The Patient Ambition of John Milton: A Conversation with Thom Satterlee




THOM SATTERLEE’S God’s Liar, a short novel published in January by Slant Books, tells of John Milton’s brief sojourn in Chalfont St. Giles in Buckinghamshire. At that time, the blind poet was fleeing the plague in London and finishing Paradise Lost. Oliver Cromwell had been defeated, and so the Puritan writer was out of favor with the government of Charles II, barely avoiding execution. God’s Liar tells the story of these fruitful months in the countryside. 

Thom Satterlee is the author of a novel, The Stages (2012), and an award-winning poetry collection, Burning Wyclif (2006). He has received numerous creative writing fellowships, including for poetry and for translation. When author Cynthia L. Haven, who held the inaugural Milton Cottage Residency, learned of his new book, an interview between the two was inevitable.

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CYNTHIA L. HAVEN: What drew you to the story of John Milton? It’s a rather ambitious undertaking, considering that its subject is one of the world’s greatest poets — and no stranger to ambition himself.

THOM SATTERLEE: The original impulse to write in some creative way about John Milton — fiction? poetry? I wasn’t sure which at first — came to me while I was rereading Paradise Lost some five or six years ago. I loved the poem. I also loved the scholarly notes in my Everyman’s Library edition.

One of those notes mentioned that Milton had taught his daughters to read to him in languages they themselves didn’t understand. I thought that was fascinating! I wondered what that would have looked like, felt like — to be blind and to have someone, your daughter, read to you; to be that daughter reading to her father, reading words that made no sense to her, but did to him. Would she have been bored? Would he have disliked her reading voice and wished to God he could see and read the page for himself? Was it frustrating? Was it tender? What was behind it? Love? Duty?

The novel that I wrote, the finished work, has very little of that father-daughter relationship in it. Instead it focuses on an invented friendship between Milton and a young curate who reads the Aeneid to him during the months when Milton and his third wife lived in Chalfont St. Giles. They moved there from London to escape the plague. In a way, I’m sad that the original story idea didn’t persist. But … this is what I’ve found in my life as a writer: I begin with one idea or impetus, and it quickly leads to, or is overtaken by, a multitude of others. I suppose it’s due to a combination of my ignorance and my curiosity. When I decided that, yes, I did want to write something involving John Milton, there was still so much that I didn’t know about him and the times he lived in. As I researched his biography, I kept being fascinated by what was for me new information.

Had you studied the works Milton much beyond Paradise Lost?

Before researching and writing the novel, all I knew about John Milton was that he was the author of Paradise Lost, plus some other shorter epics, a famous sonnet about going blind, and another about a massacre of Protestant Christians. So, there was a lot that I missed about Milton. I’m glad to have learned more about his life.

I’d only known Milton as a poet. I didn’t know that he’d written so much prose on controversial topics of his day — some of which, like free speech and the scourge of tyrants, are still relevant today.

So, you not only took on his life but his whole corpus at the same time. That’s a lot to bite off.

I suppose it should have been daunting — and at times it was daunting — to invent words and actions for one of the greatest poets of all time. To try to bring Milton to life on the page. I know I struggled in early drafts. I discarded … I don’t know how many, a couple hundred pages, some of which were written as if Milton were telling his life story.

What helped me push through was inventing the fictional character of Reverend Theodore Wesson, the Anglican priest who narrates the novel and tells about the time when he met Milton and they had a sort of friendship in the latter half of 1665. I was able to see Milton through this narrator — or at least that’s how it felt.

You have many predecessors in the effort to create a portrait of Milton, whether in biography, film, or fiction — and the portrayals have not always been kind to the poet. Yours is. What did you see that they didn’t see?

I kept reading accounts of Milton having a wry sense of humor, yet also being excellent company. He was sarcastic, and sarcasm can be a form of wit, but it can also be mean-spirited. Did his sarcasm depend on its target? I wanted to explore that question, and so there are times in the novel when Milton says things that, depending on whose side you’re on, whose feelings seem most important to you, may make you like him. Or you may think he’s a jerk. Depending.

