Jonathan Rosen in The New Yorker (June 2, 2008) on “The enduring relevance of John Milton” [links mine]:
This year is the four-hundredth anniversary of Milton’s birth, and there are a host of Milton books to mark the occasion: the Modern Library has brought out “The Complete Poetry and Essential Prose,” edited by William Kerrigan, John Rumrich, and Stephen M. Fallon, and not long ago Oxford University Press published an edition of “Paradise Lost” introduced by Philip Pullman, whose young-adult trilogy “His Dark Materials” draws its title and much of its mythic energy from “Paradise Lost.” (Titles involving sight and blindness often come from Milton: “Look Homeward, Angel,” “Eyeless in Gaza,” “Darkness at Noon,” “Darkness Visible.”) There is a new edition of “Paradise Lost” edited by the scholar Barbara Lewalski, whose monumental biography of the poet came out a few years ago, and Oxford is launching an eleven-volume series of all Milton’s works, edited by Thomas Corns and Gordon Campbell. Corns and Campbell are also jointly publishing a biography of Milton in time for the birthday, later this year, and Corns is editing “The Milton Encyclopedia,” for Yale University Press. A new critical study by the Princeton scholar Nigel Smith bears the provocative title “Is Milton Better Than Shakespeare?,” and there has been a recent spate of books with titles like “Why Milton Matters” and “Milton in Popular Culture,” pointing out Milton’s influence on everyone from Malcolm X, who read “Paradise Lost” in prison and identified with Satan, to Helen Keller, who created the John Milton Society for the Blind. “Milton in Popular Culture” reminds the reader that in the movie “Animal House,” Donald Sutherland’s Professor Jennings gives a lecture on “Paradise Lost,” taking a bite of an apple as he suggests that the Devil has more fun, before confessing to his unresponsive students that even “Mrs. Milton found Milton boring,” and so does he.
That judgment, alas, still clings to Milton. Never mind that there were actually three Mrs. Miltons, and that Milton, who defended divorce and even polygamy, was a sensuous Puritan, exquisitely attuned to the “amorous delay” of life in Eden: Adam and Eve have sex in the garden before they eat the apple. Never mind that Milton participated in an earthshattering revolution in which he defended the killing of a king; that he was a radical poet who, though he had imaginative power to burn, put aside his art for a decade of political activism. Never mind that he survived imprisonment, the threat of execution and assassination, the plague and the Great Fire of London, and, blind and disillusioned, dictated the greatest long poem in the English language.
Read the rest here, including this bit,
As a boy, Milton was so studious that, he later recalled, from his twelfth birthday on “scarcely ever did I leave my studies for my bed before the hour of midnight” — thus laying the foundation for vast erudition and eventual blindness. Alongside the usual Latin and Greek, Milton received instruction in French, Italian, and Hebrew, and perhaps even Aramaic and Syriac. His father, who was a gifted musician known for his psalm arrangements, also made sure that his son had a thorough musical education.
In America, where God and the Devil live alongside Western rationalism, Milton seems right at home. After the attacks of September 11th, it was possible to find Milton invoked to remind us of the nature of absolute evil—his Satan really is a model terrorist, who, having abandoned hope of a happy home, devotes his energy to destroying the lives of others—and at the same time quoted to uphold the rights of individuals whose distasteful views might be curtailed during a time of war. Milton’s spirit, mingling prophetic zealotry with a sort of pragmatic humanism, is thoroughly woven into the fabric of American life. Like other disappointed Puritans, Milton might easily have sailed for the literal New World, but he instead settled for an imaginary one that was to exert a strong influence on America’s Founding Fathers. (In Thomas Jefferson’s literary commonplace book, Milton appears more than any other poet.) He shares traits both with the first theocratic European settlers and with the Enlightenment figures of a century later, combining an urge for Biblical fulfillment with an urge for radical new beginnings.