A letter from a reader: Milton, Shakespeare, and 'Animal House'
I very much enjoyed reading Merrell Noden '78's interview with Nigel Smith (A Moment with, June 11) and returning to the issue of Milton's "unpopularity" despite undeniable genius, which was the subject of courses I took both as an undergraduate and as an alumnus (in John Fleming's excellent online "Religious Poetry" course of several years ago). And many moviegoers have been exposed to the same question through the only classroom scene in Animal House, which has a professor (played by Donald Sutherland) vainly trying to engage his class in a discussion of Paradise Lost. The great English critic Samuel Johnson anticipated the reaction of the Faber College students:
The want of human interest is always felt. Paradise Lost is one of the books which the reader admires and lays down, and forgets to take up again. None ever wished it longer than it is. Its perusal is a duty rather than a pleasure. We read Milton for instruction, retire harassed and overburdened, and look elsewhere for recreation; we desert our master, and seek for companions.
It would not have surprised Johnson that overexposure to Milton would lead to "road trips."
With Shakespeare, Johnson cited a quite different frustration – the Bard's ability to please without the need for a critic's enhancement:
It is not very grateful [i.e. "gratifying"] to consider how little the succession of editors has added to this authour's power of pleasing. He was read, admired, studied, and imitated, while he was yet deformed with all the improprieties which ignorance and neglect could accumulate upon him; while the reading was not yet rectified, nor his allusions understood; yet then did Dryden pronounce "that Shakespeare was the man, who, of all modern and perhaps ancient poets, had the largest and most comprehensive soul…Those who accuse him to have wanted learning, give him the greater commendation: he was naturally learned: he needed not the spectacles of books to read nature; he looked inwards and found her there."
Shakespeare's evocation in Animal House is quite different from that of Milton's; it is clear to the discerning filmgoer that when the "naturally learned" Bluto Blutarsky (John Belushi) hands a six-pack to a pledge whose brother's car has been destroyed and says "My advice to you … is to start drinking heavily," his inspiration is Henry V ("I would give all my fame for a pot of ale and safety").
My fear is that until Milton can be remade in popular culture, he will not soon regain his popular standing.
TERRY VANCE '77
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