- Three of Borges's Miltons
John Milton, Englishman" figures regularly in the works of Argentine Jorge Luis Borges, from his early newspaper writings to his late poems, through direct quotation and indirect reference.1 Borges's translator, friend, and aficionado Willis Barnstone received no demurral from the septuagenarian Borges when he remarked that, "In various conversations and so frequently in your writing you mention Milton. You mention him far more than you do Dante." Milton's prominence for Borges is clear from his ready response to Barnstone's follow-up question, "When did you read Milton's Paradise Lost?":2 "My parents went to Europe in the year 1914. … I got a copy of Milton's works in the Everyman's Library edition, and instead of seeing Paris—I must have been fifteen at the time—I stayed in the hotel and read Paradise Lost, Paradise Regained, Samson Agonistes, and the sonnets," to which he immediately added, "And I don't regret it."3
We glean from this characteristically pithy and playful response that Borges's first exposure to Milton's works was influential both because it came early in his life, during particularly impressionable years, and because his own bookish Parisian experience resembled Milton's. Milton likely would have found some satisfaction in Borges's first reading of his works. Most generally, that reading was [End Page 183] proof that indeed he had left "something so written to aftertimes, as they should not willingly let it die," as he had hoped in The Reason of Church-Government (1642) and reiterated in Apology against a Pamphlet (1642).4 More specifically, Borges's decision to read a solas (alone, independently) rather than prowl around Paris accords with Milton's account of his own chaste visit to the same city in 1638. In Second Defence of the English People (1654), Milton represents his 29-year-old self carrying "letters of recommendation" to the "noble Thomas [John] Scudamore, King Charles's embassador" and visiting "the learned Hugo Grotius" before heading off to intellectual pursuits in the "privat Academies of Italy."5 Milton assures his readers that during his European tour he "lived free and untouched by the slightest sin or reproach, reflecting constantly that although I might hide from the gaze of men, I could not elude the sight of God" (YP 4:620). Milton's recollection of his bookishness and intellectual blooming while visiting Paris left him, like Borges, with no regrets.
This erudite Milton regularly crops up in Borges's works, most extensively in "Milton y su condenación de rima" (Milton and his condemnation of rhyme).6 In this and other early essays, Borges urges Argentine writers to create a strong Argentine literature and polity deserving of an international respect that would advance a hemispheric shift in cultural and political power. In contrast, however, Borges figures a nearly inverse Milton in the midcareer writings in which he seeks to define the development of Argentine, American/Americas (hereafter Americas), and universal literature. This Milton is not a model but rather a European Other inherently unhelpful to the creation of an Americas literature. Read in isolation, those representations might give the impression that Borges regarded Milton unfavorably. But then what do we do with the most widely known and deeply personal Borgean Milton, the companionate blind Milton that Borges frequently mentions in his late interviews and in two particularly moving poems, "Una rosa y Milton" (A rose and Milton) and "El ciego" (The blind man)? The broadest answer is that all these and other Borgean Miltons must be coordinated in order to mine the depths of Borges's nuanced [End Page 184] understanding of literature and literary figures. The answer that I aim to give here is of a more limited scope and most related to the topic of this special issue of Milton Studies. I aim to demonstrate that all three of these Borgean Miltons are elemental to Borges's lifelong and ultimately unresolved arguments about the relationship between European and Americas literature.
Milton the Model
In his short chapter "Milton y su condencación de rima" from his early collection of essays El tamaño de mi esperanza...