books Essays

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

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…

Read my full review here, which is also used as praise for the book by Princeton University Press: Review: Nicholas McDowell’s “Poet of Revolution: The Making of John Milton” (Merion West, 3 February 2021)

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