To celebrate the 400th anniversary of John Milton’s birth the University of Oxford’s Bodleian Library mounted a splendid exhibition entitled Citizen Milton.
Adorning the entrance to the exhibition was this quote from Gordon Brown, “At the core of British history, the very British ideas of ‘active citizenship’, ‘good neighbour’, civic pride and the public realm.”
It is not clear which part of this quotation was intended to apply most accurately to John Milton.
Perhaps Milton’s determined defence of the cutting off of Charles I’s head is an example of “active citizenship”?
Perhaps his poem in praise of Oliver Cromwell, the leader of the English Revolution, is an example of civic pride?
We should not forget Milton, as there is no other example of a nation’s greatest poet also being one of its greatest revolutionaries.
John Milton’s poetic genius needs no defence. Paradise Lost is widely acknowledged as a masterpiece, though few enough also know that it was a revolutionary argument conducted by poetic means.
But Milton’s stature as a revolutionary may need some elaboration. In the 1640s and 1650s a torrent of revolutionary pamphlets flowed from his pen.
Milton possessed a guiding intellectual idea – that individuals must make their own peace with god. They could not be instructed in this by any state appointed minister, but they may be assisted in this task by free discussion with others.
He believed in a radical religious individualism.
This was a potentially revolutionary notion in the 17th century. The church was a state institution that combined the roles performed today by the education system, the mass media and various branches of the civil service.
The Church of England had been founded by Henry VIII’s breach with the pope in the 1530s.
But the Reformation had unleashed a momentum not intended by its author.
The sale of church lands created a new layer of landowners more attuned to the atmosphere created by the rising merchants of the towns than the old feudal aristocracy.
The rise of Protestantism created a greater emphasis on the individual’s relationship with the Bible and god. The strict Catholic hierarchy in which the pope and his priests were the direct representatives of god on earth was brought into doubt.
The monarchy and its supporters may have abandoned the link with the pope, but they meant to keep as much church hierarchy as they could.
As the revolution began in 1642 there was a great public outpouring of pamphlets of all kinds as the state’s censorship broke down. John Milton was at the heart of this.
In 1643 he wrote The Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce in which he argued that a marriage could be dissolved if the partners were incompatible.
This view, not enshrined in British law until more than 300 years later, was utterly revolutionary in the 1640s.
Predictably, the ideological roof fell on Milton’s head. He was denounced as “licentious, new and dangerous” and hauled before a parliamentary inquiry.
From this moment he became attentive to the issues of freedom of speech.
The following year Milton published Aeropagitica, his startling and still modern defence of freedom of speech.
“As good almost kill a man as kill a good book,” wrote Milton as the outpouring of pamphlets all around him caused the greatest revolution in popular debate the country had ever seen.
This clarion call argued against the state censorship: “So truth be in the field, we do injuriously by licensing and prohibiting to misdoubt her strength. Let her and Falsehood grapple; who ever knew Truth put to the worse, in free and open encounter.”
In 1644 to put your name on the front page of such a work was to risk your life, but Milton did so anyway.
Milton’s next major prose work was written as the trial of Charles I was in progress and published shortly after the execution of the king in January 1649.
The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates is an unashamed defence of the people’s right to rid themselves of a tyrant. It is a defence of the right to revolution.
The still shocking force of this pamphlet was not only aimed at the Royalists but also at the moderates among the Parliamentarians who, having defeated the king, balked at his execution and the establishment of a republic.
Milton became the Secretary for Foreign Tongues in Cromwell’s Commonwealth. He was chosen because he had rushed to the defence of the revolution and was known throughout Europe as the foremost intellectual champion of the republic.
But when the monarchy was restored in 1660, Milton was imprisoned. He narrowly escaped execution and lived to write his deep poetic meditation on the human experience of revolutionary change, Paradise Lost.
The essential purpose of this great epic was a meditation on why, if the revolutionary cause was good, it had not triumphed.
His prism for viewing this question was the original fall of man, the story of Adam and Eve.
Milton’s conclusion was that greater enlightenment, education and culture must make human beings fit to receive the divine providence of revolution.
Even in defeat Milton looked forward to rebirth of hope. His own role in hastening that day, he wrote, was to “sing unchanged”.