In a Ford dealership in Bournemouth a metallic helium balloon, shaped like a cloud, pronounces the slogan; “Every Cloud Has a Silver Lining”. I wonder, as I dip my mop in its bucket, if they know they are quoting John Milton.
As a cleaner in this dealership I run my mop up and down the showroom floor. I look blank. It’s a job that requires no thought but also a job that gives you the freedom to think. I ring out my mop and look momentarily back up at the balloon.
As I trudge my way through this bleak room of cars, at prices my salary barely mirrors, I can’t help but look at the grinning salesman, holding his surreal balloon, and wondering if he knows it was born in the annals of literary greatness. I am a cleaner in this place, and nothing more, but John Milton is only a balloon.
John Milton was born in 1608 and died 65 years later in 1674. In that 65 years he made a massive contribution to the English language. He invented so many phrases and words that most people quote Milton daily without even knowing it.
We couldn’t disregard Milton’s impact on the English language simply because the word disregard wouldn’t exist without him. We certainly couldn’t criticise him or be dismissive of his impact, but instead, the more words I discover are coined by him the more awe-struck I become. It is simply stunning.
Seeing that balloon in the Ford dealership got me thinking about what else might be quoting him without really realising it. The idea was in me now and I had become, in that moment, a nerdy Milton spotter. Like a strange literary bird watcher. A new hobby was born. I would collect words coined by John Milton.
The salesman, and the sold-to, had finished for the day and the showroom was void of life. I put my mop away in the cleaning cupboard, turned off the lights in the building, and set the alarm. It was late, the moon was already high in the sky, the pubs were already full, but no sooner had I sat in my car and got out my note pad – quick to write about the balloon lest I forget – had I realised I was in the act of a Milton-ism now. Or was I? I wasn’t sure. I had read about John Milton only a few days before seeing the balloon and I remembered that he coined the word moonstruck. The moon was up, and I felt struck by something, a love of words maybe, it was good enough. I put it in the notebook.
I started the engine and the CD player turned on. The Best of Procol Harum was in the CD player. The first track began to play and I drove out of the car park. The song was A Whiter Shade of Pale (this sounds so unconvincing I half wish I was making it up, embellishing the truth as it were, but these coincidences are genuine), the song began, “He tripped the light fandango, turned cartwheels across the floor”. I pulled over and opened my notepad.
John Milton’s very first poem to appear in print bore the particular seeds of influence that inspired the lyrics of the above song. The poem was called L’Allegro and it contained the following lines: “Com, and trip it as ye go / On the light fantastick toe”. Because of that we can all trip the light fantastic. Or dance, to put it simply. And, more importantly, Procol Harum can sing about it and I can add it to my quickly growing list.
I got home, pleased with my new hobby (not an exhilarating hobby but a hobby nonetheless), and began searching online for a list of words and phrases coined by John Milton to aid me in my quest.
John Milton studied at Christ’s College in Cambridge. The accompanying portrait of Milton on the Christ’s College’s website depicts a feminine looking man with long flowing blond hair and puckered lips. His eyes look sideways and down slightly, almost seductively. He has a dimple in his chin and his purple jacket is finished with a white lavish collar. It’s no surprise, looking at his portrait, that he was known at college as The Lady of Christ’s.
On the same website I found a list of words coined by him. Wikipedia lent more examples, and a book called the Etymologicon (the word etymologicon itself was coined by Milton), which is where I first read of Milton’s influence, offered a few more. I sit here now at my laptop with my printouts and shuffle them into a neat pile.
I had neglected to turn on the light in the room when I got home, in the rush to Google him, and time had dragged itself away and made the night darker. The laptop screen cast a looming shadow against the wall behind me. Suddenly, noticing the black figure, with all its vacant doom, I turned to look at it but relaxed when I realised it was just my shadow and reality and time came back all at once. This suddenly felt like a very solitary and unadventurous hobby to add to my list of other solitary hobbies, like writing and reading. However, the knowledge that one of the first places I found a Miltonism was in a rock song reassured me.
When Milton was 30 he travelled around Europe for a year where he met many great intellectuals and influential people, Galileo, for example. I am also about to undertake a grand trip, although not one as ground braking as Milton’s; I am off to Pontins for the weekend. My note pad is coming with me.
I only discovered one Miltonism while away at Pontins and it came from my six year old daughter. She told me off for trying to dry her with a slightly moist towel.
‘Dad!’ she shouted, shivering in her swimming costume, ‘that towel is damp!’
‘That may be so,’ I said, ‘let me grab my notepad and all will be fine.’
Looking through my gathered list of Miltonism’s I have just realised another few words that could be attributed to the holiday. The restaurant food was terrible and so we mostly did all our own cooking¸ not that my cooking is any less unhealthy. The children’s adulation of the Campsite Characters (Captain Crocodile, Suzie Zebra, Meth the drug addled Monkey etc) could be described as Idol-worship. And my sister had a flutter on the Grand National but unfortunately any dreams of extravagance were shattered by a slow-moving horse.
The pandemonium of the holiday has passed now. My daughter has gone home to her mothers. Bags have been unpacked, photographs uploaded to Facebook, clothes chucked in the washing machine. I am sat in my lounge. Only the lights of the bookshelf are on and I am wearing socks and pyjamas. The TV is off but soon it will be flashing its dramatic wares at me and I will catch up on the missed TV of the weekend. But for now the whisky in my glass is fresh and my bones finally get the stretch they’ve been waiting for.
Before I turn on the TV I let myself wallow in the momentary peace that exists, so fleetingly, between a holiday and real life.
I pick up my notepad from beside me and open it to my list. There they are, 19 of them so far. I smile to myself and toss the notepad back to its comfortable seat beside me. Nobody seems to know the exact number of words that John Milton invented but the general consensus is that it’s more than 600. I have a long way to go.
Before I turn on the television I look over to my desk and the un-shuffled array of papers on it. All those lists and histories of John Milton. So many words. I pick up the remote and turn on the TV. I pick up my glass of whisky and have a sip. The erratic life from the TV lights upon me and I see myself for a moment, mured by the flickering light and the monotone nattering of the news reporter, alone in this room, not thinking it but feeling that my daughter is getting ready for bed in a far away house. I look down at my glass of whisky and then my notepad and wonder if this hobby will be devoured and forgotten as suddenly as it began; just another hobby to add to the list of bygone hobbies of my past; merely a passing interest to steal away the time, a hobby to create a bridge between loneliness and boredom. I search through the SKY Planner for the shows I have recorded and find the hours viewing that will accompany my drink. And, although I don’t know what the news story was, just before I press play, I hear the news reporter say;
I reach for my notepad