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Remember, Remember, the writer John Milton

In previous blogs, I have written about my experiences as a visually impaired person, the aim of which has been to raise awareness for people living with visual impairments. However, it is important to remember that while visual impairment effects many today, it also affected many throughout history. Visual impairment should not stop someone from living a normal life and achieving great things, and there are several figures throughout history that are a testament to that. Therefore, I am going to be writing a series of blogs about visually impaired people throughout history. I hope these stories will provide comfort, education and inspiration to anyone.

As we are in Buckinghamshire, it is appropriate to begin this series with a resident of Chalfont St Giles, John Milton. For most of his life, he was known for his republican pamphlets and his government service. It was only towards the end of his life that his poetic merits were recognized. Milton’s Cottage, where he briefly stayed to avoid the plague in London, is open to the public. It was in this house where Milton wrote Paradise Lost, a work which was composed while he was completely blind, but more on that later. First, some context.

Milton was born in London in 1608. He entered Cambridge and was suspended the following year for arguing with his tutor. While he was at Cambridge, he wrote the famous In Quintum Novembris (On the Fifth of November) to commemorate the Gunpowder Plot. Its opening lines, ‘Remember, Remember, the fifth of November’ are still used today.

He settled in London and took tutors at home. During this time, he published republican pamphlets crying against the authority of the Church, censorship of books and the tight divorce laws (divorcing one’s spouse was near impossible). As well as pamphlets, he also wrote poetry, his first collection appearing in 1645. His republicanism and ability to speak ten languages enabled him to become Secretary for Foreign Tongues for Cromwell’s government (an interpreter for the seventeenth century equivalent of the Home or Foreign Office).

Milton’s vision had been declining over the years, but in 1652, he went completely blind. The exact cause is unknown, though he claimed it was because ‘I never extinguished my lamp before midnight’ in his youth. The most likely cause was glaucoma. Glaucoma occurs when too much pressure builds up on the eye, damaging the optic nerve which controls brain signals. Unfortunately for Milton, this was the seventeenth century. It would two hundred years before the symptoms of glaucoma were recognized. Sight-loss from glaucoma is irreversible, but we are lucky to live in a time where, if caught early, it can be managed.

1652 was far from a happy year for Milton. Not only did he lose his vision forever, but he lost his second wife and his infant son in the same year. He wrote a mournful poem on his blindness in which he lamented that the one talent God had given him, which was to write, had been taken from him. Now, he felt helpless and useless.

However, while he could no longer write, his imagination still thrived, and he was able to dictate to friends and family. This dictation was used to produce his renowned Biblical epic, Paradise Lost, along with subsequent works such as Paradise Regained and The History of England. Paradise Lost is regarded as Milton’s masterpiece and was hailed by a contemporary poet, John Dryden, as ‘one of the most subline poems this age or nation has produced’. Milton continued to produce works until his death in 1674, but his legacy did not die with him. The poem would later influence writers in the next centuries, such as Mary Shelley and William Wordsworth, and is regarded as one of the greatest works in English literature.

I confess that I never liked poetry, but I have read Paradise Lost. Being written in the seventeenth century, it is not an easy read.  It is an impressive work, but for an epic so highly regarded to be imagined while Milton was completely blind is extraordinary. As someone who writes novels, Milton’s story is close to my heart, and deeply moving. Although he mourned the loss of his sight, he did not give up. Blindness did not stop one of Britain’s greatest literary minds from producing one of the most famous epics in the English language.