POET OF REVOLUTION: The Making of John Milton

Nicholas McDowell

ISBN 978-0-691-15469-5   Princeton  £30.

 Reviewed by Alan Dent

An intellectual biography, this book is not for those interested in the details of Milton’s everyday life, his relationships, how he got through the week. Mc Dowell has set himself the formidable task of discovering the influences and choices which made Milton the writer he was. The result is a remarkably researched and precise book which grants much more than its major aim: readers unfamiliar with eighteenth century literature, with its classical precursors, with the doctrines which ruled the age and the disputes which divided it, will learn a great deal.  

Milton was born eight years before Shakespeare died. He wrote a sonnet in his praise, one of those occasional pieces which permit access to his talent far less laboriously than through his major work. Milton’s mentality was very different from his predecessor’s: he was steeped in religion and obsessed with questions of sin and virtue. Milton, the man, is very much at the heart his work while Shakespeare, three centuries before Flaubert summoned the disappearing narrator, occupies his universe as the French genius advised: “présent partout, visible nulle part” (ubiquitous but nowhere visible). Could Shakespeare have been a polemicist? It’s hard to imagine. His genius was to hold up the mirror to nature and then, Ariel-like, to vanish. Milton has a very different strategy: he is a preacher, a teacher, a pamphleteer, an agitator for causes (divorce, for example). The book’s title may refer to Milton the poet, but McDowell in intensely interested in what made Milton the polemicist. Paradise Lost and Areopagitica have something in common: what Iris Murdoch called, with reference to Sartre, “a rhetorical anxiety to persuade.” Nor was Milton modest in his aims: explaining the ways of God to man on the one hand, reforming the nation’s polity on the other.  

Milton’s paternal grandfather, Richard, was a devout Catholic who refused to convert to Protestantism. He disinherited his son John, Milton’s father, when he found an English Bible in his room. Milton was born into religious strife. His father was a scrivener and money-lender, well-off enough to secure his son a good education. Milton took learning very seriously, an unarguable position. Yet what is disturbing is what he thought necessary to pursue it. In the latin “prolusion” on the subject of “defence of knowledge” which he delivered  to his teachers and fellows at Christ’s College, Cambridge in 1631, he declared: 

“We allow ourselves to be outdone by laborers and husbandmen in working after dark and before dawn..Though we aspire to the highest and best of the human condition we can endure neither hard work nor yet the reproach of idleness.. It is a shameful admission that we neglect to cultivate our minds out of consideration for our bodies, whose health all should be ready to impair if thereby their minds might gain the more.” 

No doubt Milton conceived of “mind” as a species of essence, not dependent on flesh. Like Descartes’s erroneous “cogito”, Milton’s view fails to recognise the primacy of matter. He wore out his eyes reading in bad light, no great advantage for a scholar and writer. He also  believed sexual abstinence conducive to learning and the attainment of “the highest and best of the human condition”. It’s interesting to ask how such a wayward idea every entered the human mind and also, why a man as intelligent and insightful as Milton could fall for it.  

Milton married Mary Powell in 1642. The marriage was over in a trice. Mc Dowell cites John Aubrey who believed that Mary’s revulsion at the beatings Milton dished out to his  nephews Edward and John Phillips the better to assist their assimilation of Latin grammar  was part of the cause. Once again, taking into account the tyrannous power of custom, it’s alarming that a man of Milton’s intellectual power could believe that beating little boys until they wept would in any way improve their minds.  

“Beauty,” Baudelaire remarked, “is the promise of happiness.” What’s the connection? Cross translations in the brain. Neither Baudelaire nor Milton had any inkling of that, but the latter associated beauty with wisdom, as if Laura Ashley had read her David Hume.  

“For that I do not know what else God may have decreed for me, this certainly is true: He has instilled into me, if anyone, a vehement love of the beautiful.” 

Whether Milton thought beating children beautiful we’ll never know. 

Later in the same passage he speaks of “the warped judgement of the public” and of his cleaving to whoever “dares to feel and speak and be that which the greatest wisdom throughout all ages has taught to be the best.”. Milton’s mind is so fixated on reaching up for the best that his feet are in danger of trampling the snowdrops he doesn’t see. It is said the non-conformist clergy used to warn their flock against being “too heavenly minded to be of any earthly use.” 

“Fame is the spurre” he wrote in Lycidas. Yet Milton’s fame was not ours. His ambition was Virgilian. It was to have his work read, admired and studied over centuries like the Augustan. In this, Milton is admirable; his capacity to value what matters in the long-term and to resist fads is a tonic to our celebrity intoxicated age. Yet Shakespeare too expected his work to endure, “as long as men may breathe and eyes may see”,  but he recognised that just because some people think they’re virtuous doesn’t mean there’ll be no more cakes and ale. Milton is not a man for cakes and ale.  

McDowell carefully reviews the evidence for Milton’s degree of interest in the religious disputes of his time. He’s not happy with the standard view that the hostile Puritan reaction to his writings on divorce led to his argument with the Presbyterians. He sees antecedents in the earlier anti-prelatical writings. McDowell is nothing if not thorough. He is exemplary in finding the evidence to sustain his arguments. The result is at once fascinating and overwhelming. This will become a standard reference book. For the “intelligent general reader”, as they used to say, McDowell’s immersion in the subject is likely to inspire a sense of seriously inadequate familiarity with the seventeenth century. That’s a compliment. McDowell, like his subject, has faith in learning and is extremely diligent. 

Milton believed that popish forms of domination were disastrous for learning, for intellectual excellency, for creativity. Perhaps discussion of this is the point at which the book gains its greatest relevance to our culture. When Milton wrote Of Reformation he relied more heavily on poets of his time than on patristic texts. He had faith in literature as a source of truth and wisdom and he feared the wrong kind of clerical policy was destructive to the artist’s ability to reveal them. He was dismissive of the “the writings and interludes of libidinous and ignorant Poetasters”. What would he have made of the three for two table in Waterstones? He believed literature should “inbreed and cherish” the “seeds of vertu, and publick civility.” What would he have made of the Booker Prize? When he made a gift to the Bodleian librarian John Rouse of all eleven of his prose tracts in 1646 he spoke of “satisfying himself with but few readers of this kind.” Imagine writing Paradise Lost for “but few readers”. What would today’s literary agents and publishers and indeed critics, have to say about that?  

Milton reflected that he might “perhaps leave something so written to the aftertimes, as they should not willingly let it die.” Wouldn’t it be more likely today that something so written for the aftertimes would be swiftly put to death? He scorned the “toylsom vanity” of “verbal curiosities” and wanted to be “an interpreter and relater of the best and sagest things among mine own Citizens”. He also considered the English people susceptible to idolatry of power and its vacuous ceremonies. Publishing mostly anonymously, not till 1642 did he begin to gain recognition, but not as a great writer: he was traduced as an encourager of sexual immorality because of his defence of divorce. His response, among other things was Areopagitica, still the most eloquent defence in English of the freedom to publish.  

McDowell’s study ends half way through Milton’s life. He promises in the second volume to explore how the “gleaming vision of the poet’s powers became darkened, but not overwhelmed, by the experience of revolution”. A fascinating prospect. Prepare for it by reading this one.