Lost and found
Looking for John Milton in Chalfont St Giles
by John Simmons

Published: Monday, March 15th, 2010

This is commuter country. Chalfont St Giles settles in the Chilterns just outside the M25 that encircles London and within a short drive of the nearest tube station at the end of the Metropolitan Line. But in 1665 it would have taken Milton a long, uncomfortable day’s cart ride to reach here as he fled the Plague in his native London.

The cottage he lived in for less than two years is not the oldest building in Chalfont St Giles. When I arrive at the village green, the air is cold but the pallid sun is shining. It’s a pleasant place to walk, and the church, approached through a Tudor gateway off the high street, has an air of contemplative melancholy that we recognise from Gray’s Elegy. The church, like many English churches, is a construction of various periods, dating back to Norman times. The tombstones ancient and modern, the scattered feathers of a startled perhaps slaughtered crow, the spongy grass beneath your feet, the clumps of snowdrops, all tell a story of life passing, being recorded, being renewed.

The cottage itself is a hundred yards further up the road. When Milton lived here it was the last house in the village, never a grand house but pleasantly situated. In these little low-ceilinged rooms Milton sat in the dark of blindness and created pictures of heaven, earth and hell. A sense of awe lingers as the presence of Milton makes itself felt through the first editions that lie open in cabinets, through the portraits on the walls, through the timber beams that stripe the surfaces. How confined was this world of poky rooms. Even the upper storey was inaccessible to a blind man: it was reached by rope by those, the poor women in Milton’s life, who slept in the space above. But even this could have been a metaphor that resonated with his constant composition on the theme of heaven and hell.

Milton seems perhaps the unlikeliest of influences on a modern writer for business. Writing epic poems in heroic verse, often with convoluted sentences and extended similes, Milton follows none of the advice of the Plain English Campaign. But that, in essence, is what Milton has to offer me and all of us. He had higher ambitions than to be plain. Through his ideas, language and verse he encourages us all to strive higher in our everyday writing. In Paradise Lost he sets out his ambition: “to justify the ways of God to men.” So should we all not strive for an extraordinary ambition in our writing? In the business world, it’s all too easy to accept “they’ll never let me do that”. Perhaps they will if you try.

“The mind is its own place, and in itself
Can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.”

You understand this a little more by visiting the cottage. In midwinter spring its glooming darkness is lit by occasional shafts of thin sunlight. This is the only surviving house in which Milton lived. The house survived and so did Milton. In London the Plague had been suppurating all around him, the bells had been ringing to bring out the dead. Had he stayed Paradise Lost might never have seen the light of day, so he completed it during his time of refuge in Chalfont St Giles.

By 1665 the light of day had been long lost to Milton. He had gone blind in 1652 but his literary output never abated – he simply dictated his words to amanuenses. So he composed the thousands of lines of Paradise Lost and then Paradise Regained by reciting them aloud; forming the words in his head but speaking them for the ears of his scribes and his readers. His other senses sharpened by the loss of vision, his power to create pictures in our imaginations increased. He used the sense of sound to add layers of meaning to his storytelling, and in doing so he shows us a fundamental principle of writing. Philip Pullman describes it in his own way of reading Milton: “So I begin with sound. I read Paradise Lost not only with my eyes, but with my mouth.” (1)

The cottage is the place where Milton composed many of his words aloud and where he heard them read back to him.

“He spake: and to confirm his words, outflew
Millions of flaming swords, drawn from the thighs
Of mighty cherubim; the sudden blaze
Far round illumined hell: highly they raged
Against the highest, and fierce with grasped arms
Clashed on their sounding shields the din of war,
Hurling defiance towards the vault of heaven.”

The rolling momentum of the verse is glorious. Imagine Milton speaking these words here for the first time. But then, pulling back from this close clamour of sound, taking a more distant view of what Milton does, as if looking down from the heights of heaven, admire his ability to create striking visual images with words – and his ease in telling a story. When you read Paradise Lost you realise that, for example, most fantasy fiction owes Milton a huge debt. Indeed you wonder whether a film-maker like Peter Jackson might have been reading Paradise Lost before creating storyboards for the films of Lord of the Rings.

