By John Rees
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Citizen Milton

This article is over 13 years, 10 months old
Bodleian Library, Oxford, until 26 April
Issue 323

Oxford University owe John Milton. Milton was a revolutionary republican and, after the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, the University Convocation, with the typical bravery of academic institutions, voted to burn his books. Twice.

Luckily, somewhere in the darkened shelves of the Bodleian, the librarians hid away Milton’s works and they survived to be exhibited here. Now the danger is long past, they’ve done him proud.

The occasion is the 400th anniversary of Milton’s birth. I guess you have to have lived to some purpose to be still celebrated 400 years later. And John Milton did live to some purpose. Paradise Lost is the greatest epic poem in the English language. Its radical impact is still felt, as this exhibition shows, by modern artists as varied as poet Tony Harrison and author Philip Pullman.

Milton’s political achievements are scarcely less noteworthy. When it was almost unthinkable to do so, he argued for freedom of divorce if the partners so wished in The Doctrine of Discipline and Divorce, and was condemned as “licentious, new and dangerous”. His clarion call for freedom of speech, Areopagitica, argued against the censorship of the state: “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 became probably the central ideological defender of Cromwell’s revolutionary government. He was appointed Secretary for Foreign Tongues (essentially Foreign Secretary). In his Tenure of Kings and Magistrates, the Defence of the People of England, the Second Defence of the People of England and The Ready and Easy Way to Establish a Free Commonwealth he argued to a European-wide audience the right of the English people to execute their king and establish a republic.

When the Royalists produced a hagiographic Eikon Basilike in praise of the “martyred” Charles I, Milton replied with Eikonoklastes. He wrote, he said, not to insult the king but to serve “Queen Truth”. As blindness descended upon the greatest poet of his generation, and of many generations to come, he wrote, “I resolved therefore that I must employ this brief use of my eyes while yet I could for the greatest possible benefit to the state.”

This exhibition is small and largely based on a display of Milton’s books and other works inspired by him. But it is nonetheless compelling, not least because it doesn’t try to downplay the radical political impact of Milton either in his time or since. It is a rare pleasure, for instance, to see the text of the play Oliver Kromvel which the people’s commissar for the Enlightenment, Anatole Lunarcharsky, wrote during the Russian Revolution, comparing his revolution with Milton’s.

No less is it a pleasure to see William Blake’s original visualisation of Paradise Lost, to see recalled his impact on his contemporaries, the poets Andrew Marvell and John Dryden (both, with Milton, in the funeral procession when Cromwell was buried), and successors, among them Coleridge, Shelley and Mary Wollstonecraft.

The exhibition has one small blemish – an opening quote from Gordon Brown, busy abrogating the liberties Milton fought to achieve, busy also denouncing “religious extremists”, yet Milton was one.

Better leave the last words to the poet Wordsworth:

“Milton! thou shouldst be living at this hour:
England hath need of thee: she is a fen
Of stagnant waters: altar, sword, and pen,
Fireside, the heroic wealth of hall and bower,
Have forfeited their ancient English dower
Of inward happiness. We are selfish men;
O raise us up, return to us again,
And give us manners, virtue, freedom, power.”

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