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Archbishop preaches about poet John Milton at St Giles' Cripplegate

Archbishop at St Giles' Cripplegate © Jet Photographic

Wednesday 17th September 2008

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, preached at a service to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the birth of poet John Milton.

The service took place at St Giles' Cripplegate, London, where Sir Derek Jacobi read the Archbishop's chosen text from Milton's 1667 epic poem 'Paradise Lost'.

John Milton and his father are buried at St Giles', and the church has become a place of pilgrimage for academics and scholars from all over the world.

The Choir of Selwyn College, Cambridge, sang the sacred music of John Milton senior at the service.

Texts of the Archbishop's sermon and Sir Derek Jacobi's reading can be found below:

Archbishop's Sermon

To begin with a resoundingly obvious remark: Milton believed profoundly in words. He worked out of a pervasive confidence that his language could sound the depths of truth and communicate them in such a way as to change human hearts. In his long writing life, he found very diverse ways of expressing this: beginning with the musical, extravagant idioms of the earliest poems with their rich classical allusiveness and dancing rhythms, he goes on to establish himself as a prose polemicist of immense – sometimes scurrilous – vigour, and writes what is probably the greatest apologia in any European language for free debate in the public arena. He becomes a servant of the revolutionary government, using his skills for the wholesale reformation of a society (and incidentally laying himself open to many of the charges he had so unforgettably formulated in his own polemics against censorship). And then, already shaken by personal and political disaster and by his irreversible blindness, he embarks on the most ambitious project of all, 'to justify the ways of God to man': in a startlingly different poetic style, severe, insistent, but with even more metaphorical abundance than before, he dramatises the fall of the angels, the inner counsels of the Trinity and the first disobedience of the human heart.

His whole life rested on the presumption that words rightly used could both capture all that could be understood and change what was possible for human beings. Like any great poet, he is not afraid of risks; and some of them do and some of them don't come off. Even C.S. Lewis, one of his finest and most sympathetic twentieth century interpreters, notes that Milton's heaven is too close for comfort to Homer's Olympus: the unimaginable and transcendent trinitarian God of orthodox Christianity metamorphoses into a committee of ceremonious potentates. Yet Milton would undoubtedly have argued in his defence that if you're going to imagine, you have to imagine boldly: of course it isn't like that in heaven; but how else does language have access, the access it needs, to the mysterious if you shrink away from the task of redeeming the idioms of mythology?

But – again like any great poet - he moves inexorably towards the moment where it becomes plain that music, sonority and symbolic abundance still leave something uncaptured, and even the most disciplined of metrical schemes only exposes something that cannot be reduced to metre or measure. George Herbert acknowledges it in a number of extraordinary poems where he deliberately interrupts the flow of rhythm with silence – as in 'The Sacrifice' – or with a line beyond 'measure, tune and time' – as in 'Grief'. Milton, more intensely ambitious and surely less self-aware than Herbert, struggles with this. There is a kind of prophetic foretaste of it in the well-known Sonnet XIX, 'When I consider how my light is spent', as early as the 1650's, with its conclusion, 'They also serve who only stand and wait'. Here he has to accept the limitation of what he can do as a blind man; and this leads to a reluctant but still, in literary terms, authoritative commendation of patience and stillness. Yet he continues to be ambitious for what he can say; Paradise Lost makes that as evident as could be. What happens when it is no longer clear even what can be said?

At the very end of Paradise Lost, the Archangel Michael has laid out before the newly fallen Adam what lies ahead, the glorious history of God's dealings with his people, up to and including the restoration of humankind in Christ; and Adam responds with a foreshadowing of the Easter Vigil proclamation of the Catholic Church. 'Full of doubt I stand,/Whether I should repent me now of sin,/By me done, and occasion'd; or rejoice/ Much more, that much more good thereof shall spring.' The long-term future is assured, and Adam knows that a 'greater Man' will restore all things. And yet: when the dialogue with the archangel is over and Adam and Eve leave Paradise, 'They hand in hand, with wand'ring steps and slow,/Through Eden took their solitary way'. These final lines of Paradise Lost have an immense poignancy and sense of desolation. The reconciled future is known, but it is a long journey to arrive at it. The interval is a time of disorientation, loss, loneliness, and there are no short cuts.

Adam stands; he stands and waits, not knowing how to bring together in words the appalling gravity of his loss and the excess of glory promised for his descendants. It is not a vision that can be simply articulated so that appropriate feelings are guaranteed; he and Eve must now begin their journey –walking both away from and towards bliss and reconciliation; and the words left to them are the words they will have to find on this journey as they walk it. When Adam rejoins Eve after Michael's prophecies, she tells him that she has received the same message in her dreams; and Adam (uncharacteristically) 'answer'd not'. He leaves Paradise in silence. The vision is given that will give Adam and Eve the resource to walk down the precipitous slopes of Eden to middle earth, but the words are not yet there to hold it all together.

It is a glimpse of the complex challenges that run through the last poems Milton wrote. Paradise Regain'd is emotionally dominated by Satan's frustration at the unrevealing nature of his encounters with Jesus in the wilderness. He cannot identify what it is that Jesus actually wants – and, to a large extent, neither can we. The old Milton, who could confidently depict the persons of the Trinity discussing the salvation of the world, is still in evidence, of course: we are treated to a soliloquy from Jesus about his childhood and his present uncertainty as to what lies ahead. And Jesus' repudiation of Satan's offer of universal power and popularity has the authentic Miltonic note of angry contempt for a fickle and stupid general public; rather more Miltonic than biblical.

