VIII. THE FINAL YEARS: 1667–74

As he passed into his seventh decade, Milton still retained, except for his blindness, the physical health and pride that had upheld him through so many conflicts of religion and politics. Aubrey describes him as “a spare man . . . of middle stature, . . . a beautiful and well-proportioned body,. . . complexion exceeding fair;. . . healthy and free from all diseases; seldom taking any physic [medicine]; only towards his latter end he was visited with the gout.” 129 His hair, parted in the middle, fell to his shoulders in curls; his eyes gave no sign of their blindness; his gait was still erect and firm. When he went out he dressed fastidiously and wore a sword, for he was proud of his swordsmanship. 130 A man made grave and humorless by too much certainty, yet pleasant enough in conversation if not crossed. He was not quite a Puritan: he had the Puritan consciousness of sin, hell, election, and infallible Scripture, but he relished beauty, enjoyed music, wrote a play, and wanted many wives; some echo of the Elizabethan élan lingered amid his humorless solemnity. He was egotistic, or revealed his natural egotism, to an unusual extreme; he was “not ignorant of his own parts,” as Anthony Wood put it; 131 and, said Johnson, “scarcely any man ever wrote so much and praised so few.” 132 Probably genius needs to be self-centered, buttressed with internal pride, in order to stand steadily against the crowd. What is hardest to accept in Milton is his capacity for hatred and his intemperate abuse of those who differed from him. He thought that we should pray for our enemies, but that we should also “call down curses publicly on the enemies of God and the Church, as also on false brethren, and on such as are guilty of any grievous offenses against God, or even against ourselves.” 133 The other side of this hot passion was the courage of the prophet denouncing his time. Instead of being silenced by the Restoration riot, he dared to hit at the “court amours” under Charles II, the “lust and violence” in palaces, the “bought smile of harlots,” the “wanton masque or midnight ball.”134

As if flinging a last defiance at darkened time, he published in one day (September 20, 1670) two unrelentingly Miltonic works: Paradise Regained and Samson Agonistes. In 1665 Thomas Ellwood, having read the earlier epic, challenged Milton: “Thou hast said much here of Paradise lost, but what hast thou to say of Paradise found?” 135 Milton felt the point keenly, but he wondered how he could show Paradise regained at any point in history; even the death of Christ had not cleansed man of crime and lust and war. But he thought that in the resistance of Christ to Satan’s temptations he saw a promise that the God in man would someday overcome the Devil in him, and make man fit to live under the rule of Christ and justice on earth.

So in the four “books” of Paradise Regained Milton centered the life of Christ not on the Crucifixion but on the temptation in the wilderness. Satan offers Christ “stripling youths . . . of fairer hue than Ganymede,” then “nymphs . . . and Naiades . . . and ladies of the Hesperides,” 136 then wealth—all to no avail. Satan shows him Imperial Rome under a Tiberius exhausted, childless, and unpopular; would not Christ like to lead a revolution with Satan’s aid, and make himself emperor of the world? As this does not appeal to Jesus, Satan shows him the Athens of Socrates and Plato; would he not like to join them and be a philosopher? Satan and Christ then engage in a strange debate on the comparative merits of Greek versus Hebrew literature. Christ upholds the Jewish prophets and poets as far superior to the Greeks:

        Greece from us these arts derived,

III imitated . . . 137

After two “books” of argument Satan acknowledges himself defeated and takes to his wings, while a chorus of angels gathers around the triumphant Christ and sings:

. . . now thou hast avenged

Supplanted Adam, and by vanquishing

Temptation, hast regained lost Paradise . . . 138

Milton tells the story not with the sonorous sublimity of the larger epic, but with his usual facility for verse and predilection for argument, all the while unfolding his erudition in geography and history. He does not continue the story to the Crucifixion; probably he did not agree with the view that it was Christ’s death that reopened the gates of Paradise. Happiness could be gained only by virtue and self-control. He could never understand why England refused to take seriously this absurd rewriting of the Gospels. He thought the later epic not inferior to the earlier except in scope. 139 “He could not bear to hear Paradise Lost preferred to Paradise Regained.140

The Miltonic fire flared up for the last time in Samson Agonistes. Having challenged Homer, Virgil, and Dante with his epic, now he challenged Aeschylus and Sophocles with a play that accepted all the restraints of Greek tragedy. The preface asks the reader to note that the drama obeys the classic unities, and that it avoids “the poet’s error of intermixing comic stuff with tragic sadness and gravity, or introducing trivial and vulgar persons”; here Milton turns his back upon the Elizabethans, and cleaves to the Greeks; nor does he fall far short of his Attic exemplars. Samson, his strength shorn with his hair by Delilah, and his eyes gouged out by his Philistine captors, does not merely echo Oedipus eyeless in Colonus; he is Milton himself, living in a world hostile and unseen:

Blind among enemies, O worse than chains,

Dungeon, or beggary, or decrepit age!

