Sunday, 21 September 2008

Rowan Williams preaches on John Milton

It is rather wonderful when an Archbishop who is himself a poet preaches for the 400th anniversary of another poet's birth. His beautifully crafted sermon for John Milton's anniversary is about politics, witness, passion and, of course, poetics. I only wish I could have actually been there rather than catching up on it over the weekend - I know that Annie wanted to be there too, as her choir were singing at St Giles' Cripplegate for the service. You can find the full text of Rowan Williams' sermon here but I include the beginning and end as an encouragement to read the rest. Do also visit the Darkness Visible site put together to create an interactive space for the study and appreciation of Paradise Lost by members of Christ's College Cambridge. I wonder whether I will manage to re-read Paradise Lost during this anniversary year?

Now this as a taster from Rowan Williams:

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

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.