John Milton

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 2)

John Milton: Life, Work, and Thought by Gordon Campbell and Thomas N. Corns significantly distinguishes itself from previous biographies of Milton because its account of the poet’s life derives from firsthand inspection of all available contemporary documents and life records. It parallels the effort of David Masson in his seven-volume The Life of John Milton: Narrated in Connexion with the Political, Ecclesiastical, and Literary History of His Time (1859-1894). In addition, it builds upon the two major biographical works of the twentieth century, J. Milton French’s five-volume Life Records of John Milton (1949-1958) and William Riley Parker’s two-volume Milton: A Biography (1968), a work that Campbell revised in 1996. The quantity and complexity of material concerning Milton, so much of it discovered since the time of Masson, as well as French and Parkernot to mention the tasks of locating, digesting, and evaluating itmake the achievement of Campbell and Corns a landmark in Milton studies.

Furthermore, the authors examine the primary material in its immediate social and cultural setting. They note how the language of those sources, though perhaps ordinary in its time, is ambiguous today. Accordingly, they define and describe wide-ranging implications that the factual record has for Milton’s emergent personality and his daily lifegoals, tasks, associations, conflicts, and developing skills as a writer of poetry and prose. They make the same scrupulous analysis of the accounts of the poet’s life written by those who knew Milton or who acquired information from others who didEdward Phillips, John Aubrey, Cyriack Skinner, Anthony Wood, and John Toland. They note, however, that the early studies of Milton owe much to his own prose writings. Consequently, they extend their detailed and comprehensive study of primary materials to the autobiographical passages in Milton’s prose tracts, setting them in context as polemics. They scrutinize his habit of fashioning his life, actions, and persona to varying rhetorical demands. Further, since Milton reveals private aspects of himself in his poetry, the authors note how literary language, dependent upon layers of cultural assumptions, is even more ambiguous than nonliterary language. The authors probe connections between Milton’s role as author in numerous genres and in his religious, artistic, and political views.

In addition, Campbell and Corns recognize that archival, verified, and confirmed facts and records represent only a fragment of the wide, unrolling panorama of the past. Accordingly, they distinguish their biography through the latest Stuart, Commonwealth, and Restoration historiography. They draw upon demographic, economic, commercial, legal, theological, and sociological scholarship. Through their attention to the language of the original sources and to its historical contexts, they not only describe Milton’s life, work, and thought but also re-create it, step by step, contrasting expectations with outcomes. Readers look through Milton’s eyes, becoming immersed in the pulse of his life. They observe his personal, public, artistic, and theological decisions amid the dynamics of Puritanism, republicanism, radicalism, and dissent, with the labels carefully reappraised. With the skill of novelists, they evoke Milton’s present as it moves forward in time.

The sheer range of the assembled materials is astonishing. They tend, however, to avoid combining physical time with subjective or psychological time, the mysterious inner processes that accompany sequential acts of the observational world. The sharp clarity of a moment fades with the advance of other moments. The authors limit their probing of time’s nonlinear effects upon Milton, keeping to the light of present awareness.

Campbell and Corns write that the stages of Milton’s “radicalization” are the spine that runs through their study. With unrivaled precision, they describe Milton’s progression as poet, political writer, and theologian, there being no final stasis, contrary to conventional views. Given aspects of Milton’s life as scholar, family man, teacher, religious and political reformer, public servant, and poet, the authors describe influences of social organizations, such as higher education, art and culture, church and state. Their concernspressing, urgent, and directarise from the political texture of his actions and his writings. They focus on the revolutionary decades of the 1640’s and 1650’s, with Milton’s support of Puritan church reform, the...

(The entire section is 1868 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 2)

Library Journal 133, no. 18 (November 1, 2008): 66.

Publishers Weekly 255, no. 44 (November 3, 2008): 53.