MAKING DARKNESS LIGHT: A LIFE OF JOHN MILTON
By Joe Moshenska
When the biographer Edmund Morris was given the job of writing an authorized life of Ronald Reagan he found himself at a bit of a loss as to how to draw an honest and accurate picture of the man. In what was a highly controversial move he decided to write Dutch as a fictional historical memoir, telling Reagan’s story from the point of view of a made-up character. Some scenes were also dramatically embellished while others were simply made up.
I had to think of what Morris did in Dutch when reading Joe Moshenska’s new biography of John Milton, Making Darkness Light. Given how much has already been written about Milton, Moshenska found himself feeling a bit like Samuel Johnson, who a quarter-millennium ago faced the same task. Was there anything new to say? And how, in pursuit of that holy grail of every biographer, could he get inside the man?
Moshenska’s answer is to adopt a highly personal approach, and to use a lot of dramatic imagination.
These are both important points that need to be explained. In the first place there is the personal or subjective approach taken to the subject. “The way in which Milton matters to me is now entangled with the whole of my life,” Moshenska begins, “and this means that to write about him, to make any kind of sense of him, is partly to think of his place within this whole.” That is, within the whole of Moshenska’s life, which is what gives this biography its true intellectual context.
I can only write about Milton’s life in his times by reckoning along the way with his place in my own life, in my times. This will mean bringing Milton’s life and his writings into contact with the personal and public worlds that he inhabited, but also showing along the way how his writings have come alive for me . . . If this means staying less than fully focused on the facts of Milton’s life and work, I hope it will be truer to what I see as one of his deepest preoccupations: the place of literature in a life.
What this means in practice is that, for example, Moshenska will not only travel to many of the places where Milton lived or visited, but that he will write directly about his (that is, Moshenska’s) experience as a twenty-first century literary tourist.
Does it work? Only some of the time. The idea that any biographer or historian or literary critic approaches their subject from a particular, personal point of view that colours their interpretation and understanding of the evidence seems trite to me, and doesn’t justify this amount of self-awareness. Reading non-fiction, one cares about the story being told more than finding out about the storyteller. That said, the blending of biography and memoir is a powerful current in our own time, something seen most obviously in the true crime genre recently.
The second point has to do with dramatically imagining scenes from Milton’s life that may or may not have happened. For example, the question of whether Milton actually got to meet Galileo on his trip to Italy is one that’s argued for centuries by scholars, but Moshenska goes ahead and gives us an account anyway, even having the Tuscan artist let the visiting poet gaze through his optic glass. Might this, or something like this, have happened? We can only say that it’s possible. Similarly, when visiting Paris it’s not known if Milton was at a dinner where he sat next to Sir Kenelm Digby. So after presenting an account of the same Moshenska has this to say:
At this point I need to put my cards firmly on the table. What evidence is there that this dinner, or one like it, ever took place? None at all. What evidence is there that he ever met Sir Kenelm Digby, the man next to whom I seated him? Again, none. So why have I troubled you with it? On one level I must own up to some self-indulgence, though of a sort I am happy to defend. Digby is another figure from Milton’s era in whom I have invested many years of thought, whose writings I have read and in whose footsteps I have sometimes travelled. I’ve often been thinking about the two of them at the same time, and so of course they are braided together in my own mind: in this sense, bringing in Digby reflects my own interconnected preoccupations . . .
Because Moshenska has spent a lot of time studying Digby he finds the idea of such a meeting of intellectual opposites, “the polar extremes of seventeenth-century life,” intriguing. It can also help illustrate the nature of those extremes. In this way, like a good historical novel, the dinner scene can be said to aid our understanding of the social and political milieu of Milton’s life, even if it’s wholly imaginary. But one still wants to object: is it true? And if it isn’t, how misleading might all this be?
These two directions taken by Moshenska are what set Making Darkness Light apart as a Milton biography. I will be honest and admit (in a manner that I think Moshenska, who is interested in how reading happens, would appreciate) that they made me feel at times, especially in the early going, like giving up on the book entirely. There are moments when it becomes impossibly precious. What are we to make of a chapter that begins like this:
Where are we?
Vision is doubled, split, one possibility layered over and vibrating with another, but the two refusing to coalesce into a single scene. As if the two eyes are each seeing something different, peering in different directions like the revolving eyeballs of a chameleon, but into entirely different spaces, worlds.
When are we?
Time is what we’re not supposed to notice; it’s what allows our attention to take place, not something to which we attend. But that seems impossible, here. It too is divided; no, rather, it’s overstuffed, full; there seems to be too much of it. Somehow the flow of time wants and manages to do impossibly different things all at once. It races eagerly ahead like a river swollen after rain; it curls around and back on itself like that river’s eddies and whorls, its turbulent pockets and vortices; it seems to want to freeze into ice, hard enough to skate upon, and pause at the moment of its sudden crystalline stillness. None of these can happen, but none of these possibilities will surrender to the others.
This, to make use of a very technical word, is mush. It’s at moments like these that you have to remind yourself you’re reading a critical biography. A subjective, dramatic approach has collapsed into a sort of poetic expressionism, and it’s a long way from telling us anything about Milton.
That said, I can now happily add that I’m glad I stuck with Making Darkness Light. The thing is, when he gets down to talking about Milton, Moshenska proves himself to be an adept, well-informed, insightful, and sensitive reader. When he has a bit of text between his teeth he can really pull. I learned quite a bit, and found myself being led into thinking about Milton in interesting new ways. There were moments of disagreement – I doubt Edward King ever made any kind of an impression on Milton at all, for example – but I can see where Moshenska is coming from. Indeed, where he’s coming from is often, as we’ve seen, the point.
That can be off-putting and overdone, but given the dilemma faced by any scholar writing on a figure as canonical as Milton, labouring under the weight of centuries of critical overload, one has to accept that some risks must be taken in order to create a Milton for our own time. This is something that Moshenska has done, and as co-creators of the cultural moment I think we have to take the good with the bad.
Review first published online February 14, 2022.