The American John Milton

The poet and the power of extraordinary speech.

Great art is great not because it enters an academic curriculum, and neither is greatness affirmed by the awarding of prizes or titles. But great is not necessarily a vague term. It can indicate work that penetrates the shapes, feelings, ideas, and sounds of a culture, as in the cadences of speech. Sometimes that kind of penetration is so deep, so transforming, that it is nearly invisible, or barely acknowledged.

W.E.B. Du Bois, the American essayist and political leader, begins the peroration of his great essay “On the Training of Black Men” with a sentence like a symphonic chord, fortissimo, compact, rousing:


I sit with Shakespeare and he winces not.

This statement, and the paragraph it introduces, come at the climax of an argument against the idea of measured progress, associated with Booker T. Washington: first training a generation of freed slaves to be cooks and carpenters, then a generation of clerks, then artisans, and, finally, in four or five generations, doctors and judges and scholars. Du Bois, on the other side of this famous and crucial American argument, had emphasized individual qualities: “teach the workers to work and the thinkers to think; make carpenters of carpenters, and philosophers of philosophers, and fops of fools.”


The power of “I sit with Shakespeare and he winces not” may be related in part to its form. Although it begins a prose paragraph, Du Bois’ sentence is a perfect line of blank verse: the measure of Shakespeare’s plays. The pattern of five iambs often appears in prose when the writer wants a certain intensity; for example, “We hold these truths to be self-evident” and “With malice toward none, with charity toward all.” In the example from Du Bois, his topic sentence sets off a passage of high eloquence, all of it close to blank verse, to reach another pentameter: “So, wed with Truth, I dwell above the Veil.”


It’s not just the rhythm that gives a special—as if physical—force to the words “I sit with Shakespeare and he winces not.” The unusual order of the words, placing the negative at the end, gives Du Bois’ sentence a vocal emphasis. As in the slang habit of a few years ago, but with a different order of meaning, the delayed “not” has emotional color. The somewhat contorted syntax creates meaning: defying the idiomatic arrangements of English yet also refreshing them with a douse of Latin’s relatively free word order.


The writer of blank verse in English who exploited that way of writing, influencing countless generations of poets and changing the language itself forever, is John Milton, born 400 years ago. His writing permanently saturated American culture and discourse. Du Bois in this passage refers to Shakespeare explicitly. Implicitly, he also echoes Milton, as have many American writers and public speakers.


A political revolutionary, a radically anti-monarchist Protestant and passionate small-R republican, Milton wrote a defense of divorce and, in Areopagitica, a “Scriptural and Historical Argument in Favour of Promiscuous Reading” and against “Licensing” of publication that remains the most quoted and admired argument against censorship. He also wrote Eikonoklastes, an essay arguing against an immensely popular book called Eikon Basilike: The Portraiture of His Sacred Majesty in His Solitudes and Sufferings—a romanticized account of the spiritual beauty of the deposed and executed King Charles. Milton debunks the notion of a pious, saintly Charles with the formidable, energetic scorn of an iconoclast who knows he is right. No wonder the author of Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained was such a formative American import.


In the days when the Fourth of July was celebrated on town greens, the occasion was marked by fireworks, band music, and speeches—speeches that almost invariably quoted John Milton, the anti-Royalist and Protestant poet. Anna Beer, in the preface to her useful new biography Milton: Poet, Pamphleteer and Patriot, points out Milton’s considerable influence on the Founding Fathers. English writer Peter Ackroyd published, in the ‘90s, a novel called Milton in America, imagining the poet’s actual immigration—an outgrowth, in a way, of the more remarkable, actual story of Milton’s work in the American imagination.


I once heard the great American poet and iconoclast Allen Ginsberg recite Milton’s poem “Lycidas” by heart. Nearly every page of John Hollander’s indispensable anthology Nineteenth Century American Poetry bears traces of that same poem. In Ginsberg’s published journals from the mid-’50s, he assigns himself the metrical task of writing blank verse (and succeeds with subject matter including his lover Peter Orlovsky’s ass: “Let cockcrow crown the buttocks of my Pete,” another perfect pentameter).

