Great article by Tonkin. I remember reading this once before.
To your post:
I suppose I often argue that any discussion about Milton’s writing must begin with an assertion of his poetic force, because he clearly worked so hard to craft a poetics of power. Milton imagined his verse as having a physical force on others. That said, I concede the point that the lasting impact of Milton on generations of readers rests on the moral dilemmas bound up in the characters of his major poems: Paradise Lost, Paradise Regained, and Samson Agonistes. But beyond Satan, Adam, Eve, and Samson, we can find moral dilemmas in the poetry before his shift to political prose in the 1640s. We see these dilemmas in Comus with Milton’s meditation on holiness, redemption, and accountability of action; in the Nativity Ode with the certain reminder of our sinful state despite our best efforts; and even in Lycidas with the temptation of fame for our narrator, the limits of knowledge, the insatiable desire for achievement, and what some scholars have argued is an entire misuse of King’s death to criticize one’s leaders and their failed policies. This last point especially is part of the difficulty of defining poetry’s purpose in a very real world, which demands from us our intellectual engagement. I like Milton for these reasons.
I think you’re right, too, that Milton’s appeal is also due to his acknowledgment that freedom is a fundamental human need. This idea is spelled out quite defiantly in Areopagitica, The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates, The Ready and Easy way to Establish a Commonwealth, and others. But it is unforgettable in the imaginative verse of Paradise Lost, intellectually vital in Comus, and central to Lycidas’ appeal as a meditation on death. The poet is free to choose to listen to or to reject the advice of “wisest Fate,” Saint Peter, and the other voices that interrupt him. We must read the ending of the poem as a decision, I think. The “uncouth” swain freely chooses to pick himself up and to focus not on himself, and his insatiable desire for Earthly fame, but rather on his small place in a larger creation. I don’t know if Milton ever learned that lesson, but his characters certainly wrestle with it.
I really want to know your favorite poem or poet. I really don’t know who you would pick. Wordsworth? Keats? Tennyson? Yates?