THIS IS AN AMBITIOUS work, not only covering the whole of Milton's career and all of his prose and poetry, but also seeking to elucidate Milton's political ideas in the context of those of his contemporaries. Christopher Hill, eminent historian of 17th-century England, has written less a history of Milton's relation to the English Revolution, as the title would suggest, than a biography of "the greatest English revolutionary who is also a poet," offering new interpretations of the private and the political Milton.
If the greatness of the poems Milton wrote is no longer open to question, the stature of the man who wrote them still is. Although 30 years have passed since T.S. Eliot, revising his earlier views on Milton, reaffirmed that he, like Dr. Johnson before him, "felt an antipathy towards Milton the man," Hill rightly points out that "those who dislike Milton dislike him very much indeed, on personal as well as political grounds." Even the staunch defenders are touched by the need to take sides. William Riley Parker's important two-volume biography of Milton begins with the self-conscious declaration, "Let me say at once that I like Milton as a person." Although Hill's book builds towards an explication of the political meanings of the great poems, Paradise Lost, Paradise Regained, and Samson Agonistes, there is no doubt throughout that it is Milton the man who animates Hill's thoughts. As he writes in his conclusion:
"The moment at which I write 'finis' to the book will be quite arbitrary: every time I re-read Milton fresh aspects of his complex personality force themselves upon me. He is elusive, subtle, devious: he cannot be pinned down by any easy formula --Puritan, humanist, radical -- or at least no one has yet found the formula."
Of course Professor Hill has his own formula to offer, that of Milton as a "radical Protestant heretic," but he is less interested in exploring the formulation than in exploring what he calls Milton's "infinitely various" personality, those "strong convictions" surrounded by a "shifting penumbra."
What Dr. Johnson and Mr. Eliot disliked is precisely what interests Christopher Hill, and the John Milton who emerges from these pages is controversial, complicated, and paradoxical, "living in a state of permanent dialogue with radical views which he could not wholly accept, yet some of which greatly attracted him." It is the Milton whose early concern with chastity led him, inexplicably, to a hasty and unfortunate marriage with Mary Powell which, in turn, when his wife rejected him, gave birth to the public arguments for divorce and thus transformed the proponent of chastity into a "Libertine" in the eyes of his contemporaries. "Self-consciously slow in maturing," Milton publicly declared his poetic plans to his audience and labeled his prose tracts the inferior products of his "left hand," but he remained, for 20 years, unable, unwilling, or unready to write the poems he had promised.
There are, as Hill makes clear, intellectual paradoxes as well. Defender of the English Revolution and the regicide, he wrote his defenses in Latin, in part so that the common people, who had so misunderstood him in the divorce tracts, could not read them; a revolutionary whose dreams were "forward-looking," Milton nonetheless "wrote the last great epic." Most characteristic of all, "his ideas are always pressing tensely against the framework in which they are enclosed."
The arguments of Milton and the English Revolution are shaped in part by Hill's awareness of the literary critics who preceded him, as well as his conviction that Milton "needs to be defended from his defenders," "the immensely productive Milton industry." It might be argued that by unearthing so many of the older critical stereotypes (particularly some of the arguments of W.R. Parker), Hill has perhaps given them more attention than they deserve.
The book is also shaped by Hill's continuing fascination with this subject and it sometimes resembles more a collection of ideas; in the middle of a chapter on "Marriage, Divorce, and Polygamy," for example, we find not only sections on 17th-century attitudes towards divorce and Milton's first marriage, but also, more surprisingly, a section on "Milton and Jane Eyre."
As a historian, Hill argues from the outset that the great poems "will not speak for themselves" unless we understand Milton's ideas in their historical context. Because he has adopted the practice of omitting references for facts found either in John French's Life Records of John Milton or Parker's Biography, it will be difficult, I fear, for a reader not thoroughly familiar with these works to distinguish fact from interpretation in the narrative style of the book. And while all of his arguments on the great poems are evocative, some of them are easier to take issue with than others. When, for example, he argues that the "degradation" of Satan in the second half of Paradise Lost is "greater because of Milton's disgusted realization of the power and influence of evil" after May, 1660, when the Restoration triumphed, he not only assigns more precise dates to the composition of the poem than we actually have, but also begins to raise what may be a political allusion to the level of allegory.
But it is easy to take a book of this scope and single out a few discontentments with parts of its argument. What remains is a work which fulfills its promise of presenting us with a Milton "infinitely various" and which, like all great works of criticism, forces its readers to rediscover and rethink both the life and the works of a great poet. In this, Hill and his subject have much in common: throughout his life. Milton fought against "Custom," the body of received ideas which allowed men to live without thinking or choosing. Hill has made sure that literary "Custom" at least will not vanquish either the man or the poet who lived to challenge it.