John Milton’s quiet 400th birthday

The New York Review of Books features a discussion of the very quiet celebration of poet John Milton’s 400th birthday this past December that notes that Milton’s republican politics may account for the lack of interest in Milton:

Celebrations of the four hundredth anniversary of the birth of John Milton in December 1608 have been modest and largely academic. He was born, and for the most part lived, in the City of London, now the financial district. Nationalistic sentiment in those days was such that the idea of a great national poet was welcomed, and Milton had high hopes of filling that role; but although his gifts were acknowledged there were aspects of his career, especially his politics, that were far from pleasing to all parties. In the eighteenth century, however, his poetry was highly valued for its own sake, and there was a revival of interest in his politics. Wordsworth celebrated Milton’s republicanism as well as his poems.

In 1922 the American Milton scholar R.D. Havens could claim, a little extravagantly, that from Pope’s day to Wordsworth’s “Milton occupied a place…in the thought and life of Englishmen of all classes, which no poet has held since, and none is likely to hold again.” Havens had hardly spoken before powerful modernist rebels declared their opposition. Milton fell short of pleasing the royalist T.S. Eliot, and Ezra Pound judged him to be quite a small poet, about the size of Drummond of Hawthornden. In 1933 he was dismissed in the famous opening sentence of an essay by the influential critic F.R. Leavis: “Milton’s dislodgement, in the past decade, after his two centuries of predominance, was effected with remarkably little fuss.”

Leavis added that Eliot’s remarks on the subject had made it “unnecessary to elaborate a case,” and doubted if any defense was possible. Plausible defenses soon appeared, but they were mostly the work of English and American academics, and probably did not interest Englishmen, or indeed Americans, “of all classes”—though Americans are sometimes thought to have a special claim on Milton because of his influence on the language of Franklin, Jefferson, and John Adams, and because he remained faithful to the idea of republicanism.

Read it all here.

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