John Milton was not only a great poet, but also a great defender of liberty
By Jay Parini
September 1, 2008
Milton: Poet, Pamphleteer, and Patriot, by Anna Beer, Bloomsbury Press, 458 pp., $34.99
It seems almost impossible to hold John Milton in one’s head, as he was so many things at once: a poet rivaled only by Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Wordsworth for completeness and power; a gifted linguist and scholar; a political man of immense skills; an uncompromising polemicist who wrote pioneering essays on divorce and freedom of the press; a sophisticated Puritan theologian; a political thinker who believed passionately in liberty; a husband to three wives; and a father. It should not surprise anyone that biographers have not had an easy time with him.
For different reasons, poets have also struggled to come to terms with a precursor of such titanic strength, negotiating his influence in various ways, as R. D. Havens suggests in The Influence of Milton on English Poetry (1922), a classic study. William Blake made him the subject of one of his great visionary poems, while Wordsworth called out to him in one of his most memorable sonnets: “Milton! thou shouldst be living at this hour: / England hath need of thee.” T. S. Eliot (a monarchist and Anglo-Catholic) famously struggled with Milton, first rejecting, then embracing him.
The point remains that one cannot ignore John Milton, and the countless books about him found in any decent library attest to the fact that nobody has actually tried. To these shelves comes Anna Beer’s succinct and highly readable biography, Milton: Poet, Pamphleteer, and Patriot. She builds upon the recent work of Cedric Brown, Gordon Campbell, John T. Shawcross, and—most importantly—Barbara K. Lewalski, whose compendious life of Milton remains the standard work by a contemporary scholar. For sheer felicity of style, I still prefer A. N. Wilson’s short life of Milton (1983), but for balance and breadth within a reasonable number of pages, Anna Beer’s work stands out.
Beer describes Milton as a Londoner at heart, a man who spent a fair portion of his life within the graceful shadow of St. Paul’s luminous dome. London during the 17th century, when Milton lived there, was the center of immense political turmoil, with violent swings from monarchy to republicanism to Restoration. The poet, of course, sided with Cromwell and the revolutionaries, becoming a central figure in Whitehall as he drafted letters (in Latin) to various governments abroad. He was also a major advocate for political liberty—as the Founding Fathers of the American Revolution well understood. Among his famous pamphlets were Areopagitica, his classic defense of a free press, and Pro Populo Anglicano Defensio Secundo, in which he offered what Beer rightly calls “a rousing celebration of the new England of liberty in civil life and divine worship.”
There was, as might be expected, a “steady stream of hostile responses to the English Commonwealth,” which had dared to behead a king. As a defender of the republic, Milton came in for heavy attacks from abroad, for instance when one of his chief enemies wrote that the Englishman had worked as a male prostitute in Italy, “selling his buttocks for a few pence.” This stick of verbal dynamite started a conflagration, and one exiled Royalist ex-bishop soon claimed that Milton had been expelled from Cambridge for unnatural practices. (Exactly why Milton was kicked out of the university remains a mystery.) The nature of Milton’s sexuality is also unknown, as Beer wisely admits; nevertheless, there was a homoerotic aspect in his early friendship with Charles Diodati; the playful letters he wrote to his friend, in Latin, suggest as much. But Beer understands that Milton would probably not have chosen to engage in acts that would have been considered outrageous and illegal. “Even if straightforward fear for one’s life did not suppress homosexual acts,” she writes, “then the mind-forged manacles of Church teaching would ensure that every minute of every day a man would know that his desire was sinful.” She informs us, however, that in his commonplace book Milton listed “Lust for boys or men” as a personal problem. (This remark was made in Greek, to ward off prying eyes.)
What the youngish Milton, in his late 20s, mainly sought—so he told Diodati—was nothing short of immortality. He had thus far devoted himself to the cause of his own learning with incredible focus and self-discipline. His wealthy father spared no expense for him, and he enjoyed the best education possible, including a tour of Italy, where he may have met the aging Galileo. He possessed an encyclopedic knowledge of history and myth, and had closely read the classics of Greek, Latin, and Hebrew literatures in their original languages. He was fluent in Italian, too, and knew his Dante and Petrarch, as well as other Italian poets. Needless to say, his understanding of Christianity (read through the lens of Puritan theology) was also detailed and far-reaching, and it provided a solid foundation for his masterpiece, Paradise Lost, and for all of his Christian poems.