* * *

Eddie Dawson is your guide. As curator, he welcomes you to Milton’s cottage, a genial figure unlike any of the grim gatekeepers in Paradise Lost. He is proud to show his latest electronic recruit, inviting me to press the button on the fireplace. A recorded voice speaks to the room, an actor who plays Thomas Ellwood, Milton’s pupil and friend who found him this refuge from the Plague. And so you listen to the description by Thomas Ellwood of his encounters with Milton in this “pretty box”. (2)

The story is the nearest we have to a recorded conversation with Milton. In short, Milton gives Ellwood the manuscript of Paradise Lost to read. Ellwood reads the “excellent poem” and pays another visit. They chat and Ellwood remarks: “Thou hast said much here of ‘Paradise Lost’, but what hast thou to say of ‘Paradise Found’?” The question sends Milton into a muse. Some time later, after Milton’s return to London, the two men meet again and Milton shows Ellwood a new poem called Paradise Regained, the direct result of the conversation in Chalfont St Giles.

There is much in this place that has been lost and found, but it seems hubristic to seek beyond Paradise. Yet Eddie Dawson has the Miltonic mission to educate and persuade. I had remembered earlier visits when he had rediscovered for me many aspects of Milton that have been effectively lost to general knowledge. Eddie will talk for as long as you wish about Milton as ‘foreign secretary’, as a founding influence on the American constitution, as the writer of the Areopagitica that provided the intellectual muscle for Cromwell’s English Revolution and the republican case for the execution of King Charles I. But Milton did this through essays and pamphlets that set out arguments in poetic prose that stiffened the sinews of Parliament – and that still moves our spirits today.

“As good kill a Man as kill a good Book; who kills a Man kills a reasonable creature, God’s Image; but he who destroys a good Book kills reason itself, kills the Image of God, as it were in the eye. Many a man lives a burden to the Earth; but a good Book is the precious life-blood of a master spirit, imbalm’d and treasur’d up on purpose to a life beyond life.”

Milton’s sight began to fail at the time of writing the Areopagitica in 1644. He was advised to rest his eyes and avoid stress, but he insisted that he had important work to do – writing – and that he must continue. Within eight years his blindness was complete but his work flowed on. On the Restoration of the monarchy in 1660 many of Milton’s colleagues received gruesome retribution by being hung, drawn and quartered. Milton endured a spell in prison but no harsher punishment, except that some of his works were burned by the hangman. His disaffected daughters removed many of his books from his house and sold them. People contemplate acts of cruelty and make judgements about which acts will hurt their victim most. Yet Milton survived to write his greatest work and his books remain his life-blood.

* * *

I have always loved books. I love the physical form of a book and can never bear to throw a book away, so I hoard them even when the paper thins and yellows. So it was an important moment for me when I held in my hand the first book published under my name That excitement has now been repeated many times since, most recently when my book Dark Angels appeared. (3) Dark Angels, as the title might suggest, owes something in its inspiration to Milton. The dark angels of my book are you and me, human beings who are neither the heavenly angels nor those fallen angels cast down into hell. Humans touched by the knowledge of good and evil, yet able to choose, gifted with curiosity and creativity but too little encouraged to make use of them. My belief is that we should all be given encouragement to express our personalities through writing, inside and outside the workplace. In effect we should all be given our wings to fly and for our words to transport us to other places, realising the potential of our humanity.

Milton might not argue for that, God might remain the great forbidder. But there is a difference between the purpose of Milton’s rational argument and the effect of his emotional writing. Satan is the heroic figure of Paradise Lost, perhaps against Milton’s intentions but the power of characterisation and storytelling have taken over. And the power of sound. Satan simply has all the best speeches. Sometimes his words ring out, bouncing off the vault of heaven; sometimes they slide out smoothly, seducing Eve in the shade of a tree with the forbidden fruit of knowledge. But the dullest passages of writing in Paradise Lost are spoken by God (the Almighty rather than the Son) and by the archangel Michael. Both come across as unyielding and cold managers of a rather harsh old school. Their language reflects their absence of emotion. They do not connect in a human way because they are not human. There is a gulf of authority between these divine beings and the humans they have set up to fail. Satan, on the other hand, is all too recognisably one of us – which might just prove, in fundamental Christian eyes, how far we have fallen.

