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Milton & Me

October 3, 2008 | 11:17 am

Paradiselost_2 "Is Milton better than Shakespeare?" That was the provocative title of Nigel Smith's book published earlier this year by Harvard University Press. Lately it seems that Milton is on the minds of many people, not just Smith's.

"It is too bad that Milton is so overlooked today" --that's what one reader told me in response to my recent brief about a new annotated edition of "Paradise Lost." I sort of agreed with him - until another e-mail landed in my inbox, then another, and then half a dozen more. After that experience, Milton certainly didn't seem so overlooked -- his contradictions, his mighty voice in verse, his personal tragedies are all reasons why people take a second look, and a third, and a fourth...

Now a friend (our longtime contributor Martin Rubin) has kindly steered me towards news about festivities to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Milton's birth in December. Some are ongoing; others are soon to begin. Lectures, exhibitions, art inspired by the poet -- there's a fascination with Milton that obviously stretches beyond Philip Pullman's attention to "Paradise Lost" in the "His Dark Materials" trilogy.

My answer to Smith's question that began this post -- to the horror of Shakespeare fans, I'm sure -- is: yes, Milton is better than Shakespeare (though "better" is vague to the point of absurdity).

My answer is based on the issue of the two poets' identities. No one really knows who Shakespeare was. He wrote no pamphlets espousing his views, left no letters or other documents giving us an insight into his mind. Yes, I know what the response might be: We have his plays, you nincompoop, to tell us how he felt about important human issues such as love, familial relationships, friendship, kingship, tyranny, demagoguery and so on. Yes, but expressed in a play, it is hard to tell if the points are his or not. Milton, on the other hand, signed his name to "The Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce," "The Redy and Easy Way to Establishing a Free Commonwealth" and "Areopagitica" (and much more) at great personal risk to himself and his family.

Milton spoke truth to power (I wonder what he would think of focus groups or Gallup polls), and sometimes, to find an inspiring role model , you have to conduct an extensive search -- even one that sends you back 400 years.

Nick Owchar