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Reviews

Milton: Poet, pamphleteer, patriot

Anna Beer
Bloomsbury, 458pp


Though he has been heralded for centuries as the second greatest English poet, Milton would not be very happy with his afterlife. Why not? He's still widely read and discussed, but his religious and political visions have been marginalized. To call him a great poet is a bit like calling Jesus a great moral teacher. It sounds like praise, but it overlooks what he was claiming to be - a prophet of the true religious and political cause.

Of course, on one level, every Milton scholar knows this - it's hardly possible to ignore it. But it's generally seen as incidental to his greatness. Generations of critics have seen him as a great poet who was over-serious about a dubious ideology, like a 20th-century writer who fell for Marxism.

This new biography is a useful guide to his life and times, but, like the rest of the academic Milton industry, it fails to put proper emphasis on his ideas, on the radical Christian vision that he offered. This is hardly surprising: Anna Beer is a literary academic who reflects the culture she works in; she's more interested in cultural politics than theology. So she spends a lot of time pondering Milton's youthful sexual orientation. This is an interesting issue, but to my mind it's far less interesting than the question of his mature religious orientation.

As the subtitle suggests, Beer presents him as politically engaged, rather than a head-in-the-clouds visionary. He 'almost single-handedly created the identity of the writer as political activist, of writing as a political vocation.' Maybe so, but it's religion that makes him political. He was an aesthete in adolescence, set on literary fame. Then he discovered his ideological calling. It might be described as left-wing puritanism. He realised that the Church of England was at root authoritarian, that the idea of a state church was sub-Christian. The politically powerful bishops had to go, for a new era of political and spiritual liberty to dawn.

Amazingly enough, history seemed to agree with his idealism: parliament defeated the king and the bishops in the civil war. Milton became the chief propagandist of the new republic. But a narrower version of puritanism was emerging: the restrictive Calvinism of the Presbyterians. Milton raged against this early version of right-wing evangelicalism, calling it as bad as Catholicism. He developed a new sort of libertarian Christianity, allergic to all institutional orthodoxy. He demanded the separation of church and state; he was one of the first to imagine secular liberalism - and yet he was passionately Christian.

This is obviously very relevant to today's debates about the place of religion in society. But Beer seems not to be especially interested in analysing Milton's brand of Christian faith. It's his sexual psychology that really interests her. As I say, I'm not dismissing this concern. It is indeed fascinating to see how Milton flirts with an effete literary persona, then presents himself as a model of chastity (what ambitious young author would dare praise virginity nowadays?), and then copes with a painfully difficult marriage. Unfortunately the evidence about his personal relationships is so slender that Beer's arguments tend to feel a bit thin.

The chapter on Paradise Lost is a highlight. It is 'a high-risk poem in which Milton, and his readers, confront their demons', she says, and rightly points out that it was bold of Milton to offer us a taste of prelapsarian sex. Interestingly, Beer argues that his depiction of Eve is surprisingly affirmative; he is 'perhaps even reclaiming female sexuality as a positive thing.'

This is probably the Milton biography that our culture deserves. It is very attentive to historical and cultural context, and gender issues, but it often feels as if the accumulation of scholarly detail about the background to his life masks a sort of embarrassment at the fact of this man's stonking great genius, particularly in relation to religion. The contemporary literary critic is too cool to go there. Readers who want to get a feel of this totally unique writer should go straight to his works, both poetry and prose.

Theo Hobson