On Friday I went to a fantastic talk about Milton’s hair that Jayne gave at the Huntington. It was about how Milton’s hair (frequently but controversially described as “light brown”; frequently and less controversially depicted as shoulder-length, with a bit of curl to it) figures prominently in both literary and visual depictions of him in the eighteenth century.
That description doesn’t even begin to do the talk justice, though. I know she’ll be terribly bashful when she reads this, but hearing a talk by Jayne is like watching a movie by Christopher Nolan, or a play by Tom Stoppard. It’s at once a dazzling spectacle full of wit and playful embellishments, with ingeniously interlocking moving parts; and it’s also intellectually riveting. At the end she apologized for the talk’s lengthiness, but its ampleness was one of its pleasures.
When it came to the Q&A I didn’t really have a question … but the talk had triggered a long chain of associations … about the hairiness of Eden (Right? The “tangling bushes”; the “shaggie Hill”; “the fringed bank with Myrtle crowned?” It is so hairy in paradise!) and Milton’s fondness for the serpentine line (the brook that winds with “mazy error” and so on). I gathered my miscellaneous thoughts into a question about the aesthetics of wavy lines. But as I was asking my rambling question, gazing idly at the portrait of Milton that was up on the projector as I did so, I found myself saying out loud what I was thinking at that very instant: which was that perhaps I (like Milton) am particularly invested in the aesthetics of wavy lines because I have Miltonically wavy hair.  It was just a silly off-the-cuff remark … but I distinctly heard a few murmured “her hair really is like Milton’s ….” as Jayne responded to my question. And just so we’re all on the same page here, I should say that the resemblance I’m referring to here is between my hair and John Milton’s hair; I’m not talking about some purported resemblance between my hair and Eve’s coy tendrils or Adam’s hyacinthine locks. 
Here he is, in all his wavy glory. Judge for yourself, o ye who have seen my hair:
1853 engraving based on 1667 miniature by Faithorne
After the talk, when I glimpsed myself in the mirror while I was washing my hands in the restroom, I actually said out loud, and none too happily, “God, I really do look like Milton.” Later Jayne remarked that she would never see my hair in the same way again, and a graduate student of whom I’m very fond remarked of the resemblance, in a wonderfully deadpan way, “you can’t un-see it.”
Now, it could well be that it’s not really the case that I look like Milton in particular. I suspect, rather, that my beachy waves (what! That’s how Dr. F. described them!) coincidentally bear a striking resemblance to the Cavalier locks worn by many seventeenth-century men. My children have each several times asked me if the picture of the bushy-haired Leibniz on my T-shirt is a picture of me.
So, here’s the thing. I’m not sure whether to embrace my Miltonic aura or to commence anti-Miltonic defensive maneuvers immediately.
Here are the options as I see them:
Option 1: De-Milton My Hair
To do this, I maintain, I need to trim my longish bangs pronto. And here I must take a moment to note the oddity of the American term “bangs” to refer to what we British refer to, much more reasonably, as a “fringe.” The OED tells me that bangs are called bangs because hair cut in this manner was understood to be cut “‘bang’ off,” the phrase “bang off” connoting abruptness, suddenness, violence. It struck me that, in hair terms, bangs naturally counter-balance Miltonic waves. One might say the bangs are a necessary punctuation of the undulating Miltonic line. One might even say, if one were feeling particularly iconoclastic, that Paradise Lost could have used a few more bangs to break up those endless waves. But I digress. The waves-punctuated-by-bangs look would de-Miltonize my hair, is my point.
Option 2: Go the Full Milton
Ever since He-Who-Must-Be-Preserved and I have separated, friends have been asking me if I will try online dating. I always say nah, not at the moment, anyway. But recently I’ve started to fantasize about creating an online profile on a dating website, not as a means to meet people, but simply for my own entertainment. Would it be funny ha ha? Possibly not. Would it be funny-but-actually-quite-sad? Possibly, but don’t say that, you’re bumming me out. Anyway, I’m interested in testing out the genre.
Let me explain what I mean. Ever since the Miltonic hair incident I’ve been thinking, if I did do online dating, the picture of “myself” that accompanied my profile would simply have to be a portrait of Milton.
I told He-Who-Must-Be-Preserved excitedly about this idea and he gave me this “are you insane?” look. “You do know that NO MAN will contact you if you do that, don’t you?” he asked.
It was a rhetorical question.
Maybe you think he’s right. Or maybe you’re thinking, “I know you say now that you don’t want to meet anyone, but what if you change your mind and someone really compatible is turned off because you look like John Milton?” To which I would reply, “my friend, I appreciate your concern, but I am two steps ahead of you. You see it’s a win-win. First of all, do I really want to date a heterosexual male who would pass me over just because I look like the dead seventeenth-century poet John “the Lady” Milton?”
Obviously, the answer is no, such a person would be un-dateable.
Second of all, think of what a nice surprise it will be when my suitor meets me! He will be thinking, “well, I suppose I’ll meet this woman, she seems interesting … yes, she does look like John Milton but nobody’s perfect.” And then when we meet for coffee at a massive chain bookstore selling fiction-books (it will be exactly like this) my suitor will be completely and utterly stunned to discover that, in real life, I look way better than John Milton.
Now, that may be a bold claim to make, but I’m going to stick my neck out and make it. (Bear in mind when you assess this claim that the above portrait is an extremely flattering portrait of Milton. I only chose it because it shows his hair in detail.)
Am I better writer? Of course not! A bolder thinker? No way! A more impassioned political activist? Ha! But am I better-looking? I honestly think that I am. I’m thinking I could even lead with that audacious statement in my profile’s opening sentence.
But why stop there? In my fantasy, I go further and the whole profile is given over to defining myself entirely in terms of my resemblance (or lack thereof) to John Milton. It might take the form of a bulleted list like so:
- Worse writer than
- Less Puritan than
- More easygoing than
- Degree of unconscious affiliation with devil’s party: similar
- Less misogynist than
- More concise than
- Less prolific than
- Views on divorce: similar
- Better eyesight than
- More smiley than
- Less intimidating than
And so on and so forth.
So what d’you reck? I think He-Who-Must-Be-Preserved is totally wrong. I think it is a WINNING FORMULA. I will be the Miltonist’s crumpet: perhaps not to everyone’s taste, but with a distinctive flavor appealing to a select few.
 People tend to like my hair, and particularly its waviness. But, and I know this is perverse of me (I have an uncanny ability to ferret out an insult lurking beneath every compliment), I often (watch out! Hair-pun ahead!) bristle a little at the idea that my hair is one of my best features. I mean: really? Can’t you compliment a part of me that’s actually alive? You know that hair is just keratin and dead skin cells, right? That’s like telling someone that their fingernails are one of their more attractive features.
 One of the many fascinating facts I learned at Jayne’s talk is that Milton’s seventeenth-century and eighteenth-century readers were as baffled by the adjective “Hyacinthine” as I have always been. I’ve always assumed that “Hyacinthine,” like so many allusions in Paradise Lost, is a term that, while mystifying to me, would have been perfectly clear to an eighteenth-century gentleman (or a twenty-first-century graduate of Eton). But, apparently, no, everyone back then was equally stumped. Reddish like the gem? Blueish like the flower? Stony? Flowery? Fuck knows. Martinus, didn’t they teach you this at public school?