A Conversation with John Milton

Before Fernando Martinez-Periset first encountered John Milton, he had been told by a teacher that this man would change his life. With the recent publication of Fernando’s article on Milton in Postgraduate English, it turns out that teacher was right.

When I first began studying John Milton, I was sceptical. I thought that the complexity of Milton’s style would eliminate any hope of getting pleasure in writing about him. Then a poem called ‘Lycidas’ started to catch my attention. Suddenly I found myself unable to get the poem out of my head. I woke up early every morning just to read it one more time before going to class. I was struck by the emotional richness of the poem. I realized that despite the difficulty of his style, Milton achieves his most powerful poetic heights when he speaks about the simplest human emotions.

Bitter constraint and sad occasion dear
Compels me to disturb your season due;
For Lycidas is dead, dead ere his prime,
Young Lycidas, and hath not left his peer.
Who would not sing for Lycidas? he knew
Himself to sing, and build the lofty rhyme.
He must not float upon his watery bier
Unwept, and welter to the parching wind,
Without the meed of some melodious tear.

‘Lycidas’ is a lament for the unexpected death of Edward King, one of Milton’s classmates drowned at sea. And I guess the poem spoke to me because it reflected a particularly tragic episode of my own life. Despite the centuries that separated us, Milton and I engaged in a conversation. We were asking ourselves similar questions. Why does evil exist in the world? Why do bad things happen to good people? What if I am next? How can I become the person I would like to be? It was then that I started to think about the relationship between poetry and dialogue.

In ‘Lycidas’, Milton appeals to a series of interlocutors to help him answer the questions that haunt him. He needs guidance. The poem introduces us to a series of characters like Phoebus, St. Peter and Camus, who play the role of Milton’s mentors. He wants to find a point of emotional stability by discussing his fears. But these mentors make just brief cameos. They disappear shortly after being introduced into the poem. Why does this happen? My answer is that Milton is using a conversation format to respond to Scholasticism, a teaching framework used in medieval universities. During the Renaissance this method was severely criticized by many humanists like Erasmus, Rabelais and Vives and in my article I argue that we should see Milton in line with them. Milton was not just talking to me, he was also in dialogue with other issues of his time that concerned the very nature of what it means to speak to other people. If Scholasticism is no use for us, how can we communicate with other people? He worried that the prevailing structures of his time might not be helpful when it comes to talking to other people. How can I turn to my teachers for help if they cannot help me because our current means of communication are inherently flawed?

A seductive Comus tries to entice the Lady in this painting of Milton's Comus
A Scene from Milton’s ‘Comus’ exhibited 1844 Charles Robert Leslie 1794-1859 Bequeathed by Mrs Elizabeth Vaughan 1885. Reproduced under CC-BY-NC-ND licence via Tate

This question also comes up in Comus, another of Milton’s early works. Comus is a masque, a visually stunning play written for a performance at Ludlow Castle. The masque tells the story of a Lady who gets lost in a forest while she is on her way home with her brothers. The forest is inhabited by a seductive character called Comus, whose objective is to corrupt the Lady by convincing her to lose her virginity. But instead of physically forcing her, Comus tries to persuade the Lady. His power is exclusively rhetorical. He engages in another conversation with her. Milton thus introduces the theme of temptation, a fundamental topic in his masterpiece, Paradise Lost. He conveys the message that evil disguises itself. Evil is not necessarily violent, it is about tricking other people into doing bad things just through the power of dialogue. ‘Lycidas’ and ‘Comus’ thus form a fantastic introduction into the Miltonic universe. In these poems we see him debating with himself about the value of conversations with other people, as well as about the problem of evil and temptation.

This paper, which reflects my journey with Milton, means a lot to me. I presented a first draft as a piece of undergraduate coursework; a revised version of the essay got me into Phase 2 of the Global Undergraduate Award a few months ago; and it is now my first academic publication. In keeping with Milton’s themes it reminds of the importance of having good teachers along the way.

Fernando Martinez-Periset’s article on the debates in John Milton’s poems is available in our open access Postgraduate English journal, edited by Gareth Reeves and Olly Teregulova.

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