Satan, before his fall, was known in heaven as Lucifer, the bearer of light. But now he has lost his brightness. Yet it simply adds to the sense of identification we feel with him as a heroic figure. Heroes have their prime. Heroes pass their prime. We were all luminous in youth and now the glow is fading, has faded. There is a humanity in Satan as a result, a humanity that is easier to connect with than the injunctions of the heavenly angels for Adam to forsake curiosity. Raphael pats Adam on the head as if to say “there, there, don’t go worrying your head about astronomy – take God’s ways on trust, admire, worship and sing hallelujah”. Adam in turn seems to learn from the angels an unthinking patronisation in his behaviour towards Eve. How was this shaped by Milton’s own life? Three times married, not happily, and cast into the darkness of blindness. No wonder he made Eve a figure of submission. No wonder he felt the loss of light. But still he could allow the description in Eve’s mouth of God as “our great forbidder”.

By the poem’s close, coming to terms with expulsion from Eden, Adam debates with Eve and with himself all sides of his new situation. He concludes that he will have to make the best of the new place where he will live, the Earth. It forms an intriguing echo of Satan’s argument in the earlier part of the poem as, cast down into hell, he concludes that he must make the most of his changed circumstances. The effect is curious. The humanity displayed by Adam and Eve, the indomitable spirit, is exactly that displayed by Satan. We see Satan as heroic because he is so recognisably human. God, its hard being angelic. It’s easier to follow our instincts and be human.

So the devil gets all the best tunes and Milton was the musician. He would play the organ in this cottage and he would sing too. Part of his musicality is his ability to create memorable phrases. Other writers have so admired Milton’s facility in turning a phrase that they have appropriated many for their own book titles. The extraction from the density of the poetic text makes them shine brightly. In Dubious Battle: John Steinbeck. Eyeless in Gaza: Aldous Huxley. His Dark Materials: Philip Pullman. Darkness Visible: William Golding. Stirring phrases that sometimes have sneaked their way into vernacular use: “Wherefore with thee came not all hell broke loose?” sends a shock of sudden recognition of the ‘modern’ phrase. Yet, seeing it in its original context changes it entirely, recreates it with its primeval force, reviving in you, as a reader, the vitality of words.

“His stature reached the sky, and in his crest
Sat horror plumed.”

We near an ending. Milton was a master of endings. In Paradise Lost he does it at least twelve times, closing each of the books on a note that is sometimes elevated, sometimes reflective, sometimes melodramatic, but always perfectly pitched. Again it is all to do with the sound of the words, and we take our lead for meaning from the sound that enters our ears, like the serpent himself. The words like water lap against the shore. They have inevitable motion, driving readers to a meaning that enters the brain through the senses. We understand without the need to explain, no need to translate. The heroic blank verse rolls resonant, you are transported on a wave of sound until you pause, allowing the sonorous metre to linger in your memory while watching the pictures created in your mind. And reflecting, reflecting on what you have just felt and heard. The verse enters your being, becomes a part of you, it’s there and never will it leave.

So you leave Eden, so you leave the cottage. Tear in eye perhaps, but better for having once been there.

“Some natural tears they dropped, but wiped them soon;
The world was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and providence their guide:
They hand in hand with wandering steps and slow,
Through Eden took their solitary way.”

Notes

(1) From Paradise Lost, an illustrated edition with an introduction by Philip Pullman, published by Oxford University Press, 2005. All quotations from Paradise Lost are taken from this edition.

(2) Extracts from Thomas Ellwood’s Life, his autobiography, are taken from a leaflet available at John Milton’s Cottage.

(3) Dark Angels by John Simmons, published by Cyan Books, 2004

(4) Milton’s Cottage in Chalfont St Giles is open daily except Mondays from 1st March to 31st October. See www.miltonscottage.org for details of the Society of Friends of Milton’s Cottage

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