Poet of Revolution: The Making of John Milton 
by Nicholas McDowell.
Princeton, 494 pp., £30, October 2020, 978 0 691 15469 5
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In​ their groundbreaking biography, published a decade ago, Thomas Corns and Gordon Campbell argued that the young John Milton was not, as he has often been portrayed, a born radical. Instead, they argued, before 1637 the young Milton was politically and religiously conservative, a member of the Church of England who supported the High Church reforms carried out by William Laud, the archbishop of Canterbury. This leaves us with the question: when did Milton become Milton? Nicholas McDowell’s new study, Poet of Revolution, tries to account for Milton’s transformation from ‘obscure student poet in the early 1630s, albeit one with grand Virgilian pretensions, to a leading oppositional prose polemicist as civil war broke out a decade later’. Ending in 1642, just as Milton began to enter into political debate, this is the first volume in a projected longer study that aims to set his life and works in their social and intellectual context. Not much out of the ordinary happens in the period covered here. Milton is born in London in 1608, goes to school, where he reads a lot, then to Cambridge, where he reads more; after Cambridge he spends another five years reading, before leaving for a grand tour where, for a young man of little tangible achievement, he is surprisingly well received. He returns home in 1639 as the first Bishops’ War is underway, begins publishing his antiprelatical tracts opposing Laud and, rather suddenly, gets married.

McDowell sees Milton’s development as illustrative of greater changes in the late 1630s. Church reforms under Laud polarised Protestants, who had previously coexisted more or less peacefully, bound by a shared loathing of Catholicism. Milton’s early works rarely touch on matters of church doctrine, and where they do both High Church and Puritan sympathies are evident. As McDowell writes, to think of the young Milton as a Laudian would be a category error: the term didn’t yet exist. It was only later that Laud’s reforms turned small differences into irreconcilable antagonisms, encouraging historians to read these tendencies back into the past. McDowell points to the example of Thomas Young, a Scottish Presbyterian and Milton’s tutor. It is often assumed that Young fled to Hamburg in 1620 because of a conflict with the Church of England, yet while in Germany he worked as a chaplain for the Church.

While most critics of the last fifty years have viewed Milton’s religious and political views as the basis for his literary work, McDowell sees him as driven above all by intellectual and poetic concerns. The poetry doesn’t reflect political and religious beliefs but rather brings them about. ‘Theological doctrine and varieties of ecclesiastical discipline had little to do with Milton’s “radicalisation” in the 1640s,’ McDowell writes, ‘and reading history and poetry had everything.’ For much of this period, Milton was anxious that the people around him, including a friend to whom he wrote in 1637 defending his ‘tardy moving’, thought he was doing nothing at all. But to be a great poet required enormous preparation: in this Milton was not only following contemporary wisdom but models taken from Lives of the poets, especially Donatus’ Life of Virgil, which Milton would have read as a student, and Boccaccio’s Life of Dante, which he owned and, as we can tell from his annotations, read with some attention. Virgil was proof that a great poet needed to spend years acquiring adequate knowledge and rhetorical skill; he was also the model for Milton’s belief that to be a poet required self-restraint and, above all, chastity (the young Virgil was known as Parthenias or ‘virgin’).

McDowell discusses Milton’s early education, especially the influence of his teachers – first Young, then Alexander Gil (father and son) at St Paul’s, then William Chappell, with whom Milton clashed, and Nathaniel Tovey at Christ’s College, Cambridge. Young is particularly important in this account because he supported Milton’s early poetic aspirations and later nudged him into political debate. Building on William Poole’s recent work in Milton and the Making of ‘Paradise Lost’, McDowell considers the wider intellectual context of Milton’s development, comparing him to contemporary scholars such as Joseph Mede, William Chillingworth, John Hales and John Selden. Milton’s commonplace book allows us a glimpse of what he read and when. It’s clear he read a great deal and some of it may now seem esoteric – Socrates Scholasticus’s Historia Ecclesiastica, for instance – but there is little that is unusual for the time. Nor is there anything that suggests an early radicalism. The histories he read between 1639 and 1643 must have informed his thinking when he came to consider the authority, rights and duties of a king, but the commonplace book isn’t a record of a mind made up; it shows someone sifting information and weighing evidence.

