Thursday, February 19, 2009

Milton! thou should'st be living at this hour

“I did but prompt the age to quit their clogs/By the known rules of ancient liberty,” wrote Milton in his Sonnet XXII. (“quit their clogs” = “throw off their shackles.”) Ranters and Levellers and Diggers and Seekers and Behmenists and Socinians and Anabaptists and Muggletonians and Fifth Monarchy Men and Quakers, o my! I’ve been reading Christopher Hill’s encyclopedic Milton and the English Revolution, about the great ferment -- religious, political, cultural -- of the middle 17th century and Milton’s intimate place within that storm. Milton's 400th birthday was back in December, and I missed it, so I'm catching up.

At heart, I’m one with all those regicides, radical democrats, proto-communists, and premature hippies, standing against authority, property, censorship, the state, the church, and, of course, the church state. Though no Christian, I still sympathize with their protesting ways. Enough with kings and clerics, already. But of course the problem with sectaries is that they close ranks into themselves; look at the Puritans in Massachusetts: asphyxiation. And the problem with revolutions is that they eat their young. Nonetheless, I’ll leave the last word to William Wordsworth:

London, 1802

Milton! thou should'st be living at this hour:
England hath need of thee: she is a fen
Of stagnant waters: altar, sword and pen,
Fireside, the heroic wealth of hall and bower,
Have forfeited their ancient English dower
Of inward happiness. We are selfish men;
Oh! raise us up, return to us again;
And give us manners, virtue, freedom, power.
Thy soul was like a Star and dwelt apart:
Thou hadst a voice whose sound was like the sea;
Pure as the naked heavens, majestic, free,
So didst thou travel on life's common way,
In chearful godliness; and yet thy heart
The lowliest duties on itself did lay.

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