Friday, January 9, 2009

John Milton and China

For me John Milton is the finest writer in the English language – Paradise Lost stands out as better than anything else ever written in the language and include Shakespeare. Milton would have been 400 this year so a fitting time to remember him. Milton had excellent politics, better than Shakespeare’s – an opponent of censorship, a champion of radicalism, champion of the peoples’ right to overthrow tyrants, a proponent of divorce laws, and one of the greatest poets ever.

A few things worth knowing about Milton

He was blind

He invented the word ‘pandemonium’ – literally meaning the place of all demons

He invented the concept of self-esteem

He met Galileo

And he noted China:

Milton (1608-74) born into the height of the Protestant Reformation in England wrote ‘Chinese drive, with sails and wind, their cany waggons light’ in Paradise Lost (1667) indicating that the West knew of the sail driven wheelbarrows of China that William Alexander was to paint over a century later in the 1790s when he saw them while accompanying Lord McCartney’s Mission to China. Milton also noted the spice trade as well as the greatness of Beijing in Paradise Lost:

‘City of old or modern fame, the seat

Of mightiest empire, from the destined walls

Of Cambalu, seat of Cathaian Can’

Milton later refers to Pequin without apparently realising that both Pequin and Cambalu are alternative names for Beijing. It seems Milton was excited by China as a vast market for English manufacturing but criticised what he saw as the country’s absolutist government which, in his mind, paralleled the absolutism of Catholicism and the divine right of kings. Paradise Lost of course also inspired Gustave Dore (left -

Milton, Paradise Lost, Plate 84 by Gustave Doré. "Me Miserable! Which way shall I fly?")

Milton’s ‘canny wagons light’ later appeared in the work (left) of the watercolourist William Alexander (1767-1816) was the McCartney Mission’s resident draughtsman producing thousands of drawings of the scenery and life of China including some excellent studies of Chinese engineering prowess (including the wind powered wheelbarrows that Milton had noted back in the 1660s); several of which later featured in the official published account of the Mission.

Milton – you can’t beat him really


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