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Joe Moshenska, Making Darkness Light: The Lives and Times of John Milton
by Sophie Fordham

Joe Moshenska. Making Darkness Light: The Lives and Times of John Milton. London: Basic Books, 2021. 456 pp. ISBN: 9781529364286. £25 hardback.


Embracing the productive instability of ambivalence, Joe Moshenska’s Making Darkness Light grapples with the variegated possibilities of John Milton’s becoming, through a personal and imaginative account of reading which transcends the generic boundaries that often confine traditional biography. In this resplendent contribution to Milton scholarship, and literary biography more widely, the author eschews the temptation to conceal himself in the role of biographer. Instead, he demonstrates with tremendous generosity the collective profit of engaging one’s own cultural identity and lived experiences in the act of interpreting not just Milton’s works, but what it means to narrate and remember the author’s life. This results in a book which not only expands the parameters of Milton scholarship, but also challenges the way in which this scholarship can be performed.

Milton-the-prophet and Milton-the-scholar are set head-to-head in an opening contemplation which materialises these two conflicting personalities on consecutive pages in a bid to reconcile – or simply observe – these divided, ‘out of place’, yet proximate visions of who Milton is widely estimated to have been: indeed, ‘Is it possible to write a biography about these various Miltons?’. Answering his own question with gently increasing momentum, Moshenska invites readers to inhabit a spirit of openness to plurality, a spirit which readies them to encounter the lives and times of an author whose life’s work, indistinguishable from his pursuit of truth, pivots upon the meeting of differences. Making Darkness Light is a come-as-you-are invitation to dwell in the dark and fruitful betweenness of these narrative constellations – whether through creative exercise, personal reflection, or incisive poetic analysis – which is enlivened by the growing knowledge that Moshenska’s familiarity with and enthusiasm for inhabiting such spaces is informed by the experiences and environments that organised his own becoming. 

The book begins by assessing the reasons why the author remains so drawn to Milton, despite many facets of Milton’s identity conflicting with his own: writing ‘as a Jew who doesn’t believe in God’s existence, and for whom religion is matter of upholding some enjoyable family traditions, not a matter of either personal conviction or communal religious practice’, he acknowledges how his ‘constant return to Milton feels even more perplexing’ when thought about directly (16). All performances of sanitised neutrality are rejected as Moshenska shows in overt ways how the different facets of his particular identity shape his reading practice, and how reading Milton has shaped those identity-informed practices in turn. Taking stock of a life punctuated by returns to one of the most well-known Christian poets in English literary history, the book implicitly challenges the homogeneity of the critical field to which it contributes. It does this whilst encouraging an interrogation of how uniformity of identity within any critical field directly affects the variety and quality of the scholarship it produces.

Elsewhere in a chapter on Milton’s schooling, he discloses some uneasiness with his –perfectly adequate, he admits, yet inexpert – Latin literacy, having not started learning the language until his doctoral years. The expectation that one who is intellectually engaged in the study of Milton must have some Latin in order to be an acceptable scholar of his work (a view which may be more visibly unpopular now, but is still tacitly entrenched, as Moshenska’s uneasiness seems to attest) is one that must be levelled by the recognition that learning Latin from an early age is almost always a privilege of the privately educated in the United Kingdom. It is in these kinds of brief but valuable digressions that Moshenska often offers the most pertinent insights. Whilst he articulates the deep enmeshment that Latin literacy has with issues of class and race in the education system in which he was schooled, I felt eager to hear even more about how these inequalities of schooling – represented only partially by his reflection upon the scholarly virtue of Latin – infiltrate the grandest institutions of higher education in the UK. Such institutions take a significant role in shaping the ways in which canonical authors like Milton are both chronicled and questioned.

