Friday, February 15, 2019

Good Knight! It's John Milton!

Red Cross Knight
Not Only the Spenserian One

Archibald MacLeish wrote the following essay, "John Milton," in 1909, when MacLeish was a seventeen-year-old student at Hotchkiss School, and it was published the next year in the Hotchkiss Record Literary Supplement (Volume 17, Issue 1, January 1910, pages 20-23).
A Knight there was, rode on a mighty horse along a highway, rough and tortuous; his head held high, his eyes fixed on a distant mount from whose fair summit came a gleam of white, as ever and anon he saw it through the barren hills that lay about. And oft he passed a traveler on the way, who laughed and mocked, and tempted him to turn from off the winding road into the summer-land of fields and vineyards that lay by. Yet did the Knight not turn, nor drop his glance, which searched the hilltops for the flash of white, pure marble in the sun. And now he passed through villages and towns, where dogs, and apish children followed at his heels and laughed. But still a light of visions touched his face, and raised him from the ranks those who mocked. But as he rode and seemed to near the goal he sought, a cry came to his ears from out a narrow glen, and leaping from his saddle to the earth, he ran and leaving horse and road, and vision and ambition, entered in the struggle. Long time he fought, until the light of victory seemed nearly to unveil the way out of this fearful place. Yet when he would have followed it, his sword was broken, and, weaponless, he stood before the trackless hills. But as he darkly fled across the desert land, he saw again the lordly castle set on its terraced hill, and, swordless as he was, pressed through the laurel and the thorn up to the gates that opened to his step.

Some centuries ago a boy was born in the very heart of London, whose life was destined to have an incalculable effect on the history, political and literary, of his time. In appearance and manner he was hardly different from any other boy of English stock and blood; perhaps even in mental powers he did not surpass them, but the difference lay in his heart. He dreamed, while still a child, a wond'rous dream, and in his vision saw things glorious and beautiful; himself the author of a mighty epic which should shake the world to its foundation, and should make mankind see clearly, face to face, the mighty unseen forces round about them; the world applauding and his name passed down from mouth to mouth into eternity. Here then he rose, in earliest youth, above the rank of his companions. His vision, puissant, splendid, satisfied in him all wishes and desires, and in his soul he vowed that he would live a life, that in its clean, unspotted purity, should elevate his mind to thoughts above the reach of any but the noblest and the best.

Thus then he lived, a hermit among men, led by a hope of dim foreshadowed things, content to spend his life, his being in their consummation. Such faith, such trust may not be passed without the deepest reverence and the highest praise. He was a man marked out from other men, marked by the sweet, stern beauty of his face, marked by the look of dreaming in his eyes. He seemed to live in youth, unconscious of the awful struggle that had swept his nation off her feet. Two parties, at each other's throats, unmindful of the higher law of patriotism, seemed content to let her bear the suffering of their strife. On one hand stood a king, false, selfish and tyrannical; on the other, kneeled a group of men, courageous, yet fanatical, freedom loving, brave. Around the standard of the king, had gathered gay, light hearted pleasure lovers; around the sombre altar of the Puritans, the sober worshipers, the stern undoubting seekers after truth. The king, false as he was, loved, in his heart, the beautiful. The Puritans, high though their purposes and aims, destroyed and ruined all that smacked of beauty and the earth. To half the world all life was pleasure, to the other half all happiness was sin. The Puritan rebellion was a war inevitable as the storms of winter. As truly as God-fearing men may feel the weight of a despotic hand, as truly as broad minded patriots foresee the rule of tyranny and force, so truly will an awful war be waged, and men be made to take a dauntless stand.

When Milton, who had poured his soul into perhaps the sweetest of all English verse, and from his hermit cell, had viewed the world through colored mists, was made to feel the power of this mighty strife, he found himself forced to a choice, which, with his soul, he hated; a choice between his vision and his land, between the dream which had become himself, and the duty which was calling him from off the road, to lead him down the soggy glen. Here, at the most momentous period of his life, we pause in admiration of his greatness. To him who loved the beautiful so well, who could, while yet a youth, write his "Il Penseroso," was offered association with those who hated beauty, and who destroyed it, when it lay within their grasp. But if he turned and followed Cavalier and King, he must accept the standard which they raised; tyranny, licentiousness, irreverence. How well he chose, his works have long since witnessed. He dropped his hopes and his ambitions, he left his horse and way and entered in the strife. His pen, which once had traced the sweetest poetry, was turned to work that any scribbler could have done. Yet even here, he stands pre-eminent; his quibbles and his heavy treatises have won a place and held it for the simple grandeur of their style.

The years went by, he gained distinction in the Common-wealth, victory seemed almost in his hands; and now he would have turned his steps back to the road left years before. But his sacrifice to liberty and truth was not yet quite complete. In the writing of his final work as minister of Cromwell's government, his sight was taken - his sword had fallen from his hand.

Then Cromwell died, and with him right and justice in the land. Back to the thrones they had disgraced were led the Stuart kings, and Milton, sightless, friendless and alone, stood at the point his love of freedom called him from twenty years before. But in his heart, unchangeable and clear, still lay the vision that had brightened all his former life. Still in the darkened chambers of his brain, fantastic figures moved, and scenes of rarest beauty were portrayed. His spirit, high, and yet unbroken, strove to place before the world the thoughts that crowded through his mind. He saw no way before him in the hills, but in his heart he saw as clearly as before the gleam of white, pure marble in the sun, the terraced walls, and massive towers of the castle on the hill. And now there gathered in his brain the threads of the great realities of life and death, and exalted by the scenes of noble beauty in his sightless eyes, he wrote his epic through the hand of one who did not know the greatness of the thing he wrote. The gate was won, the towers and the battlements.
The 'story' reminds me of Edmund Spenser's Faerie Queen and John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress. Probably, it would remind one of any story concerning a quest pursued despite the many impediments.

Anyway, we've made our way through the text, and it doubtless has a lot to tell us about Archibald MacLeish, but does it tell us anything about John Milton?

Labels: ,


At 10:16 AM, Blogger Carter Kaplan said...

It tells us Milton is rolling over in his grave!

At 12:27 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

I first read that as "gravel"!

Jeffery Hodges

* * *


Post a Comment

<< Home