John Milton - Paradise Regained
PUBLISHED: 13:45 11 June 2008 | UPDATED: 14:34 20 February 2013
On the 400th anniversary of his birth, Sandra Carter visits John Milton's cottage - the Chalfont St Giles home where one of our greatest poets found peace...
On the 400th anniversary of his birth, Sandra Carter visits John Milton's cottage - the Chalfont St Giles home where one of our greatest poets found peace.
See the website for details: www.miltonscottage.org
Perched on the edge of the village green with its duck pond, the pretty cottage is a picture of tranquillity. No wonder it seemed the perfect refuge when its most famous resident fled here from the Great Plague, with England in turmoil, his friends in prison and himself a blind and disillusioned man.
The year was 1665 when John Milton arrived in the village of Chalfont St Giles. It was not only plague he was escaping. At the age of 57, he had problems of his own. A writer who had lost his sight and his job, his family life had also been full of sadness.
Moreover, all he had worked for seemed lost. He had thrown his energies into the Parliamentary cause, acting as Cromwell's Latin Secretary and a kind of early Foreign Secretary, writing strident political pamphlets opposing the monarchy. But in 1660 the monarchy had been restored, some of Milton's works were burnt, and he lay low in fear of arrest.
Visitors to Milton's Cottage today find a quiet and cosy 16th-century home, now a museum, its family rooms and cottage garden largely unchanged from the time of his short stay here in 1665 with his third wife and youngest daughter.
The end of his political ambitions and his enforced retreat from public life resulted in huge benefit for the literary world. Here in Chalfont St Giles he finally had time to return to his epic poem Paradise Lost, begun more than 20 years earlier and put aside while he attended to affairs of state. The blind poet would get up early each day and compose a few dozen lines in his mind, then a friend would come in and he would dictate the lines, perfectly formed.
The study where he worked is perhaps the most intriguing room in the cottage, where one can imagine Milton laying aside life's disappointments and pouring his literary genius into one of the greatest and most influential epic poems ever written.
He showed the finished manuscript to his Quaker friend Thomas Ellwood when he came to visit. Ellwood later wrote: "I pleasantly said to him, 'Thou has said much here of Paradise Lost, but what hast thou to say of Paradise Found?' "
The seed of an idea took root, resulting in due course in the second great work, Paradise Regained.
For many who visit the cottage today, it's not just Milton the poet they seek. In the US, Milton is far more well known as the man who inspired the Founding Fathers with his views on individual liberties. His words on freedom of speech are famously quoted in the First Amendment to the American Constitution. He had radical views on press freedom, divorce, education and the monarchy, which still resonate today. It's sometimes claimed that every writer since his day has been in his debt.
Charles Darwin always carried a copy of Paradise Lost with him, and most recently, Philip Pullman in the foreward to His Dark Materials acknowledges Milton's inspiration in his own writing. Yet no one would say Milton gives us an easy read. His writings are full of the classical allusions which were familiar to educated people of his day, but are unfamiliar to most modern readers. Yet his grand themes and matchless language well repay the effort.
Milton's Cottage welcomes a steady stream of visitors who come to wander through the four downstairs rooms which are open to the public, charmingly evocative of Milton and his times, with inglenook fireplace, old floor tiles, big kitchen table, domestic memorabilia such as a lacemaking pillow, and the dim, quiet study where the great man dreamt up his epic poetry.
There is also a world-class collection of early editions of Milton's poetry and prose writings.
Duck through a low doorway and you find yourself in a pretty garden that is stocked with many of the plants mentioned in Milton's writings. They are listed on a garden map, with the appropriate quotations available in the house. Milton clearly had a deep love of nature, writing endearingly of plants and their uses throughout his poetry. At Chalfont St Giles perhaps he did, after all, find his paradise once more.
This year, the 400th anniversary of Milton's birth, more visitors than ever are searching out the only remaining home where Milton lived. Events in Cambridge, where he studied, London and Chalfont St Giles celebrate his legacy. Milton's masque Comus will be performed in Cambridge in June, along with a new anti-masque on the same theme. An International Milton Symposium takes place in London in July. Paradise Lost will be read aloud - the best way to enjoy it, some say - in October in a reading which lasts around 11 hours.
(See the website for details: www.miltonscottage.org)
Milton's Cottage is open daily except Mondays from March 1 to October 31, 10am-1pm, 2pm-6pm. Admission: adults £4, under-15s £2.
Milton's Cottage, Deanway, Chalfont St Giles HP8 4JH. Tel: 01494 872313.