What I admire most about him is a quality that sometimes gets called “patient endurance,” but I’d call “patient ambition.” Here is someone who finds a way to continue his studies and slowly, over the course of 10 years, write an amazing poem, the greatest epic in the English language, even though he’s lost his sight and lives in varying degrees of danger because of his political views. And even though he always intended, through his youth and early middle age, to write something noteworthy, something that will last, he doesn’t finish Paradise Lost until he’s in his late 50s. His prose brought him international attention when he was in his 30s, but I think he saw that work as his duty to God and to the new government — important enough to interrupt his poetry, even to lose his eyesight over, but poetry was his real ambition. That he persisted so long and — at least by his account — so patiently impressed me.

What do most of us “miss” about Milton?

One thing that stood out, from reading his prose and from what his contemporary biographers said of him, is that he never let unfavorable circumstances keep him from doing, writing, or saying what he believed. Whether it was publishing a defense of divorce at a time when the church forbade it or a justification of republicanism just as the monarchy was being restored, he had courage and conviction. And he’s pretty lucky not to have been executed as a traitor.

You visited Milton’s Cottage at Chalfont St. Giles. It’s a place that comes to inhabit you, if you let it. How did it affect you?

When I learned that the cottage was the only building still standing where Milton had once lived, I definitely wanted to go there. I made Milton’s Cottage the last stop of a year or so of research. It affected me, I’d have to say, as a strange mix of museum visit and mystical pilgrimage — probably more of the former. It was several years ago now, and what I remember most is walking around the garden and being shown plants and flowers that appear in Milton’s work. I had a tour of the cottage, and I was even allowed to spend several minutes alone in the room where it’s believed Milton had his study. I spent that time writing in my journal — notes about how small the space was, how low the ceiling, and how a blind person might be able to navigate the room if he oriented himself by reaching overhead and touching a certain rafter.

Many important scenes also take place in the Parish Church of St. Giles, where your protagonist, Theodore Wesson, is rector. The Norman-era church is still a marvel, with the peeled paint revealing the vivid frescoes that would have been whitewashed in the youth of John Milton, or just before. It’s still an active church — but could you see through what it is now to envision what it was then? Surely Milton was in that place … or was the Puritan poet as reluctant as he is in your novel to make even a token appearance at the church?

I’m not sure if Milton ever went to the church. I’ve never seen any record of it. Based on what I read in biographies, I assumed he stopped going to church altogether sometime before 1665. And you know what, I can’t remember if I went into the church when I was in Chalfont! I think I visited the outside, pretty sure of that, but for some reason I didn’t go in. So, the scenes that take place in the parish church are based on other churches that I’ve been in, plus some imagination of my own.

Buckinghamshire was a hotbed of Quaker influence in Milton’s time. William Penn is buried at Jordans, a Quaker meeting place near Chalfont St. Giles. Other centers were in nearby Aylesbury and Amersham. How do you think the Quaker movement influenced Milton?

At the time I made my trip to Chalfont, I wasn’t aware of the strong Quaker presence in the area. I only learned of it after I’d arrived, with only a day to visit the village. My research continued afterward, particularly getting to know about the Quakers through a book by Elton Trueblood and some of the writings of Isaac Penington.

Here’s one of the funny things about researching historical persons and times, then writing a novel: it’s hard to remember what you read and what you made up. As I recall, Milton didn’t write much, if anything, about the Quakers, except perhaps to group them with other nonconformists and argue for their right to free religious practice. He seemed to tolerate all religions except Catholicism. He could be quite intolerant toward Catholics. But, concerning Quakers, I picked up somewhere (buried now in my bin of notes) that he had a favorable opinion of them. At any rate, something gave me the instinct to include scenes between Milton and the Peningtons, even though I’m pretty sure there’s no record of their having met. I think I made that part up.

We don’t know much about Elizabeth Milton, the poet’s third wife. She is pretty much wholly crafted by you. Did you base your creation on anything in the records? This was, in your telling, his lasting, happy marriage — or at least the one that survived him. Do we have any reason to believe it was?

Yes, you’re right: Elizabeth’s character is pretty wholly invented. I recall reading somewhere that Milton’s fondest marriage was to his second wife [Katherine Woodcock].

