John Milton turns 400 this year, but of course the birthday doesn't matter unless Milton does. Three new scholarly biographies and an exhibit at the New York Public Library may comfort the faithful, but they won't convert anyone who hasn't already caught the Milton bug. Nigel Smith wants to engender a fandemic. In a new book, Is Milton Better Than Shakespeare?, he sets out to convince "as general a public as possible" that Milton is the "more salient and important" of these literary giants.
Smith dares to confront two big questions that most scholars nowadays scrupulously avoid: Does poetry matter? And, if it does, which poets matter most? His title promises us a kind of "Alien vs. Predator" battle of the titans whose winner will become master of the literary universe.
Unfortunately, what we get more closely resembles the World Wrestling Federation on a bad day. Shakespeare, the reigning champion, the headline attraction designed to draw in the punters, shows up for the photographers but never enters the ring. After the title and the first page, he almost entirely disappears, leaving us alone with Milton and his publicist Smith.
Milton is the better poet, Smith contends, because he "places liberty at the center of his vision" (applause from the right), and because he "is explicitly dedicated to positive transformation in all spheres of human activity" (applause from the left). And, for good measure, he is "an indubitably ecological poet" though this is the only sentence Smith devotes to that subject.
Smith wisely lets Milton take the stand in his own defense. Ninety-nine extended quotations of Milton's poetry and prose account for 30% of the main body of the book. Many shorter passages are incorporated into paragraphs of Smith's own prose, so (if we don't count the index, bibliography and other scholarly packaging) maybe 40% of the words here are Milton's. Perusing these passages, it's easy to see why most of America's Founding Fathers "read Milton and revered him" and even easier to understand why, for at least two centuries, Paradise Lost was widely considered "the greatest poem in the language."
The quotations take up so much space because Milton's most characteristically impressive sentences can fill an entire page. Milton is the Michael Jordan of English poetry. You can't believe it's possible for anyone to remain airborne for so long, and the breathtakingly bravura suspension culminates in a verbal slam-dunk like "So never more in hell than when in heaven" or "sweet reluctant amorous delay" or "Again transgresses, and again submits."
But those glorious long sentences are part of the explanation for the slow decay of Milton's reputation. He's not a poet for the sound-bite century. Consider the famous passage from Paradise Lost, describing Eve in Eden, which is one of the culminating exhibits in Smith's celebration of Milton. The 20-line sentence contains 20 proper names: Enna, Prosperin, Dis, Ceres, Daphne, Orontes, Castalian, Nyseian, Triton, Cham, Ammon, Lybian Jove, Amalthea, Bacchus, Rhea, Abassin, Amara, Ethiop, Nilus, Assyrian. How many people nowadays (even among the exceptionally well-educated readers of TIME) know what all those words mean? I majored in classics at university, and there's a part of me that savors Milton's weaving of so much ancient literary history into new verse. But even I have to check the commentary notes for some of these words.
Milton makes even smart people feel stupid. Not by accident, either. He is probably the most unrelentingly aggressive poet in English. When Samson says, "My heels are fettered, but my fist is free," he displays the best and worst of Milton. The best is Milton's unsurpassed technical command of English: the double contrast of "heels ... fettered" against "fist ... free"; the long vowel in "heels" echoed by "free"; the alliteration of "fettered ... fist … free"; the combination of all three effects in the verse-ending stressed monosyllable "free," so ironically spoken by a blind slave in chains, but also so irresistibly open-voweled, defiant and exhilarating. In some ways, "free" is the single word that sums up what's most appealing about Milton's politics his resistance to tyranny, his commitment to liberty. But of course the whole sentence is a threat to beat up someone who disagrees with him in particular, someone who refuses to acknowledge his God-guaranteed superiority over everyone else. And this religious fanatic will express his freedom by committing suicide in order to kill thousands of his enemies.
Machiavelli, whom Milton admired, reasoned that a prince who was feared would survive longer than one who was loved. Literature does not work that way. For better or worse, millions love Shakespeare. Lovers are, of course, blind, and will forgive any number of faults. Milton is hard to love. Smith claims: "No student of Milton has left Paradise Lost without feeling ... an ardor of admiration." Even if that were true, which it's clearly not, notice that Smith talks about students and admiration. Not readers. Not love. And that's why most of our culture has taken Milton's own advice, and filed for divorce. Milton is a great poet, but living with him is hell.