An indomitable spirit
(Sunday 24 February 2008)
PICK: Milton: Poet, Pamphleteer and Patriot by Anna Beer
POWERFUL POETRY: Milton‘s literature inspired revolutionary political thought.
GORDON PARSONS explains how poet John Milton stood up all his life for free speech, revolutionary politics and religious liberties.
“MILTON! Thou should’st be living at this hour,” wrote Wordsworth in 1802, a time not unlike our own when a repressive government was using external threats to limit hard-won freedoms.
Modern writers would perhaps be unlikely to summon that stern puritanical 17th-century poet, who is primarily known today for one of the great works of the English literary canon, but is largely unread except in academies.
It is not only that the subtle, Latinate language of Paradise Lost must be intractable to our texting generation, but that Milton’s own claim for his vast 12-book epic – to “justify the ways of God to men” – may not seem all that pressing to an age that has largely given up on God.
Anna Beer’s biography, celebrating the 400th anniversary of the poet’s birth, naturally pays major attention to his greatest achievement, emphasising that Milton’s dramatic epic recounting his great anti-hero Satan’s battle with God for the soul of man is not just a preaching exercise but an attempt to enable the reader, “to see how tyrants gain their power and… stand firm against tyranny.”
Beer’s thorough coverage of a remarkable life, however, reminds us that Milton’s was spent in the thick of revolutionary politics. A prodigy of learning, by his early teens he had mastered Latin, Greek, Hebrew, Italian and French.
As the pre-civil war climate heated up, his early ambitions revealed in his Latin poems turned to the more immediately practical business of entering the pamphlet wars, the main arena of political debate.
Major works on divorce and press censorship – Areopagitica is still a bench mark for those defending freedom of expression today – brought him to the attention of the new commonwealth government who appointed him as Secretary of Foreign Tongues to the Council of State, the governmental mouthpiece to unsympathetic foreign regimes.
Despite growing concerns over Cromwell‘s increasingly dictatorial tendencies and, amazingly, going blind, Milton served to the end the regime that he believed offered the best hopes for “the civic and religious liberties that he desired.”
When, after the Lord Protector’s death, the succeeding chaos led to the Restoration of Charles II, Milton narrowly avoided the execution meted out to those surviving regicides. He retired to write, or, staggeringly, to dictate, not only his combined allegorical fantasy, Christian poem and political satire but also his tragic dramatic poem Samson Agonistes.
There must surely have been a reference to his own indomitable republican, freedom-loving spirit and his rejection of the increasing license of the restored monarchy in his blind hero’s suicidal destruction of his people’s oppressors.
Anna Beer faces the common problem of all Milton’s biographers in the scarcity of details of the poet’s private life. Married three times and physically dependent on those closest to him, he surprisingly remains domestically absent from the record. Beer does hazard guesses as to his problems with his own sexuality, but, in her analysis of the treatment of Eve in Paradise Lost, saves him from the charge of misogyny.
Maybe it would be too hopeful that Beer’s enjoyable and informative biography might turn many readers back to Milton’s poetry, let alone his prose, but her reminder that he knew that “free speech and indeed freedom of conscience relied on the ability of individuals to sift truth from lies for themselves” is all too contemporary.