Making Darkness Light is not a conventional biography, though it begins with John Milton’s birth in December 1608 and ends with his death in November 1674. Joe Moshenska is a professor of English literature at Oxford University and he acknowledges early on in the book the long hours he has spent, as he puts it, ‘placing the fine textures of [Milton’s] writing in relation to the equally granular details of the seventeenth-century world’. This is a zone where many Milton scholars may find themselves most comfortable and where they might choose to stay. But Moshenska pushes himself to ask ‘weirder’ questions about Milton, interweaving the facts of his subject’s life and his popular and scholarly reception with several less conventional threads of enquiry. What results is a hybrid volume of autobiographical reflections, even confessions, from Moshenska himself about his family life and education; passages of fictionalised speculation regarding Milton’s influences, moods and memories; and, above all, sustained analysis of the affective, even somatic, experience of reading Milton, for whom the transformative effects of literature were not merely metaphorical but metaphysical and bodily too.
Part one covers Milton’s childhood, education and early poetic output, up until the writing of the virtuosic ‘On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity’ in 1629. A preoccupation here is ‘rhythm’, a word that, Moshenska admits, appears nowhere in Milton’s writings, though it is something he detects in the ticking