November 23 in Literary History: John Milton Publishes Areopagitica

The most significant events in the history of books on the 23rd of November

534 BC: Thespis of Icaria – from whom we get the word ‘thespian’ – becomes the first recorded actor to portray a character on the stage. According to legend, Thespis was the first person to appear on stage and perform a role, rather than speak as himself, which had been the norm until then (where storytellers would perform as themselves, rather than in character). The ’23 November’ date is more traditional than factual, of course…

1644: John Milton publishes one of the most famous – and eloquent – defences of free expression ever written, the Areopagitica. A polemical tract in prose, published during the English Civil War, Areopagitica is an attack on censorship and an argument in favour of the freedom of the press – as relevant now as it has ever been. The title Areopagitica comes from a speech by the Athenian orator Isocrates in the 5th century BC (taking us back to Areopagiticathe time of Thespis of Icaria) – the Areopagus, a hill in Athens, was the place where tribunals were supposed to have been held. ‘Give me the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties,’ Milton entreats in the Areopagitica. ‘For Books are not absolutely dead things, but doe contain a potencie of life in them to be as active as that soule was whose progeny they are; nay they do preserve as in a violl the purest efficacie and extraction of that living intellect that bred them.’

1920: Paul Celan is born Paul Antschel to a Jewish family in Cernăuți, in what was then the Kingdom of Romania. He became, as Paul Celan, one of the leading German-language poets of the twentieth century. He committed suicide in April 1970, drowning himself in the Seine, Paris. You can read a translation of one of his most famous poems, ‘Todesfuge’ (‘Deathsfugue’), here.

1990: Roald Dahl dies. As we’ve reported elsewhere, the celebrated children’s author was buried with a curious list of objects, including pencils, red wine, and chocolate. Indeed, Dahl believed that children should be taught the history of chocolate at school, rather than the names and dates of kings and queens. Fittingly, as a schoolboy, he had been ‘hired’ as a taste-tester by a well-known chocolate company.

Image: First page of Areopagitica, by John Milton, 1644; Wikimedia Commons.

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