Celebrations of the four hundredth anniversary of the birth of John Milton in December 1608 have been modest and largely academic. He was born, and for the most part lived, in the City of London, now the financial district. Nationalistic sentiment in those days was such that the idea of a great national poet was welcomed, and Milton had high hopes of filling that role; but although his gifts were acknowledged there were aspects of his career, especially his politics, that were far from pleasing to all parties. In the eighteenth century, however, his poetry was highly valued for its own sake, and there was a revival of interest in his politics. Wordsworth celebrated Milton’s republicanism as well as his poems.
In 1922 the American Milton scholar R.D. Havens could claim, a little extravagantly, that from Pope’s day to Wordsworth’s “Milton occupied a place…in the thought and life of Englishmen of all classes, which no poet has held since, and none is likely to hold again.” Havens had hardly spoken before powerful modernist rebels declared their opposition. Milton fell short of pleasing the royalist T.S. Eliot, and Ezra Pound judged him to be quite a small poet, about the size of Drummond of Hawthornden. In 1933 he was dismissed in the famous opening sentence of an essay by the influential critic F.R. Leavis: “Milton’s dislodgement, in the past decade, after his two centuries of predominance, was effected with remarkably little fuss.”
Leavis added that Eliot’s remarks on the subject had made it “unnecessary to elaborate a case,” and doubted if any defense was possible. Plausible defenses soon appeared, but they were mostly the work of English and American academics, and probably did not interest Englishmen, or indeed Americans, “of all classes”—though Americans are sometimes thought to have a special claim on Milton because of his influence on the language of Franklin, Jefferson, and John Adams, and because he remained faithful to the idea of republicanism.
He was certainly involved, sometimes dangerously, in the complicated politics of the time; not merely a republican, he was a defender of regicide: his lengthy essay The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates, published only two weeks after the execution of Charles I in 1649, set out to prove that
it is lawful, and hath been held so through all ages, for any, who have the power, to call to account a tyrant, or wicked king, and after due conviction, to depose, and put him to death….
England’s one attempt to be a republic was marked by bloody civil war and a phase of pseudo-monarchy under Oliver Cromwell, whom Milton served and praised without reservation. In 1660 Charles II returned to the throne; he was understandably prejudiced against his father’s killers, and his restoration found Milton defiantly on the wrong side. He quite narrowly escaped death for treason. Fervent royalists like Samuel Johnson had ample reason for disliking him.
Johnson was, understandably, reluctant to be Milton’s biographer, remarking that there already existed plenty of biographies of the poet, based on much “minute enquiry”; but another was thought necessary to preserve the uniformity of his Lives of the Poets. He wrote it in 1779, in six weeks, obviously against the grain; and despite its cantankerousness it remains the best biography. With due respect to the scholars who have conducted so much more “minute enquiry,” no other is so brilliantly written, scathing yet sourly deferential.
Milton, as a young man beautiful as well as clever, had a good if pious opinion of himself. He appended dates to his juvenile Latin compositions, and Johnson sneers at him for the vanity of his desire to prove his “vernal fertility.” Yet he recognizes Milton as the first Englishman to write Latin verses “with classick elegance.” It is recorded that the poet performed well as a student at Cambridge, but according to Johnson nobody really liked him there. There is a dubious tradition that he was whipped by his tutor, and Johnson feels obliged, with feigned reluctance, to mention it. When Milton is reputed to have read “all the Greek and Latin writers,” Johnson is ironical: “With what limitations this universality is to be understood who shall inform us?”
In an autobiographical excursus in one of his ecclesiastical tracts, Milton speaks of his long stay in Italy, and claims that he sacrificed a planned visit to Sicily and Greece when news reached him of the threat of armed conflict between Charles I and his parliamentary opponents. He thought it wrong to be enjoying what is now called a gap year at a time when his countrymen, preparing to fight for their freedom, were entitled to his assistance. But he paid visits to Lucca and Venice before returning to London via Geneva, after an absence of fifteen months. Back home, he settled down pacifically to act as schoolmaster to his two nephews. No doubt his swordsmanship, on which he prided himself, might still be useful; but he chose a sedentary trade. “Let not our veneration for Milton,” says Johnson,
forbid us to look with some degree of merriment on great promises and small performance, on the man who hastens home because his countrymen are contending for their liberty, and, when he reaches the scene of action, vapours away his patriotism in a private boarding-school.
