This is essentially Johnson’s verdict, updated and purged of political bias.
Milton’s father was by profession a scrivener—a clerk or copyist—but also a moneylender, and an accomplished musical composer. He could afford to give his son the best education, as a boy in London at the humanist St. Paul’s School, with private tutors, and as a student at Cambridge. At St. Paul’s Milton formed a warm friendship with another learned and clever boy with poetic aspirations—Charles Diodati, the son of an Italian physician. Diodati went to Oxford when he was eleven or twelve years old. They kept in touch, sometimes in Greek, and their letters have what Campbell and Corns describe as a “playful erotic charge.”
An early problem for biographers is what they should make of this relationship. Campbell and Corns do not allow teenage romps and high-flown language between scholarly but lively teenagers to be mistaken for a homosexual affair, and Anna Beer is also judicious. Such friendships between gifted young men may be joyous, even flirtatious, without being more than that, though later on, in a bout of bitter controversy, there were suggestions by his enemies that the young Milton had been a sodomite (sodomy was a capital offense).
When Diodati died in 1638, aged twenty-nine, Milton commemorated him in an elaborate Latin pastoral elegy called Epitaphium Damonis, which was published in 1640. Johnson contemptuously calls it “childish”; he also detested “Lycidas,” written to mourn the death by drowning of a Cambridge friend, as belonging to the same artificial genre. “Surely no man could have fancied that he read Lycidas with pleasure, had he not known its author.” So much for a poem so illustrious that it was once conventional to accept the judgment of the nineteenth-century author and scholar Mark Pattison and call it “the high-water mark of English Poesy.” If Johnson had been around he might have reminded his reader that Pattison was believed by many to be the original of George Eliot’s Casaubon in Middlemarch, but his pedantic attack on “Lycidas” is best regarded as one of Johnson’s more willful errors. He was better qualified than most to understand it.
Without professing to enjoy Cambridge, Milton, always “a severe student,” as Johnson allows him to have been, took part in the required declamations and debates, but he found his tutor to be “unkind,” and for reasons not fully understood absented himself for a time, living in London. Returning to Cambridge, he took his BA degree in 1629, and affirmed, as the university required, his belief that the king was, “under God…the only supreme governor of this realm.” Still of a conservative cast of mind, he could swear to that, and he did so again when taking his MA degree in 1632, though a time would come when to swear that oath would present a serious problem.
After Cambridge came what is known as the Horton period, named for the Berkshire village where Milton spent some half a dozen years, and the long Italian sojourn. He lived for a while at Hammersmith, six or seven miles upriver from London, and there wrote his first important poems, except for “L’Allegro” and “Il Penseroso,” which may be earlier. The masque known as Comus, written for performance before the president of the Council of Wales, Lord Bridgewater, at Ludlow in Shropshire, was a remarkable achievement. Milton was evidently in touch with aristocracy, perhaps via the composer Henry Lawes, who provided the music for the masque, though there is no certainty of this.
The connections of the young poet with aristocrats raise a special problem for biographers: in a lurid scandal that occurred some three years before Comus was performed, Lord Castlehaven, the brother of Lady Bridgewater, was found guilty of unchastity, sodomy, and of being a papist, and executed. Campbell and Corns give an ample account of the trial but cannot explain why Milton made threatened chastity the main subject of Comus, which celebrates the power of virginity to repel threats to the lady’s purity. Why stir memories of the horrible Castlehaven case? Anna Beer thinks the young poet did so “unwittingly.” In a more circumstantial account of the scandal, with an examination of the text of the masque, Campbell and Corns are less decisive.
Years of study at Horton, and the Italian journey, during which, sometimes speaking in Latin, he gave the intellectuals who received him many proofs of the achievements of English learning, prepared Milton for a more arduous existence, and in 1641 he wrote Of Reformation and Of Prelatical Episcopacy. The complexity of the ecclesiastical disputes in which Milton now involved himself keep the biographers busy, but the main thrust of his sometimes violent anticlerical polemic is always that England had had no proper Reformation; a revival of the century-old effort was now needed. The followers of Archbishop Laud, who supported Charles I, had reintroduced papistical ceremonies. Milton argued that the bishops (“canary-sucking” and “swan-eating”) must go. (Laud himself was already in prison and would be executed in 1645.) Puritanism, in one of its many guises, not all favored by Milton, must complete the clearing away of idolatry.
