The Great Dictation: Milton, Munkácsy and the Blind Medium

I did not know what to expect when I stepped inside the Hungarian National Gallery, a war-battered royal palace turned into a public museum during the days of Communist rule in Budapest. Somehow, Hungarian culture has remained a closed book—or rather, a neglected volume—to me; and looking at rooms filled with art depicting scenes from Magyar history made me come face to face again with my own ignorance. How welcome a sight was “The Blind Milton Dictating ‘Paradise Lost’ to His Daughters.” Yes, that face was familiar, as was the composition, even though I had never troubled myself to note, let alone pronounce, the name of its artist: Mihály Munkácsy. I was surprised to reencounter “Blind Milton” there, knowing it to be on permanent display at New York Public Library on 42nd Street ( where it is currently the centerpiece of an exhibition celebrating Milton’s life and works). As it turns out, there are two version of Munkácsy’s painting, the one in New York City being the larger of the two.

This year marks the quatercentenary of Milton’s birth, so we are likely to come across “Blind Milton” in the arts and literature sections of our newspapers or the pages of magazines on history and culture. Even in the 19th-century, the image was frequently reproduced on paper. Indeed, we happened upon such a reproduction at a second-hand bookstore in the Hungarian capital not long after our gallery visit, on the very day it was featured in The New York Times arts section online. The image became so familiar that, by the twentieth century, the

. . . usual conception of John Milton in the imagination of America’s school children has been a misty mezzotint of a blind man sitting in a dark room dictating Paradise Lost to his bored but dutiful daughters. That Milton was one of the most fearless and most revolutionary thinkers of his century few youngsters have ever been permitted to know.

This is how, in 1939, Max Wylie prefaced “The Story of John Milton,” a script from the radio series Adventure in Reading (NBC; 1938-40). The play (by Helen Walpole and Margaret Leaf) tells of blindness, vision, and the specter of persecution as the monumental struggle of the beleaguered poet is being recalled by the voices he called forth in his art.

For twelve years, Milton’s ideas had been in the service of the Commonwealth, until the Restoration threatened to obliterate his words and legacy. Awaiting news from his friend Sir Harry Vane, Milton tries to dictate Paradise Lost to his daughter Mary:

Milton. You aren’t writing, Mary, you aren’t writing!

Mary. How can I father? How can I do anything . . . while we’re waiting for the coming of Sir Harry!

Milton. Write. Take down what I say. “Wolves shall succeed for teachers, grievous Wolves, / Who all the sacred mysteries of Heav’n / To their own vile advantage shall turn. . . .”

Mary. I cannot. I cannot. Paradise Lost may never be finished.

Milton. Paradise Lost shall be finished. I’m not a human being any longer, Mary. I’m an instrument . . . a vessel . . . you don’t understand that . . . but no matter . . . I may seem hard to you and your sister . . . but that’s not important either. . . .

Mary. I shall try to write. Dictate it again, father.

Milton. “Wolves shall succeed for teachers, . . .”

The war of ideas and the fight for their expression—a challenge as urgent in 1660 and 1939 as it is today—is a fitting subject for the so-called blind medium, a medium capable of conjuring images before the mind’s eye not grown dim from lack of exercise.

Milton is accused of treason. The burning of his books, to be executed by “a common hangman,” have been ordered. “Blind among my enemies. . . . How can I fight?” the poet cries in near despair, until, roused by his visions, he declares:

If, by my own toil, I have fanned the flame that burned out my eyes . . . then from that darkness will be born new eyes. All natural objects shut away . . . I can see clearer into life itself. . . . My vision will not be blurred or turned aside! And so, O, Highest Wisdom, I submit. I am John Milton, whose sight was taken away that he might be given new eyes.

It is in the opening lines of the third book of Paradise Lost that Milton comments on his condition:

I sung of chaos and eternal night,
Taught by the heav’nly muse to venture down
The dark descent, and up to re-ascend,
Though hard and rare: thee I revisit safe,
And feel thy sovran vital lamp; but thou
Revisit’st not these eyes, that roll in vain
To find thy piercing ray, and find no dawn;
So thick a drop serene hath quenched their orbs,
Or dim suffusion veiled
[. . .].
Seasons return, but not to me returns
Day, or the sweet approach of ev’n or morn,
Or sight of vernal bloom, or summer’s rose,
Or flocks, or herds, or human face divine;
But cloud instead, and ever-during dark
Surrounds me, from the cheerful ways of men
Cut off, and for the book of knowledge fair
Presented with a universal blank
Of nature’s works to me expunged and razed,
And wisdom at one entrance quite shut out.
So much the rather thou celestial light
Shine inward, and the mind through all her powers
Irradiate, there plant eyes, all mist from thence
Purge and disperse, that I may see and tell
Of things invisible to mortal sight.

It seems that, in the scene depicted by Munkácsy, Milton is dictating these very lines, at the moment dramatized for Adventure in Reading. His three dutiful daughters look anything but bored. Entrusted with a solemn responsibility and not altogether ignorant of their father’s perilous position, they are rapt and apprehensive as they listen to the dictation, encoded in which is the speaker’s intimate story, a few telling lines in an epic on the fallibility of humankind.

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