I honestly can’t remember if I read that this third marriage was happy toward the end of Milton’s life, or if I imagined it was. In the novel, Elizabeth says that their later years together were happy ones, so I’ll take her word for it.

Tell me about the lies in the title. Why did you design your story around the lies of a dishonest rector? And is he really any more dishonest than the rest of us, making it up as we go along, exonerating ourselves, covering for ourselves? Certainly, he was facing an extraordinary life-or-death situation, so the stakes were high …

For someone who writes fiction, I have a really hard time telling lies, at least knowingly, in real life. I could never string together the lies that Reverend Wesson does — 175 pages of them! I think, as you point out, that he is motivated by the high stakes. Some of his lies are pretty minor, more a matter of expediency. Others might even be motivated by sympathy for others, even if they serve his interests, too.

But why did I build the story around such a dishonest character? I suppose I wanted a contrast to Milton’s principled life; Wesson provides that. Is it possible to like both the principled and the unprincipled characters, both Milton and Wesson? I think I can.

Milton’s play Comus and the real-life case of Margery Evans and are part of your tale — which comes to a better conclusion than the 14-year-old Evans girl did. Her story is all but forgotten today. What do we know of her? Could you tell a little about how these stories came together in your head?

So, here is something that I do remember reading and which did have a direct influence on my novel: according to one scholar, Milton’s early play Comus might be seen in light of an incident that occurred near the castle where Milton’s work was to be performed. A few years earlier, a serving girl named Margery Evans, 14 years old at the time, was raped. The story was well known because she accused the men who raped her and appealed all the way up to the king. Milton’s play, because it was commissioned to be performed before an audience that would have known this story, and it would have been acted by children close in age to the servant girl, may have deliberately, though silently, referenced the rape. Now I can’t remember exactly when I read this article, or where I was in the process of writing my novel, but I do recall it making an impression on me.

For one, I was struck that Margery Evans wouldn’t allow the truth to be hidden. She fought to try to get justice. But I could imagine a different situation where someone in her position, and the people around her, might hide the truth, lie about what happened. Toward the end of my novel, there is a rape, and it is covered up. I wouldn’t say that it leads to a happy ending. It certainly leads to more lies, to more supposed reasons to lie.

Milton fled to Chalfont St. Giles to escape the plague in London. However, the restoration of the monarchy with Charles II left him out of favor, as the poet who had supported Cromwell and regicide. Much of the plot of God’s Liar involves demands to expel him from the town, and even attempts to assassinate him. But how much danger was he really in, even in a place as remote as Chalfont St. Giles?

I’m not sure how much danger Milton would have been in, especially in Chalfont, small as it is, and with the disruption of newcomers arriving from London to escape the plague. It seems as though people might have just ignored him. The cottage was on the outskirts of the village, after all. And yet his contemporary biographers record that Milton feared assassination, as reprisal for his role in the deposal and death of King Charles I, so I’ve taken the liberty of planting one would-be assassin in the story and allowing a plot to develop based on other reasons, besides political ones, for wanting Milton cast out of the village.

Politics was just as contentious then as now. What happened to Milton’s reputation during the restoration of the monarchy and afterward?

I think, then as now, a person’s reputation depended a lot on party affiliation. Milton had taken the side of Oliver Cromwell and written against King Charles, against England having a king at all. Immediately after the restoration, when Charles II assumed the throne, Milton’s life was in danger. Many royalists thought he should be executed. He was put in prison for a period. For years afterward, he feared assassination. But the king, at one point, asked Milton to become his Latin Secretary, so his reputation as a scholar must have remained strong. I believe his last years, after the publication of Paradise Lost, which was a hit with prominent poets like Dryden and Marvell, would have been his most rewarding. He had done what he set out to do: write a work of literature that people would not easily let die. That had to be satisfying.

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Cynthia L. Haven, a National Endowment for the Humanities Public Scholar, is the author of Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard. Her most recent volume is Conversations with René Girard: Prophet of Envy. She is currently finishing a book about Nobel poet Czesław Miłosz in California.

 

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