Can there be any more desirable book in the world than Milton’s copy of Shakespeare’s First Folio? This remarkable bibliographical discovery in the Free Library of Philadelphia throws new light on the reverence of the future author of the greatest epic in English for the greatest dramatist in English. For into this precious volume the young Milton, then probably still an undergraduate at Cambridge, transcribed passages he found in quarto editions of Shakespeare’s plays that were missing from the First Folio. As Nicholas McDowell observes in his new book Poet of Revolution, he was applying the same scholarly method of textual collation to a contemporary English playwright—he was seven when Shakespeare died—as he was accustomed to do when studying the greatest classical and Renaissance works. He, John Milton, had already fixed upon his life’s ambition: to write epic poetry in the vernacular that would stand comparison with Homer, Virgil, and Dante.

Though Milton never lost sight of and ultimately fulfilled this, his true vocation, for some two decades his work was eclipsed by a very different and intensely political project. During the 1640s, as England, Scotland, and Ireland descended into the abyss of civil war, Milton reinvented himself as a writer of fiercely polemical and increasingly radical pamphlets. His denunciations of episcopacy and censorship culminated in his justification of regicide. Then, in the 1650s, he became Latin Secretary—or “Secretary for Foreign Tongues”—to the Commonwealth that replaced the Stuart monarchy. As Cromwell’s chief propagandist, Milton was proscribed at the Restoration in 1660; he went into hiding until the hue and cry died down. Only then did he resume the role of national poet. Having gone completely blind by 1652, he dictated the works which had been gestating for years and for which he is best remembered: the two-part epic Paradise Lost, Paradise Regained, and the closet drama Samson Agonistes. Though this late flowering of Milton’s genius was immediately recognized, the awe his verses inspired was tempered by an enduring awareness of their author’s political allegiance. Nearly a century later, Samuel Johnson could still criticize Milton as much for his politics as his poetry: 

He hated monarchs in the state and prelates in the church; for he hated all whom he was required to obey. It is to be suspected that his predominant desire was to destroy rather than establish, and that he felt not so much the love of liberty as repugnance to authority.

The Limits of Thought

Nicholas McDowell begs to differ from Johnson, especially on the last point. The problem that Poet of Revolution, his magnificent intellectual biography, seeks to solve is this: how and when did Milton’s “first disobedience” to established authority begin? 

He begins by contrasting two university scenes: Cambridge in 1632, with Milton, then 23, swearing allegiance to Church and King to obtain his degree; and Oxford in 1683, nine years after the poet’s death, when two of his books were solemnly burned on the grounds of treason and sedition. Between these two dates, which encompass the extremes of a turbulent half-century, Milton tested the limits of what could be thought, written, and published. Never content with convention, he transgressed successively against the orthodoxies of his early role model in English prose, Bishop Lancelot Andrewes, and the Anglican hierarchy; his equally erudite tutor Thomas Young and the Presbyterian elders; and virtually the entire spectrum of Christian opinion, with a defense of divorce that made him notorious. Yet Milton was, pace Johnson, no contrarian, but a man who followed the logic of liberty wherever it took him. For liberty—intellectual, civil, and political—was the essential precondition for his “daemon” to take flight. 

How did Milton the Renaissance man become a preacher of Reformation? The short answer is: he immersed himself in European literature, as a prelude to a first-hand encounter with Europe.

The gradual emancipation of Milton’s sensibility from the aesthetic influence of the Caroline court and Archbishop Laud’s “beauty of holiness” is carefully traced by McDowell, but he denies the contentions of other scholars that there was any sudden break. He rejects the notion that Milton had ever been a “Laudian poet,” instead interpreting his early verse as more neo-pagan than popish. The evolution of his subject’s thought may be an illustration of James I’s motto, “no bishop, no king”—but that evolution took place in the mind of Milton, not as a result of immersion in a radical underground. Still less does McDowell believe that the poet turned away from the Anglican via media to embrace Calvinism. He can find no evidence in the tracts against episcopacy that Milton was attracted to the magistrates of Geneva any more than the magisterium of Rome. “New Presbyter is but Old Priest writ Large,” he would later thunder in his verse denunciation of “The New Forcers of Conscience under the Long Parliament.”

