Milton vs. Malt

…What in me is dark
Illumine, what is low raise and support;
That to the highth of this great Argument
I may assert th’ Eternal Providence,
And justifie the wayes of God to men.
—John Milton, Paradise Lost

…And malt does more than Milton can
To justify God’s ways to man.
Ale, man, ale’s the stuff to drink
For fellows whom it hurts to think…
—A.E. Housman

john miltonImagine poor Milton. It’s the 17th century. He is alone, blind and sleepless in the dead of night, composing the perfect blank verse that in the morning he will dictate from memory to his amanuensis. He is at war within himself. On one side are his unforgiving Puritanism and his learning in literature, history, philosophy, theology and the Classics. On the other side are the actual facts of his life: the deaths of children and wives, his blindness, and the terrible price he has paid for his anti-royalist politics.

It’s an unfair match-up. No wonder Satan gets all the best lines in Paradise Lost (“Better to reign in Hell, than serve in Heav’n.”). Lining up “I ought to be joyful” against “I’m miserable” is always tough, at least for me.

Nearer to our own time, Housman takes a different approach to essentially the same problem. Feeling blue? Hoist a few pints and cheer up, he says. Repeat as necessary.

Right. The opportunities for a personal train wreck there are pretty obvious. Better, I think, to find the people who love you and let them help you through “the embittered hour.” No bargaining with God required. No hangover either.

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