meet john milton

John Milton

My last post provided some history and insight regarding the perennial plight of the churchgoing child in the summertime: Vacation Bible School. I remember complaining about losing a week of my summer to VBS, but it was not until recently that I gained a little perspective on the issue. I never had to suffer like the poor children of Hopedale, Illinois, in 1894. On the other hand, I was never treated to the kind of fun, fancy, professionally-produced VBS experience enjoyed by kids in 2011. To learn more about both ends of this spectrum, check out my last post.

This series will address the wildly popular 2011 VBS kit “Pandamania.”


Before we go there, we need to cover a bit of history. That history starts with John Milton.

John Milton's birthplace plaque

poet, ſtateſman, and ſtreet rat

John Milton’s life, work, and influence cannot be easily condensed into a few short summary paragraphs. I say this with a good measure of confidence; not because I am an expert on the subject, but because I spent a long time looking for a few short summary paragraphs to learn about John Milton’s life, work, and influence—and came up empty.

Perhaps I should say I “came up full,” because everywhere I looked there were SO MANY WORDS about J.M. At first glance, even my trusty Wikipedia (usually a great source for solid summary material) appeared a bit long-winded on the subject. After learning a bit more about the guy, however, it seems that he was kind of a big deal. So, even though it’s a bit more than I would usually quote, I guess Wikipedia’s intro is the best way to summarise John Milton:

John Milton (9 December 1608 – 8 November 1674) was an English poet, polemicist, and civil servant for the Commonwealth of England. He is best known for his epic poem Paradise Lost.

He was a scholarly man of letters, a polemical writer, and an official serving under Oliver Cromwell. He wrote at a time of religious flux and political upheaval in England, and his poetry and prose reflect deep convictions and deal with contemporary issues, such as his treatise condemning licensing, Areopagitica. As well as English, he wrote in Latin and Italian, and had an international reputation during his lifetime. After his death, Milton’s critical reception oscillated, a state of affairs that continued through the centuries. At an early stage he became the subject of partisan biographies, such as that of John Toland from the nonconformist perspective, and a hostile account by Anthony à Wood. Samuel Johnson wrote unfavourably of his politics as those of “an acrimonious and surly republican”; but praised Paradise Lost “a poem which, considered with respect to design may claim the first place, and with respect to performance, the second, among the productions of the human mind”. William Hayley’s 1796 biography called him the “greatest English author”. He remains generally regarded “as one of the preeminent writers in the English language and as a thinker of world importance.”

I think that’s a satisfactory marriage of “comprehensive” and “succinct”—not that Milton knew much about satisfactory marriage (c.f. the radical/”heretical” Milton’s Divorce Tracts)—meaning it’s probably enough for our purposes. If you found that quotation fatiguing, perhaps you will like my analogy better:

john milton by analogy

In other words, John Milton was kind of like the Bob Dylan of the 1600s.

I suppose that might make for an interesting post (or doctoral thesis) in and of itself. Sadly, I’ve already chosen several tangents to enrich our path to Pandamania, and Milton vs. Dylan is not among them. Suffice to say that both men were controversial, outspoken, and influential poets. I will have to pass (for now, at least) on evaluating their respective degrees of statesmanliness and street-rattiness.

At this juncture, I should like to discuss John Milton the street rat. I have included “street rat” in the list of titles awarded the illustrious J.M. for two reasons: (1) it applies the rule of three; and (2) it is another word with a non-terminal s.

the rule of three

As a seasoned journalist, I strive to employ the rule of three as much as possible. The fact that I am now explaining the rule of three in the context of a list of only two . . . well, let’s just say that I am not a seasoned journalist without a sense of irony. Or an aversion to double-negatives. I discussed the rule of three in a post last year about chapter 6 of Chairman Mao’s Little Red Book:

As in the old addage “two is company, three’s a crowd;” if you can list three things, you’ve achieved an all-encompassing completeness, unattainable with only two. Jokes that start with “a priest and a rabbi walk into a bar . . .” feel incomplete. Toss in a third party member, however: “a priest, a rabbi, and a [duck / minister / shaman / whale / atheist / whatever] walk into a bar . . . ” THAT, my friends, is comic gold.

When I first read John Milton’s birthplace plaque, I was a bit dissatisfied. Although factually accurate, “the Poet and Statesman John Milton was born 1608 in Bread Street” misses a perfect opportunity to use the rule of three. John Milton, an accomplished author himself, no doubt knew the value of the rule. To not use it on his birthplace plaque is like spitting on his grave. If people do that sort of thing. You hear a lot more about dancing on people’s graves but since this plaque is mounted to a wall, it would be easier to spit on it than dance on it. Then again, this plaque is not a grave at all. In fact, since it commemorates a place of birth, not a place of death, is something like an ungrave, thereby rendering any form of “on his grave” idiom completely meaningless.

a problematic preposition

After pondering the ungrave for a moment, including its obvious tie-in to the undead, I decided to not go the whole zombie route with my analysis. Instead, I turned my attention to the awkwardly-worded ending to the plaque: “was born 1608 in Bread Street.” Aside from the fact that it sounds like “inbred street” if you read it aloud, the use of the preposition “in” seems incorrect. It might make sense to use the word in the previous line (“was born in 1608”), which feels a bit terse the way it is written (“was born 1608”). Even better would be to replace the “in” with an “on.” Surely John Milton was born on Bread Street, meaning in some house or structure on that street. He wasn’t born in the middle of the street . . .

