Darkness visible: Milton visits Galileo during a trip to Italy. Line engraving after a painting by Annibale Gatti, c20th century Photo: Granger/Shutterstock

Prophetic strain: the roots of Milton’s radical zeal

Milton was a political as well as poetic revolutionary. How did the author of <em>Paradise Lost</em> find himself?
January 25, 2021

One of the challenges of writing about John Milton—the man, the poet, the political figure—is the paucity of materials from which to reconstruct the first three decades of his life. There are records of baptism and education and suchlike, but his biographers have for the most part been confined to what Milton himself wrote about his upbringing and early adulthood. In compiling his brief life of Milton around 1680, John Aubrey had the advantage of being able to interview Milton’s widow, brother, nephew and various contemporaries. But other than recording such memorable details as Milton having been known as “the lady of Christ’s” while at Cambridge (ostensibly on account of his fair complexion), even he could put little flesh on the bones.

On one thing Milton and all his biographers agree. From an early age he was determined to become a poet of the first rank. To this end, he studied with unbending dedication before, during, and after his time at university. What is more, he succeeded. His 1645-1646 collection of Poems marked him out for greatness, and he duly achieved it in the marmoreal immensity of Paradise Lost (1667)—an English-language epic unlike anything that had gone before it, in which Milton justifies “the ways of God to man.”

And yet in his own day, Milton was famous less as a poet than as the author of controversial pamphlets championing free speech and the right to divorce, the energetic defender of Charles I’s execution and the leading propagandist for the virtues of the English Commonwealth until Charles II’s return from exile in 1660. Indeed, Paradise Lost can itself be read as a meditation on the overthrow of the English republic to which he had committed so much time and energy. Milton remains a hero to much of the left to the present day. Where did this radical zeal come from?

Aubrey, a royalist but a devoted admirer, explained this radicalism away with the suggestion that Milton had read too much of the Roman historian Livy. The more usual approach has been to borrow assumptions from discussions of Milton the poet: just as his poetic commitment was a constant from his childhood onwards, so his political radicalism must always have been there—lurking, possibly fugitive, but present even so. The problem is that since 2008, this position has been untenable. In John Milton: Life, Work, and Thought, Gordon Campbell and Thomas Corns made the provocative but convincing case that the evidence—literary and archival—had been distorted: the Milton of the 1620s and early 1630s was far from being an embryo radical. He was instead a conformist, not only content to pledge himself to Charles I as the head of the Anglican church, but a supporter of the showily hierarchical political-theological agenda advanced by Archbishop William Laud.

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Reigning in Hell : “Satan Presiding at the Infernal Council” from John Martin’s illustrations of Paradise Lost Photo: British library/public domain

This is where Nicholas McDowell’s new book, Poet of Revolution: The Making of John Milton, enters the fray. Correctly observing that Campbell and Corns fail to provide an account of how—within the space of five or so years—Milton went from being a culturally conservative Laudian to a staunchly independent opponent of the ancien régime, McDowell sets himself to refine the question and to fill in the gaps. He does so triumphantly, and transforms our understanding of Milton’s emergent worldview with intelligence, authority and considerable flair.

Poet of Revolution is not a soup-to-nuts biography. Instead, McDowell trains his focus on the development of Milton’s ideas about culture, politics and religion. His answer to the conundrum of Milton’s radical turn has two parts. First, he employs some deft comparisons to show that the young Milton’s conformism was never more than “small-l Laudian.” Second, and with genuine audacity, he argues that Milton’s political radicalism is an offshoot of his poetic vocation.

Milton believed that poetry was vital to the political and cultural health of the nation: for a long while his ambition was to write an “Arthuriad,” an epic poem that would do for King Arthur and Britain what Virgil had done for Aeneas and Rome. For Milton, the office of the poet demanded the liberty to pursue universal knowledge; to range across every part of the encyclopedia and ask the most searching questions. It was this liberty that Milton came to see as threatened by Charles I’s personal rule and Archbishop Laud’s ecclesiastical authoritarianism; it was Milton’s conviction that this threat could quickly evolve into tyranny that turned him into an eloquent voice of opposition. In McDowell’s words, “Milton’s political development is shaped by his evolving understanding of the ways in which ‘tyranny’—defined initially in clerical and ecclesiastical terms but which grows to encompass political organisation—retards the intellectual and cultural progress of a nation.”

The Italian example was foremost in Milton’s mind. He travelled to Italy in 1638-1639 and, if we trust his own account, met the elderly Galileo. Galileo was by now blind and under house arrest after falling foul of the Inquisition. For Milton, he became an emblem of Italian decline. From the greatness of Dante, Boccaccio and the high Renaissance to this: the most brilliant mind of his generation locked away, and all because his observations on the movement of the sun did not harmonise with the doctrines of the Roman Catholic Church.  Milton became convinced that if Charles and Laud were to triumph, England would go the way of Italy. Human flourishing could only be pursued within a civic and religious space that allowed poets and astronomers to go freely about their business.

