John Milton and “Paradise Lost” - his life and work,
as told by the Milton Mummers
on Tuesday 12th February 2019 at the Octagon. St Mary's Lillington at 200 p.m.

The Chairman introduced proceedings with the statement that John Milton is arguably our greatest poet after Shakespeare, though few people claim to have read much if any of his poetry, even of ‘Paradise Lost’, his greatest work. He welcomed Mr Thomas Pugh from Oxford who has specialised in presenting a staged version of ‘Paradise Lost’ to make it more approachable for a wider public. Mr Pugh had trained a group of 5 people from the Leamington area to make a presentation as the ‘Milton Mummers’.

Milton was born in 1608 and died in 1674, so had lived through turbulent times, including the execution of Charles 1
st , the Commonwealth and the Restoration of the monarchy. His father was a scrivener , prosperous enough to send young John to St Paul’s School and Cambridge, and for John to travel quite a lot in Europe when he was a young man, especially Italy ( where he met Galileo among other scholars) . Italy, of course, was the home of Virgil whose epic ‘The Aeneid’ together with Homer’s ‘Iliad ‘ and ‘Odyssey ‘ had made such a mark on him. Though his grandfather had been a Catholic, John Milton supported Cromwell. He married 3 times – in 1642, to a wife who bore him a son and 3 daughters but died in 1652 as the 3rd was born; in 1656, by which time he was going blind, so he never saw the child to whom she too died giving birth; and again in 1663, to a woman who acted as his scribe and outlived him.

Milton was a very learned man – he often wrote in Latin and wrote many political and theological essays as well as poetry, and had a post in the equivalent of our Civil Service. He published a lot of poetry – sonnets and longer works like ‘Lycidas’; but for a man so soaked in Classical literature, it is not surprising that he aspired to write an epic –regarded as the height of literary achievement. He thought about writing one on King Arthur, but decided not to (a theme too often used as a justification for the monarchy to satisfy his republican sympathies). The theme he eventually ( 1658) adopted was greater still –the fall of Man and the struggle between good and evil. Book 9 deals with the temptation by Satan – with the serpent as his instrument – of Eve, and hers of Adam……………

There followed a reading by the 5 ‘Milton Mummers’ of an abridged version of Book 9, showing how Satan , after being driven out of Heaven (books 1 & 2) attacks God through His newest creation – mankind., causing them to commit ‘the mortal sin original’.

After the reading, questions were asked of Mr Pugh, and a discussion ensued. The richness of Milton’s language and imagery were much appreciated, while it was admitted that their density makes the poem a ‘hard read’. Being able to
hear it, well read, was enormously beneficial and the Chairman thanked the readers and Mr Pugh most warmly. Professor John Carey’s publication “The Essential Milton” was recommended as a good way in to the poem . ‘Paradise Lost’ had been broadcast in its entirety on Radio 4 and can be reached via Google in 21 episodes.

In conclusion, the Chairman declaimed Wordsworth’s ‘Sonnet to Milton’, containing the apposite couplet “Milton, thou should’st be living at this hour / England hath need of thee” ( !)

Refreshments were then served and a collection taken for Mr Pugh’s chosen charity , the Oxfordshire Association for the Blind. The meeting closed at 3.15 p.m.

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