Oxford University professor Joe Moshenska rediscovers a poet whose rich contradictions confound his monumental image. Immersing readers in the rhythms and textures of Milton's world, Moshenska moves from the music of Milton's childhood home to his encounter with Galileo in Florence into his idiosyncratic belief system and his strange, electrifying imagination.
... a strange but captivating, book. The author draws his reader, not only into the life and world of his subject, but into a sort of lived experience of Milton’s approach to poetry ... While every page shows the author’s learning, reading the book is a much more meditative than scholarly experience. Moshenska does not seem overly interested in facts and figures, still less with academic hobby horses. His focus lies elsewhere—in getting to the core sensibilities of the great English poet ... Moshenska unapologetically inserts himself into Milton’s story. He spends long passages recounting details from his research trips and his own experience with Milton’s poetry, both as a teacher and reader. Just as the many languages the poet mastered bubble underneath the rhythms of his verse, so too does Moshenska’s method float freely between different literary genres, and ranges widely over disparate periods of literary history. His roundabout method yields a strange animal of a book, a sort of hybrid creature—part biography, part literary criticism, and, in those sections where we follow the author on his research trips, part travelogue. The results are stunning in their insight, and oddly lyrical.
No sense of the merely dutiful constrains Making Darkness Light ... Moshenska takes as his chapter headings significant dates in the poet’s life, along with titles of his poems and phrases from his verse. They structure Moshenska’s account, which unfolds as a series of set pieces or freeze frames ... Bridging Milton’s double trajectory—as both a poet and a political and religious thinker—is one of the challenges a biographer must address. Moshenska does so in two ways. His first and less successful strategy, initiated in his introduction, is to pursue the idea that poor sight could have encouraged his subject to see through or beyond the quotidian ... More interesting is the way he brings both aspects of his subject’s life together under the rubric of writing ... several fictional passages...replace close readings of supporting evidence—from correspondence to household bills—as to what kind of man Milton may have been, and serve only to make us feel that the book is not so much a distillation of research as a self-portrait of the don as creative writer ... Making Darkness Light chooses the ground it highlights, and comes alive in its alert close readings. However, Moshenska’s use of fictional elements in his discussion of Milton’s life is less effective ... literary biography should be based on a scrupulous, trustworthy close reading of evidence both literary and biographical.
... unlike any book about Milton I have read. It is often densely erudite, but also richly inventive, and for quite long stretches it is, in effect,a historical novel. It records incidents that might have happened in Milton’s life, but did not, and it adds fictitious details when recording those that did ... The welcome aim of all this invention seems to be to make the book more colourful and attractive to ordinary readers, and perhaps for the same reason Moshenska includes more autobiography than you would expect in a scholarly tome ... avoidance of easy certainties is typical of this subtle, challenging book.