“Let’s begin, man in a chair; take one.” This could be from a script by David Lynch. Instead, it’s the opening of Joe Muchenska’s new book on John Milton, the seventeenth-century polemicist whose epic poem Paradise Lost Explores the biblical fall of man.
Moshenska loves to work with cinematic images and tells his story almost exclusively in the present tense. In his introduction, we meet two alternate Meltonians in two stages—there the blind poet as a prophet, dictating unbroken streams of God-inspired poetry; Then there’s the poet as scholar, intellectual columnist, and politically-knowing author of anti-clerical pamphlets, navigating the choppy waters of the English Civil War armed with a prey and a mastery of biblical references.
make darkness light It is described as a “biography” of Milton. Moshinska, a professor of English literature at Oxford University, might be in a good position to write the self-proclaimed autobiography. But this is something impressively different and new: a personal exploration of what it means to read Milton, who is himself (until he loses his sight) an accomplished reader.
Moshinska, an Englishman who received his Ph.D. from Princeton University, allows himself “impossible questions and wild perceptions” about his subject, and the continuing intrusions of Moshinska’s presence in this text often feel deeply American. (In an early section, I found 11 repetitions of the first person pronoun within the space of three sentences.)
There is, of course, ruminations about the extent to which Moshenska, who is nostalgic for childhood visits to his Yiddish-speaking immigrant grandparents in London’s East End, and Milton, the scourge of the English monarchy, who considers herself “Englishmen”) have come. If Milton is not adopted as a patriotic poet, it is in part due to critics such as Samuel Johnson and T.S. Eliot, who saw respectively in his borrowings of the foreign term “Babylonian dialect”, and a poet as “violating the English language”. Moshinska sympathizes.
make darkness light Not so much an exercise in autobiography as it is a mixture of memoir and most American discipline, comparative literature. As far as we encounter a chronology of Milton’s life, a series of vignettes allow Moshenska to spend each chapter thinking about a topic inspired by the local image of his hero’s life or a line of poetry. On the way, we range from references to writers as diverse as Marcel Proust, Italo Calvino, Yves Kosovsky Sedgwick, Jewish socialist folk singer Leon Rousselson and philosopher Jacques Attali.
The author’s self-indulgence must be annoying, and sometimes it is. To understand the musical character of Milton, do we need to learn exactly how Moshenska’s sense of the physicality of piano practice was honed by breaking a finger while playing soccer with his young daughter? However, make darkness light It appears as a seductive and unusual work of intellectual imagination. Much of this book is concerned with time and rhythm—the scale and timing of Milton’s poetic beats, or the tension between human and divine age, which is central to poems like “Morning of Christ.”
The author has the focused scholarly expertise to root this story in seventeenth-century details, though he inevitably takes on some controversial academic debate—the nature of humanistic education, the definition of puritanism—for the benefit of the general reader. After extending it outwardly to the big questions of literature as a literary genre, Moshenska seems to have read it all, and knows exactly where to apply it.
The book is filled with fantasies of Milton’s accidents that may have been, accounts not connected to any accurately documented incident in Milton’s life. This approach is often seen as “feminine”, or simply lightweight. Moshinska has been criticized for pandering to the modern appeal for “accessibility”. Few accusations can be more broad – nothing can be reached easily Make the darkness visible, which requires the highest level of intellectual participation from ordinary readers.
If Moshenska is at his best when dividing Milton’s language line by line – contextualizing Latin phrases for tracts like “De Doctrina Christiana”, or grouping references to “blindness” in Paradise Lost – That’s because he appears here as an inspiring but difficult teacher. Committed Milton beginners will eagerly absorb his lessons.
make darkness light: the life of john miltonBy Joe Moshinska Basic Books £25 / $35, 464 pages
Kate Maltby is a Senior Research Associate at Jesus College, Cambridge, and Head of the Drama Critics Circle
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