Light, the prime work of God, to me is extinct,

And all her various objects of delight

Annulled, which might in part my grief have eased . . .

O dark, dark, dark, amid the blaze of noon,

Irrecoverably dark, total eclipse

Without all hope of day! 141

Indeed, the whole play may be interpreted as a remarkably consistent allegory: Milton is Samson, agonizing in adversity; the defeated Jews are the Puritans, the chosen people, broken by the Restoration; the victorious Philistines are the triumphant pagan royalists, and the collapse of their temple is almost a prophecy of the “Glorious Revolution” that unseated the “idolatrous” Stuarts in 1688. Delilah is a treacherous Mary Powell, and the chorus repeats Milton’s arguments for divorce. 142 Milton almost purged himself of his furies by voicing them through Samson, who accepts his coming end:

My race of glory run, and race of shame,

And I shall shortly be with them that rest. 143

In July, 1674, Milton felt himself failing. For reasons not known to us he omitted writing his will; instead, he delivered to his brother Christopher a “nuncupative”—merely oral—will, which Christopher reported as follows:

Brother, the portion due to me from Mr. Powell, my former wife’s father, I leave to the unkind children I had by her; but I have received no part of it; and my will and meaning is they shall have no other benefit of my estate than the said portion and what I have besides done for them, they having been very undutiful to me. And all the residue of my estate I leave to the disposal of Elizabeth, my loving wife. 144

This oral will was repeated to his wife and to others at various times.

He held on to life resolutely, but day to day his gout increased in pain, crippling his hands and feet. On November 8, 1674, fever consumed him, and that night he died. He had lived sixty-five years and eleven months. He was buried in the cemetery of his parish church, St. Giles, Cripplegate, beside his father.

Oral wills were recognized in English law till 1677, but were subject to close scrutiny by the courts. The daughters contested Milton’s will; the judge rejected it, gave two thirds to the wife, one third, totaling three hundred pounds, to the daughters. The “portion due” from Mr. Powell was never paid.

Though we know so much more about Milton than about Shakespeare, and so much must be recorded to picture him, we still do not know enough to judge him—if this is possible of any man. We do not know how much reason his daughters gave him for his resentment, nor how they treated that third wife who so comforted his old age; we can only regret that he failed to win their love. We do not know in full his reasons for acting as a censor of the press for Cromwell after arguing so eloquently for “unlicensed printing.” We may ascribe much of his abusiveness in controversy to the manners and standards of the time. We may pardon his vanity and egotism as the crutch on which genius leans when it gets little support from the applause of the world. We need not relish him as a man to admire him as a poet, and as one of England’s greatest writers of prose.

Those who resolve to read Paradise Lost from beginning to end are surprised to find how often it soars to high levels of imagination and utterance, so that in time we forgive the dull pages of argument, science, or geography as breathing spaces between exaltations; it would be absurd to expect those lyric flights to be continuously sustained. In the short poems they are sustained. And in Milton’s prose there are passages, especially in the Areopagitica, that are unsurpassed for vigor or splendor, for thought and music, in all the gamut of the world’s secular literature.

His contemporaries gave him only a grudging fame. During the ascendancy of his party he was a warrior writing prose, and his early lyrics were forgotten. He published his larger poems under that Restoration which scorned his tribe and reluctantly consented to let him live. When Louis XIV asked his ambassador in London to name England’s best living authors, the reply was that there were none of any worth except Milton, who, unfortunately, had defended the regicides who were now being hanged, alive or dead. Even in that riotous age, however, its most famous poet, John Dryden, whom Milton had reckoned as “a good rhymester but no poet,” 145 rated Paradise Lost as “one of the greatest, most noble and most sublime poems which either this age or nation has produced.” 146 After the overthrow of the Stuarts Milton came into his own. Addison praised him generously in The Spectator. 147 Thereafter the image of Milton grew in splendor and sanctity in the British mind, till Wordsworth, in 1802, could apostrophize him:

Milton! thou shouldst be living at this hour; . . .

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.

His soul was like a monument, and dwelt apart even from those nearest to him; but his mind spread like the majestic heavens over all the concerns of men, and his voice still sounds like Homer’s polyphloisboio thalasses, the “many-billowed sea.”

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!