Whilst Moshenska never overrules fact in favour of fiction, he meditates upon objects, evidence, and data in creative episodes which sensitively move beyond the realm of the known. The willingness to commune with probabilities of various and conflicting kinds, through the amalgamation of creative and analytic ways of thinking-through is both hospitably strange and strangely hospitable. Placed at the beginning of most of the eleven chapters, these creative exercises have a refreshing, preparatory effect which model a way of thinking about writing about Milton which deliberately calls attention to the way in which all biographies are stories of likelihood, or calculated arrangements of the available facts. Moshenska considers how conscious fictions can in good faith reveal truths that the guise of stable knowledge tends to inhibit, and immerses readers in perceptions and experiences Milton may have had in order to build a greater sense of what feasibly could have been. Whilst this may appear in some ways counterintuitive to the traditional purpose of biography, these imaginations are effectively elongated forms of germane questions that are then considered in more customary critical terms: How did the violent rhythms of Milton’s schooling impress upon his later life? How did his encounters with the unfamiliar transform his relationship to his society? How did he prepare for his death and memorialisation? Moshenska’s generous capacity for unindulgent self-reflection empowers the literary scholar to become mindful of how their own training might incline them to ask the kinds of questions that inhibit the wonder of wandering, whilst offering less-familiar readers luscious access points into a writer who is synonymous with difficulty, with Englishness, with exclusion, as well as with freedom, radicalism, and internationalism.

The book is split into three parts, the first of which spans the initial twenty-one years of Milton’s life. The second part spans just eighteen months, whereas the third and final part takes stock of the last thirty-two of his sixty-five years. The division of years per pages indicates the significance Moshenska places upon 1637 to 1639, a period which begins with the creation of Lycidas and ends with Milton’s departure from Italy – a time of encounter with the alien and strange, which Moshenska deems to be especially instructive to Milton’s development as a person and as a writer. The first section takes as its interest four works – ‘On Time’, ‘At a Solemn Music’, Milton’s Psalm translations, and his nativity ode, ‘On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity’ – which concern, in a variety of ways, degrees and patterns of time.

Moshenska begins by accumulating an inventory of temporalities – both those which intersected in Milton’s living and writing, and those which condition all human experience. This inventory ranges from a reflection on how past technologies generated different noises associated with the passing of time (the clock Milton describes in ‘On Time’ is a lantern clock, which slowly plummets rather than ticks), to a consideration of the rhythms of Milton’s poetry that haunted the thoughts of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Virginia Woolf and Gerard Manley Hopkins. These later writers, further along in time to Milton but who now also belong to the literary past, reach forward from their own genealogy of rhythms into the consciousness of the present day. The purpose here is not so much to rocket-launch a definitive biographical argument, but to consider at the outset why Milton was so attentive to time and to the ways in which humans are constantly and often simultaneously in, between, and out of times. Moreover, the approach demonstrates that artworks are uniquely situated to reflect temporal experiences that are difficult to articulate casually. Such an inventory serves to enunciate an alternative way of thinking about these temporal schemes all colliding together: as a polyphony of rhythms.

Rhythm – a term which interests Moshenska because of the motion between two states it implies – is the word which enlivens the next three chapters, a journey that is set off by the question: ‘What was the particular knot of rhythms that made up Milton and that Milton made?’ (48). The second chapter examines the rhythms of Milton’s early domestic environment, the creative portion of which seeks to inhabit Milton’s father’s sociable musical world and the diversity of noises – the buzz of languages, business and busyness – that reverberated in and around their Bread Street home. It homes in enthusiastically on the celestial consort of musicians Milton refers to in ‘At a Solemn Music’, arguing – somewhat unadventurously – that this image of future heavenly harmony was one derived from the musical upbringing of his past. It faithfully re-examines the contentious place of music in liturgical worship, whilst also deftly considering the ways in which domestic musical performances like the ones his father orchestrated at his home were at once insidious attempts to confer a sense of order – of patriarchal Englishness – upon a household with scarcer records of female influence; the absence of information about Sara Milton is one Moshenska takes time to note.

Devoted to the rigorous rhythms of Milton’s schooling, the third chapter uncoincidentally introduces readers to Sean, a former teacher-turned-friend of Moshenska who pops up on multiple occasions as the aider-and-abettor of his frequently disappointed – though sometimes satisfied – desires to be astounded by the significant sites of Milton’s life. The reassuring presence of Sean partly serves to contrast the violent and rigid patterns of Milton’s schooling, and the educational practices hammered into him by the almighty hand of the schoolmaster. With characteristic sensitivity, Moshenska investigates the paradox that virtuous men were created by an education system that encouraged schoolboys to inhabit the voices, bodies, words of other people – of women – that they were ‘simultaneously warned against resembling too closely’ (100). He concludes by considering how Milton’s psalm translations represent another creative admittance into the profitably liminal, where the poet-as-translator believed himself to inhabit a voice which was not totally his, nor King David’s, but that of a divine other. The timelines of these initial chapters come together in a close analysis of ‘On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity’, which considers how religion – particularly, a belief in eternal life – orders perceptions of human time, something exemplified by the multiple locations that the ‘now’ of Milton’s nativity ode portends.  