McDowell reads Milton’s early writings as a programme of poetic apprenticeship in which he tried out a wide range of genres: poems on the Christian calendar, elegies, love poetry, sonnets, light verse, satire, masque. Milton studied and reworked the classics as well as Italian poets and contemporary English writers. Again, this wasn’t unusual. Other young scholars at Cambridge – John Cleveland, Richard Crashaw and especially Thomas Randolph – were also writing the sort of poetry expected of promising students. Unlike the others, Milton was slow to show off his work, controlling the circulation of his poems and delaying publication until 1645, when he was 37. The organisation of the published Poems encourages us to see a line of development, but if we follow the composition dates (insofar as we can) it’s clear, as McDowell puts it, that ‘there is no linear progression in Milton’s writing and thought in the Cambridge years so much as a series of experiments in poetic genres.’

These experiments did, however, establish the themes that would continue to occupy him, particularly time and his own use, or misuse, of it. In 1674, the year of his death, Milton published seven ‘Prolusions’, rhetorical exercises he’d written while at Cambridge. The subject of the seventh, ‘Learning Makes Men Happier than Does Ignorance’, became his central obsession: the sanctity of knowledge and the dangers, both personal and national, of ignorance. McDowell argues that Milton’s ‘fascination with apotheosis and cosmic flight’ was shaped by the Neoplatonic belief that ‘intellectual endeavour could propel the human soul towards divinity’. The many Neoplatonic daemons in his poems, who serve as images of the ideal poet, would seem to support this.

Although it’s clear from the early writings that the young Milton wants to get to heaven, he’s not completely sure what he wants it to look like. The sensual, pagan heaven of the Latin ‘Elegy 3’, written while he was at Cambridge, is very different from the ‘blest Kingdoms meek of joy and love’ in ‘Lycidas’, written ten years later. Competing visions of paradise are at the centre of the 1645 collection, where Milton placed Comus, the masque he wrote in 1634 and then substantially revised. A young virgin, ‘the Lady’, gets lost in the woods and encounters an evil and seductive enchanter, Comus, son of Circe. She resists his temptations and is rescued with the help of an Attendant Spirit (one of Milton’s daemons). It is hard not to see this as a trial run of Paradise Lost in its depiction of the battle between innocence and corruption. But the terms of the opposition – between chastity and sensuality, spirit and body, stillness and mutability, ascent to a higher world and descent into bestiality – are more significant for the poet than the political or religious thinker, in particular the chaste poet (Milton was known as ‘the Lady’ at Cambridge) who aspires to become immortal through his writing. In the earlier version of the masque, the Attendant Spirit enters from a lush dew-drenched heaven in which, he tells us, ‘west wyndes with muskey winge/ about the Cederne allyes flinge/Nard and Casias balmie smells’; there are ‘Beds of Hyacinth and Roses/where many a Cherub soft reposes’. Having rescued the Lady, the Spirit may be eager to get back to his rosy bed, but his closing speech is quite short, and simply offers the moral of the story:

Mortalls that would follow me
love vertue, she alone is free
she can teach you how to clyme
higher than the sphearie chime
or if vertue feeble were
Heven it selfe would stoope to her.

The later versions of the masque are very different. Milton decided to cut the description of the scented heaven from the opening speech; now the Attendant Spirit comes from a Platonic realm inhabited by abstractions, ‘immortal shapes/Of bright aëreal Spirits’ who ‘live insphear’d/In Regions milde of calm and serene Ayr’. The now rather colourless heaven, far above ‘the smoak and stirr’ of earth, sharpens the contrast between the spiritual and the material. The final version still closes with the moral, but before that the Spirit imagines his return to a very different version of heaven. There are some specific, embodied lovers in this heaven: Venus and Adonis, and, ‘far above’, Cupid and Psyche, imagined as a happily married couple, accompanied by their children, Youth and Joy. The masque has progressed from a vision of heaven as a place of pure spirit set far above the distastefully material world, to one where spirit and matter can be united (and chastity surpassed by marriage). Writing and rewriting the masque seems to have changed Milton’s idea of heaven. His early polemical works set a materialistic, selfish and appetitive clergy against the spiritual and chaste author, but in his poetry, he is seeking a place where body and soul can meet.

