Joe Moshenska’s new biography of poet John Milton, “Making Darkness Light: A Life of John Milton,” is a strange but captivating, book. The author draws his reader, not only into the life and world of his subject, but into a sort of lived experience of Milton’s approach to poetry. As a professor of early modern literature at Oxford, Moshenska knows his way around Milton’s world. While every page shows the author’s learning, reading the book is a much more meditative than scholarly experience. Moshenska does not seem overly interested in facts and figures, still less with academic hobby horses. His focus lies elsewhere — in getting to the core sensibilities of the great English poet, and what he calls the Zweischenraum, or an in-betweenness of states, that describes so much of Milton’s work.
In his introduction, Moshenska admits that his aims as a biographer are unusual and somewhat shadowy. But then Milton himself presents an enigmatic figure. A poet, scholar, statesman, self-professed prophet, and anti-royalist revolutionary who wrote his most famous work, “Paradise Lost,” after having gone completely blind, Milton defies a simple recounting of facts. Moshenska relates how often he became preoccupied with “weirder, less respectable questions” about the poet’s life — experiential threads, like “how would it feel to be divinely inspired?” and “what is it like to compose more than ten thousand lines of intricate verse while blind?” These lead him toward the “growing conviction that it’s impossible to separate the place of Milton’s writings in his lifetime from the questionings and imaginings that they can provoke in ours.”
True to form, Moshenska unapologetically inserts himself into Milton’s story. He spends long passages recounting details from his research trips and his own experience with Milton’s poetry, both as a teacher and reader. Just as the many languages the poet mastered bubble underneath the rhythms of his verse, so too does Moshenska’s method float freely between different literary genres, and ranges widely over disparate periods of literary history. His roundabout method yields a strange animal of a book, a sort of hybrid creature — part biography, part literary criticism, and, in those sections where we follow the author on his research trips, part travelogue. The results are stunning in their insight, and oddly lyrical.
One chapter stands out as a good example of the Moshenska method. In it, the author describes the composition of Milton’s “Lycidas,” an elegy for a recently drowned Cambridge classmate, Edward King. Moshenska begins by repeating, dirge-like, the poem’s first three words: “yet once more.” We dwell on the stilted temporality of the phrase, and sample from a wide range of writers in our meditation, ranging from Franz Kafka to Oliver Sacks to Samuel Beckett. Then we visit the poem’s historical moment in a description of Milton’s original notebook, finding evidence of the poet’s tortured process in his many scrawled corrections and false starts. We shift then to the event that inspired “Lycidas,” the 1637 drowning, then rocket forward to 2017 when Moshenska visited the river where the event happened. On the banks of the River Dee, the author finds himself admitting how little the scene actually recalls Milton’s poem — but how the very absence of any memorial to King also, in a way, personifies “Lycidas.” Moshenska writes, “I could cast my eyes across the waters at the sight of No Edward King, see for myself the absence of any bodily trace of physical monument.” The chapter whiplashes between references to Proust, Joyce, and Samuel Johnson before settling into a personal revelation the author had while teaching the poem years earlier. Different threads of history intertwine within the author’s readerly impressions — almost as if the author takes on Milton’s own angelic perspective on history. Like Raphael in “Paradise Lost”, Moshenska zooms in on human affairs while also coloring every scene with his own authorial voice.
But Moshenska’s stream-of-consciousness method also feels directed, purposeful. For instance, the chapter recounting Milton’s composition of “Paradise Lost” begins with the poet, now blind, carrying out his duties as Secretary for Foreign Tongues. He dictates Latin translation for two letters from the Council of State to his clerk, a man who would become famous in his own right as a poet, Andrew Marvell. Milton’s consciousness floats between his present work and two dreams he had the night before. Suddenly he breaks off from his work and demands Marvell write down two lines of English verse, a passage keen-eyed readers will recognize from Book XI of “Paradise Lost.” Moshenska explains that the narrative interlude attempts to place the poem in history, or, at least, “to continue circling around the fact that it cannot be securely placed in time.” Milton worked on “Paradise Lost” for decades prior to actually setting it down in manuscript form. But the shadowy historical presence mirrors the author’s own experience with the poem. “Parts of it — lines, phrases, mental pictures, memories of conversations — flash back at odd… and less predictable moments, as if it’s become just part of the clutter of my mind…” he writes.
Moshenska seems to insist that the task of summing up a life like that of John Milton requires a different sort of biography. “Making Darkness Light” privileges us with a peek inside its author’s mind in contemplation of such a life and makes a compelling case that it could be told in no other way.
MAKING DARKNESS LIGHT: A Life of John Milton
By Joe Moshenska
Basic Books, 464 pages, $35
Nathan Pensky is a writer and recent PhD graduate in early modern literary studies from Carnegie Mellon.