Creative Writing Masterclass: John Milton

John Milton is best known for his great epic poem, Paradise Lost, which tells the story of the temptation of Eve and the subsequent expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden. He also wrote many political works. The passage below is from Areopatigica, named after the Areopagus, a rocky outcrop of the Acropolis, traditionally used as an open-air courtroom in ancient Athens. Here Milton warns of the dangers of censoring books. These paragraphs are well worth remembering and are still referred to today by those who argue in favour of free speech. If you’re ever asked to write an essay about the importance of reading, it’s always good to be able to mention Milton’s description of a book as “the precious life-blood of a master spirit”. What is impressive about this passage is the way in which Milton “personifies” books. In other words, he presents them as being like human beings: books too can be unjustly persecuted or “killed”. I have put in bold type all the words that speak of life, death, killing, persecution and preservation.

I deny not, but that it is of greatest concernment in the Church and Commonwealth, to have a vigilant eye how books demean themselves as well as men; and thereafter to confine, imprison, and do sharpest justice on them as malefactors. For books are not absolutely dead things, but do contain a potency of life in them to be as active as that soul was whose progeny they are; nay, they do preserve as in a vial the purest efficacy and extraction of that living intellect that bred them. I know they are as lively, and as vigorously productive, as those fabulous dragon’s teeth; and being sown up and down, may chance to spring up armed men. And yet, on the other hand, unless wariness be used, as good almost kill a man as kill a good book. 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. ‘Tis true, no age can restore a life, whereof perhaps there is no great loss; and revolutions of ages do not oft recover the loss of a rejected truth, for the want of which whole nations fare the worse.

We should be wary therefore what persecution we raise against the living labours of public men, how we spill that seasoned life of man, preserved and stored up in books; since we see a kind of homicide may be thus committed, sometimes a martyrdom, and if it extend to the whole impression, a kind of massacre; whereof the execution ends not in the slaying of an elemental life, but strikes at that ethereal and fifth essence, the breath of reason itself, slays an immortality rather than a life. But lest I should be condemned of introducing license, while I oppose licensing, I refuse not the pains to be so much historical, as will serve to show what hath been done by ancient and famous commonwealths against this disorder, till the very time that this project of licensing crept out of the Inquisition, was catched up by our prelates, and hath caught some of our presbyters.

I teach Creative Writing. Click here to see more Creative Writing Masterclass posts and/or email me if you would like to take lessons: scholartext@gmail.com.