John Milton was one of the most significant figures of his age: polemicist, republican and, towards the end of his life, author of the 10,000-line epic Paradise Lost, which has a strong claim to being the greatest poem in the English language.
There is no shortage, of course, of accounts of Milton's life, with its elaborate negotiations between public figure and private man. It has proved a richly fascinating subject for biographers - the last decade alone has seen some half-dozen works that have followed this middle-class scrivener's son through St Paul's and Cambridge, around half the Continent on his Grand Tour, back to London as Cromwell's foreign secretary, and into the exile of an uneasy but prolific post-Restoration retirement in Chalfont St Giles. This level of attention does not mean that all the interpretative difficulties of a lifetime of complex political and literary engagement have been resolved. John Milton: Life, Work, and Thought is a clear-eyed and scrupulous attempt to confront some of the more important questions, and it offers an erudite, readable rewriting of current critical orthodoxy.
One of the authors' chief contributions is to challenge the conventional view of Milton as a spitting Puritan revolutionary from the cradle. Campbell and Corns build on a mixture of careful local research and judicious speculation to explain, instead, how a young man from quite a moderate background could become radicalised in the climate of hardening doctrinal battle lines that would eventually compel England into civil war. Was Milton angered into opposition by the brutality of William Laud's reprisals on those who spoke out against his high-church reforms? The cropped ears, mauled noses and branded cheeks of Puritan divines bore an eloquent witness to the cleric's insistence on religious ritual that might have been difficult to ignore for someone who had once planned to join their ranks. Or was Milton more put out by an official visitation to the parish church of Horton, Berkshire, which noticed that his mother had been buried the wrong way round and suggested that she ought to be dug up and properly orientated?
Whatever, the authors' patient exposition of Milton's evolving stance allows a more nuanced reading of some earlier poems, which seem to lack the Puritan convictions of later works. It provides a useful context for the great elegy, Lycidas (the poet's strangely "trembling ears" seem suddenly quite reasonable), and a convincing way to understand Milton's emergence in the 1640s as a radical pamphleteer. The account of these middle years is also skilfully handled; Milton's public career as a controversialist (pro-divorce, anti-censorship, pro-regicide) is explored alongside the private concerns (the unhappy marriage, the growing family, the financial uncertainties) of this most confessional of writers.
Campbell and Corns are neither hostile to their subject nor overly indulgent about his faults. Milton could be implacable, even harsh; his relationship with his daughters, to take a notorious example, reflects credit on neither side, and the circumstances are recounted here with commendable balance. The authors are capable, though, of knowing wit; of Milton's fearsome programme of education outlined in a tract of 1644, they write: "Repressive, prescriptive, elitist, masculinist, militaristic, dustily pedantic, class-ridden and affectionless, Milton's nightmarish model of English education would, of course, have been unendurable to anyone as instinctively oppositional as its designer." What comes across most clearly, perhaps, is Milton's defiant individualism; the portrait of the poet on the verge of the Restoration, emerging from the monumental task of composing Paradise Lost for just long enough to publish one last attack on his ascendant enemies, is finely drawn. "Spirited if doomed" is the authors' just verdict.
The characteristic thoroughness of this biography can occasionally strike a somewhat odd note, as when its authors inform the reader of expeditions to the Western Eye Hospital to find out why Milton went blind ("intermittent close angle glaucoma", apparently, which, though "eminently treatable with modern medicine (...) would have resulted in almost certain blindness in the seventeenth century"). But even if it's hard to share Campbell and Corns' frustration at the "tantalising inadequacy of detail" of early accounts of Milton's death, one has to admit that their standards of scholarship here, as elsewhere, are evident and impressive.
This is not to suggest, however, that this biography holds nothing for the general reader. Quite the contrary: it is lucid and engaging, and in telling the story of Milton's life it tells also of the times in which he lived. The 17th century saw a regicide and a restoration, plague, civil war and fire, and, as the authors make clear, Milton was involved in and affected by all of these events. John Milton: His Life, Work, and Thought presents an illuminating accretion of historical and personal detail; it is an assiduous study of a difficult man, and a matchless poet.
John Milton: Life, Work, and Thought
By Gordon Campbell and Thomas N. Corns. Oxford University Press 476pp, £25.00. ISBN 9780199289844. Published 23 October 2008.