POETS DO NOT LIKE to confess that they have grandiose ambitions, and aging poets who fail to achieve critical acclaim often seek solace in the example of famous poets who died in obscurity, such as Emily Dickinson and Gerard Manley Hopkins. To be fair, their desire for fame is rarely the motivation for their writing — it is more a natural by-product of their craft.
As a young teenager, John Milton set out in a fiercely determined way to become not just a successful poet, but a poet the literary world would regard as a peer of Homer, Virgil, Dante, and Petrarch. He organized his life around this goal with a demanding plan that required close reading of a prodigious number of texts — an approach that would puzzle today’s burgeoning guild of poets, who too often spend a few years in MFA programs learning about erasure poetry, liminality, and their depressing professional prospects. Even before matriculating at the University of Cambridge at the age of 16, Milton wrestled with whether greatness required him to write in Latin or in English, and for many years his uncertainty about this question caused him to hedge his bets by writing in both languages.
Nicholas McDowell’s erudite Poet of Revolution: The Making of John Milton helps us understand why and how Milton pursued poetic glory. He lays out in clear prose what we know of Milton’s family life and education, and he describes in detail the intense curricula at St Paul’s School and the University of Cambridge, which focused on fluency in languages, both modern and ancient, along with critical approaches to literature, history, theology, and other disciplines. He also shows us that Milton’s teachers and professors were adamant that the lives of Virgil, Dante, and Petrarch demonstrated that wide and deep reading in the humanist canon is a necessary precondition for success as a true poet.
McDowell’s judicious weighing of the historical evidence relating to the young Milton’s religious and literary development serves as a welcome reminder of a common flaw in Milton scholarship, the tendency to paint a reductionist portrait of the mature Milton and then to fit the younger Milton into that same narrow interpretive frame. McDowell often makes this same point, albeit more diplomatically:
A common interpretation of ‘The Passion’ is that it “reveals Milton’s difficulties with the crucifixion as a subject.” This is to read backwards from the anti-trinitarianism of the mature Milton’s De Doctrina Christiana to find a naturally heterodox thinker already uncomfortable with orthodox protestant Christology.
McDowell’s approach to Milton’s early work, including the often overlooked Latin poetry, is to read it with the same intensity that led Milton to write dense annotations in his books and to keep an extensive commonplace book for efficient recovery of the wisdom of the past. McDowell also reads closely the work of Milton’s contemporary influences. Perhaps most importantly, he skillfully integrates Milton’s literary world with his dangerous, complex, and rapidly changing world of religion and politics.
This measured scholarship produces assessments of the young Milton’s poetry that are respectful, but not mindlessly reverential:
The question of Milton’s attitude to custom and formalism in poetics, as in institutional religion, is also raised by the comparative failure of ‘The Passion.’ The sense of a form-bound inauthenticity that we find in ‘The Passion’, and that Milton also seemingly found in his failed lyric, is most strangely conveyed in the final lines.
McDowell also avoids the trap of overvaluing the Latin poetry, particularly the seven poems written in elegiac meter that Milton broke out as a separate “book” (Elegiarum Liber) in his 1645 collection Poemata. As interesting and technically impressive as these undergraduate poems are, they do not support facile claims of other scholars that Milton was the finest English-speaking Latin poet; only a scholar who has not read closely the works of George Buchanan and other neo-Latin poets could make such a claim.
When discussing Milton’s move from the sheltered Cambridge environment to his only slightly less sheltered post-graduation life at his father’s home, McDowell again reminds us to avoid the habit of relying on the future to simplify the past:
There was nothing in either Milton’s life or writing when he left Cambridge at twenty-three, however, to indicate that by the age of forty he would have launched violent attacks in print upon the Church to whose doctrines he had subscribed on that July graduation day; been condemned as a heretic and libertine for his views on divorce; defended the public execution of the king to whom he had sworn allegiance; and become the chief literary spokesman for England’s first (and so far only) republican government.
During this period, Milton studied for his MA from Cambridge through what was essentially a standard independent study program, a program that diversified his reading of theology, Italian humanism, and other topics. It is notable that he willingly sacrificed much of his own creative energy in order to attain the level of knowledge that he believed a great poet must have.
McDowell also leads us through the complicated theological, political, literary, and political battle lines that made Milton’s path perilous. A single misjudgment could easily wreck a career or, for the less well connected, result in gruesome torture followed by an eventual welcome death. In such conditions, most people understandably tried to manage outside perceptions of their ideas and loyalties. McDowell gently but repeatedly reminds us that Milton was no different in this regard, as when he notes that “Milton’s later representation of himself in his prose works as bitterly at odds with a Cambridge cultural life that he regarded as degenerate has little basis in the evidence from his time there.”
My only criticism of this admirable biography is that I would have liked to have seen the author push a little harder against certain scholarly misconceptions. For instance, until recently it was accepted wisdom that Milton’s 20-line litany of the clichés of theatre in Elegia I was based on secondhand knowledge even though he declares “et specto, iuvat et spectasse dolendo” (“I watch and, hurting, love what I have watched”). Not long ago we learned that Milton’s father — with whom he was close — had been part-owner of the Blackfriars Playhouse. Last year, Jason Scott-Warren identified extensive annotations (including proposed improvements) in a Shakespeare First Folio as those of Milton. It is time for scholars to look harder at the plays performed at his father’s theater (some of which were edgy for the time) and to determine if any of the language or ideas from plays performed there echoed through Milton’s work.
I would also have liked to have seen more pressure-testing of the standard portrayal of the young Milton as almost as dour as the later Milton. “Miltonic humor” might seem as unpromising as a Bill Clinton lecture on the virtues of chastity, but Milton seems to have been popular in his Cambridge years, and he even acted as the master of ceremonies for a student satirical event known as a “salting.” His epistolary elegies to his best friend, Charles Diodati, demonstrate his capacity for amiable teasing, but there is also a subversive wit in his other Latin poetry. Did this sense of humor evaporate, or are there satirical traces we have not noticed in the later works because we braced ourselves for grimness?
McDowell ends this book shortly before Milton’s doomed marriage to his first wife, but in the last paragraph adds that “the second half of Milton’s life is the story of how this gleaming vision of the poet’s powers became darkened, but not overshadowed, by the experience of revolution.” I take that assertion as a promise of a second volume — which is great news for lovers of this great poet.
A. M. Juster is the author of 10 books of original and translated poetry, including most recently John Milton’s The Book of Elegies (Paideia Institute Press, 2019) and Wonder and Wrath (Paul Dry Books, 2020).