All his life, Michael Foot, the most literary politician of the 20th century, was a passionate supporter of Plymouth Argyle. In the bad old days of hooliganism on the terraces, he attended an away game at Crystal Palace. Like everyone else, he was asked at the turnstile whether he was carrying a dangerous weapon. The leader of the Labour Party surprised the attendant by replying in the affirmative as, with a flourish, he drew a copy of John Milton’s Areopagitica from his pocket.
For centuries, Milton was the patron poet of the English Left. “Milton! thou shouldst be living at this hour,” wrote William Wordsworth in the years when he was still a political radical. Areopagitica is our language’s noblest defence of the freedom of the press. In other pamphlets, Milton pen-lashed tyrannical monarchs, corrupt bishops, and the patriarchal society that put up every conceivable barrier to divorce. After the Restoration in 1660, he became a wanted man because he had been the leading apologist for the execution of Charles I.
Two questions have long preoccupied Milton scholars. With regard to the later years: was his epic poem “Paradise Lost”, composed in his blindness during the Restoration years, a retreat from politics into religion or a continuation of his radicalism by other means? And with regard to the earlier: when and why did the radicalism emerge?
Nicholas McDowell’s new book Poet of Revolution: The Making of John Milton confines his “intellectual biography” to the first half of his career. He begins by noting that the two most recent substantial biographies of Milton take opposed positions. The American scholar Barbara Lewalski detected a hardline Puritanism running through the early work like words in a stick of rock; the British Miltonists Thomas Corns and Gordon Campbell argued that during the 1630s their man was a High Church Laudian who subsequently changed direction and became a spokesman for Cromwell and the Puritan revolution. There is circumstantial evidence in support of both, but they can’t both be right.
McDowell elegantly cuts this Gordian knot by proposing that the principal force shaping Milton’s intellectual development was not doctrinal division within the Church, but the humanist education he received, first from a private tutor, then at St Paul’s School and Cambridge University. The core of that education was the literature, history and philosophy of ancient Greece and Rome, which had nothing to do with Christian dogma.
Milton was indeed a formidable classicist. As is apparent from early poems such as “Lycidas” as well as the late masterpieces Paradise Lost and Samson Agonistes, he had an encyclopaedic knowledge of classical poetry and mythology. Most of his early works were written in Latin. Samuel Johnson, who abhorred Milton’s radicalism, reported a scholar of his acquaintance describing him as “the first Englishman who wrote Latin verses with classic elegance.”
One of the purposes of humanist education was to train young gentlemen in the rhetorical art of arguing both sides of a question. That would prepare them to be good lawyers or public servants. If Milton was a humanist more than a dogmatist, that would explain why his early brand of Christianity could seem high to some and low to others.
His loveliest early poems are in the tradition of classical pastoral. They are “Lycidas”, his elegy on the death of a fellow student whom he did not actually know well, and “Arcades”, in which he wrote lines that drew tears to the eyes of that great poet and classicist AE Housman: “Nymphs and shepherds dance no more / By sandy Ladon’s lilied banks.” Even in his hymn “On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity”, Milton seems to express regret that the consequence of the coming of Christ was the banishment of the pagan spirits of Pan and the nymphs who inhabited the poetry of Ovid.
McDowell is at his most brilliant and persuasive when he demonstrates that one of Milton’s most characteristic moves, in both early and late poems, is the reintroduction of such figures in the form of, in the poet’s own words, “the beings that are called household gods [lares] and genii and daemons.” His key point is that Milton’s most potent desire was for a freedom in which “wit” – the word suggested not just cleverness, but every aspect of intellectual free play – could flourish without inhibition. McDowell’s Milton shouldst be living at this hour so as to remind us that it is not good for the body politic when the Right and the Left “cancel” each other.
Poet of Revolution is not a book for beginners. It is, however, a terrific work of scholarship that offers a much-needed redress of the balance between attention to classical education on the one hand and Christian doctrine on the other. Just as debates about whether or not Shakespeare was a closet Catholic must be complemented by awareness that he had no small amount of Latin, so it is welcome to see Milton placed in the long tradition of humanism as opposed to the theological micro-politics of the 1630s. One hopes that McDowell will now write a sequel that offers a re-reading of Paradise Lost.