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by Richard Nilsen
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Poet John Milton was born eight years before Shakespeare’s death, but soon after that point, the two have vied to take the lead in a Kentucky Derby deciding who is the greatest English poet of all time.
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Milton took an early lead, while Shakespeare faded in the stretch during the 17th century and into the early 18th, when Paradise Lost was assumed to be the greatest assemblage of words since Homer — even if many of them wer oddely spelt.
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It may be hard for us to accept this, now that Shakespeare has been apotheosized as “The Bard,” but there was a time when he wasn’t all that well thought of. After all, Shakespeare is all over the map, mixing high tragedy with fart jokes, and bouncing from scene to scene like an ADD patient on crystal meth. The taste of the time was for a play to remain in a single place for at least as long as it takes to actually act out the action required. Shakespeare was blamed for having trampled the so-called “classical unities.”
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And Shakespeare kept making up words, at least as much as Milton kept making up spellings.
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Things changed as the 18th century progressed as Shakespeare pulled neck-and-neck with the Puritan. Critics — especially Dr. Johnson — began to recognize the genius of the playwright, even as the versifiers of the age  continued to imitate the word inversions and obsolete poeticisms they inherited from the Miltonic high altar.
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What had been a stumbling block to earlier ages in the 19th century became a point of pride. Shakespeare spewed out metaphor like a spinning lawn sprinkler sprays water. Even if many of these metaphors were mixed. Shakespeare seemingly couldn’t write a sentence without throwing in an entire zoo of imagery into his garden of words.
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In contrast, Milton stuffed his lines with allusions to classical and biblical mythology — after all, if Shakespeare had little Latin and less Greek, Milton had read everything ever written in those languages and expected his readers had, also.
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If Shakespeare’s language was helter-skelter, all over the place, Milton adhered to a sense of order and rules, even if those rules were devised for the Latin grammar. The peculiar word orders in Milton came directly from the classical languages.
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“Him who disobeys me disobeys.” Such sentences backward read careful parsing require.
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The opening of Paradise Lost is a sentence that runs for seven lines, but doesn’t get to the verb until line 6.
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But you hear in the lines of Shelley or Keats, the reverb from Milton’s prosody. All the “e’en” and “e’er,” all the “thee” and “thine,’’ all the “dosts” and “lovests” are the echoes of Milton. You really could not have the opening of Shelley’s To a Skylark didst not Paradise Lost lead the way.
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“Hail to thee, blithe spirit! Bird thou never wert …”
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 A whole duffel of conventionalized wording provide the makings of poetic cliche throughout the 18th and 19th centuries. Even Wordsworth, who tried to free himself from such to “speak the language of ordinary men,” could not quite abjure the gravitational pull of “It is not now as it hath been of yore.”
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Which brings us to the 20th century, when Milton finally lags in the final turn and Shakespeare pulls ahead by several lengths. T.S. Eliot placed the blame for three centuries of bad poetry at the metrical feet of John Milton. “Milton writes English as a dead language,” Eliot said.
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“Milton’s poetry could only be an influence for the worse, upon any poet whatever. It is more serious, also, if we affirm that Milton’s bad influence may be traced much farther than the 18th century, and much farther than upon bad poets: if we say that it was an influence against which we still have to struggle.”
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Or as critic John Middleton Murry wrote: “To pass under the spell of
Milton is to be condemned to imitate him. It is quite different with Shakespeare. Shakespeare baffles and liberates; Milton is perspicuous and constricts.”
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(Two things should be pointed out, one ironic: Eliot never said Milton was a bad poet, but that his influence was deplorable; and ironically, the same can be said for the influence of Eliot on the poetry of the century that followed him. An awful lot of awful undergraduate poetry can be blamed on Tom Eliot.)
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Which brings me to my prime point: Reputations rise and fall like tides. Consider poor Vincent Van Gogh, who sold only a handful of paintings during his life, and those for a pittance and most to relatives. Now, his work sells for many millions of dollars and he has become the iconic painter of the 19th century, as Picasso has for the 20th — although one notices that Picasso’s light has of late been partially eclipsed. More respect is paid to his name than love for his painting. One rides the waves.
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Reputations depend on the spiritus mundi, the Zeitgeist. Romantic ages value extravagance; more conservative ages value rules well followed. One age values clarity, another complexity. One values tradition, another innovation.
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One recalls that Giacomo Meyerbeer was the most famous composer in the world in the 1840s, but hardly anyone has even heard his name nowadays. William Cowper was more valued as a poet in England than Shelley was at the time. John Dryden was once considered the greatest English poet after Milton; no one reads him anymore, except for those writing dissertations. No one can read him; he is deadly.
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On the other hand, few people paid attention to John Donne as anything but a sermon writer in the 17th century. Now, he is considered one  of the prime poets of the English tradition. Gustav Mahler was derided as an out-of-control pasticheur and largely forgotten after his death in 1911. Now, orchestras program his music almost as often as the do Beethoven.
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And now John Milton, still valued by those who pick him up him and study him, has fallen into a trough of unreading. Hardly anyone takes the effort to walk through the high grass of his verse. Ours is an unheroic age, mistrustful of anything too grand, too aspirational. It is an age that looks at its feet as it walks.
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Yet, all the virtues of Milton’s verse is still there for anyone to see, feel and hear. It is a language of deep melody and incisive rhythm. The very word inversions that seem so out-of-date also give the poetry its heft, that sense that hearing Milton’s poetry is very like listening to the roar of a Bach  organ fugue in a cathedral. There is in it what Longinus called “the sublime.”
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“Of Mans First Disobedience, and the Fruit/ Of that Forbidden Tree, whose mortal tast/ Brought Death into the World, and all our woe…”
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Yes, you have to ignore Milton’s heretical theology, and even if you are a believer, there are parts of Milton’s thought that will feel strange. But take the poem as a secular reader, imagine Raphael describing the universe as if he were describing the Big Bang, the racing orbs and spinning spheres circling the heavens, and you feel the size of the cosmos as you seldom do elsewhere. And, there is pathos in the fate of our Original Parents and those lines that end the epic can hardly be bettered for pure poetry and profound compassion.
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Loss is the universal human experience. It informs everything we do, every year we live. If we have not been pitched from Eden, we still face the plight that Eve and Adam faced. Being born is being spit out into a fallen world.
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“They looking back, all th’ Eastern side beheld/ Of Paradise, so late thir happie seat,/ Wav’d over by that flaming Brand, the Gate/ With dreadful Faces throng’d and fierie Armes:/ Som natural tears they drop’d but wip’d them soon;/ The World was all before them, where to choose/ Thir place of rest , and Providence thir guide:/ They hand in hand with wandring steps and slow,/ Through Eden took thir solitarie way.”
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Richard Nilsen inspired many ideas and memories at the salons he presented through the years when he was an arts critic and movie, travel, and features writer at The Arizona Republic.   A few years ago, Richard moved to North Carolina.   We want to continue our connection with Richard and have asked him to be a regular contributor to the Spirit of the Senses Journal.   We asked Richard to write short essays that were inspired by the salons.

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