Poet, Pamphleteer, and Patriot
By Anna Beer
458pp. | $534.99
It seems almost impossible to hold John Milton in one's head, as he was so many things at once: a poet rivaled only by Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Wordsworth for completeness and power; a gifted linguist and scholar; a political man of immense skills; an uncompromising polemicist who wrote pioneering essays on divorce and freedom of the press; a sophisticated Puritan theologian; a political thinker who believed passionately in liberty; a husband to three wives; and a father. It should not surprise anyone that biographers have not had an easy time with him.
For different reasons, poets have also struggled to come to terms with a precursor of such titanic strength, negotiating his influence in various ways, as R. D. Havens suggests in The Influence of Milton on English Poetry (1922), a classic study. William Blake made him the subject of one of his great visionary poems, while Wordsworth called out to him in one of his most memorable sonnets: "MILTON! thou shouldst be living at this hour: / England hath need of thee." T. S. Eliot (a monarchist and Anglo-Catholic) famously struggled with Milton, first rejecting, then embracing him.
The point remains that one cannot ignore John Milton, and the countless books about him found in any decent library attest to the fact that nobody has actually tried. To these shelves comes Anna Beer's succinct and highly readable biography, Milton: Poet, Pamphleter and Patriot. She builds upon the recent work of Cedric Brown, Gordon Campbell, John T. Shawcross, and--most importantly--Barbara K. Lewalski. whose corn pendious life of Milton remains the standard work by a contemporary scholar. For sheer felicity of style, I still prefer A. N. Wilson's short life of Milton (1983), but for balance and breadth within a reasonable number of pages, Anna Beer's work stands out.
Beer describes Milton as a Londoner at heart, a man who spent a fair portion of his life within the graceful shadow of St. Paul's luminous dome. London during the 17th century, when Milton lived there, was the center of immense political turmoil, with violent swings from monarchy to republicanism to Restoration. The poet, of course, sided with Cromwell and the revolutionaries, becoming a central figure in Whitehall as he drafted letters (in Latin) to various governments abroad. He was also a major advocate for political liberty--as the Founding...