But Milton’s concern with heaven also leads him back to earth. As McDowell notes, the Latin poem ‘Mansus’, inspired by Milton’s visit to the scholar and patron Giambattista Manso in 1638, ends with Milton’s imagined ascent to heaven, where, serene in mind, he looks back down to earth at the friend who will care for his works and image (‘ducat de marmore vultus’, or ‘make my face from marble’). Happiness in heaven depends on what happens on earth. Milton’s first published work, the poem ‘On Shakespeare. 1630’, included anonymously in the Second Folio, subtly reworks the Horatian idea that the poet lives on in his works by making the poet live on in his readers: ‘Thou in our wonder and astonishment/Hast built thy self a live-long Monument.’ These readers give Shakespeare a noble resting place: ‘And so Sepulcher’d in such pomp dost lie,/That Kings for such a Tomb would wish to die.’ Most scholars concentrate on what Milton is implying here about Shakespeare’s anxiety-provoking influence which, as ‘astonishment’ suggests, petrifies those who come after. But Milton is also saying something else. Books are useless if no one reads them, but even when their books are read, dead authors are vulnerable. In both his commonplace book and his annotations to Boccaccio’s Life of Dante, Milton pays special attention to the papal censorship of Boccaccio’s account of the censorship of Dante. His belief in the power of knowledge is complemented by a growing awareness that a dead writer’s work can be altered and its meaning changed. The Life of Dante, the story of Paolo Sarpi, and Milton’s own encounters with Galileo and frustrated intellectuals in Italy meant that he at first associated such censorship with the Catholic Church. But events in England soon made it clear that such silencing could happen at home too: the lawyer William Prynne was sentenced to life imprisonment and had his ears cropped after a passage in his book against plays, Histriomastix, was interpreted as an attack on the queen; Milton’s friend Alexander Gil (the younger) was also fined and threatened with similar mutilation after toasting the health of the assassin of Charles I’s favourite, the Duke of Buckingham.

McDowell sees Milton’s thinking on liberty as originating in his arguments for freedom of intellectual inquiry, which Milton increasingly saw as essential not only for his own poetry but for the country’s freedom. In Areopagitica, his denunciation of the Licensing Order of 1643, which instituted pre-publication censorship of books, Milton presents an idealised London, a city of writers and researchers, ‘pens and heads’ engaged in unceasing intellectual debate: ‘sitting by their studious lamps, musing, searching, revolving new notions and ideas wherewith to present, as with their homage and their fealty the approaching Reformation: others as fast reading, trying all things, assenting to the force of reason and convincement’. But his experiences first in Italy and then in England under Laud showed him how terrifyingly easy it was for repressive governments to turn free thinkers into conformists.

Most biographers would have taken the study up to 1645 in order to discuss Milton’s marriage and its aftermath, his writings on divorce, Areopagitica and, especially, the Poems. Areopagitica marks the climax of this first political period; while the Poems end the first stage of his poetic development. Breaking off in 1642 leaves us in suspense. Much has happened and yet nothing at all has happened. The poems published in 1645 have been written (and in some cases rewritten), but few have seen them. Milton’s work has been printed, but mostly anonymously: he finally revealed his name in 1642 in a pamphlet, The Reason of Church Government. McDowell believes anonymity allowed Milton to control his authorial image, but it had consequences. The loud self-defence he inserts in the middle of his attacks on episcopalianism must have been baffling to readers who hadn’t the faintest idea who he was or why he was holding forth about himself and his poetry. Others had yet to find Milton as fascinating as he himself did.

The story ends in medias res. It is tempting to wonder whether Milton would still be read if he had died at this point, like his friend Edward King, the model for Lycidas. Would Comus seem merely a footnote to Jonson, a skilful yet minor work to be paired with that of Thomas Randolph, Milton’s Cambridge contemporary, who also died young? Although the early works are astonishing, their power comes from the whole, from the gathering of energy over years. It’s hard not to see them as the road to Paradise Lost.

McDowell’s cut-off point unsettles our sense of Miltonic inevitability. As Dr Johnson observed, Paradise Lost suffers from an intrinsic lack of suspense: we all know what’s going to happen. Milton counters this by suggesting moments when things might have gone differently, and McDowell does something similar for Milton’s life, presenting us with the choices he faced. After writing Comus for Lord Bridgewater, as well as an earlier entertainment, Arcades, for the family of the Countess of Derby, he might well have continued to pursue aristocratic patronage. We will have to wait for the next volume to find out how the young man worried about the effects of licensing turned into Cromwell’s licenser, and how the scholar-poet hungry for knowledge became the author of an epic work about the disastrous consequences of tasting it.

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