. . . or was he?

I suddenly realised that the plaque might use the rule of three by way of allusion in the last line. This kind of archaic, indirect, Da Vinci-code stuff seems like something Milton would have enjoyed. Maybe the plaque-makers were not disrespecting the man at all. Maybe they were hinting at the fact that John Milton, Poet and Statesman, was born into poverty: the child of transient, homeless riff-raff. Extraordinary! Why would they obscure such a crucial biographical detail? Rising from such mean estate to international renown would make J.M.’s story even more remarkable.

Then again, this plaque was paid for by the City of London. Surely the big-wigs who commissioned the thing would rather not bring attention to the fact that their fair city had left poor Mr. and Mrs. Milton out in the cold on that fateful 1608 day when J.M. came into the world. They would rather keep that off the plaque entirely. The plaque-makers, however, probably belonged to some secret brotherhood, and knew it was their duty to preserve the truth for future generations. Using their powers of wily wordsmithy, the plaque-makers were able to encode their message on the plaque. Unless you know to look for the rule of three, you might think the “in Bread Street” bit was just a mistake. If you do know, however, its message is loud and clear: John Milton was a street rat.

It took me a while to figure this out; I’m no Nicholas Cage. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, go watch National Treasure. Ben Gates would have unravelled this one in no time.

"I'll have this figured out before I'm done stealing it!"

the long s

I suppose I could have found another word besides “street rat” to encompass John Milton’s third title. It would be more poetic to call him an “orphan,” but I can’t because he had parents. I considered “street urchin,” but decided it would be too disrespectful to J.M.’s greatness; it reminds people of sea urchins, which have no brain. Rats, on the other hand, are extremely intelligent creatures. So the term “street rat” is kind of complimentary, if you think about it. Besides that, it allows me to segue nicely into my next topic because it features a non-terminal s. in 1608, a non-terminal s would have been a long s. Wikipedia provides a nice definition of the long s:

The long, medial or descending s (ſ) is a form of the minuscule letter s formerly used where s occurred in the middle or at the beginning of a word, for example “ſinfulneſs” (“sinfulness”). The modern letterform was called the terminal or short s.

long s from the US Bill of Rights

Back in John Milton’s day, the long s was the cat’s pajamas in the printing preſs community. In fact, until about 1800, the long s was almost always used anytime a lowercase s was needed at the beginning or in the middle of a word. Aside from being rather unnecessary, the long s was problematic in that it looked too much like a lowercase f.

Spain was ahead of its time, ditching the long s by about 1766. The French began to do the same around 1782. They changed a lot of things and killed a lot of people in the following years, but by the time the reign of terror rolled around (1793), the long s had gone the way of the first sixteen Louis(es) (Louis XVI’s head rolled around in January of 1793).

Britain and the US made the changeover right around the turn of the century. Wikipedia notes significant examples from 1803-1804: “The Times of London switched to the short s with its issue of September 10, 1803; and in the United States, acts of Congress were published with the long s throughout 1803, switching to the short s in 1804.” Some of the far corners of the British empire clung to the long s for a little longer (e.g. Novia Scotia, through 1816), but eventually everyone modernised to using the same lowercase “s” no matter where it shows up in a word.

terminus of the medial: the death of long s

German-speakers and fontophiles might find it interesting to note that the long s survives in “the present-day German double s ß (das Eszett ‘the ess-zed’ or scharfes-ess, ‘the sharp S’) . . . an atrophied ligature form representing either ſz or ſs.” But if you find this fact interesting, you probably already read the whole wikipedia article on the long s, making this quotation redundant for you and simply not interesting for everyone else.

So, what does all this long s stuff have to do with John Milton? Perhaps this picture will help connect the dots:

another example of long-s usage

tl; dr

Σ: john milton the ſtreet-rat

There is a plaque at John Milton’s birthplace that identifies him as a poet and a statesman; it also suggests that he might have been a street-rat. The word street-rat, which would have been written “ſtreet-rat” in J.M.’s day, segues smoothly into a discussion of the long s: a variant of the lower-case s. It was also called the medial s because it was used when an s appeared in the middle (or at the beginning) of a word. The long s was ultimately abandoned, largely because it looked too much like a lower-case f.

ſetting the record ſtraight

I had intended to wrap things up in this post by clearing up a couple of common misconceptions about John Milton. Things were getting a bit lengthy, though, and too much time has gone by since my last post. Therefore, this post will serve to set up the next, where we will learn the truth about John Milton.

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