Kevin Saving on
Anna Beer's Milton
Milton - Poet, Pamphleteer and Patriot - Anna Beer (Bloomsbury, 2008)
Milton's life story, told here on the four-hundredth anniversary of his birth is, in outline, well-enough known. Spoilt eldest son of wealthy scrivener goes to Cambridge, travels in Italy, works for regicidal government, goes blind, suffers under
the Restoration, writes Paradise Lost and dies. As a synopsis, this is reasonably accurate, although -as ever- our satan is definitely in the scrutiny.
Anna Beer shows us glimpses of a figure, undeniably flawed, but flawed in slightly more human ways. This is a Milton new to me, a young Milton filling-in at the last minute as a kind of Master of Ceremonies at a Cambridge university 'salting' (or revels), a Milton who makes rude jokes (in Latin) about farting. New to me also are some of the connotations behind the sexually-charged, multi-lingual correspondence with his childhood friend, Charles Diodoti.
Like many of his contemporaries, especially those of a seriously theological bent, Milton had some notable hang-ups. He writes a propos man's seminal fluid (in The Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce) that it was 'the best substance of his body, and of his soul too as some think'. Heterosexual intercourse (even within marriage) is categorised as 'the promiscuous draining of carnal rage' and 'the quintessence of excrescence' (which rather makes one feel sorry for the three Mrs Miltons!). Anne Powell (Milton's first mother-in-law, who had lived in his household) describes him - in a petition over her sequestered estates- as 'a harsh and choleric man' whom she cannot press personally as he will victimise her daughter, Mary. Accused in his middle-age (by 'Salmasius', a long-term sparring-partner) of financing his earlier Italian travels by acting in the capacity of what, in modern parlance, is known as a 'rent-boy', Milton (in 1654) was also being defamed by
an erstwhile bishop for having been 'sent down' from Cambridge - and he certainly was 'rusticated' by the university authorities- for unnatural practices. But then, vituperation was the common coin of these disputatious times.
Misogynistic (in the spirit of much of his culture), personally vain, snobbish and self-serving, this most difficult of men did go on to create, in his own imaginary 'satan', one of literature's greatest and most unnervingly charismatic charactors. And in his pamphlet Areopagitica, one of the English language's most eloquent defences of free-speech. Beer does well, in her subtitle for this book, to highlight the extraordinary range of erudition, rhetoric and invective which make John Milton one of the most controversial and effective propagandists ever. Her biography (400 pages of text plus another 50-odd of notes and index) is both proportionate and accessible. Sufficiently scholarly, it sets its polymathic protagonist squarely against the backdrop of his age. At the same time, however, Beer's prose occasionally takes on some of the aspects of its subject's own, often tortuous style: immersing oneself in an historical
milieu can sometimes cause this.
Milton knew himself to be an important writer and posterity, by and large, has deferred to this self-assessment. Whilst we might sympathise with A.E.Houseman's comment that 'malt does more than Milton can to justify God's ways to man' we, at least, should be grateful that the attempt was made.
Kevin Saving © 2008