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This review is from: The Complete English Poems (Everyman's Library Classics & Contemporary Classics) (Hardcover)
John Milton has long been recognized as the greatest poet in English after Shakespeare and a world literature treasure. Many of his short poems are perennially put among the greatest lyrics, especially "Lycidas" and his ground-breaking sonnets, which revolutionized the form and were immensely influential with sonneteers like William Wordsworth and Percy Shelley. He is of course most famous for Paradise Lost, his masterpiece; the greatest epic poem in English, it is rivaled only by Dante's Divine Comedy as the best modern epic. Paradise Regained, its mini-epic sequel, and the dramas Comus and Samson Agonistes are also among his legendary works. Besides all this, Milton's prose remains important and widely read, particularly his political work.
Many things make Milton great, not least that he is one of the few poets able to successfully combine beauty, artistry, and depth. He is usually considered the most learned English poet and was indeed among the most educated people of his day, perhaps of all time - a fearsomely well-read polyglot steeped in theology, philosophy, literature, science, and more. This has unfortunately kept many from reading him, but there is really nothing to fear; his intellect of course shows up but far more subtly than one would expect. Unlike Modernist writers with similar reputations, he is not obscure or massively allusive; nearly all his references are to the Bible and classical mythology sources that his readers would have immediately recognized. This is of course not as true now, but Milton remains remarkably readable for a poet of three hundred and fifty years' vintage - far more so, for instance, than Shakespeare.
Yet he is able to work weighty issues, particularly theology and philosophy, into his poetry in a way that only Alexander Pope, Shelley, and Thomas Hardy have been able to rival in English. Milton at his best is extremely thought-provoking but also remarkable for beauty and technical precision of a kind rarely achieved. Above all, his work is notable for a grand, epic sweep that is unmatched in English, putting him on a level with Homer, Virgil, and Dante. This is of course clearest in Paradise Lost, but even short works have it to a very high degree. Simply put, Milton's talent and stature are such that anyone even remotely interested in poetry must be familiar with his collected poems.
Anyone who loves poetry can only be dismayed at its historically low status; even the greats are read less than ever, and poetry seemingly gets only less popular. It is a testament to Milton's greatness that he has largely escaped this, continuing to be read not only by students and scholars but even remaining a popular culture presence, as numerous references in works as diverse as the film Seven and the songs of Nick Cave prove.
The Western world's ever-increasing secularism is probably the greatest obstacle to reading Milton, as nearly all his works and all the major ones deal with the Bible in some way. The passion with which he extols Christianity, particularly the dense intricacies with which he pursues an ongoing theodicy, can easily seem naÔve, and it will be near-laughable to some that such a stout Christian was ever considered an intellectual giant. Even the most pious Christians may find Milton's distinct brand of Calvinism off-putting; for example, his Jesus is anything but the proto-hippie peacknik now so widely touted yet also not the fire and brimstone hurler currently favored by fundamentalists. Milton's religious thought may now be of mostly historical interest, but this should not keep anyone from reading and appreciating his great work. Whether one agrees with his views is irrelevant; his majesty and greatness transcend opinion. The vast majority of his poetry may be specifically Christian, and he makes more than a few topical references, but it is universal as only truly great art can be.
Milton's near-uniform excellence makes a collected edition of his poems essential, and there are many versions. This is one of the best both for true comprehensiveness and generous supplemental material. Indeed, the title sells the book rather short; it has not only all the English poems but also several Latin and Italian ones with translations as well as "On Education" and "Areopagitica," his most famous prose works, plus associated appendices. The prose makes up a substantial part of the book - over sixty pages out of 620 - and is a nice bonus. "On Education" details Milton's revolutionary teaching methods and remains an important contribution to a never-ending debate both for its still useful suggestions and as a peek into an era when education was very different from today. The appendix, a reminiscence from Milton's nephew and pupil, gives a more detailed look at the imposing curriculum. "Areopagitica" is Milton's legendary response to the Puritan Parliament's infamous Licensing Order authorizing book censorship. It of course has many contemporary references, but Milton's strong free speech defense is unfortunately still necessary. This is a classic treatise with many superb quotes and arguments that are still widely used and a cornerstone - indeed, a building block - of modern liberalism even if the fact that it seems strikingly conservative in some ways shows how much liberalism has changed, also making it historically valuable. The Order itself is also usefully included as an appendix.
This edition is also remarkable for secondary material. In line with other Everyman editions, it has a lengthy introduction giving an excellent overview of Milton's life and thought, the context of the poems, and some critical analysis; a Milton chronology; a bibliography; and extensive notes on the text. Unlike many Everyman editions, it also has numerous in-text notes. Milton's age and learning make notes necessary for most and invaluable for many, and these are exemplary - neither too few or too many and explanatory without forcing an interpretation. The binding is also very high quality, and we even get a built-in bookmark.
In short, this has everything general readers could ever want and will also suffice for nearly all others. The only ones who will be disappointed are the true purists and completists who want all the foreign language poems and those who want original spelling and punctuation. Anyone who has even glanced at seventeenth century texts is well aware that mechanics have changed so drastically that most readers would be lost without extensive footnotes and glosses. This avoids the problem by changing spelling to conform with current usage and altering punctuation when it is likely to confuse. Some will find this blasphemous, especially as it occasionally interferes with meter, but most will appreciate it. Anyone wanting a Milton book and unbothered by these caveats could do no better than this.