Creating in the Spirit of Milton

Apart from my dad’s real first name, the first thing that comes to mind when I hear the name “Milton” is one of the most enduring poets the West has ever produced (most well-known for his Paradise Lost). Stanley Fish recounts his recent experience at a John Milton symposium in London, where Milton is praised for his form and content, his art and philosophy, a rare combination. Consider the following reflection on Milton’s art:

“Milton’s poetry is good to think with. It’s a good workout. You feel really great and fit when you’ve finished. Maybe that’s what he meant by the ‘fit reader.’”

In a day when the medium often trumps the message, such good-thinking art is hard to come by. Of course, most consumers of art are, well, just that–consumers. Surely there’s nothing wrong with appreciating a photograph timely taken or a song that is musically stirring, but what goes into good art has as much, if not more, potential to shape and thrill us. Milton experts have, century after century, found themselves stirred and provoked, inspired and confronted with the beauty of his work and the depth of his reflection:

it is always demanding that its readers measure themselves against the judgments it repeatedly makes – judgments about the nature of virtue, about the proper mode of civil and domestic behavior, about the true shape of heroism..about the criteria of aesthetic excellence, about the uses of leisure, about one’s duties to man and God, about the scope and limitations of reason, about the primacy of faith, about everything.

Milton’s poetry does more than entertain; it provokes a response, invites a dialogue. Why? Could it be that he has a medium within the medium? An intangible moral, theological clay from which he fashions his words, his art? A medium within the medium of the poetry itself?

We would do well to heed Milton’s example, to produce good-thinking art, whatever the medium. To become reflective artisans that begin with some kind of ideaological “medium,” which we then push through the medium of our art, to increase aesthetic excellence.

During the symposium, the question was posed: “Who was better? Milton or Shakespeare?” The answer, of course is neither; they are different. But consider this closing observation:

And the difference is that after reading or seeing a Shakespeare play you want to sit down and discuss the glories of Shakespeare, whereas after reading a Milton poem you want to sit down and discuss the ideas and imperatives he has thrust at you.

A medium within the medium.