MEET THE CONTRIBUTORS
We asked all of our contributors to tell us about their favourite lines of Milton and their experiences of reading his work.
...as good almost kill a Man as kill a good Book; who kills a Man kills a reasonable creature, Gods Image; but hee who destroyes a good Booke, kills reason it selfe, kills the Image of God, as it were in the eye. Many a man lives a burden to the Earth; but a good Booke is the pretious life-blood of a master spirit, imbalm'd and treasur'd up on purpose to a life beyond life.
~Areopagitica (CPW, II.492)
I came across this passage from Milton's Areopagitica (1644) when I was fifteen. It was in a small brown book, at the back of a second-hand bookshop. The volume was a collection of Milton's shorter poems, and the editor had used the Areopagitica extract as an epigraph - an introduction to the selection and a snare for the reader. How could I possibly return the volume of poetry to the shelf after I had read about the 'precious life-blood' of a 'good book'? It was a few years before I read Areopagitica, Milton's attack on censorship, in full, but the talk of raising books to a life beyond life, of valuing them over people, seemed daring enough to justify my adopting Milton's words as a mantra and reading the collected poems.
My first impressions were perhaps a little skewed. Il Penseroso was sufficiently exclamatory to remind me of the impassioned claims of the Areopagitica, but the quiet lyricism of Arcades was unexpected:
O'er the smooth enamelled green,
Where no print of step hath been,
Follow me as I sing
And touch the warbled string.
Under the shady roof
Of branching elm, star-proof.
I will bring you where she sits
Clad in splendour as befits
Such a rural queen
All Arcadia hath not seen. (84)
'No print of step' appears, on reflection, to anticipate the 'wandering steps' of Adam and Eve on their eviction from Eden (Paradise Lost, XII.648). Yet, on first reading, I was drawn to Milton's ear for music. The song demands appropriation by the reader; 'as I sing' seems to cast us as the Genius of the Wood. And when read aloud, the open, assonantal vowels are enthralling ('O'er…smooth…green, | …no…been…'). To read the song aloud is to do what Milton first intended, of course - the poem is part of a masque, a performed courtly entertainment - yet such a reading also serves to foreground, in my opinion, the importance of sound over sense. I did not understand, for example, 'star-proof', but loved its sound and the way the rhyme fitted it with the previous line, and I certainly enjoyed intoning that phrase about elms and malevolent stars.
Milton's Areopagitica tempted me to the shorter poems, and the shorter poems likewise inspired me to read Paradise Lost. This is not, perhaps, the usual course of the Milton reader's experience, but my early acquaintance with nymphs did not preclude my later enjoyment of fallen angels.
Ned is reading for his BA in English at Christ's College, Cambridge. His research interests include the relationship between literature and music, and reader-response theory. He also pursues his passions for tea, wine and the rain whenever possible.
Plot Summary: Book IX