Many people may not know that this past weekend marked the 400th anniversary of John Milton’s birth (he was born on December 9th, 1608). “But Milton remains incredibly relevant to us today,” says Shannon Miller, professor and chair of the English department at Temple University. 

Milton is the seventeenth-century English poet who is considered equal or superior to William Shakespeare. “He is important to us both for the issues of political revolution in which he was invested and for his poem Paradise Lost which explores issues of political revolution within a narrative about the fall from Eden,” says Miller.

Naturally, people found a way to link Milton to the recent election of Barack Obama - and one pundit even found a way to make John McCain into Satan.  

Miller points out that a recent New York Times blog (Think Again, October 26, 2008) by Stanley Fish, one of the most important Milton scholars, drew parallels between the interplay of Satan and Jesus in Milton’s Paradise Regained to the contrasting rhetorical strategies of the McCain and Obama campaigns during the election. Just as Obama remained calm and unruffled in contrast to McCain’s frenetic activities, explained Fish, so did Jesus remain undisturbed by the constant temptations thrown at him by Satan.

I guess we know who Fish voted for.

Paradise Lost itself is a poem that has retained enormous cultural relevance. “The incredibly popular His Dark Materials series by Philip Pullman is a rethinking of Milton’s cosmology and theology centered around young Adam and Eve figures—Will and Lyra. Their movement into adolescence is a profound challenge to the tenets of original sin. The first book in the series, The Golden Compass, was made into a movie last year, and the title of the trilogy comes from a line in Paradise Lost which refers an account of God’s creation out of Chaos,” explains Miller.

And Milton’s portrait of Satan is explicitly explored in another popular movie, Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith, she notes. “Anakin’s descent into Darth Vader, especially in the final climatic scene, visually resonates with the language of Hell in the first two books of Paradise Lost.”

“But the power of the poetry can not be forgotten, and hopefully will not be entirely ignored in the upcoming movie of Paradise Lost set to be released in 2009,” she says. 

According to Miller, her students are routinely entranced by the complexity and beauty of the blank verse in which the 12 book epic is written. 

“A poem that rejects consistent end rhyming as “bondage” for the poetry, offering a balanced line of verse that stresses sound and carefully deploys internal rhyme, is a delight to read, and especially to read out loud, as testified to by the growing popularity of college readings of the entire poem,” Miller says.