A Man of Letters 

McDowell sees the young Milton not as a nascent Puritan, but rather as a free spirit, ready to work for any patron who would help him to ascend the heights of Parnassus. Most of his major early verse in English and Latin would not appear until the Poems of 1645, but his vision of the intellectual life becomes clear in an important letter written to an unknown friend soon after he left Cambridge. The evidence here does not support his later claim that he was “Church-outed by the Prelats,” in other words that the Laudian episcopal hierarchy had blocked a clerical vocation. It seems, instead, that Milton never intended to follow in the footsteps of poetic divines such as George Herbert or John Donne, but consciously chose the life of a secular, professional writer, in the mold of Shakespeare or Ben Jonson. Unlike them, however, he was not a man of the theatre; as a poet he had more in common with Edmund Spenser, whose Faerie Queen came close to his notion of a national epic. Yet Spenser, lacking a regular patron, had died penniless.

It was the need for patronage that led Milton to write his most ambitious work of the 1630s: A Maske presented at Ludlow Castle before the Earl of Bridgewater, President of Wales, usually known simply as Comus. The masque was a theatrical genre popular at the Stuart court—especially with Queen Henrietta Maria, an enthusiastic performer—and associated by the godly with licentious display. Comus was commissioned for a state occasion by John Egerton, Earl of Bridgewater and the King’s representative in Wales. Milton collaborated on the piece with his musical friend Henry Lawes, who composed the accompanying score and was a salaried member of the King’s Music, at the heart of Charles I’s household. Comus shows that whatever reservations he may already have harbored about the Stuart regime, at this stage in his career Milton was willing to accept not only aristocratic but also royal patronage. 

So what changed his mind about both bishops and kings? McDowell points to the evolution of the text of the Maske, from its first performance at Ludlow Castle on Michaelmas Night in 1634 to its publication in 1637. What changed was the role of “the Lady,” originally played by the Earl’s daughter Alice Egerton. In McDowell’s interpretation, Milton rewrote her part and transformed this ethereal figure into an amalgam of Platonic philosopher, Orphic poet, and Apollonian priest. “The Lady of Christ’s,” as he had been nicknamed at Cambridge, was now the Lady of Comus—a kind of pagan Wonderwoman.

How, in just four years, did Milton, the Renaissance man, become the preacher of Reformation? The short answer is: he immersed himself in European literature, as a prelude to a first-hand encounter with Europe. Steeped in the pagan mythology and erotic mysticism of Dante, Petrarch, Boccaccio, and other pre-Reformation Italian writers, Milton took to heart the lesson of their culture’s decline and fall. He drew crucial lessons from their critique of the Catholic Church and turned them against his own Protestant one. The tyranny of popes and kings, of dukes and doges, was bad enough; far worse, however, was the distortion or suppression of art, literature, and science in the name of faith. Censorship and persecution, however, also existed closer to home: in Stuart England.

Censorship and Rebellion

Even before Milton departed for the Continent, however, he had staked a claim to both poetic and political maturity in Lycidas. McDowell devotes two entire chapters to this elegy to a shipwrecked friend because thus far it was his longest, most personal reflection on love and death, intellectual and social life. The anti-clerical digression that Milton puts into the mouth of St. Peter, the “rock” on whom Christ founded the Church, provides the first clear evidence of the poet’s radicalism. Milton was still living in his father’s home, first at Hammersmith, then at Horton to the west of London. McDowell points to the 1637 visit by the archdeacon of Lincoln to the Horton parish church, which resulted in John Milton Senior being ordered to lower the family pew and to move his mother’s tombstone to face east. Lycidas, written that same year, reveals Milton to be an angry young man, whose family had been humiliated by the Laudian clerisy. Private and political events combined to turn the young scholar-poet into a bitter enemy of both established church and absolutist state.

