riming.
English passes through a revolutionary catastrophe to recall things long lost. The rusted keys which still open the near future of the Cathedral also access dread spaces forgotten since the beginning of the world.
Before their eyes in sudden view appear
The secrets of the hoary deep, a dark
Illimitable ocean, without bound,
Without dimension, where length, breadth, and height,
And time, and place, are lost, where eldest Night
And Chaos, ancestors of Nature, hold
Eternal anarchy, amidst the noise
Of endless wars, and by confusion stand.
Among all the regressive Miltonic currents to be followed, those emptying into Old Night (I:544, II:1002) will carry us furthest …
[In case acute pedants lurk ready to pounce, the capitalization of ‘Old’ is an innovation — under compulsion — of my own]