Milton: Poet, pamphleteer and patriot, By Anna Beer

England's great poet is a frustrating subject for a Life

There were "perhaps" sweetmeats and junkets at the baptism of John Milton. "Perhaps" his father received a special cake. The celebration "might" have continued in the local inns later in the day.

This kind of suppositious language, the stock-in-trade of biographers faced with a dearth of hard fact, appears on the first page of Anna Beer's account of John Milton's life and work. Elsewhere she is fastidious in avoiding it, even having a bit of fun with those who are less scrupulous. Here, for instance, is AN Wilson, from his 1983 biography: "Instantly in love, Milton's deeply passionate nature hastened on to marry this pretty young teenager whom he hardly knew." There is, notes Beer, no portrait and no evidence either way for 17- year-old Mary's looks.

"It is all," Beer eventually admits, "intensely frustrating for the biographer. In the vast tomes of Milton's complete works, there are only very occasional glimpses of everyday life." Except for entries in the family bible, there is no mention of his wives, daughters or the son and daughter who died in infancy. There are no letters from Milton to family members. All we have, in terms of contemporaneous material, are a few observations from people who worked with him.

This is a scholarly rather than popular work, and one cannot blame Beer for refusing to speculate, but the result is that Milton doesn't quite come to life. To fill the void she quotes other, less taciturn, contemporaries. We are told nothing of Milton's comportment while his wives were in labour, but we do learn how a couple of contemporary diarists behaved. The result is that the book is less a picture of an individual and more a portrait of a bustling and turbulent age.

There is an exception to Beer's difficulty in penetrating Milton's silence about his personal life, however, and that is in the matter of his youthful attachment to a schoolfriend, Charles Diodati. Their correspondence, which spanned Milton's adolescence and young manhood, was conducted by means of Latin and Italian poetry. In these languages, Milton revelled in erotic imagery and racy mythology, while expressing a deep, indeed, almost pathological attachment to the idea of chastity. "Latin," Beer says, "permitted John to explore areas of life that were impossible to approach, impossible even to describe in his mother tongue." The implication is clear, but in the end Beer concludes that the relationship "remains tantalisingly elusive". It is interesting that when his political enemies started vilifying Milton late in his life they chose to accuse him of sodomy. He had, by that time, been married three times and fathered five children.

But if Anna Beer is necessarily vague about the private Milton, she gives a comprehensive account of his works as public servant, controversialist and poet. Milton is that interesting exception, a man who becomes more radical as the years wear on. In youth, he was orthodox enough to praise the odd bishop. By middle age he spoke up for complete religious toleration, even for the despised Quakers, to whom he became close in his last years. His championing of divorce and freedom of the press made him one of the most celebrated (and hated) men in Europe. He never disowned his enthusiastic endorsement of the execution of Charles I, written almost as the axe was being sharpened. That principled intransigence almost cost him his life.

But for all his radicalism, Milton remained a man of his time. His Eve is a complex creation, but a fair measure of misogyny is to be found elsewhere in his writing and in his actions. He had no enthusiasm for the proto-democracy of the Levellers and others. His England would have had a republican parliament, and freedom of expression and worship, but it would have been run by an élite, the mass of the people not being trustworthy enough to do what was good for the nation.

This is a valuable and authoritative book, scrupulously researched and edited; the footnotes are often fascinating in themselves. Beer's literary-critical passages benefit from modern scholarship, which she frequently quotes, and she is particularly good on the complex political undercurrents in Paradise Lost, whose title alone was a provocation to those who wished to forget England's brief experiment with republicanism and toleration.

The most interesting chapters, though, are those dealing with the tumult of the revolution, and the explosion of pamphlets and "newsbooks" following the relaxation of pre-publication censorship. The seeming anarchy that was unleashed was as frightening to many as the Blogosphere is today, and for the same reasons. The world seemed to be drowning under opinions. Milton's assertion in Areopagitica that human beings need to be free to confront good and evil themselves, letting reason guide them, remains one of his greatest legacies.

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Wonder.land Musical by Damon Albarn

Theatre

Arts and Entertainment

Film review

Arts and Entertainment
Innocent victim: Oli, a 13-year-old from Cornwall, featured in ‘Kids in Crisis?’
TV review
News
Northern exposure: social housing in Edinburgh, where Hassiba now works in a takeaway
books An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop
Arts and Entertainment
Terminator Genisys: Arnie remains doggedly true to his word as the man who said 'I'll be back', returning once more to protect Sarah Connor in a new instalment

 

film review
Arts and Entertainment

festivals
Arts and Entertainment

Final Top Gear review

TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Carl Barat perform at Glastonbury 2015

music
Arts and Entertainment
Lionel Richie performs live on the Pyramid stage during the third day of Glastonbury Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Buying a stairway to Hubbard: the Scientology centre in Los Angeles
film review Chilling inside views on a secretive church
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Williamson, left, and Andrew Fearn of Sleaford Mods
musicYou are nobody in public life until you have been soundly insulted by Sleaford Mods
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dew (Jess) in Bend It Like Beckham The Musical
theatreReview: Bend It Like Beckham hits back of the net on opening night
Arts and Entertainment
The young sea-faring Charles Darwin – seen here in an 1809 portrait – is to be portrayed as an Indiana Jones-style adventurer
film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Is this the future of flying: battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks?

    Is this the future of flying?

    Battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks
    Isis are barbarians – but the Caliphate is a dream at the heart of all Muslim traditions

    Isis are barbarians

    but the Caliphate is an ancient Muslim ideal
    The Brink's-Mat curse strikes again: three tons of stolen gold that brought only grief

    Curse of Brink's Mat strikes again

    Death of John 'Goldfinger' Palmer the latest killing related to 1983 heist
    Greece debt crisis: 'The ministers talk to us about miracles' – why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum

    'The ministers talk to us about miracles'

    Why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum
    Call of the wild: How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate

    Call of the wild

    How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate
    Greece debt crisis: What happened to democracy when it’s a case of 'Vote Yes or else'?

    'The economic collapse has happened. What is at risk now is democracy...'

    If it doesn’t work in Europe, how is it supposed to work in India or the Middle East, asks Robert Fisk
    The science of swearing: What lies behind the use of four-letter words?

    The science of swearing

    What lies behind the use of four-letter words?
    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won't have him back

    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

    Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won’t have him back
    Africa on the menu: Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the continent

    Africa on the menu

    Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the hot new continent
    Donna Karan is stepping down after 30 years - so who will fill the DKNY creator's boots?

    Who will fill Donna Karan's boots?

    The designer is stepping down as Chief Designer of DKNY after 30 years. Alexander Fury looks back at the career of 'America's Chanel'
    10 best statement lightbulbs

    10 best statement lightbulbs

    Dare to bare with some out-of-the-ordinary illumination
    Wimbledon 2015: Heather Watson - 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

    Heather Watson: 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

    Briton pumped up for dream meeting with world No 1
    Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve

    Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon Files

    It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve
    Dustin Brown: Who is the tennis player who knocked Rafael Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?

    Dustin Brown

    Who is the German player that knocked Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?
    Ashes 2015: Damien Martyn - 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

    Damien Martyn: 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

    Australian veteran of that Ashes series, believes the hosts' may become unstoppable if they win the first Test