Milton and the English Revolution

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 17)

John Milton is one of England’s most misunderstood poets and thinkers. Those who have read his great epic poem Paradise Lost or reviewed any of his religious and political tracts know from personal experience that his ideas are not easily accessible. Indeed, in the words of Milton’s critics and admirers alike, he is difficult, ambiguous and often seemingly contradictory. For the past forty years, the poet’s literary stock has fluctuated dramatically. Eminent scholars and poets have challenged Milton’s rather awesome reputation, and they have done so on the grounds that much of his verse is undeserving of high praise. Others argue that his ideas are outdated, his thinking muddled, and his Renaissance views obsolete even for the seventeenth century. In addition, there are those who disapprove of Milton the man and view him as a harsh, inflexible, self-righteous Protestant radical who was absolutely rigid in his religious beliefs and never gave his adversaries the benefit of a single doubt.

Christopher Hill’s study of Milton is an attempt to view this great English figure with sympathy and understanding—to exorcise, if you will, the “Puritan” image which, for many of his modern readers, still clings to the poet. The approach Hill employs is historical; not only does it study numerous aspects of Milton’s life in depth, but it seriously challenges much of what Milton would have us know about himself. According to Hill, the self-portrait that Milton prepared for posterity is not at all accurate. Indeed, Milton’s own portrait is almost as damaging as those prepared by his severest critics. Hill attempts to correct this view and show Milton not as the rigid, brooding intellect whose enormous learning alienated him from many of his contemporaries, but as a great patriot and poet who devoted his energies to liberating his countrymen from religious and political tyranny.

In composing a balanced account of his subject, Hill reviews the major events in Milton’s life and closely analyzes the better known controversies surrounding him, both public and private. Hill is equally interested in the origin of Milton’s ideas on a number of subjects—including church, state, government, kingship, and divine rights. He also examines the poet’s thinking on education, censorship, literature, marriage, and divorce. But central to this study is the author’s focus on Milton’s support of a cultural revolution aimed at destroying the magical power of kingship.

John Milton was born into a rather prosperous Puritan household in 1608. He entered Christ’s College, Cambridge, in 1625, the same year that Charles I succeeded his father to the throne. After taking his M.A. degree, Milton returned to his home to complete his education, rejecting a career in the Anglican Church because of its episcopal organization. A few years later he made the Grand Tour (1638-1639), returning to England in time to witness Charles’ difficulty with Parliament and the Scottish bishops. By 1642, the King was at war with Parliament; within six years, the Royalist forces were defeated, the King was under arrest, and Cromwell’s Parliamentarians were in control of England. A few months later, however, the Revolution recommenced, with the King and Scotland at war with England. Cromwell was called upon to command the New Model Army and at the Battle of Preston defeated the King’s coalition. For his part in a war against England, Charles I was tried for treason and beheaded in 1649. In 1653 Cromwell was made chief executive officer of the land, Lord Protector of the Commonwealth of England, Scotland, and Ireland.

In many respects, Milton was prepared for these events: he had a deepseated distrust of clerical authority, and he was equally suspicious of the monarchy. When Cromwell appeared on the scene, Milton was convinced that England would have the opportunity to free herself from the ancient dogmas of kingship and achieve a new social and religious system for her people. In addition, Cromwell was a Puritan with...

(The entire section is 1654 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 17)

Books West. I, March, 1978, p. 37.

History: Reviews of New Books. VI, August, 1978, p. 175.

Modern Age. XXII, Summer, 1978, p. 325.

Sewanee Review. LXXXVI, July, 1978, p. 414.