At the chalkface: In Defence of Milton

Written by: Ian Whitwham | Published:

Milton’s poetry should be done much more in our state schools. Not to do so is a criminal dumbing down. Why should the privileged only hear his lyric grace and thunder?

A little light learning for you.

It is 1665. John Milton, totally blind, very old, on the run, a revolutionary, republican, rebel, radical, regicide, spy, poet, bard and genius flees the London plague to a tiny cottage in the village of Chalfont St Giles.

All very exciting, but are you reading the wrong column?

Bear with me.

In this cottage he dictates the last two books of Paradise Lost, the greatest poem in the language. Even Blake thought so. Look! He comes slowly down the winding stairs, sightless at dawn, and thunders great blocks of perfect blank verse at his long suffering amanuensis daughter.

Well, that’s what my English teacher the late, great “Min” told us. He liked to big the bard up and we liked to listen.

All very interesting, but what has this to do with teaching strategies at the chalkface.

Chill your beans.

It is 2017. This lovely cottage, Milton’s only extant dwelling, is now a museum. It’s about to be shut down through lack of funds. A bit of a nuisance, but surely of little significance? A quaint old cottage, a crusty old poet no longer relevant to the modern world? “Relevant”? Dreadful word. Milton’s never been more relevant.

I ought to declare a personal bias. I spent my childhood in Chalfont St Giles. My Primary School had picnics on the lawn of the cottage. We looked at a fishpond and learned the time from a sundial. “Min” also took us for academic picnics there.

We looked at first editions, a lock of the poet’s rather fetching hair and marveled at the simile “like a sundial in a grave”. “Min” boomed out some lines. We learned them for homework. We didn’t know what it meant. No matter. “Listen to that sound!” said he rapt.

I kept up the tradition and took many sixth formers for an academic picnic there. I too bigged him up and their minds were blown.

Milton’s poetry should be done much more in our state schools. Not to do so is a criminal dumbing down. Why should the privileged only hear his lyric grace and thunder? He is still thrilling and dangerous, full of creative doubt. He is a bit fierce, but no-one sounds more like a poet.

“Genuine poetry communicates before it is understood,” said TS Eliot. Anyway, he’s not always difficult. Check the lovely, opening line of the sonnet On his Blindness: “When I consider how my light is spent.”

The possible closing of the cottage is a symptom of a much greater barbarism. Milton is an absolute, living colossus. Wordsworth got it right: “Milton! thou shouldst be living at this hour: England hath need of thee.”

And schools.

  • Ian Whitwham is a former inner city London teacher.


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