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…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.