Living at the fiery center of history, as he did, Milton inevitably got burned. When the Commonwealth crumbled, the poet found himself in a very awkward position. The Restoration might well have led to his summary execution. Things grew tense for him, but he chose to stand his ground instead of fleeing abroad. In the middle of August 1660, a proclamation appeared announcing that all books by Milton should be burned: a bad sign. Just two days after this conflagration, however, there came an Act of Free and General Pardon, Indemnity and Oblivion that included a list of those to be executed. “Astonishingly,” says Beer, “Milton was not on the list.” He did suffer two months in jail, but this was simply to humiliate him. And so he retired to life in relative obscurity, living first in London, then moving to a village in the countryside, in Buckinghamshire, to avoid plague-ridden London.
Beer could have done a little more with this dramatic material than she does; one doesn’t get quite enough background on the ravages of the plague or the destructiveness of the Great Fire of 1666, when large parts of London so dear to Milton were erased in a matter of four days. I longed to hear more about Milton’s domestic life in Chalfont St. Giles, his village in Buckinghamshire, and more about his growing blindness and personal torment. But few details along these lines have survived, and so the biographer is stymied. One has to guess what was really going on in Milton’s mind as he set about writing Paradise Lost, in which he sought, for once and all time, to “justify the ways of God to man.”
Beer does not go in for literary criticism, and her comments on Milton’s epic (much like her comments on his poetry in general) often seem perfunctory, as when she tells us: “Milton poured all his dramatic talents into writing his Satan, the great anti-hero of them all.” Satan is “nothing if not intelligent,” she informs us. Later she says that “Milton’s vision of Eden is an erotic world of sensuous pleasures.” Unfortunately, it is rare for biographers to exhibit a high order of critical expertise; the province of biography rarely includes that of exegesis or criticism. In this case, Beer does an adequate job of describing Milton’s achievement in poetry—and nothing more.
Having written Paradise Lost, Milton somehow managed to get the book past the censors. (It was probably too highbrow to worry about.) He followed with Paradise Regained and Samson Agonistes, adding to his already impressive body of poetry. These poems had been quietly building in his head for decades, one has to guess; they certainly emerged with the force of a torrent and were usually dictated in the morning to one of his daughters. The blind poet raged against the darkness, and opened paths of glory for himself and for his readers. The marvel of this accomplishment can hardly be described, and Beer makes a fairly superficial attempt to do so.
At last Milton returned to the London of his boyhood, where he saw the beginnings of his establishment as a writer of immense value. He lived quietly enough in Artillery Walk, not so far from his birthplace, and entertained a range of important visitors before he died just short of his 66th birthday. Not surprisingly, as a figure identified with the much-reviled Commonwealth, he was not given a hero’s funeral. As late as 1683, his books remained the focus of outrage and were burned in Oxford by overly zealous anti-Puritans. Beer writes: “Despite his appeal to radicals, despite the book-burnings, 54 years later, in 1737, a monument to John Milton was erected in Westminster Abbey.” There was, as she observes, a certain irony in the fact that John Milton, the outspoken republican, should find himself celebrated in the very place where monarchs are crowned.
This biography puts forward the facts of Milton’s life with aplomb and clarity, and handles sensitive issues with common sense, putting his famous misogyny, for example, in context: he was hardly out of step with his times. Beer underscores the complex realities of Milton as both a radical in politics and a traditionalist in literature. Quite rightly she recalls that he stood for the centrality of individual liberty in the personal as well as in the religious and political spheres. That he became a hero of many Enlightenment thinkers should have surprised no one. It would certainly not have surprised the poet himself.
Jay Parini is a poet, a novelist, and professor of English and creative writing at Middlebury College. His most recent book is New and Collected Poems, 1975–2015.
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