Milton, Satan, and Subversion

Milton and the English Revolution

by Christopher Hill
Viking, 541 pp., $20.00

John Milton
John Milton; drawing by David Levine

Although Christopher Hill is undoubtedly one of England’s leading historians, his reputation has recently suffered from a number of astonishingly vituperative and unfair attacks, the most intemperate of which was launched a couple of years ago by Professor J.H. Hexter in the pages of the Times Literary Supplement. Hill’s many admirers will thus be all the more delighted that his new book, Milton and the English Revolution, is such a magisterial as well as exhilarating piece of scholarship. Hill has set himself a more exacting task than ever before: that of explaining the relationship between the social being and the consciousness of a great poet. And he has responded with his most ambitious book to date, a huge study crammed with fresh information and challenging arguments.

Hill aims to establish three main points. First he contends that Milton was not only a more political but a “much more radical” writer than is commonly supposed. Next he argues that Milton’s unorthodox views were largely derived from a “permanent dialogue with the plebeian radical thinkers” who came to prominence in the English revolution of the mid-seventeenth century. Finally he claims to find many echoes of this “radical background” in the great poems—especially Paradise Lost—which Milton completed after the failure of the revolution and the restoration of the Stuart monarchy in 1660.

It is true that, in order to defend his claim that Milton was “always a politician,” Hill has to glide rather rapidly over the years before the outbreak of the revolution in 1642. These are dismissed as “the period of his apprenticeship.” But Milton was already in his mid-thirties when the civil wars began, and there is no evidence that he had been involved up to that time in any activist or revolutionary groups. Quite the contrary: first he spent seven years buried in the scholastic curriculum at Christ’s College, Cambridge; then he devoted himself to what he later described as “many studious and contemplative years” of private reading; and finally he set off on the Grand Tour in the best aristocratic style, meeting such illustrious figures as the jurist Grotius in Paris and the aged Galileo in Florence. Not many signs here of any contacts with what Hill likes to call “the radical underground”—even supposing that such a movement existed.

Nevertheless, Hill’s emphasis on Milton’s political commitment is very salutary. Milton undoubtedly became a revolutionary in the course of the 1640s, and served the Parliamentary cause with great personal courage. After the execution of Charles I in 1649, he instantly and recklessly published his Tenure of Kings and Magistrates, congratulating the people of England on ridding themselves of a “wicked king” and reaffirming their natural liberties. Hill exaggerates when he says that Milton “was one of the first Englishmen publicly to defend the right of the people to call their kings to account.” The same argument had been mounted nearly a…

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