Since I discovered the ability to flit back through time when I was moved to ask Anthony Trollope about his prodigious prolificacy, I’ve been trying to get a second interview with him — and failing miserably. However, it occurred to me that it might be interesting in the meantime to hobnob with some other literary legend from long ago.
Someone I feel very close to is John Milton. At one time in my life I used to soothe myself to sleep reciting some of his shorter poems. Then, when I was in my twenties, I found myself working a mere stone’s throw from his home in Bunhill Row. I went back there a few days ago and rapped at his door.
A severe-looking manservant opened it. He squinted at me warily and asked me what I wanted. I said I had urgent business with the Secretary of Foreign Tongues. I was a blogger and a commentator on blogs, I said, and I’d recently had a brush with the authorities. I’d been censored and I needed some expert guidance on freedom of speech.
The manservant tried to shoo me away but, overhearing the kerfuffle at his front door, the great man loomed impressively in the hallway and asked me to state my business.
“I would very much like to hear your views on free speech,” I told him. “You’re pretty hot on the topic, I hear. Didn’t you address Parliament on it a while back?”
The Secretary of Foreign Tongues found my idioms intriguing and urged me to step inside so he could study me at leisure. He sat me in a hard chair beside the window with the light full on my face and peered at me closely. He couldn’t see very well at all, poor man. His wife sat by the hearth with an open book on her lap. It was some dreary religious stuff she’d been reading to him, purportedly written by King Charles I and which had become a bestseller after the king’s execution.
“You didn’t think much of it, I gather?” I said to Mr. Milton.
“Such prayers as these may haply catch the people,” he said, “but how they please God is much doubted.”
“Still, it sold pretty well. Let’s not turn up our noses at the forces of the free market.”
“It perhaps may gain him after death a short, contemptible, and soon fading reward.”
“Not much consolation when your head has been cut off,” I said. ” I guess you never wanted to write a bestseller, did you?”
“I do not desire to catch the worthless approbation of an inconstant, irrational, and image-doting rabble.”
“Hmm. Most of them have had a smattering of education these days. Well, being able to read is something anyway, isn’t it? When you gave that famous speech of yours in Parliament, you certainly sounded like you loved books.”
“I have a love of books and a love of truth.”
“But I guess you consider it very important to be discerning in what you read?”
“Aye. 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.”
“So you’re against banning books then?”
“As good almost kill a man as kill a good book. “
“What about killing a king?”
“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.”
“Wow! Strong stuff! I guess you’d also be against censorship on the internet?”
“What’s the internet?” he asked.
“It’s a bit like purgatory,” I told him. “It’s a place where you can find a lot of writers who aren’t quite good enough to be published yet. They get sucked in and stay there floundering around and lamenting loudly. There’s a lot of wailing and gnashing of teeth and they get prodded and roasted by demons until they’re purged of all their sins.”
“I see.” He nodded vigorously. “And he who were pleasantly disposed could not well avoid to liken censorship of such writers to the exploit of that gallant man who thought to pound up the crows by shutting his park gate.”
I’d clearly got him onto one of his favourite subjects for he wouldn’t stop talking. No wonder he was in favour of the freedom of speech. Much of it went over my head, I’m afraid, particularly the stuff in Latin, which he spoke as fluently as English.
“You spoke with Galileo while he was under house arrest in Florence, didn’t you?” I asked him. “His glib tongue didn’t do him any favours. But then you were never frightened to speak your mind even in Italy, if your Defensio Secunda is to be believed.”
“While I was on my way back to Rome,” he said, “some merchants informed me that the English Jesuits had formed a plot against me if I returned to Rome because I had spoken too freely on religion. I, nevertheless, returned to Rome. I took no steps to conceal either my person or my character; and for about the space of two months I again openly defended, as I had done before, the reformed religion in the very metropolis of popery.”
“You are a brave man. But not every one is as brave or as intelligent as you. What about people who publish bad poetry. Shouldn’t we try to stifle them somehow?”
“If we think to regulate printing, thereby to rectify manners, we must regulate all recreation and pastimes, all that is delightful to man. No music must be heard, no song be set or sung, but what is grave and Doric. There must be licensing dancers, that no gesture, motion, or deportment be taught our youth but what by their allowance shall be thought honest; for such Plato was provided of. It will ask more than the work of twenty licensers to examine all the lutes, the violins, and the guitars in every house; they must not be suffered to prattle as they do, but must be licensed what they may say. And who shall silence all the airs and madrigals that whisper softness in chambers? The windows also, and the balconies must be thought on; there are shrewd books, with dangerous frontispieces, set to sale; who shall prohibit them, shall twenty licensers? The villages also must have their visitors to inquire what lectures the bagpipe and the rebeck reads, even to the ballatry and the gamut of every municipal fiddler, for these are the countryman’s Arcadias, and his Monte Mayors.”
It was getting late so I was looking for some way of winding down our lively discussion. His wife, I noticed, was already snoring peacefully in her easy chair. “Look at the time!” I said, catching him in a rhetorical hiatus.
“Fly, envious time!” he declared. He was clearly enjoying himself too much to stop now; he had been pacing the room energetically and now began sawing the air with his long arms. Fortunately, as I said, his eyesight was none too good and I managed to slip out unnoticed while the walls were resonating with the sonorous booming baritone in which he intoned the final line of this remarkable monologue.
“Fly envious Time, till thou run out thy race,
Call on the lazy leaden-stepping hours,
Whose speed is but the heavy Plummets pace;
And glut thy self with what thy womb devours,
Which is no more then what is false and vain,
And meerly mortal dross;
So little is our loss,
So little is thy gain.
For when as each thing bad thou hast entomb’d,
And last of all, thy greedy self consum’d,
Then long Eternity shall greet our bliss
With an individual kiss;
And Joy shall overtake us as a flood,
When every thing that is sincerely good
And perfectly divine,
With Truth, and Peace, and Love shall ever shine
About the supreme Throne
Of him, t’whose happy-making sight alone,
When once our heav’nly-guided soul shall clime,
Then all this Earthy grosnes quit,
Attir’d with Stars, we shall for ever sit,
Triumphing over Death, and Chance, and thee O Time.”
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