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Posts tagged “Censorship

John Milton – Paradise Lost

John Milton (9 December 1608 – 8 November 1674) was an English poet, polemicist, a scholarly man of letters, an anti-censorship campaigner and a civil servant for the Commonwealth of England under Oliver Cromwell. He wrote at a time of religious flux and political upheaval, and is best known for his epic poem ‘Paradise Lost’. 

Milton wrote in Latin, Italian and English, and had an international reputation during his lifetime. His poetry and prose reflect deep convictions and addressed urgent, contemporary issues (for example, his celebrated ‘Areopagitica’ is written in condemnation of pre-publication censorship).

Milton’s poetry was slow to see the light of day, at least under his name. His first published poem was On Shakespear (1630), anonymously included in the Second Folio edition of Shakespeare. In the midst of the excitement attending the possibility of establishing a new English government, Milton collected his work in 1645 Poems. The anonymous edition of Comus was published in 1637, and the publication of Lycidas in 1638 in Justa Edouardo King Naufrago was signed J. M. Otherwise the 1645 collection was the only poetry of his to see print, until ‘Paradise Lost’ appeared in 1667.

Milton’s magnum opus, the blank-verse epic poem ‘Paradise Lost’, was composed by the blind and impoverished Milton from 1658 to 1664 (first edition) with small but significant revisions published in 1674 (second edition). As a blind poet, Milton dictated his verse to a series of aides in his employ. It reflects his personal despair at the failure of the Revolution, yet affirms an ultimate optimism in human potential. Milton encoded many references to his unyielding support for the “Good Old Cause”.

Milton followed up Paradise Lost with its sequel, ‘Paradise Regained’, published alongside the tragedy ‘Samson Agonistes’, in 1671. Both these works also resonate with Milton’s post-Restoration political situation. Just before his death in 1674, Milton supervised a second edition of Paradise Lost, accompanied by an explanation of “why the poem rhymes not” and prefatory verses by Marvell. Milton republished his 1645 Poems in 1673, as well a collection of his letters and the Latin prolusions from his Cambridge days. A 1668 edition of Paradise Lost, reported to have been Milton’s personal copy, is now housed in the archives of the University of Western Ontario. 

After his death, his critical reception oscillated, a state of affairs that continued through the centuries. Samuel Johnson praised Paradise Lost “a poem which, considered with respect to design may claim the first place, and with respect to performance, the second, among the productions of the human mind”. (Though Johnson, being a committed Tory, and recipient of royal patronage, called Milton’s politics those of an “acrimonious and surly republican”.) William Hayley’s 1796 biography called him the “greatest English author”. He remains generally regarded “as one of the preeminent writers in the English language and as a thinker of world importance.”


Areopagitica – Decrying Censorhip

Proving that the modern battle with censorship laws around the world is nothing new, Areopagitica was published November 23, 1644.  Areopagitica: A speech of Mr. John Milton for the liberty of unlicensed printing to the Parliament of England is a 1644 prose polemical tract by English author John Milton against censorship. Areopagitica is among history’s most influential and impassioned philosophical defences of the principle of a right to freedom of speech and expression, which was written in opposition to licensing and censorship and is regarded as one of the most eloquent defences of press freedom ever written.

Published at the height of the English Civil War. It is titled after a speech written by the Athenian orator Isocrates in the 5th century BC. (The Areopagus is a hill in Athens, the site of real and legendary tribunals, and was the name of a council whose power Isocrates hoped to restore.) Like Isocrates, Milton had no intention of delivering his speech orally. Instead it was distributed via pamphlet, defying the same publication censorship he argued against.

Milton, though a supporter of the Parliament, argued forcefully against the Licensing Order of 1643, noting that such censorship had never been a part of classical Greek and Roman society. The tract is full of biblical and classical references which Milton uses to strengthen his argument. The issue was personal for Milton as he had suffered censorship himself in his efforts to publish several tracts defending divorce (a radical stance which met with no favour from the censors).

According to the previous English law, all books had to have at least a printer’s name (and preferably an author’s name) inscribed in them. Under that system, Milton argues, if any blasphemous or libellous material is published, those books can still be destroyed after the fact.

Milton is best known for his epic poem ‘Paradise Lost’, currently being made into a film by director Alex Proyas. More of which later…