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.