Review: Poet of Revolution: The Making of John Milton-Nicholas McDowell-Princeton University Press October 27 2020- 494 pages

“Milton! thou shouldst be living at this hour:
England hath need of thee: she is a fen
Of stagnant waters: altar, sword, and pen,
Fireside, the heroic wealth of hall and bower,
Have forfeited their ancient English dower
Of inward happiness. We are selfish men;
O raise us up, return to us again,
And give us manners, virtue, freedom, power.”
William Wordsworth-London, 1802[1]

Let us never forget Milton, the first defender of regicide.[2]
-Frederick Engels, The Northern Star December 18, 1847.

“Innocence, Once Lost, Can Never Be Regained. Darkness, Once Gazed Upon, Can Never Be Lost.”
John Milton

“We develop new principles for the world out of the world’s own principles. We do not say to the world: Cease your struggles, they are foolish; we will give you the true slogan of struggle. We merely show the world what it is really fighting for, and consciousness is something that it has to acquire, even if it does not want to”.

Karl Marx, Letter from the Deutsch-Französische Jahrbücher to Ruge (1843)

It would be perhaps an understatement to say that the poet John Milton (1608–1674) has a unique position in England’s literary and intellectual history. It could also be argued that Paradise Lost and other great works could place Milton in the realm of one of the world’s greatest narrative poets.

Nicholas McDowell’s new book provides the reader with a competent introduction to the life of John Milton. While I do not normally pay too much attention to the title of a book, it is worth mentioning on this occasion. While Mcdowell concedes that Milton was a “poet of Revolution”, he does not say that Milton was the poet of the English bourgeois revolution. McDowell deliberately downplays Milton’s radicalism and his theoretical connection to groups like the Levellers, Diggers and other radical groups that appeared during the English bourgeois revolution.

A second significant omission from Mcdowell’s book is his failure to show Milton’s significant contemporary importance. The Poet Christopher Kempf recently issued a collection of Poems entitled What Though The Field Be Lost.[3] Kempf is a huge fan of Milton. According to Erik Schreiber, “The book takes its title from a line in Poet John Milton’s Paradise Lost (1667), which describes Satan’s rebellion against God, his defeat and his temptation of Adam and Eve. Critics have likened the angels’ uprising to a civil war, and Milton’s initial attempt to write the epic was indeed interrupted by the English Civil War. It is legitimate that Kempf turned to Milton after being inspired to focus on the American Civil War”.[4]

Kempf, to his eternal credit, quotes for an ordinary soldier who, even during the most bloody conflict in American history, had the outstanding ability to compare his struggle with that of Milton’s, writing, “An eagle in the very midst of the thunderstorm might have experienced such confusion. Milton’s account of the great battle between the forces of good and evil, which originated in this same question of secession, gives some faint idea of this artillery duel.”[5]
The biggest weakness of McDowell’s book is its deliberate failure to draw any connection Milton had to radical groups such as the Levellers and Diggers. His oversight is perhaps driven more by ideological considerations than an unintended omission on McDowell’s part. One such omission is Mcdowell’s non-use of David William’s, Milton’s Leveller God.

According to John Rees, Williams has “done a considerable service in bringing out this interpretation of Paradise Lost as an account of self-determining democratic revolution. It is a powerful and closely argued reading that will repay careful consideration by all those who wish to understand Milton’s purpose. But there are more difficulties in seeing this as a direct reflection of specifically Leveller politics. First, there are some circumstantial difficulties. Things said in the revolutionary 1640s do not have the same meaning when said in the late 1660s. And they are not the same said in poetry rather than pamphlet prose. A revolutionary program advanced in the heat of debate and a poetic reflection two decades later may be related, but not in simple or straightforward ways. Second, and more importantly, in concentrating on the Leveller strand of thought informing Milton’s politics, Williams excludes other threads in a more varied tapestry. There are, to be sure, continuities between Milton and the Levellers, but there are also important differences. Williams has certainly done us all a service in highlighting the former, but the latter need some consideration as well.[6]

Milton was a genius for all to see, but his Dissent and radicalism did not fall from the sky. He was part of the intellectual flowering of Dissent, a complex religious and intellectual development shared by other radical elements of the English Civil War, such as the Levellers, who wanted greater equality although not for everyone in society. Milton and the other radical groups were also part of the merchant and manufacturing classes in their struggle against the aristocracy. Milton put this struggle by the merchant and manufacturing classes into a literary form and was joined by other major figures like John Bunyan’s and his world-famous Pilgrim’s Progress (1678). According to Paul Mitchell, Bunyan’s use of imagery” reflected deep objective changes in society that also expressed the subjective strivings for a better future”.
Milton’s defence of the English Revolution and his agreement with the execution of Charles I meant his work would go on to influence a whole number of French and American revolutionaries. Milton’s work was also followed by major figures in the 1917 Russian Revolution. The people’s commissar for the Enlightenment, Anatole Lunarcharsky, compared the Russian Revolution to Milton’s.

