Milton and the People, by Paul Hammond

Willy Maley praises a beautifully written account of the poet’s disaffection with the masses

September 18, 2014

Terry Eagleton’s tongue-in-cheek Ballad of English Literature, sung to the tune of Land of Hope and Glory, tells us “Sidney was a nob” and “Shakespeare hated the mob”, while the closing couplet declares “Milton Blake and Shelley/Will smash the ruling class yet”. But as Paul Hammond shows in Milton and the People, the author of Paradise Lost, ambivalent at best about the mob, could be a bit of a nob himself.

Listing Milton’s takedowns of the people is like shooting fish in a barrel. In Eikonoklastes alone they are denounced as “exorbitant and excessive in all thir motions”, showing “a besotted and degenerate baseness of spirit”, “imbastardiz’d from the ancient nobleness of thir Ancestors”, “an inconstant, irrational, and Image-doting rabble”, “a credulous and hapless herd, begott’n to servility”, possessed of a “voluntary and beloved baseness”. As Milton exasperatedly exclaims, “what a miserable, credulous, deluded thing that creature is, which is call’d the Vulgar”. We see how wrong Eagleton was. It was Milton who hated the mob.

Tracking the representation of the people across Milton’s poetry and prose, Hammond argues that while “young Milton had wished to speak to a circle of like-minded poets and scholars”, late Milton resorted to soliloquy, “the words being those of the self communing with itself, or with God, rather than…projected outward to engage with a recalcitrant audience”. Yet the assertion that in his later poems “Milton’s alter egos are kept ultimately, radically, safe from the hostile crowd” sits oddly alongside Samson’s self-sacrifice where “The vulgar only scap’d who stood without”.

In keeping with his larger thesis of Milton’s bad faith, Hammond reproaches him for a moment where he “seems to have believed that his cause permitted departures from truth and honesty”. Milton misattributed an anonymous personal attack on him wholly to Alexander More, whom he in turn attacked. Since More did write a preface and oversee the printing, Hammond’s case against Milton here – a small point but a matter of principle – remains unconvincing, especially when a few pages later he notes the blurred boundaries of public and private in ways that unravel his own argument.

It is hard to write a history of the people without a theory of class or ideology. Hammond’s assertion that “Milton’s attitude to the people…changes according to political circumstances and…polemical needs” and that his status as a consistent “champion of radical political and religious ideas does not survive close engagement with the rhetoric of his prose writings” is a case in point. It is possible to be consistent and to judge harshly those who, against their interests, side with tyranny. What Milton hated about the mob was their ignorance and subservience. If George Bernard Shaw was a socialist because he hated the working classes, Milton was a republican because he loathed the mob, whose very existence was parasitic upon the monarchy which in turn relied on the mob – ill-educated, ideologically enslaved – for its exalted state. No mob, no monarchy. Under tyranny, the people are no better than their “canary-sucking, swan-eating” betters.

The odd typo aside – David Norbrook appears as “Norbook” – this is a beautifully written book. Hammond’s careful charting of Milton’s disaffection with the people is compelling, but such disaffection is there from the beginning. I was left feeling that Milton was more consistent than Hammond.

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