Whenever Milton speaks with due reverence of the Christian faith Johnson approves, but in political and ecclesiastical controversy he finds the poet’s manner very offensive: “such is his malignity that hell grows darker at his frown.” So, with evident distaste and occasional praise, Johnson works his way through a writer he deeply disliked but who, in carefully limited respects, deserved admiration. Of course Johnson could not be expected to speak well of Cromwell, or condone Milton’s services to rebellion. He was shocked that the poet dared to speak of being, after the Restoration, “fallen on evil days and evil tongues”; for what Johnson rather implausibly regarded as the incomparable clemency of the returned Charles II should have stifled such complaints.
Yet at the same time Johnson sympathized with Milton in his blindness, and in his having to watch “his reputation [as author of Paradise Lost ] stealing its way in a kind of subterraneous current through fear and silence.” Of the old, blind, gout-stricken poet’s life in the Restoration years he says, “I cannot but conceive him calm and confident, little disappointed, not at all dejected, relying on his own merit with steady consciousness.” That is a typically generous exercise of sympathetic imagination. Johnson was for thirty years a benevolent friend of Milton’s blind but learned granddaughter, the remarkable Anna Williams. When Milton’s masque Comus was performed for her benefit at Drury Lane, Johnson, again a generous enemy, contributed a prologue, to be spoken by Garrick, and did what he could to swell the audience.
Criticizing the poetry, Johnson is less generous. His condemnation of “Lycidas” (“Where there is leisure for fiction there is little grief”) is perverse but exhilarating; his praise for the twin poems “L’Allegro” and “Il Penseroso” is hardly more than dutiful, while in Comus, to most admirers of Milton an early work of genius, he finds little to commend. He seems to save his critical strength for Paradise Lost, for which he claims a high place “among the productions of the human mind.” As a Christian he might in any case have approved the design and execution of the poem, though he complains of some of its features; what he never overlooks is the stature of the author. “The poet whatever be done is always great…what other author ever soared so high or sustained his flight so long?” And yet the richness of such commendations has to be modified in the interests of truth: ” Paradise Lost is one of the books which the reader admires and lays down, and forgets to take up again. None ever wished it longer than it is.” The candor of this observation strengthens the whole critique.
The history of modern Milton biographies is an epic in itself. David Masson’s six-volume Life of Milton, Narrated in Connection with the Political, Ecclesiastical and Literary History of his Time (1859–1880) was for a long time the standard work, and it has given later biographers a sense of the vast scope of their subject. William Riley Parker’s Milton: A Biography came next, in 1968. Parker describes himself as “perched like a pygmy on Masson’s noble shoulders,” but his volumes, though there are only two, are huge, and they amplify and correct Masson. A second edition of Parker (1996), edited by Gordon Campbell, was again greatly augmented and updated.
And now we have John Milton: Life, Work, and Thought, by Gordon Campbell and Thomas N. Corns, much shorter than Masson or Parker but far from short. The presence of Gordon Campbell is reassuring; he confirms that the Masson-Parker tradition, with its passion for detail and context, is still alive, and in some respects still necessary to students. Anna Beer’s book is less detailed but still well researched and pleasantly opinionated; it gives a full enough account of the poet’s life to satisfy readers who may balk at the Parker-Campbell or Campbell-Corns. (A serious biography that has its origin outside this tradition is Barbara K. Lewalski’s The Life of John Milton, revised in 2003.)
Campbell and Corns make an important claim for their work: that “its account of the factual record is the first since Masson’s to have been based on an inspection of all the available documents.” They add that they have been able to benefit by great developments in Stuart historiography over the past thirty years, which render some of Parker’s work out of date. They nevertheless pay their predecessor tribute, especially praising his “mighty second volume” while modestly withholding mention of Campbell’s very large part in that book.
Their new task, they say, “seems seductively easy,” for the materials are now accessible, and they have behind their researches not only Masson and Parker but John Milton French’s collection of Milton’s life records. Unsurprisingly it turns out that the job was not really that easy; but they accomplished it with evident equanimity, though in the course of doing so they rather startlingly decided that the poet was “flawed, self-contradictory, self-serving, arrogant, passionate, ruthless, ambitious, and cunning.”
None of these moral defects is severe enough to prevent their accepting that he was also the most eloquent polemicist of his time, as well as the author of the finest narrative poem in English:
He is the most scholarly of poets, a master of classical culture and learning, a humanist in the great tradition of Hugo Grotius or John Selden, and he had a thorough appreciation of modern writers of continental Europe, and particularly of Italy. He studied law, mathematics, history, philology, and theology. He was also a thoughtful and innovative teacher.