Most poetry in the modern age has retreated to the private sphere, turning its back on the political realm. The two intersect only in such absurd anomalies as the poet laureateship. But whereas Andrew Motion does his bit to keep the monarchy in business, one of the greatest of English poets played his part in subverting it. John Milton, who was born in Cheapside 400 years ago today, published a political tract two weeks after the beheading of Charles I, arguing that all sovereignty lay with the people, who could depose and even execute a monarch if he betrayed their trust.
We are not used to such revolutionary sentiments in our poets. When he left Cambridge, Milton refused to take holy orders and, in his first great poem Lycidas, he mounted a blistering assault on the corruption of the clergy. He was a champion of Puritanism at a time when that meant rejecting a church in cahoots with a brutally authoritarian state.
His political dissidence, however, had its limits: he defended the notion of private property, unlike the more communistic wing of the parliamentary forces. As for sexual politics, Adam in Paradise Lost is a priggish patriarch. Yet Milton was also an early advocate of divorce, claiming that a lack of love and companionship was a more important ground for separation than adultery.
At the heart of Milton’s political vision lay a belief in liberty and self-government. Pressed to an extreme, this doctrine could appear anarchic: grace freed humanity from law and authority. He thus came to reject the Calvinist doctrine of predestination in the name of personal freedom. One of his most magnificent pamphlets, Areopagitica, inveighed against the state censorship of books. He denounced the censorship of works before publication as a strangling of free inquiry. "Almost kill a man as kill a good book," he observed. If truth were to be established, an open marketplace of opinions was indispensable. "So truth be in the field," Milton insisted, "we do injuriously by licensing and prohibiting to misdoubt her strength. Let her and falsehood grapple; who ever knew truth put to the worst, in a free and open encounter?"
In an era of civil war, such liberalism could be a revolutionary force. Milton placed his literary genius at the service of Cromwell’s commonwealth, becoming secretary for foreign tongues. Yet as a staunch republican he also warned his master of the dangers of autocracy. He was aware that middle-class revolutions have a habit of selling out their left wing. Even as the restoration of the monarchy loomed, he published a reckless, despairing proposal for a new republican constitution.
Once the new royalist government was in place, Milton went into hiding, and some of his more offensive books were burnt. He was arrested and held in custody, but escaped with his life through the intercession of powerful friends. He then devoted himself to an epic poem mourning the loss of the paradise on earth in which, as a radical humanist and revolutionary Puritan, he had invested his fondest hopes. He is buried alongside his father in St Giles’, Cripplegate, in the City of London, an interment in Westminster Abbey being politically out of the question.
Milton did more than hymn the praises of revolt, as Blake and Shelley did. He was also a political activist and propagandist, an architect of the modern liberal state. As a militant ideologue in the defence of liberty, he assisted in the revolutionary upheaval that brought modern Britain to birth — a revolution all the more successful for us having quite forgotten that it ever happened.