Milton is also an attractive figure for revolutionaries of today. His revolutionary fervour, unfailing attachment to the ‘good old cause’, commitment to human freedom, and hatred of all forms of tyranny are good examples for all revolutionaries to follow. But you would not get that from McDowell’s book.McDowell’s book is not without merit. It is a groundbreaking work in many ways and contains recent archival discoveries that, on a limited basis, further our understanding of the connection between Milton and the revolution he fought for. Mcdowell, unfortunately, is not a radical. His biography is very conservative and challenges biographers such as the Marxist Christopher Hill[7] , who, unlike Mcdowell, believed Milton was radical at a very early age and became more radical during the English revolution. Also, unlike McDowell, Hill believed that Milton’s prose was heavily influenced by the English bourgeois revolution and groups such as the Levellers and Diggers. McDowell mentions the Levellers only twice in the book.
McDowell believes that Milton was a great history man but does not subscribe to any materialist or Marxist view of such men. Although the great Russian Marxist G.V Plekhanov was writing about a different period of history and different historical characters, his perceptive understanding of the role great figures play in history could be applied quite easily to Milton.

Plekhanov writes, “In the history of the development of human intellect, the success of some individual hinders the success of another individual very much more rarely. But even here, we are not free from the above-mentioned optical illusion. When a given state of society sets certain problems before its intellectual representatives, the attention of prominent minds is concentrated upon them until these problems are solved. As soon as they have succeeded in solving them, their attention is transferred to another object. By solving a problem, a given talent-A diverts the attention of talent B from the problem already solved to another problem. And when we are asked: What would have happened if A had died before he had solved problem X? – we imagine that the thread of development of the human intellect would have been broken. We forget that had A died, B, or C, or D might have tackled the problem, and the thread of intellectual development would have remained intact in spite of A’s premature demise.

In order that a man who possesses a particular kind of talent may, by means of it, greatly influence the course of events, two conditions are needed. First, this talent must make him more conformable to the social needs of the given epoch than anyone else: if Napoleon had possessed the musical gifts of Beethoven instead of his own military genius, he would not, of course, have become an emperor. Second, the existing social order must not bar the road to the person possessing the talent which is needed and useful precisely at the given time. This very Napoleon would have died as the barely known General, or Colonel, Bonaparte, had the old order in France existed another seventy-five years. [8]

As was said earlier, Mcdowell does not subscribe to a materialist view of historical development. The last person to place Milton within the context of the great English bourgeois revolution was the Marxist Christopher Hill. Even with a cursory look at his biography of Milton,[9] it is easy to see that it contains more insight and gives the reader a far more multifaceted view of the poet than any other biography of Milton, including McDowell’s. It could be argued that this was Hill’s greatest book.

Hill correctly places Milton alongside other “Bourgois radicals” of the English Revolution. While Milton was influenced by ancient writers such as Plato, Aquinas, and Homer, Hill, believed Milton’s connection with radical groups such as the Levellers and Diggers and others had a far more profound impact on his thinking and actions than has been given credit.

As this quote shows, Hill did not think Milton was a Leveller but said, “Lest I be misunderstood, I repeat that I do not think Milton was a Leveller, a Ranter, a Muggletonian or a Behemist. Rather I suggest that we should see him living in a state of permanent dialogue with radical views which he could not wholly accept, yet some of which greatly attracted him. (Milton and the English Revolution [1977], 113-14)

As Andrew Milner perceptively writes, “By the standards of previous Milton criticism, Hill’s Milton is boldly adventurous. It restores the poet to that social context from which he has been wrenched by the ahistorical idealism of mainstream literary criticism. Its emphasis on the radicalism both of that context and of the poet himself serves as a valuable corrective to those who have sought to subsume Milton under the mantle of conservative orthodoxy. Milton the dour Puritan is superseded by Milton, the libertarian revolutionary, and much that has previously appeared obscure becomes clarified”.[10]

McDowell’s Poet of Revolution is not a bad book and contains much that is worthwhile. However, it does not give the reader any great new insight into the English bourgeois revolution or Milton’ place within that revolution. Milton was a major player in that revolution. Marxists like Hill saw the  English Revolution of 1640-1660 as a bourgeois revolution. Hill also believed that paved the way for the future development of capitalism. Figures like Milton and Oliver Cromwell were bourgeois revolutionaries who were convinced that they had divine support for their revolution. But they were not alone. Other radicals formed the left wing of this revolution. It was these groups that had an important impact on Milton’s thinking as a poet and revolutionary. The next biography of Milton needs to explore this connection in greater depth.

[3] What Though the Field Be Lost-Poems-by Christopher Kempf- LSU Press
[5] Pvt. John C. West, 4th Texas, July 27, 1863-
[6] Williams, David. Milton’s Leveller God. Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queens UP, 2017. xviii + 494pp. ISBN 13: 9780773550339. $120.00 (cloth). Review by John Rees.
[7] Milton and the English Revolution Paperback – 18 Aug. 1997
[8] G.V. Plekhanov-On the Role of the Individual in History(1898)
[9] Milton and the English Revolution-Christopher Hill-

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