He was an organist and a republican. He was so good-looking his fellow students at Cambridge called him "the Lady of Christ's" and he gained such expertise at Latin that Cromwell made him Secretary for Foreign Tongues. In later life he was an early advocate for divorce and freedom of the press. And, of course, he wrote one of the greatest epic poems in the language. Milton is anything but dull, contrary to F. R. Leavis, who argued that he "lacked analytic and discursive thinking".
In my experience, students can be put off by the mere size of editions of Milton's poetry - doorstoppers, multivolume, capable of crippling anyone foolhardy enough to carry them out of a library. Claire Tomalin's petite volume of fewer than 100 pages solves that problem at a stroke. Attractively designed and pocketable, it contains extracts from Milton's major works and complete texts of some shorter poems. For those with back problems, or anyone wanting a portable collection of highlights, it's the ideal travelling companion.
Tomalin begins with a compelling biographical account of the life, followed by a critical appreciation in which she notes the pleasure with which Milton alludes to Shakespeare, Homer, and other authors - "because this is how he experiences the world, as a huge, continuous panorama of the imagination". His poetry, she continues, "compels constant surprise and admiration for the grandeur and variety of the sentence structure, the musicality of the lines, the energy and subtlety of his use of words".
You need no more than such commonsensical observations. An unstoppable and incontinent surge of critical exegesis has succeeded in isolating Milton from all but the academic: the objective of Tomalin's book is to reclaim him for the general reader, assuming that he or she still exists.
To that end, she presents the poems in the only way that makes sense - with modern spelling and punctuation, and annotation only for essentials, phrased in the plainest terms (I particularly like the one that reads: "false north: ie, the Scots"). More boldly still, in the case of the longer poems, Tomalin presents only edited highlights: Paradise Lost is here reduced from its classical 12-book structure to 14 extracts covering a mere 20 pages. Some might say that this is butchery, death by a thousand cuts; for me, it's the perfect way to introduce the neophyte reader to great poetry. Better still, Tomalin prefaces the poem with her own introduction, reminding us that Milton's rewriting of the creation myth was composed in his head overnight and dictated to amanuenses by day.
In some ways the most satisfying parts of this book are the 12 sonnets Tomalin chooses, each prefaced by a brief note explaining its context. They span nearly three decades of creative activity, including some of Milton's developing years; his nightingale sonnet, she says, is "a delicious young man's declaration".
One of the things that makes this such an enjoyable book is the fact that Tomalin has such a good ear for Milton's waggery, especially when introducing joking sonnets such as "Captain or colonel, or knight in arms", which "is ostensibly addressed to the King's officers, reminding them that it is wiser not to attack the house of a poet". Elsewhere, she places Milton's tribute to Shakespeare on the page facing an epitaph on Hobson, driver of the chief transport between Cambridge and London. It's an illuminating juxtaposition, not just because it underlines Milton's versatility as a poet but because it shows how dark his wit could become.
Those intimidated by Milton's reputation as one of our greatest epic poets, but who want to find out what they're missing, couldn't do better than sample this admirable introduction to his work, which is edited, introduced and selected by a guide whose pedagogical skills are beyond reproach.
Poems of John Milton
Selected and Introduced by Claire Tomalin
Published 28 February 2008