John Milton (1608-1674) will forever be remembered first and foremost for Paradise Lost, and as such is frequently packaged as the romantic, blind poet bequeathing us with his epic poetry. Step back to his 40s though and we are faced with a far more troubling Milton – posterboy for the Roundheads and lapdog to Oliver Cromwell. In the words of 1066 and all that, he was less ‘wrong but wromantic’ at this age, and more ‘right but repulsive’.
Milton was exceedingly well educated – even after graduating he still pursued six years of private study and was fluent in Latin, Greek, Hebrew, French, Spanish, Italian, Old English and Dutch, with aims of being a priest, and he completed his education with that all-essential trip abroad favoured by so many writers, visiting Europe throughout 1638-9 and meeting Galileo among others. But the growing troubles at home changed Milton’s life forever. Parliament was marshalling against King Charles I, and civil war was brewing. Milton returned to England and wrote political treaties, supporting the roundheads and condemning the monarchy. He also wrote poetry…which also support the roundheads. Still in his early 40s, in 1652, he wrote what I sincerely hope is the only sonnet in history to be written about Cromwell:
To the Lord General Cromwell
Cromwell, our chief of men, who through a cloud
Not of war only, but detractions rude,
Guided by faith and matchless fortitude,
To peace and truth thy glorious way has ploughed,
And on the neck of crowned fortune proud
Hast reared God’s trophies, and his work pursued,
While Darwen stream, with blood of Scots imbued,
And Dunbar field resounds thy praises loud,
And Worcester’s Laurent wreath. Yet much remains
To conquer still; peace with her victories
No less renowned than war; new foes arise
Threatening to bind our souls with secular chains:
Help us to save free conscience from the paw
Of hireling wolves, whose gospel is their maw.
If Milton’s chosen recipient for a sonnet seems…unusual, this can in part be explained by (or perhaps even be used as explanation for) a difficult first marriage. He had married Mary Powell in 1642 – he would have been 34, she was 16: shortly after the marriage she ran back home to her parents and stayed there for the next three years. This in turn prompted Milton, in between his political works, to write a short piece in favour of divorce (it failed to convince his contemporaries, alas). He was also at this age beginning to lose his sight, something which would become complete by the age of 46, forcing him to dictate his writing to scribes, a solitary scholar no longer.
While the poem about Cromwell, quite rightly, raises eyebrows, in the time of its conception in 1652, this was far less controversial than Milton’s earlier tracts he had been asked to write aged 41, in 1649, in response to the death of Charles I. Milton’s Eikonoklastes defended the government’s act of regicide, and this, along with his successive works on the topic Defensio pro Populo Angilcano (1652) and Defensia Secunda (1654) lined him up as a target in subsequent years: when Charles II returned as king in 1660, he issued a general pardon to all who had deposed his father, with few exceptions, Milton being one of them. The work produced when in his 40s would literally come back to haunt Milton, with release from imprisonment only thanks to the intervention of his friend and fellow poet Andrew Marvell.
If the image of Milton as propagandist and political writer seems at odds with the romantic image captured by later artists such as Eugene Delacroix in 1826 (see right), it need not be. Milton, the brilliant young scholar, came through the civil war a changed man, and it is widely recognised that Paradise Lost owes a great debt to the experiences of the war, and in particular losing the war, with many comparing Satan, great general of a losing army, to both Charles I and indeed Cromwell himself.
Milton at Buckingham: Milton’s defence of a free press, Aeropagitica, is a set text for Buckingham’s module on Literary Journalism, while Paradise Lost is the final set text many students will cover in their degree, as part of the Renaissance Literature module.