McDowell’s book isn’t just a study of big ideas and bigger historical trends. It is good, for instance, on the relationship between the disastrous start to Milton’s first marriage and his tracts on divorce—as it is on the undergraduate Milton’s contretemps with his first tutor, William Chappell (later a Laudian bishop in Ireland). In the manuscript of his life of Milton, Aubrey records that after Milton received “some unkindnesse” at Chappell’s hands, Milton was assigned a new tutor. In the interlinear space above “some unkindnesse,” Aubrey has written in “whip’t.”

Flogging was standard practice in early modern grammar schools, but by the 1620s it was almost unheard of in a university context. Most of Milton’s biographers have thus dismissed Aubrey’s account as tittle-tattle, but McDowell offers good reasons for believing it to be true. He also contends that the indignation—and embarrassment—that Milton must have felt at the whipping does much to explain his later turn against a regime that did not hesitate to inflict physical pain on those who crossed it. Most famously, on the lawyer and Puritan polemicist William Prynne—who at various points between 1634 and 1637 was imprisoned, pilloried, branded, and had his ears hacked off for his criticisms of Charles I’s court and Laud’s church governance.

If this jars with the likelihood that Milton’s first wife left him at least in part over the severity with which she heard him beating his nephews, McDowell reminds us that corporal punishment was viewed as a useful tool in helping children to learn (as their intellects were not yet fully developed, it was impossible to reason with them). For adults, by contrast, it was taken to cause suffering alone.

Although McDowell stops in 1642 (a second volume, animated by Milton’s determination to face down the Presbyterians as the new enemies of freedom, is in the works), he makes ample space for the poems that would be published in 1645-1646—most of which were written in the 1620s and 30s. There are subtle readings of the “Nativity Ode,” “L’Allegro” and “Il Penseroso” and the masque Comus. With an alertness to the classical tradition and an eye for telling detail, McDowell shows that even in the early part of his career as a poet, Milton was preoccupied less with Laudian or Puritan manoeuvring than with the significance of poetry as an intermediary between the divine and the human, between the transcendent and the contingencies of the historical moment. Milton sought to discover whether the poet—through intensive scholarship and contemplation, and through the mastery of his verbal art—really could ascend to a version of the “prophetic strain.”

His discussion of the poetry culminates with “Lycidas,” a display of elegiac wit prompted by the untimely death of a former college acquaintance, but also a reflection on the possibility of true poetry in a nation where intellectual freedom has been curtailed by religious dogma; although Milton wrote it in 1637, it was straightforward enough for him to repackage it as an anti-clerical call to arms in his 1645-1646 Poems. McDowell’s account of “Lycidas,” spread out over two deftly fine-grained chapters, is the best part of an exceptionally good book.

So, we learn a lot about Milton the poet and Milton the radical, as we do about the ways in which these two very public personae interlocked with one another. We are also invited to discern the Milton we know best—the author of Paradise Lost—beginning to take shape. Poet of Revolution will be the standard account of its subject, and the starting point for further discussion of Milton’s early life, for a long time to come.

[su_pullquote]“The embarrassment Milton must have felt at being whipped at university partly explains his later turn against the established regime”[/su_pullquote]

But at the beginning of the 2020s, McDowell’s book has even more to recommend it. In tracing the ways in which Milton came to adopt a revolutionary posture in the years between his arrival at university and the crisis that led Charles I to declare war on his own parliament, McDowell reminds us of a pertinent historical truth. However widespread anger at the “Personal Rule” or at Laud’s devotion to ecclesiastical hierarchy might have been within the populace at large (the evidence is contested), the Civil Wars did not begin as a revolt from below. Resistance came instead from a coalition of elites whose interests happened to align against an executive branch that had arrogated to itself the power to run the civic and religious affairs of the realm. Large parts of the aristocracy, the gentry, the intelligentsia, and the increasingly wealthy merchants of London and Norwich were concerned at the directions in which policy had been steered under Charles—not least on the matter of how the three kingdoms of England, Scotland, and Ireland should dispose themselves in relation to one another and to the politics of continental Europe. But what left them aghast was something more fundamental. Namely, the perception that they were being deliberately excluded from that which they had come to regard as their duty, their rightful place, and the source of their security: exercising the responsibilities of government.

Suffice it to say that as revolt became civil war, and as civil war convulsed the three kingdoms, things did not work out as either Charles or his parliamentary opponents had hoped. It requires no gift of prophecy to see some parallels between this state of affairs and the political dynamics of our own troubled age.   

Poet of Revolution: The Making of John Milton by Nicholas McDowell (Princeton University Press, £30)