The middle section of the book is comprised of various illuminating details: Moshenska defends the sincerity of Milton’s elegy for Edward King – someone who only had a walk-on part in his life – with poignant grace. He removes the protective conditions of mourning that readers often place upon this tragedy in ways which, if you have ever been knocked out of the wheel of diurnal motion by the death of someone whose absence in your life did not correlate to their significance, are profoundly clarifying. He then turns to the burgeoning conviction of Milton’s poetic vocation in the 1630s, which develops in the midst of Charles I’s Personal Rule, and the anxieties around what a devotion to poetic prophethood would entail. This leads on to Milton’s travels, a period which enabled him to cogitate heuristically upon what it meant to create with words; Moshenska starts with an imagined dinner in Paris where Milton meets Sir Kenelm Digby before moving onto the danger and delight of Catholic Italy.

Moshenska’s well-recorded interest in Digby makes this imagined encounter the most eligible for charges of self-indulgence, but he acknowledges this perceived conflict of interest immediately, providing some admittedly circumstantial evidence for their possible meeting and some convincing evidence that they ran in similar circles and settings, though at different times. The theme of imagined encounter continues with Galileo, which bears riper fruit because of his significant mentions in Paradise Lost; an intimate concert with famed singer Leonora Baroni; and the possibility that Milton gazed upon Caravaggio’s Seven Works of Mercy at the Pio Monte della Misericordia.

Throughout, Moshenska maintains that the creation of Milton’s magnum opus cannot be assigned definitively to one period of Milton’s life, suggesting rather that Paradise Lost hovers over and resonates throughout it. He also reinforces just how formative these encounters with the unfamiliar were to his sense of self, a self he wished to create in words. Both of these reflections are exemplified wonderfully in his interpretation of Book V of Paradise Lost, where – leading on from Regina Schwartz – he considers the ramifications of a universe that is ‘always and everywhere transubstantiating’ (258). This animist materialist prelapsarian vision leads Moshenska to reconsider Milton’s prosaic denouncements of Catholicism: that whilst he was by no means concealing his true feelings about the Roman faith, he perhaps painted his relationship to Catholicism without the nuance it warranted.

The final section of Making Darkness Light takes a broader view of the second half of Milton’s life, a period represented as most outwardly radical, most personally fraught, and most recognisable in the popular imagination. The section ‘Knowing Good by Evil’ addresses, amongst many other things, Milton’s flair for polemic. His resistance against the episcopacy in the tracts published in the decade following the regicide, whilst deliciously vitriolic to some, is frustratingly negative for Moshenska because it admits no positive workable alternatives. Though this expectation might be a tall order, Moshenska is fervent in his belief that the tracts contain the ‘displaced energies of the poem he had not yet written’ (293); the prevailing perception that Milton’s vision of political and religious communion is best articulated in his poetry is thoroughly compelling. ‘A Universal Blank’ brings us into the midst of Milton’s blindness, deals head on with the question of placing Paradise Lost, and includes one of the most arresting interpretations of Satan’s solar soliloquy I have so far read. After this follows the final chapter, ‘Vain Monument of Strength’, a consideration of Milton’s meditation on forms of memorialisation in Samson Agonistes.

Careful of the compulsion to erect monuments, Milton’s Samson problematises the ease with which the dead are categorised. Monuments go against the very currents of motion Moshenska is so keen to keep in flux when narrating and discovering Milton. His commitment to making him strange, to not becoming so overfamiliar with him that he condenses him into static, congenial dimensions, is tempered by the commitment to remaining – in the manner of the angel Raphael – open to the what ifs. It is this delicate balance that enables Making Darkness Light to do precisely what its title professes.


Sophie Fordham

Queen Mary University of London



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Cite as:

Sophie Fordham, "Joe Moshenska, Making Darkness Light: The Lives and Times of John Milton," Spenser Review (Fall 2022). Accessed February 22nd, 2024.
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