Yesterday, on our way to a spot we’ve been to on two prior occasions — once at the height of summer and more recently on a dark January night — I noticed something I hadn’t seen before.
On the outskirts of the village of Horton, just before I turned down the muddiest road I’ve ever seen in my life, just beyond which is a public footpath where we need to take our photos, I noticed a blue plaque fly by in my peripheral vision. “John Milton, poet, lived here.”
I wasn’t looking forward to this viewpoint. Like many of the sites we are required to photograph on this strange long-term job, it is in an awkward location, situated on public land that is only public on a technicality. (More often than not, you have to get permission to pass through private land in order to get to it.)
At this location — on the outskirts of the village of Horton: a name which already means “Dirty Farm” — is a dirty farm and adjacent landfill site. To get to the public bridleway, you must first pull up in front of someone’s isolated house and then walk a few hundred metres past the landfill along a road that has been churned into brown sludge by the constant stream of skip lorries, diggers, and other kinds of heavy machinery. There are a few guard dogs on patrol to boot, although they are incessant yappers more than sharp biters. Everyone is oddly unperturbed by the roaring departures from Heathrow careening into the sky overhead.
Before making our way to our scheduled viewpoint, having parked the car and with Milton now firmly in mind, I noticed an ageing building peaking through the trees, the dark voids of its broken windows gaping through the foliage. When we were last here during the day, in the unbearable heat of summer, the leaves must have been too thick to see through, or so I tell myself, but I can’t quite shake the sensation that I am only aware of its presence having read Milton’s name out loud.
A veil has been lifted and a decrepit hollow from the past now makes itself known, where once a young man in his 20s had gazed at the world around him and perhaps seen the war to come, between monarchist and republican but also, perhaps, between nature and industry; between ruins built and reclaimed and the detritus injected violently into the ground like cheap junk into an artery.
I didn’t take too many photographs to document our edgeland traversal. I don’t think the workers, already eyeing us suspiciously as we snaked our way around their gargantuan vehicles, would have taken too kindly to this. However, having seen the blue plaque on the way in, I was suddenly a lot more excited to be here.
As is often the case with these blue plaque things, on closer inspection it may disappoint. John Milton, the ultimate Gothic poet, lived here! — but only for six years… However, doing some more research back at home, I learned that Horton remains a central location in his biography. It is believed that he wrote his poems “L’Allegro” and “Il Penseroso” whilst living here and his mother is buried in the grounds of a church nearby.
These pastoral poems, often paired for their contrasting sentiments — one in praise of Mirth, the other Melancholy — allow us to imagine Milton at the family home, having returned from Cambridge at the age of 24, wondering what path his poetic life might take. Is he to be a happy man or a serious man?
To imagine Milton on this country estate, surrounded, at that time, no doubt, by fields, is to imagine a man inspired but restless with political fervour. It must have been beautiful, and yet this staunch republican must have been aware of his proximity to Windsor castle, the preferred seat of the monarchy even then. These paired poems are more likely the thoughts of a man unsure where a brewing civil war will leave the natural world in which he lives.
The outcome no doubt cemented his melancholy. With his eyesight deteriorating, later going blind and conjuring his most famous work, Paradise Lost, some decades later through dictation to his daughters, it seems that Milton inevitably chose the path of Il Penseroso:
Hail divinest Melancholy,
Whose saintly visage is too bright
To hit the sense of human sight.
To ponder what Milton would have written today, in these turbulent times of Brexit, feels a bit too much like a Guardian op-ed by an #FBPE humanities professor, and so I won’t bother with that, but what struck me more than anything, in walking — with difficulty — through this landscape, was the fact that Milton’s hyperbolic verse, all fire and brimstone, theology and demonology, has been rendered oddly realistic by the passage of time.
For instance, Thomas Cole’s paintings, inspired by Milton’s pastoral pair of poems — his depiction of “L’Allegro” pictured above — are quaint compared to the reality of today. The harmony between classical ruins and a frolicking through nature is downright utopian compared to what would welcome Milton if he were to open his bedroom curtains on the landscape of today.
I can’t help but think he would find the banal horrors that welcomed him a inexhaustible fount of inspiration nonetheless.
Paradise lost indeed.