Issue 236 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published December 1999 Copyright Socialist Review

Red Letter Days

9 December 1608

The birth of John Milton

Milton justified the use of violence to depose a tyrant
Charles I, less head

John Milton grew up aware that his world was on the brink of a great upheaval. He was born into the comfortable family of a London scrivener (moneylender). This social background meant he was able to spend years preparing himself for his role as poet-prophet and had access to the cream of European culture. Yet he was not of the aristocracy. Milton came from the milieu of urban traders and artisans who were independent of the church and the court and increasingly opposed to them.

Milton's student years at Cambridge coincided with the ascendancy of William Laud as King Charles's first minister. Laud symbolised the growing malign influence of Catholic Spain, and the universities were the main instrument by which the old order maintained its domination over ideas. Stultifying scholasticism formed a barrier to understanding the natural world and real learning.

Milton's early poems show a growing connection with the debates of the day. In Lycidas, for example, Milton poured out wonderful abuse against the clergy:

Lycidas marked a turning point in Milton's destiny: he points out that literary glory is illusory and we will be judged by our deeds, not our words. Not surprisingly after such sentiments, Milton felt himself 'church-out by the prelates', blocked from a career in the church while a fellowship at Cambridge was similarly blocked by the all powerful Laud.

In 1640 he had the delight of seeing the hated Laudian regime overthrown by parliament. Milton rushed to join his country's fight for freedom, and found London transformed into a 'mansion-house of liberty': 'As soon as the liberty of speech was no longer subject to control, all mouths began to be opened against the bishops.' So many petitions were presented to parliament that 40 committees were set up to deal with them! Milton decided that providence alone would not guarantee the success of the revolution: he joined the fight and for the next 20 years wrote nothing but pamphlets.

He argued for the separation of the church and the state, for the toleration of the radical sects and the abolition of church tithes. He articulated many demands shared by the Levellers and the Diggers, such as freedom of speech, the 'liberty which is the nurse of all great wits', freedom from 'priestly despotism', and sexual freedom. Most tellingly, he argued that 'it is not only the unmitring of a bishop that will make us a happy nation', but other changes 'in the rule of life both economical and political'.

When King Charles was executed in January 1649 Milton defended the regicides, justifying the right to use violence to depose a tyrant. The majority of the intellectuals supported the old order, so Milton's role in defending the revolution internationally was crucial. Milton admired Cromwell and saw no alternative to his rule, but he opposed the Protectorate's erosion of liberties. During the Restoration of 1660, Milton was in real fear of his life. His world had come crashing down. His god, his leaders and the English people had all failed him. Milton's experience of defeat, combined with his enduring faith in the 'Good Old Cause', provided the creative impulse behind his wonderful later poems, which are acknowledged to be among the greatest in our language.

Paradise Lost (1667) is the epic tale of a failed revolution against heaven, a bible story fashioned by Milton's political experiences. At this time many thought the bible was real history, so the poem was an attempt to interpret real events. In addition, as Christopher Hill has written, 'Just as after 30 January 1649 kings never forgot that they had a joint at their necks, so god was never quite the same after he had been called to the bar of judgement in popular discussion.' Readers are struck by the appeal of Milton's rebellious Satan, who embodies defiance in the face of defeat:

Milton believed that Satan, like the English revolutionaries, was heroic but flawed by ambition. Similarly, the fall of Adam and Eve gets a new twist. Their search for knowledge means they are expelled from Eden, but they are told by an angel that they will 'possess a paradise within thee, happier farr'. Thus out of painful experience comes the ability to build a heaven on earth.

Paradise Regained (1671) is a story of passive resistance to temptation which shows how 'paradise within' lies in a future society of knowledgeable people who shape their own destiny. But if Paradise Regained reflects Milton's demoralisation, Samson Agonistes (1671) shows a passionate revival of confidence. Like Milton, Samson had tried to lead his people to a promised land of liberty and ended up 'blind, disheart'nd, sham'd, dishonourd, quelld'. But when Samson pulls down the Philistines' temple it crushes all the high and mighty, 'their choice nobility', while 'the vulgar only 'scaped who stood without'. This glorious act of class revenge was Milton's last gesture of literary defiance before his death in 1674.

Milton still speaks to us today. Though defeated and blind he never lost his grand, internationalist vision of revolution when, 'surrounded by congregated multitudes, I now imagine that, from the columns of Hercules to the Indian Ocean, I behold the nations of the earth recovering that liberty which they so long had lost.'
Judy Cox


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