Why We Must Cancel John Milton
The greatest English poet is simply too problematic for contemporary readers.
I woke up on the floor in front of my couch, and I had a splitting headache. What happened? I looked at my watch. 20 March, the first day of spring. That’s it! I was watching gardening videos on YouTube, but suddenly the algorithm served me a news clip. I shuffled for the remote, but it was too late. Seeing the state of things in the world, at least through the lens of the media, must have knocked me out.
It seems the world is on fire, again! You start to wonder, was it always like this?
In times when it feels like everything is going crazy as a soup sandwich, I start to hear echoes of John Milton in my head. It’s either a hallucination, or that pernicious tendency of great words to carry across time. Either way, it’s an affliction caused by early exposure to poetry.
Thankfully, more and more universities are cancelling John Milton from the English curriculum. It makes sense, there were not yet enough expensive credit hours dedicated to studies in race, gender, and sexuality. With any luck, we will see a future in which no student will be tormented by the treasures of the Western canon. We live in enlightened times.
For instance, take the highly problematic sonnet 19, a.k.a. “When I Consider…”, which is sure to cause great distress for contemporary readers. It sure does me!
The sonnet kicks off with Milton lamenting his loss of sight, or possibly the discharge of his youthful talents and abilities, or maybe both:
When I consider how my light is spent,
Ere half my days, in this dark world and wide,
Milton had faced horrible political and religious strife in his day. He was hated for having taken part in regicide. He watched his life’s work crumble. And he was going blind. But, he had plenty of work yet to do. He had not yet written his great epic, Paradise Lost.
I imagine he was feeling what many feel today, a general malaise about the condition of the world, and a powerlessness to do anything about it. But heck it, someone’s got to do something. I am blinded by outrage at the injustice of it all. Can’t I make it better with a hashtag campaign?
But patience. It is always that perfidious patience that stills the murmur of agitation. I don’t want to be patient, I want to lead a crowd with a bullhorn.
Here is the part that’s really problematic:
“God doth not need
Either man's work or his own gifts; who best
Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best;
Now, isn’t that annoying? I just want to update my Twitter bio with the current socially selected emoji so I can show I’m on the right side of history. Can’t I just do that without having to hear some old guy tell me that the best way to serve God (and the world) is to bear my darn woke yoke. Dealing with my own burdens and challenges could take me a lifetime, but I want to campaign for social issues today. Because, you know, it feels so good to feel bad these days.
Thousands at his bidding speed
And post o'er Land and Ocean without rest;
Thousands, huh? Thousands of tireless angels at the ready to do whatever? So you’re telling me the Big Guy has this whole thing covered, and he doesn’t need my help. What am I supposed to do?
They also serve who only stand and wait.
Now, what does that mean? I take it to mean that if I can manage to just stand, and wait, that I will somehow be doing nothing specific but sort of be ready for anything. I guess I can try to do that, while I’m cleaning up this garbage in my office.
You did it again, Milty. Here I was despairing in my powerlessness, and you lifted me.