John Milton (1608 –1674) was an English poet and intellectual. He lived during a tumultuous century which saw not just an English Civil War, but thirty years of conflict in central Europe which devastated entire regions through casualties and through consequential famine and disease. After that, there were wars between the Portuguese and Spanish, the Polish and Russians, a Franco-Spanish war, Austro-Turkish wars – not a peaceful time. Yet we could also celebrate the century as one of extraordinary creativity from science to the arts, from philosophy to politics, of men such as Milton, Newton, Galileo, Rembrandt, John Donne, George Herbert, Locke, Vermeer, Cervantes and Hobbes.
Milton was born in London, his father sufficiently prosperous to afford a tutor for his son. The young man was an outstanding pupil, a scholar of Latin, Greek, Hebrew, French, Spanish, and Italian, to which he later added Old English.
During the English Civil War, Milton supported the “Commonwealth of England”, writing a treatise which defended the right of the people to hold their rulers to account and which thus implicitly sanctioned the execution of the King. Charles I was duly executed by parliament in January 1649 and Oliver Cromwell, the army and parliamentary leader, became “Protector of England.”
In return, in March 1649, Cromwell appointed Milton Secretary for Foreign Tongues. His main job description was to compose the English Republic’s foreign correspondence in Latin but he was also called upon to produce propaganda and to serve as a censor. However, his real legacy was not his civil service career but his poetry, above all his epic poem “Paradise Lost”. This is an astonishing epic poem of emotion, language and imagination, of a world turned upside down, written after he had become blind and impoverished following the restoration of King Charles II. However, given his association with, and promotion of, the “Commonwealth of England”, he was perhaps lucky not to lose his life as well.
Some of his language used in his poetry is still familiar today. His poem “Comus” includes the lines:
“Was I deceived? or did a sable cloud
Turn forth her silver lining on the night?
I did not err, there does a sable cloud,
Turn out her silver lining on the night
And casts a gleam over this tufted grove”
It is an encouraging turn of phrase which has come to suggest that even the worst events or situations have some positive aspect.
Just six months ago, the past catastrophes we studied, seemed just history with no hint of what was to come. I have written about and imagined life at Highclere in World War Two where people pulled together in adversity, dividing up jobs, working together, living from day to day but with a constant level of activity perhaps absorbing some of their anxiety. Today, by contrast, most people are confined to their homes, which may not always be a haven, and without tasks to alleviate their worries. But, like 80 years ago, we are being asked to switch from what we would like to do as individuals to acting for the collective good.
In May 1940, the Local Defence Volunteers (The Home Guard) was formed and swiftly peopled by dedicated volunteers, armed for the most part with antique weapons as there was nothing else available. Today, another type of army, volunteers to aid the NHS and community , has exceeded all hopes and arguably the NHS and support teams have some of the same inadequate provisioning. If we do things together, we feel better but this is harder, mentally, to achieve if we have to stay physically apart.
After the devastation of the Second World War there were some silver linings – in the UK social insurance and the National Health Service, in the USA, the GI Bill along with rights for women plus the United Nations, the International Court of Justice and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
The virus sweeping the world today has made it abundantly clear that borders are less relevant than cooperation and responsibility which, in itself, may be the silver lining of our times. The current lack of human activity has clarified that it is us who are responsible for pollution in the atmosphere and that it was not very fair to blame cows, that the sea can recover if we stop the pollutants and that equally it may be the small details of life which can act as a restorative to our mutual anxieties – the promise of spring, the birdsong as darkness turns slowly to light, and the simple cycle of days.
We are approaching Easter, a time of renewal and reflection. Most of us in the west are unused to limited everyday resources and the shock has created fear but the human race is resourceful. We are re-learning how to work together to create a vaccine, to share information and to look after those who are vulnerable. There have been some extraordinary moments of shared music, of applause, of the kindness of neighbours and an appreciation of all those who serve to save.
Silver linings indeed but still challenging. Even in Milton’s Paradise lost, Eve found it quite tough going living with Adam all the time.