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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 Paradise Lost find himself?

By Rhodri Lewis   March 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…

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