Woolf vs. Milton; Round 1

“The hungry Sheep look up, and are not fed,
But swoln with wind, and the rank mist they draw,
Rot inwardly, and foul contagion spread:
Besides what the grim Woolf with privy paw
Daily devours apace, and nothing sed,
But that two-handed engine at the door,
Stands ready to smite once, and smite no more.”
-Milton, Lycidas 125-131

Isn’t it amusing that Milton’s poem that Virginia Woolf calls out by name in her critical essay A Room of One’s Own contains her last named in it? Of course, it is not referring to her on any level, be it that the poem was written nearly 150 years before Woolf was born. It is interesting though, that ‘grim Woolf’ here is reference to the Catholic Church.

Woolf, obviously opposed to the Church by her sexual views as well as her pronounced agnosticism. Yet, despite Milton’s speaking out against the corrupt bishops and other Church figures, Woolf takes it upon herself to poke fun at Milton in her essay. She does not go into too much terrible detail about why she wonders what word Milton had dare think of changing, but in the end, she does not classify him within her group of ‘androgynous’ writers.

Yet, Milton was an extremely politically active figure who commonly was a thorn in the side for many a bishop or king. Perhaps, his involvement deemed him too Christian, since he never thought of breaking away from the Church, only sticking to strong, Protestant beliefs. Yet, for someone who has been linked to Virgil and Homer, should not he be included within Woolf’s list of writers? Milton seems to just be getting the short end of the stick. Perhaps it is that he merely lived in a time when women’s rights were not in the collective, public consciousness. Then why does Shakespeare, who lived only a generation or two before Milton, get elevated to the highest in the pantheon? Perhaps it is that his true identity has remained shrouded in mystery or that his body of work is greater than Milton’s?

It’s all very debatable. Certainly, there is a case for both Milton and Shakespeare in that heavyweight match. Yet, just as Woolf strives to change the tempo of the novel and pursue a different lifestyle than was the norm, Milton, too, ruffles some feathers of his contemporaries. Maybe, just maybe, if they had met, Woolf would have warmed to Milton. Or at the very least, they’d have gotten into a great argument.