He was to find that he liked the rule of the Presbyterians no better than he did the bishops’. Now committed to voluminous and arduous prose writing, he keeps his biographers busy with attacks on prelatical episcopy and tracts on church government, but he did not forget his ambition for poetry and fame; hence his autobiographical digression in The Reason of Church-government (1642), which gives an account of his youthful travels and studies, and asserts his claim to be a poet of achievement, continuing promise, and ultimate fame. The publication of his first collection of poems (including Comus and “Lycidas”) in 1645 may have been meant to signify the end of his youthful verse and the announcement of a major phase, but that move forward was still no more than a promise, for there was more anticlerical work to be done; and he also had to tackle a problem that more and more occupied his mind.
This was the divorce law. Milton married his first wife, Mary Powell, in 1642, just as the civil war was beginning. Before long she returned to her parental home in Oxfordshire; evidently neither party enjoyed the marital company of the other. After a prolonged absence Mary Milton did return to her husband, but his four tracts on divorce were inevitably affected by her absence, which Milton resented. The basic argument is that both sexes should be freed from the bondage of canon law, which allowed divorce only for adultery and incapacity, “condemning as sin, that which the law of God allows, and Christ abolished not.” To Milton a law was clearly unjust if it allowed adultery and impotence as just causes but forbade divorce when a man (or woman, though Beer, who writes well on the divorce tracts, is skeptical about that) might suffer more from lack of companionship or from intellectual or emotional incompatibility than from adultery.
Without compatibility, husband and wife are left to “grind in the mill of an undelighted and servile copulation.” Copulation was not the greatest or most lasting of the benefits of marriage, but it ought ideally to be a source of delight. When, in Paradise Lost, Satan spied on Adam and Eve, unfallen and making love in Eden, he “saw undelighted all delight.” Milton placed a high value on sex as a prime source of delight, or so it must have been before the Fall. Satan’s unhappiness arises from his impotence. Pure sex is paradisal, but we lost it; postlapsarian lovemaking is represented as shockingly inferior. Delight turning into woe is the great theme of the poem. Satan promises Adam and Eve “more woe, the more your taste is now of joy.” A bad marriage gives us a foretaste of that woe, but divorce could go some way to cure it.
Campbell and Corns say that Milton (uncharacteristically) knew little about the long history of learned dispute about divorce, and accuse him of arguing as if from principles while having his own interest in mind. Marriage, in his view, was a remedy not for lust but for loneliness:
Divorce…does not stain, but highly honours, the ideal of marriage; it recognizes that the dignity and prime blessing of matrimony lie in spiritual comradeship, which is not often achieved.
The response to these adventurous arguments was largely unfriendly, but Milton persisted, and the four “divorce pamphlets” sold well. Since divorce remains a problem more pressing, and more general, than the wickedness of bishops and Presbyterians, the writings on divorce are more interesting to the modern reader than those on ecclesiastical politics. (I notice that Philip Roth has recently been commending Milton’s views on divorce.)
But Milton next turned against enemies of liberty, the suppression of opinion, and, specifically, the licensing of books by Parliament. In 1644 he produced what most agree to be the finest of his prose works, the address to Parliament called Areopagitica, a tremendous attack on censorship that can still enliven modern argument about press freedom. Licensing simply means censorship before publication, the sort of thing imposed by Romanist clerics with their absurd imprimaturs; for that sort of thing, Milton argued, there is no place in the intellectual intercourse of free Englishmen.
Naturally the Areopagitica was itself published without license, and naturally it contains ribald attacks on the Roman Church and its Index of Prohibited Books; but it has rhetorical force of another kind, and tells us that when Milton, though “long choosing and beginning late,” settled into his true role as a heroic poet, we might expect extraordinary eloquence:
Good and evil we know in the field of this world grow up together almost inseparably; and the knowledge of good is so involved and interwoven with the knowledge of evil, and in so many cunning resemblances hardly to be discerned, that those confused seeds which were imposed upon Psyche as an incessant labour to cull out, and sort asunder, were not more intermixed. It was from out the rind of one apple tasted, that the knowledge of good and evil, as two twins cleaving together, leaped forth into the world. And perhaps this is that doom which Adam fell into of knowing good and evil, that is to say, of knowing good by evil.