But the climax is strikingly austere. When Satan has placed Jesus on the pinnacle of the Temple, he 'added thus in scorn; /There stand, if thou wilt stand; to stand upright/Will ask thee skill...Now shew thy Progeny; if not to stand,/Cast thy self down'. The response is devastatingly brief: 'To whom thus Jesus: also it is written,/Tempt not the Lord thy God, he said and stood.' Like Adam, Jesus stands: and the fact that he does is the final answer to Satan – who, witnessing Jesus standing in triumphant silence, promptly falls. Milton's analogy is significant. Satan falls as did the Sphinx who asked the fatal riddle at the crossroads in Greek Mythology; when Oedipus answers the riddle correctly, the Sphinx 'Cast her self headlong from th'Ismenian steep'. Jesus stands and answers Satan's riddles: and as with Oedipus and the Sphinx, the answer is a definition of humanity itself. But this definition is of a humanity anchored immovably in God: the final and true definition of our life is revealed in the figure who alone is able to stand upright on the dangerous summit of the Temple, between heaven and earth. The words of Jesus' response lack any of the rhetorical elaboration that attends his earlier replies to Satan. What matters, we might say, is that Jesus holds his place, between earth and heaven, native to both. Speech gives way to a bare act of witness; Milton's earlier language in the sonnet is given a far deeper anchorage here. And the answer to Jesus' own self-questioning as well as to Satan's obsessive attempt to discover what Jesus wants and what he will do is made plain. Whatever Jesus says or does, he will 'stand'; his fidelity is part of what he is, unshakeably, as his freedom is inseparably bound up with his obedience. His speech moves into this sheer victorious presence.

The odd unsatisfactoriness of Paradise Regain'd in the eyes of many readers is as much as anything to do with this climax, poetically surprising and morally challenging. Milton himself did not exactly leave things there. Samson Agonistes is, more than anything else Milton wrote, marked by irregular rhythms, awkward changes of metre and fractured lines, as if finally yielding to what Herbert had seen – that the realities with which poetry deals cannot be contained in polished and smooth forms; yet the narrative is troubling, with its bloody and vengeful denouement. Samson, rather than 'standing' in witness to God's inscrutable justice, becomes the agent of divine judgement through mass slaughter.

Yet Paradise Regain'd still 'stands'. That moment of triumph and stillness is as far as Milton ever got in declaring the nature both of poetry itself and of God's saving action. Poetry, when it is fully itself, enacts something of the cross and resurrection, abandoning its fluencies and successes in order to press further and further towards that 'thin' texture through which truth may perhaps come. Poets, like Prospero at the end of The Tempest, have to know when to drown their books, when to let go of the defences of rhetoric and the illusions of fully controlling what they say. Milton trusted language perhaps more than most poets and polemicists, and much could be said about the cost of his 'letting-go', both personally and poetically. It is hard to guess just how much he was enabled to confront it by a faith that insists that abandonment, and an undressed, unforced language is God's own idiom for making himself known: the word of the cross, as St Paul calls it. God saves not by heroic acts – not through a Samson – but by being who he is: by a human life and death that simply fleshes out God's own fidelity to himself - 'whatever place,/Habit, or state, or motion, still expressing/ The Son of God'.

The poet cannot finally avoid the summons from confident speech to the brokenness and harsh linguistic economy of witness; the disciple cannot avoid the summons from heroism to silent fidelity, knowing only that this has been God's way of transforming the world. 'If we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him'. Milton, poet and disciple, faces this as reluctantly as any great or heroic figure ever did. Yet face it he does – patchily and reluctantly, but truthfully; and so must we.

Reading: Paradise Lost, book 12.466-504

So spake th' Archangel Michael, then paus'd,

As at the Worlds great period; and our Sire

Replete with joy and wonder thus repli'd.

O goodness infinite, goodness immense!

That all this good of evil shall produce,

And evil turn to good; more wonderful

Then that which by creation first brought forth

Light out of darkness! full of doubt I stand,

Whether I should repent me now of sin

By mee done and occasiond, or rejoyce

Much more, that much more good thereof shall spring,

To God more glory, more good will to Men

From God, and over wrauth grace shall abound.

But say, if our deliverer up to Heav'n

Must reascend, what will betide the few

His faithful, left among th' unfaithful herd,

The enemies of truth; who then shall guide

His people, who defend? will they not deale

Wors with his followers then with him they dealt?

Be sure they will, said th' Angel; but from Heav'n

Hee to his own a Comforter will send,

The promise of the Father, who shall dwell

His Spirit within them, and the Law of Faith

Working through love, upon thir hearts shall write,

To guide them in all truth, and also arme

With spiritual Armour, able to resist

Satans assaults, and quench his fierie darts,

What Man can do against them, not affraid,

Though to the death, against such cruelties

With inward consolations recompenc't,

And oft supported so as shall amaze

Thir proudest persecuters: for the Spirit

Powrd first on his Apostles, whom he sends

To evangelize the Nations, then on all

Baptiz'd, shall them with wondrous gifts endue

To speak all Tongues, and do all Miracles,

As did thir Lord before them. Thus they win

Great numbers of each Nation to receave

With joy the tidings brought from Heav'n.

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