Art ’N’ Soul: Of John Milton’s ‘Areopagitica’ and speaking truth to power : The Tribune India

Art ’N’ Soul: Of John Milton’s ‘Areopagitica’ and speaking truth to power

Recollecting Areopagitica, the writer’s searing text against censorship and curtailment of liberties

Art ’N’ Soul: Of John Milton’s ‘Areopagitica’ and speaking truth to power

Young Milton visiting the great astronomer Galileo in his confinement. Painting by Solomon Alexander Hart; (below) title page of the first edition of Areopagitica, 1644.

BN Goswamy

This is true Liberty when free born men

Having to advise the public

may speak free,

Which he who can, and will,

deserves high praise,

Who neither can nor will,

may hold his peace;

What can be juster in a State than this?

— Euripides, The Suppliants, 5th century BC

“For books are not dead things…; who kills a Man kills a reasonable creature, God’s Image; but he who destroys a good Book, kills reason itself, kills the Image of God, as it were in the eye. Many a man lives a burden to the Earth; but a good Book is the precious life-blood of a master-spirit, embalmed and treasured up on purpose to a life beyond life.

When complaints are freely heard, deeply considered and speedily reformed, then is the utmost bound of civil liberty attained that wise men look for.

— John Milton, Areopagitica

WE were not told, or taught, anything about Milton — the great poet whose poem On His Blindness was part of our English course reading in college — other than this one sonnet. Nothing of his Paradise Lost, nothing of Samson Agonistes, nothing either of his great ‘speech’ to the parliament against the banning of books: Areopagitica. Perhaps we were considered too young, too raw, to be able to take in those lofty things at that age. This sonnet we got to know well, however: the moving opening lines — When I consider how my light is spent/Ere half my days in this dark world and wide — we readily committed to memory. And the final line — They also serve who only stand and wait — always came in handy to poke fun at the laziest among us. Who exactly was John Milton, when was he born and when did he die, what poetic heights did he attain in his lifetime, what exactly were the circumstances of his life and his turbulent times which saw the Civil War, the Puritan Protectorate, the Restoration, were not brought even to the fringe of our awareness then. In a small-town college.

John Milton: Engraving possibly by Faithorne.

It is, fortunately, different now. Just the other day, a single, seductively worded line — asking why should we ‘silence all the airs and madrigals, that whisper softness in chambers’, quoted by some author in an article in the New York Times — sent me hurtling to locate its source and led me to what many regard as ‘a controversial tract’, but most others as a document that is ‘part of the heritage of mankind’. The Areopagitica, which derives its name from ‘Areopagus’ (Hill of Ares), from which the high court of Athens in ancient Greece was used to administer its jurisdiction. Milton wrote this 40-page ‘pamphlet’ disguised or ‘mis-named’ as a ‘Speech’ addressed to ‘the parliament of England’ in 1644. Born in 1608, he had already won recognition as the greatest poet of post-Shakespeare times. Incidentally, the very first poem he published was in homage to Shakespeare, a remarkably well-travelled man of letters who was equally at home in English, Latin, Italian and Greek, a singular polemicist, and a committed civil servant. But this tract or pamphlet — couched in ringing poetic prose, not poetry — was occasioned by his seething anger against censorship, against the curtailment of liberties. He was cut to the quick by the Licensing Order of 1643, passed by the parliament, which required all works to be submitted to authorities before they could be published. “No book, pamphlet or paper,” the Order had imperiously stated, “shall henceforth be published or imported without license or without registration in the register of the Stationers’ Company.” There were detailed provisions of course, vesting authority to decide in a few persons. Picking them one by one, Milton railed and fumed, likening the Order to the Spanish Inquisition: using eloquence and argument; dipping now into history, now into reason; mixing civilised condemnation with silky persuasion.