Adam, had he chosen, could have known good without knowing evil; we cannot. That passage, brilliant in itself, offers a foretaste of Paradise Lost.
In 1649 it fell to Milton to justify the execution of Charles I, and in 1649 to attack as fraudulent Eikon Basilike, a work of piety supposed to have been written by Charles in captivity; and after that came his greatest test, to defend the English people, and his own scholarly fame, in successive publications that would make manifest his superiority to scholarly European rivals. By 1660 the republican interregnum was over, but he was still ready, in the confusion of Charles II’s return, to write A Ready and Easy Way to Establish a Free Commonwealth, a work which appeared only days before Parliament finally dissolved itself. Having escaped condemnation and spent a little time in prison, he retired, blind and quiet, his cause defeated, to occupy himself with his History of Britain, begun in the 1640s; with the heretical theological treatise De Doctrina Christiana, lost until the nineteenth century; and, at last, with his heroic poems.
In that autobiographical passage in The Reason of Church-government, Milton had promised that he would “undertake something…that may be of use and honour to his country”—something not to be obtained
but by devout prayer to that Eternal Spirit that can enrich with all utterance and knowledge, and sends out his seraphim with the hallowed fire of his altar, to touch and purify the lips of whom he pleases.
This was a resolution of which even Johnson could approve: “from a promise like this, at once fervid, pious, and rational, might be expected the ‘ Paradise Lost’.” At the time of the promise, however, Milton was still looking for a more conventional epic subject, while lamenting the distractions of controversy and the loss of time he must spend in writing, he said, as it were with his left hand. That the subject of his epic, when he found it, would be heroic, he had even then no doubt, though the writing of it had to wait some twenty years.
As early as his stay at Horton, at the age of twenty-three, Milton lamented the delay in his plans, but explained he was preparing for greatness, “not taking thought of being late, so it give advantage to be more fit.” Like his Adam, he was formed for greatness, for contemplation and valor. Much later he refused to accept the excuse for inaction offered by his blindness. Forced into another retirement, he reminded himself that to retire was the habit of such heroes as Scipio Africanus, or the Cromwell of Andrew Marvell’s great poem:
Who, from his private gardens,
He lived reservèd and austere,
As if his highest plot
To plant the bergamot,
Could by industrious valour climb
To ruin the great work of time,
And cast the kingdoms old
Into another mould….
Milton spoke similarly of the parliamentary general Thomas Fairfax: there is a heroism of conquest and a heroism of suffering, of waiting—“the better fortitude/Of Patience and Heroic Martyrdom.” Yet the passive hero must eventually emerge, to act or suffer. In Paradise Regained, Jesus, who has hitherto lived “private, unactive, calm, contemplative,” emerges to be tested by temptation and so made ready for the “great work…before him set.”
The last of Milton’s poems, Paradise Regained and Samson Agonistes, are both profoundly concerned with heroic virtue (Job, Jesus, Samson), with variations on a pattern he also applied to his own life. Christian heroic virtue shuns glory, shuns sensual satisfaction, shuns even pagan learning and poetry. It includes all other virtues. Milton seeks to achieve it in his own life and to represent it in his last poems.
Commentators have often wondered at the change in character of the blank verse in Paradise Regained, but it is a bold move from the prosody of grandeur in Paradise Lost to one of calm assurance, a deliberate rejection of glory, like its hero’s. The verse of Samson Agonistes is even more extraordinary, not Greek, not Hebrew, a celebration of the operation of unexampled heroic virtue under the direction of Providence, and so once again a reflection of the triumph of the blind master:
But he though blind of sight,
Despised and thought extinguished quite,
With inward eyes illuminated,
His fiery virtue roused
From under ashes into sudden flame,
And as an evening dragon came,
Assailant on the perchèd roosts,
And nests in order ranged
Of tame villatic fowl; but as an eagle
His cloudless thunder bolted on their heads.
