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Review: Nicholas McDowell’s “Poet of Revolution: The Making of John Milton”

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As McDowell suggests, it was the liberating and open environment of humanist education that moved Milton more than any theological or political zeal, and it seized Milton at an early age.”

William Blake proclaimed to posterity that the blind, revolutionary, and magisterial poet John Milton was “of the devil’s party without knowing it.” In an age of deracinated humanism in the name of inclusive philistinism and iconoclasm, if there is anything we remember of John Milton (beside Satan’s declaration that it is “Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven”), it is Blake’s quip of Milton which subsequent romanticist poets and scholars solidified—perhaps none more so than William Empson. Among biographers, Milton is generally said to have always been a radical, who became England’s Poet Laurette of regicide because of historical fortune. It was also said that he was a conservative turned radical due to the spirit of history, slowly drifting away from the dogmatic prelapsarian Calvinism of the Elizabethan-Jacobean Anglicanism of his Cambridge years, before embracing the heterodox nonconformity he became infamous for. All of the above, Nicholas McDowell writes in the first installment of a planned two-volume biography of England’s greatest poet, are mistaken and misleading.

In Poet of Revolution: The Making of John Milton, Nicholas McDowell takes us on a tour-de-force pilgrimage through Milton’s formative years, 1608-1642, leaving us at the eve of his first marriage and the outbreak of the English Civil War—the most shocking and consequential event in Anglo-Saxon history and, arguably, even more consequential than the American and French Revolutions. This is because of its decapitation of a divine-right monarch and the birth of a modern politics of reform, war, and counterrevolution, which paved the road to the Glorious Revolution and the 18th century revolutions of more mythic fame in the New World and on the Continent. And, according to many Milton biographies and histories, this is the seminal event in understanding Milton’s radicalism. While the English Civil War is an important event in Milton’s life, McDowell cautions us not to see the English Civil War as the defining moment for Milton. 

It is not questioned that Milton was a radical. The question that has plagued Milton scholars, biographers, and enthusiasts has been how, or why, he became a radical? McDowell suggests that we look not at Milton’s politics or the earth-moving English Civil War but, rather, his education and drive to be a poet equivalent to the likes of Homer, Virgil, Dante, and Petrarch to better understand Milton’s radicalism. Thus, we begin at the beginning: his youthful education and his journey through university en route to becoming a poet.

McDowell’s magisterial biography, therefore, brings us into the world of English humanism. Humanism, as a movement, grew from many roots. No root was as important as that which Erasmus argued for: a return to the (classical) sources and language as the key to moral (and Christian) development and living. McDowell notes that in 17th century England, reading the classics of pagan authors (and the Patristic Fathers) was a religious pursuit; much like contemporary classical Christian education, many religious men, clerics, and scholars saw nothing incompatible in reading the erotic poetry of Ovid with the Christian vision of the good life. Why? The trivium. 

Studying grammar (poetry and philosophy, really), logic, and rhetoric (the eloquence of language and writing) inculcated a spirit of merited virtue in students. It took hard work to master the trivium. It also took hard work and virtue to become an artist in the mold of the great artists who were studied and emulated. This inculcation of virtue was the true aim of humanist education which would provide its students all the tools necessary to excel in life, and especially in the arts. And in 17th century England, the virtue and the moral life created by the rigorous study offered by humanism was a means by which the (Christian) moral life could be instilled and manifested. In no other place did this ideal plant itself more firmly and fruitfully than in England.

Nothing: no king, no church, no bishop would stand in his way to achieve his soaring entry into the gates of poetic paradise and glory.

It is in this world that Milton was raised. And it was this world young Milton experienced and thrived in that had a lasting impact on him. Tutored by a Presbyterian, Thomas Young, Milton immersed himself in the classics, the sublime Latin of Virgil, Ovid, and Cicero, as well as Greek and Hebrew all of which would shape Milton’s attitudes and poetic compositions for the rest of his life.

The humanist education he received at St. Paul’s, even before attending Cambridge, was liberating and demanding. Milton excelled—as many young pupils did before attending Cambridge or Oxford—and this atmosphere of true liberal learning shaped Milton’s spirit. As McDowell suggests, it was the liberating and open environment of humanist education that moved Milton more than any theological or political zeal, and it seized Milton at an early age. 

For Milton, any stifling of intellectual inquiry (however scandalous) and humanist learning (which stood against imposed dogmas) was the real boot of tyranny that destroys culture and—with culture—human beings: “Milton’s political development is shaped by his evolving understanding of the ways in which ‘tyranny’…retards the intellectual and cultural progress of a nation. This understanding was shaped not only by historical experience of the unprecedented political turbulence of mid-seventeenth Britain, but by the interaction between the experience of his intellectual life.” No doubt Milton would have much to say on the destruction of our own intellectual and cultural progress today as we slip into our own era of intellectual inquisition and cultural backsliding precisely because of clamping down on intellectual inquiry and the destruction of humanist education in favor of imposed dogmas.

McDowell proceeds to highlight how this humanist spirit shaped Milton’s self-understanding and ambition. In a word, Milton was poet with an agenda. And his agenda was to be a poet who would enter the very pantheon of men whom he studied and learned to emulate. Nothing: no king, no church, no bishop would stand in his way to achieve his soaring entry into the gates of poetic paradise and glory. Milton’s radicalism, from youth to university to his early years as a poet, was anchored in his intellectualism and humanism more than anything else.

Yet McDowell’s intellectual biography, if we can call it that, includes magnificent literary criticism on the part of the author—taking us through deep but concise tours into some of Milton’s early and mid-life poetry. Teasing out classical allusions, implications, and intent, McDowell’s reflections on Milton’s poetry make us richer individuals in a spirit that would undoubtedly make Milton smile. McDowell’s analysis of Milton’s “Nativity Ode,” one of the first poems that won Milton renown, is particularly edifying. Additionally, McDowell does not fall into the camp of Milton hagiographers who assert that Milton was the greatest of the Latin-poets of England; Milton’s Latin poetry is good, even great at times, but hardly as sublime as Thomas Campion or George Herbert (my personal favorite, I must concede). As a poet of English, Milton is undeniably the greatest that England ever begot; as a writer of Latin elegiac poetry, he ranks highly but not at the top. Though we are enriched in reading the full breadth of his poetry, Latin and English.

Poet of Revolution is a heroic work, a judicious and well-written biography of England’s greatest poet. It also corrects the inherited narratives about Milton and reveals the scope of the poet’s humanism and how, more than politics or theology, it was an intellectual zeal that made him the poet of revolution. The restless mind and ambition of the soul cannot, should not, be constrained—be it from political witch-hunting, theological inquisition, or intellectual despotism. That was Milton’s creed.

Nicholas McDowell ends his book on the eve of that sublime event that would lead to the rise of Cromwell and the fracturing of England into civil war. Intentionally so. McDowell wished to show us—convincingly, in my view—how it was Milton’s intellectual zeal and humanism that defined him. By 1642, Milton has earned his stripes, built his foundation, and now prepares to soar toward epic and revolution, which landed him before the gates of eternal glory. We earnestly wait for McDowell’s promised second volume dealing with the poet’s “experience of revolution” and how it moved him to create the greatest poem of the English language that rightfully placed Milton in the pantheon of poets he had studied and wanted to stand alongside.

Paul Krause is a humanities teacher, classicist, and literary essayist. He contributed to the book The College Lecture Today (Lexington Press, 2019), is an Associate Editor at VoegelinView, and is host of the podcast Literary Tales.

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