- Comparative Milton and Poetics
John Milton (1608-74) was a comparatist and a classical scholar and poet, so to limit him to being an English poet would be to typecast him into just one of his important roles. He was also an essayist of the highest order on many topics from politics through education to theology. Milton was deeply biblical and was unconsciously, as William Blake said of him, but what could also be applied to Blake, of the devil’s party: “The reason Milton wrote in fetters when he wrote of Angels & God, and at liberty when of Devils & Hell, is because he was a true Poet and of the Devils party without knowing it” (Blake, “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell” 35). The paradox is that the poet of liberty is also one who works in fetters, but this is one Milton, and not everyone agrees with Blake about his predecessor. Milton is an artist of the highest achievement, a European poet, and now, with the spread of English, a world poet.
Harris Francis Fletcher wanted to study Milton’s education and intellectual development the way T.W. Baldwin had for Shakespeare (Fletcher “Preface” vol. 1; see Baldwin). Fletcher looked at Milton’s petty school, tutoring, and grammar school, [End Page 282]and his time at Christ’s College, Cambridge. For Fletcher, Milton’s two prose epistles and Elegy IV, written in Latin, show how literary he was in this language as well as in English (Fletcher 1: 115-16). Milton, according to Fletcher, followed the scheme for the study of Latin as set out by Erasmus in De ratione studii, that grammar arises from good authors and not the other way round, something Fletcher sees in Milton’s Elegy IV, Grammar, and Of Education(Fletcher 1: 129-30). Fletcher also attributes to one of Milton’s tutors, Thomas Young, a love for Hebrew, Greek, and Latin literatures (Fletcher 1: 137). Milton was at St. Paul’s School, founded by John Colet, a friend to other humanists like Erasmus and William Lily (Fletcher 1: 161; see Clark). In England and Western Europe, grammar schools sought to teach the reading, writing, and speaking of Latin, including a familiarity with prose and verse (Fletcher 1: 199). Greek flourished in Italy in the fourteenth century, when Greek scholars moved there from Constantinople, and the humanists in England came to view Greek as a fine language to learn letters. William Camden was one of the schoolmasters who was successful in teaching Greek, in his case at Westminster (Fletcher 1: 241, 247).
Translation and grammar were also important in Milton’s learning of Greek, which he learned as he did other languages: the young Milton “took his grammar to the Gospel of John in Greek, construed it, translated it, retranslated his Latin into English, took the English and translated it back into Latin, the Latin back into Greek, and finally he compared his Greek with the text from which he had started” (Fletcher 1: 254). Here is the multilingual and comparative Milton. With ease, Milton could read Greek literature from Homer onward, and he could write Greek prose and verse, although his letters to Charles Diodati, his fellow student at St. Paul’s, in Greek do not survive (Fletcher 1: 257, see 258-63). Diodati and Milton exchanged letters in Greek, Latin, Italian, and English, and seem to have replied not in the language of the original received, which was the tradition, but whatever they chose was in a spirit of play with language (C. Brown 37; see Tillyard, Milton1949: 101). Milton also wrote letters (some verse elegiacs) to Thomas Young, his one-time tutor, and others (including a Greek rendition of Psalm 114) to Alexander Gill the Younger, a fine neo-Latin poet and whose father was the headmaster at St. Paul’s...