When we think of political art, John Milton probably isn’t the first writer that pops into our minds. Truth be told, he probably doesn’t even make it onto many of our lists. Yet, Milton wrote at a time of intense upheaval in England, and the center of much of this upheaval was religious. Milton is most well-known for his epic, Paradise Lost (1667), which is his marriage of Christian theology with the classical form of epic poetry written by the likes of Homer and Virgil. This is interesting in and of itself (no, it is, really, I swear), but I’d like to focus attention on the opening passage of the poem:
Of Man’s first disobedience and the fruit
Of that forbidden tree whose mortal taste
Brought death into the world and all our woe,
With loss of Eden, till one greater Man
Restore us and regain the blissful seat,
Sing, Heavenly Muse, that on the secret top
Of Oreb and Sinai didst inspire
That shepherd who first taught the chosen seed
In the beginning how the heavens and earth
Rose out of Chaos; or, if Sion hill
Delight thee more, and Siloa’s brook that flowed
Fast by the oracle of God, I thence
Invoke thy aid to my adventurous song,
That no middle flight intends to soar
Above the Aonian mount, while it pursues
Things unattempted yet in prose or rhyme.
And chiefly Thou, O Spirit, that dost prefer
Before all temples the upright heart and pure,
Instruct me, for Thou know’st; Thou from the first
Wast present, and, with mighty wings outspread,
Dovelike sat’st brooding on the vast Abyss
And mad’st it pregnant: what in me is dark
Illumine, what is low raise and support,
That, to the height of this great argument,
I may assert Eternal Providence,
And justify the ways of God to men.
At this time politically, England had been through a civil war and a period called the Commonwealth, led by a man named Oliver Cromwell who had deposed Charles I and took over as Protector of England. Cromwell died in 1658, and two years later, Charles II took the throne, ushering in the era known as the Restoration. In a period of time with so much going on, it’s logical that people were confused with and disillusioned by things that were happening in their country.
Enter Milton’s poem. Though published nine years after the death of Cromwell, it’s been argued that this is who Milton based his Satan on. And though he uses a classical form to write about Biblical matters (calling upon the Holy Spirit to be his muse), there should be no doubt that Milton also had politics on his mind.
Now, I’m not intending this to turn into a theological discussion at all, so please don’t go there. As you might have noticed, I underlined a few lines for you. I thought I’d be a peach that way. And that’s what I’m interested in here. The fact that Milton is writing a poem to make something he views as important clear to other people. Theodicy (justifying God’s goodness in spite of an evil world) is a pretty lofty goal to be sure, and may just be impossible on a widespread basis, yet this is what Milton sets out to do with his work. States it clearly in the beginning, so his readers will know that everything that follows is meant to serve this end.
So, if you’ve made it with me this far, I’d like to ask — what do you think about writing with such a lofty agenda? Is it something writers should aspire to, or should writers have an agenda at all? Finally, and most importantly, can a poem or a story or a novel ever really be a catalyst for understanding, for change? Or can these things only serve as pieces? Or can they do anything at all?
Are books that important, really?