So virtue giv’n for lost,
Depressed, and overthrown, as seemed,
Like that self-begotten bird
In the Arabian woods embossed,
That no second knows nor third,
And lay erewhile a holocaust,
From out her ashy womb now teemed,
Revives, reflourishes, then vigorous most
When most unactive deemed,
And though her body die, her fame survives,
A secular bird ages of lives.
Yet the major triumph must always be Paradise Lost, a feat of poetic architecture without rival except the ancient epics whose messages of virtue it transcends. It is difficult to read aloud any book of the poem without renewed amazement that sensitive critics could complain of its Latinity—what Leavis called its “callousness to the intrinsic nature of English.” It uses an English of its own choice, for feats beyond normal usage, as great poems, each in its own way, must do. Much hostile comment followed the revaluation by Eliot, among others, of Donne, whose lyrical styles had their own virtuous distortions but had no purpose resembling Milton’s. I look back once more to Johnson, who anticipated the modern complaint about Milton’s English and criticized many other aspects of the poem, but still found in it “a full display of the united force of study and genius.” And he understood that “the poet, whatever be done, is always great.” Johnson welcomed greatness; despite the flaws and the author’s abhorrent politics, he soberly describes Paradise Lost as among the finest productions of the human mind.
So the celebrants of the four hundredth anniversary of Milton’s birth in December 2008, if there were any, and whatever their party, should have given some thought to the idea of heroic virtue, and some, perhaps, to modern Milton criticism. Among the books mentioned above there is none that could be called a work of criticism except Nigel Smith’s Is Milton Better Than Shakespeare? The title is silly but it is fair to say that the book is not. Smith contributes seven essays on Milton in which Shakespeare briefly appears to answer charges that he couldn’t equal Milton’s “riveting” interrogations of free will and liberty and has to manage instead with “staggering performances of his plays.” After that everything improves. Smith is moved by the allegorical quest in Areopagitica for the lost body of Truth, by Milton’s exalted notions of the purpose of true poetry, and by the identification of the heroic poet as “national redeemer.”
Elsewhere it is easier to disagree with this critic, for it often seems that he shoots wildly and would rather hear the report than consider whether he has missed: for example when he suggests, with no benefit to his argument, that in Samson Milton “trashes” Shakespearian characters by making over Cleopatra into Dalila, Polonius into Manoa, and Hotspur into Harapha. The resemblances are surely slight and not much to the purpose. There are other passages no less fanciful. The chapter on divorce, and on sex in Paradise Lost, is good, more engaged than Campbell and Corns, and only occasionally mysterious (“‘joys’ connote sperm”), and some readers may resent a peremptory rhetorical wake-up call from the author: “Did you hear that?” he cries. We are told that the naked Adam and Eve before the Fall “replicate the appearance and piety of his contemporary Puritans,” that is, of the very small number who went about with nothing on. Naked Puritans do not figure largely in Christopher Hill’s encyclopedia of dissent, Milton and the English Revolution.
The absence of a verb from the lines “loss of thee/Would never from my heart” is not “a grammatical absence” but normal usage. When Satan is said to lie “floating many a rood” it is not helpful to avoid taking “rood” simply as a unit of measurement and claim that it is the screen between the nave and chancel of a Catholic church. The word “passion” was used of sexual desire long before Adam experienced it in Milton’s poem, for instance by Spenser and Shakespeare; here Smith is misled by the Oxford Dictionary. And so the quest for novelty continues.
We shall never find it possible to match Milton’s self-esteem, or share his estimate of the vast work he felt he had been called to do. God, he said, “hath yet ever had this island under the special indulgent eye of his providence.” When reformation is needed God turns, “as his manner is, to his Englishmen.” In his Defence of the People of England he claimed to speak not only for them but “for the entire human race against the foes of human liberty.” He expected the millennium to arrive during his life and prepared for it; but his heroism found a different but apt outcome, his heroic poems. “Lords and Commons of England”—so he harangues Parliament in the Areopagitica —
consider what Nation it is whereof ye are, and whereof ye are the governors; a Nation not slow and dull, but of a quick, ingenious and piercing spirit, acute to invent, subtle and sinewy to discourse, not beneath the reach of any point, the highest that human capacity can soar to….
The paragraph that begins there is powerful enough to stir even the present inhabitants of the City of London.