There is double irony in this year's worldwide celebration of John Milton's 400th birthday on Dec. 9. Consider New York City and the first irony. Despite the hoopla of three major exhibits, one of which opened in September with a Grand Paradise Lost Costume Ball, most of what Milton lived for is disliked in Manhattan.
Milton was foremost a Puritan. He believed his life, like Paradise Lost (his ingenious epic of biblical creation, fall, and redemption), should "justify the ways of God to men." He was also a small "r" republican with a belief that representative government demanded piety: He rejected "fugitive and cloistered virtue, unexercised and unbreathed."
Milton was a poet, but not one of short lyrics. His poetry overflows with sublime beauty, rich cadences, and profound thought, so much so that Princeton English professor Nigel Smith considers him "better than Shakespeare." But to read Milton is to read Paradise Lost, which clocks in at over 10,000 lines.
All this bewilders me as I read of Miltonfests. Have people missed his point? Do they really believe his superhero was Satan the caped crusader, as pictured in one contemporary painting on display in Brooklyn?
The irony is two-fold, however. Those most apt to share Milton's worldview-clear-thinking Christians-are probably not celebrating his anniversary. Worse, they are not reading him. Let's face it: The "unfortunate reader" (C.S. Lewis' term) of Paradise Lost generally gives up after several hundred lines. The verse is dense, demanding, and didactic, making for a rough read.
But once you "get" Milton's epic language, you will be taken. Nothing else in literature so achieves the union of truth and passion at the heart of the gospel; Christ, not Satan, emerges as the happy victor over sin-caused misery.
Consider this an appeal to read Paradise Lost-or at least "Books" 1, 3, 9, and 12. Make sure you avail yourself of an annotated text like Norton's or Lewis' brief A Preface to Paradise Lost, which may help you better understand why Milton did what he did.