Milton’s genius, and his particular, infectious kind of eloquence, combines two kinds of energy, seemingly alike but explosive together: an individualistic ideal of freedom and the syntactical variety of the Latin language. When Milton imposes that variety on English, which lacks Latin’s inflected endings, he introduces new emotional registers, amazing patterns of repetition and vocality. The most notable, and much-noted, embodiment of that new range of feeling in poetry is Milton’s Satan:

Me miserable! which way shall I fly
Infinite wrath, and infinite despair?
Which way I fly is Hell; my self am Hell;
And in the lowest deep a lower deep
Still threatning to devour me opens wide,
To which the Hell I suffer seems a Heav’n.
O then at last relent: is there no place
Left for Repentance, none for Pardon left?
None left but by submission; and that word
Disdain forbids me, and my dread of shame
……………………………(Paradise Lost, Book IV, 73-82)


The expressive quality of the opening two words—”Me miserable!”—as with the placement of Du Bois’ “not,” arises from the bending and stretching of English idiom: The ideal is not a poetry based on ordinary speech—which has been one Modernist slogan—but extraordinary speech.

Is American speech plain, where Milton is fancy? Extraordinary or unidiomatic language represents the quality Ezra Pound denounces in ABC of Reading, where Milton exemplifies what Pound says poets should not do. Deriding Milton’s line “Him who disobeys me disobeys,” Pound says:

He is, quite simply, doing wrong to his mother tongue. He meant:
Who disobeys him, disobeys me.
It is perfectly easy to understand WHY he did it, but his reasons prove that Shakespeare and several dozen other men were better poets. Milton did it because he was chock a block with Latin. He had studied his English not as a living language, but as something subject to theories.


Here is an interesting, continuing conflict in American writing and culture: the natural versus the expressionistic, or simplicity versus eccentricity, or plainness versus difficulty. American artists as different as Robert Frost and William Carlos Williams belong more or less in the “ordinary speech” category. On the other, “Miltonic” side of that division about word order in the mother tongue, consider the expressive eccentric Emily Dickinson, who in her magnificent poem 1068 (“Further in Summer Than the Birds”) writes this quatrain about the sounds of invisible insects in the summer fields:

Antiquest felt at Noon
When August burning low
Arise this spectral Canticle
Repose to typify

In these lines, the natural and the mysterious become one, an effect arising not just from the words (“Canticle”) but also from their order.


A spiritualized quality in the natural world appears in the morning prayer Milton gives Adam and Eve in Paradise Lost. Their language is immensely different from that of Satan in syntax and idiom. Here is part of that Edenic, celebratory greeting to the day:


……..Ye Mists and Exhalations that now rise
From Hill or steaming Lake, dusky or grey,
Till the Sun paint your fleecy skirts with Gold,
In honour to the World’s great Author rise,
Whether to deck with Clouds th’ uncolour’d sky,
Or wet the thirsty Earth with falling showers,
Rising or falling still advance his praise.
His praise ye Winds, that from four Quarters blow,
Breath soft or loud; and wave your tops, ye Pines,
With every Plant, in sign of Worship wave.
…………………………………………..………….(V, 185-194)


Much of the word order here is fairly plain and idiomatic, though Milton’s muscular rearranging of the expected achieves its incantatory effect in the last sentence. Emphasizing the opening, ecstatic repetition—”His praise ye Winds”—and the final imperative of “in sign of Worship wave,” Milton places that strong verb at the end of the line and sentence.

But up until that songlike moment, as Milton imagines his characters in a new world, he has them speak with a rather direct syntax. That appears to be a deliberate choice. In the lines introducing their prayer, Milton writes that Adam and Eve praise

Their Maker, in fit strains pronounc’t or sung
Unmeditated, such prompt eloquence
Flow’d from their lips, in Prose or numerous Verse,
More tuneable than needed Lute or Harp
To add more sweetness …

In Eden, “prompt eloquence” comes out of the humans “Unmeditated” in prose or verse and so sweet it needs no accompanying music.

The opposite is struggle. Post-Edenic struggle is the element in Du Bois’ assertive, conclusive “not” and in Dickinson’s sense of an unattainable, enigmatic presence in the sounds of nature in August. A stylistic equivalent for the struggles of imperfect mortals: That is part of Milton’s still-accumulating achievement, palpable in his work and pervasive in our world.