John Milton, Rock Star

You think you know something about John Milton. He was blind. He was English. He was a Puritan. He wrote that interminably long poem about Adam and Eve, the one that literature majors perhaps still labor (or slumber) through. But did you know he was something of a rock star?

21-year-old John Milton. National Portrait Gallery, London.

In college, long before he lost his sight and wrote Paradise Lost, long before he got mixed up in politics and joined the government of Oliver Cromwell, he was a rebel and a performer, with an attitude. 

As a freshman, Milton got into a violent argument with a tutor, and his college at Cambridge suspended him. (The punishment was called “rustication”, literally meaning exile to the country. For Milton it meant the opposite, as he got “rusticated” home to London. He was accused of visiting playhouses and bordellos, charges he denied.) 

When he was a senior, his college mates chose him to lead a kind of freshmen hazing, a naughty tradition they called a Salting. He gave a brilliant and witty speech, full of enough nasty insults to offend pretty much everyone. He started the speech in Latin, as was traditional, but flouted the rules by finishing it in English, a banned practice. Then he put the freshmen through their paces: anyone not witty enough to match his own jibes had to drink salted beer (yuck), or suffer a bloody cut under the chin by fingernail (ew).

But yes, Milton was a poet too. I won’t go on about the beauty and brilliance of his language and imagery. They are unparalleled. Actually, I should go on about it, but I don’t need to. An actual rock star (speaking of rock stars) has done it for me. Pink Floyd’s onetime guitarist David Gilmour, in a song.

“Rattle that Lock,” the title track on Gilmour’s new solo album, takes its inspiration from Paradise Lost. The poem opens, like any good epic should, in medeas res, with Satan having just fallen from Heaven, awakening in the pit of Hell: “A Dungeon horrible, on all sides round/ As one great Furnace flam’d, yet from those flames/ No light, but rather darkness visible”. (Go read the first few stanzas right now. Really, I mean it. I can wait.) By the end of Book 2, Satan has rallied his demonic forces, built his palace Pandemonium, and made ready to infiltrate the Garden of Eden. “Rattle That Lock” essentially tells the story of his escape from Hell, as a parable of freedom.

Writer Polly Samson, Gilmour’s wife, contributed the song’s lyrics. Here they are, with annotations (click on the highlights to see the references to Paradise Lost): 

Gilmour’s song is the latest entry in a long trail of art inspired by Milton’s epic. Even better than the song itself, however, is the animated music video accompanying it, itself inspired by the Paradise Lost illustrations of French artist Gustave Doré. Made by some of the same people who designed album covers for Pink Floyd, the video follows a fallen angel through dreamscapes straight out of Doré’s illustrations.

Gustave Doré, Satan's Flight Through Chaos, 1868
Gustave Doré, Satan’s Flight Through Chaos, 1868

Milton himself might have appreciated Gilmour’s effort. As chance would have it, his father, a scrivener by trade, composed music (not rock operas). His aesthetic sensibility probably influenced Milton’s own. 

The connection between literature and popular music remains strong today. Songs inspired by literature practically have their own genre. Some of my favorites:

  • “Wuthering Heights,” Kate Bush
  • “Sympathy for the Devil,” The Rolling Stones (inspired by Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita, one of my favorite books, and like Paradise Lost, another work of literature with a fantastic opening scene)
  • “Don’t Stand So Close to Me,” The Police (Nabokov’s Lolita)
  • “Romeo and Juliet,” Dire Straits
  • “My Antonia,” Emmylou Harris & Dave Matthews (I discovered this one recently, inspired by another one of my favorite books)
  • “Sailing to Philadelphia,” Mark Knopfler and James Taylor (inspired by Thomas Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon)