Radicals in Defeat

The Experience of Defeat: Milton and Some Contemporaries

by Christopher Hill
Viking (Elizabeth Sifton Books), 342 pp., $20.00

In Milton and the English Revolution, published in 1977, Christopher Hill tried to rescue Milton from literary scholarship. He argued that to appreciate the great Puritan poet we need to understand not only his place in such lofty traditions as Platonism and Christian Humanism, but also his relationship to the great public dramas of his own time, to the passions of revolution and counter-revolution surrounding him. This view was naturally greeted with skepticism in the academic literary circles where attention to historical events is regarded as heresy, but the book was also attacked by historians. Hill had, not for the first time, it was claimed, exaggerated the importance of the far left of the English Revolution, and had failed to prove his contention that Milton was engaged in a conscious or unconscious dialogue with the Revolution’s “radical underground.”

In The Experience of Defeat Hill is unrepentant. Once more we are asked to read Paradise Lost and Samson Agonistes as commentaries on the failure of revolution; as attempts to justify the ways of God to men, to justify them particularly to those who in the 1640s had, like Milton, dreamed exhilarating millenarian dreams of a new order of liberty and reformation, only to see them vanish in the cynicism and corruption that led to the restoration of Charles II. Readers interested mainly in Milton’s poetry should be warned, however, that until the last chapter there is little on the specific subject of Milton in this book. It is in fact chiefly about the “contemporaries” of the subtitle, on some of whom the impact of public failure, Hill thinks, was similar to, and helps us to understand, the impact on the poet. One ought to look at the book less as a work of Milton scholarship than as a contribution to the continuing debate over the meaning of the English Revolution.

Over the past forty years or so Hill has had a major part in that debate, often being the target of acrimonious criticism—though his own writing has always been refreshingly free from acrimony. Along with Lawrence Stone, the late R.H. Tawney, and others, Hill has helped to shape the general approach that, until quite recently, most historians of early seventeenth-century England have been following. However much they might differ over important details, most of them have agreed that what happened in England in the 1640s was indeed a revolution—the first of the great European revolutions of modern times—and that it was caused by significant changes in English society during the previous century, in which a new social group (usually defined as some version of Tawney’s notorious “rising gentry”) had acquired the wealth and self-confidence enabling them to challenge the Stuart monarchy.

In Hill’s case this explanation has always had a noticeably populist, class-conscious twist. His first major work, which appeared at the outset of World War II, was a straightforward, schematic application of Marxist categories, an explanation of the events of the 1640s …

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