Milton’s theodicy, his attempt to “justify the ways of God to man,” was also a vindication of the ways of one man—himself—to God.

Milton’s grand tour of France, Italy and Switzerland lasted 15 months. It took him out of the insular confrontations of England, expanding his horizons in ways that enthralled and appalled him in equal measure. His best Continental correspondent was his schoolfriend Charles Diodati, whose extended family was based in Calvinist Geneva. The Diodatis were passionate advocates of freedom of the press, involved in the publication of banned books on the Roman Index, such as Paolo Sarpi’s History of the Inquisition. The latter chronicled the systematic subjection of an open society to the dead hand of the Counter-Reformation, and a manuscript had been smuggled to England by another acquaintance of Milton, Sir Henry Wotton, so that it could be published in English.

During his tour, Milton had first-hand experience of the human and intellectual consequences of Inquisitorial censorship: he met Galileo. We know next to nothing about what was said between them, but the young poet’s brief encounter with the most celebrated scientist in Europe, silenced and living in internal exile, was bound to leave its mark.

On his return in July 1639, Milton found England on the brink of civil war. He, too, had changed. Dreams of a national epic on Arthurian Britain were quietly shelved; instead, he moved to London and plunged into political pamphleteering, while earning his living as a private tutor. With the collapse of the licensing system of “Inquisitorious and Tyrannical Duncery,” enforced by the still notorious Court of Star Chamber, printers enjoyed an unprecedented freedom, of which Milton took full advantage.

Theodicy and Revolution

McDowell ends this volume just before his subject’s most enduring prose works, Of Education and Areopagitica, appeared in 1644. But he shows how the seemingly arid themes of his earlier theological and ecclesiastical tracts throw light not only on Milton’s utopian pedagogy and his plea for press freedom, but also on his true vocation. The virtuoso (which he translated as “a lover of elegance”) turned to politics, not in pursuit of doctrinal purity, but for the sake of his destiny as an epic poet. 

Milton declared his new identity by renouncing anonymity in the most personal of his religious treatises: The Reason of Church-government. In a remarkable autobiographical excursus in the midst of an attack on episcopacy, he provides a potted history of the epic and his own putative place in it. Comparing himself to Ariosto, whose epic Orlando Furioso had done for Italian what he hoped to do for English, he lays claim “to be an interpreter and relater of the best and sagest things among mine own Citizens throughout this Iland [sic] in the mother dialect.” 

Milton, then, had not relinquished his ambition. But when he next returned to such self-reflection nearly a decade later, in the Defensio Secunda of 1654, he did not even mention it. His purpose, he would then declare, was “to promote the cause of true and solid liberty.” Politics had usurped the place of poetry in Milton’s mind because the precondition for a culture capable of any literature worth the name was liberty and learning. Yet it was in the 1650s that he returned to his plans for an epic, now no longer national but cosmic in scope. As William Poole argues in another remarkable contribution to Miltonian scholarship, Milton and the Making of Paradise Lost (Harvard University Press, 2017), “Paradise Lost is in conception and commencement a poem of the Cromwellian period” — even if its completion had to wait until long after the Restoration. 

This first volume of McDowell’s biography ends as Milton finds his voice in public life, just as the hostilities commence. That voice would not be silenced even by the eventual failure of “the Great Rebellion,” as the Royalist historian Lord Clarendon called it, to abolish monarchy and episcopacy. Milton’s theodicy, his attempt to “justify the ways of God to man,” was also a vindication of the ways of one man—himself—to God. The poet of revolution needed all twelve books of the grandest, most esoteric epic in the English language to persuade posterity of the justice of his cause. No wonder his biographer will require a second volume to explain precisely how Milton succeeded in overcoming personal and political adversity to rival Dante, Virgil, and even that other blind bard, Homer.

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