Milton And The English Revolution, Christopher Hill, Penguin Press, New York 1972
The name and work of the late British Marxist historian Christopher Hill should be fairly well known to readers of this space who follow my reviews on the subject of the 17th century English Revolution. That revolution has legitimately been described as the first one of the modern era and had profound repercussions, especially on the American Revolution and later events on this continent. Although Hill was an ardent Stalinist, seemingly to the end of his life, his works, since they were not as subjected to the conforming pressures of the Soviet political line that he adhered to, are less influenced by that distorting pressure. To our benefit.
More importantly, along the way Professor Hill almost single-handedly brought to life the under- classes that formed the backbone of the plebeian efforts during that revolution. We would, surely, know far less about Fifth Monarchists, Brownists, Ranters, panters, Shakers, Quakers and fakers without the sharp eye of the good professor. All to the tune of, and in the spirit of that famous last line from John Milton's "Paradise Lost" about the locus of paradise, except instead of trying to explain the ways of god to man the professor has tried to explain ways of our earlier plebeian brothers and sisters to us.
That said, on this the 400th Anniversary year of the birth of John Milton the great English revolutionary and poet it is fitting that the occasion be commemorated by a review of one of Professor Hill's major literary/historical works, "Milton and The English Revolution". Now with a figure like Milton, so central to the Western literary canon, it is, after 400 years of critique, entirely possible to analysis his life and work from a merely literary or religious point of view and "deep-six" his central role as a propagandist for Cromwell's republican English Commonwealth, as a defender of regicide in "The Tenure Of Kings and Magistrates" or as a man emerged in the various radical religious and political controversies of his day. The literary and political fight against such reductionism is, in fact, both the purpose of Hill's book and his core argument in order to take back the person of John Milton for the revolution. And along the way dispel the proposition that Milton was a cloistered "up-tight" Puritan exemplar, especially through his analysis of Milton's tracts on divorce and an examination of his career during the tumultuously 1640's. To this reviewer's mind Hill succeeds in the first task although I still have reservations in imagining the figure of a `rakish' John Milton on the second.
As always in dealing with the controversies of the mid-17th in England it is best to have knowledge of the various religious controversies that were swirling through all classes as the showdown with the king, and more importantly, the theory of 'divine right' of kings and the heavy monarchical/church state apparatus based on it. Hill's main argument on this point is that Milton's known theological divergences from then orthodox Laudian Church of England dogma or, for that matter; orthodox Puritan dogma as well made him a prime candidate to be the leading propagandist for the republican side in the dispute.
Thus, Milton intellectually was totally emerged in the on-going controversies over mortalism, the Trinity, the divinity of Christ, the literalness (and timing) of the Second Coming, the virgin birth, arminianism, Arianism and the thousand and one varieties on this theme that had more than one champion in its day. As Hill notes these controversies may seem rather abstract or of merely academic interest today but then one could pay with his or her life for a wrong move. Most famously, look at the fate of Quaker James Nayler, for one, for the truth of that matter-and remember that man drew a severe sentence for his `folly' during the fairly "enlightened" Cromwellian Protectorate.
If one recognizes, as I following Professor Hill do, the politically shrewd aspect of Milton's career as well as that of his role as thoughtful if somewhat arbitrary advocate for various political causes that were dear to his heart then his role as propagandist for the Republic is easier to understand. As Secretary of Foreign Tongues he was the voice of the English Revolution to the known world. In that capacity, rather than that of a 'private intellectual' the reading of such treatises as his defense of regicide "Tenure of Kings And Magistrates" and his rebuttal to Charles I in "Eikonoklastes" makes more sense.
At one time I placed Milton as something of the 17th century equivalent of the Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky in the 20th century who, according to no less an authority than George Bernard Shaw, was the "prince of pamphleteers" of his era. I now believe this earlier characterization of mine made Milton more organizationally and theoretically committed to the fate of the revolution, as he suffered later disillusions with the revolution under the Commonwealth, than he actually was. However, among the literary set of the English Revolution, his is the most outstanding voice trying to push the revolution, the "revolution of the saints" to put it in the parlance of the day, to the left. All the way to 1660 and beyond, despite his physical blindness. And then in defeat to explain what went wrong, as well.
Although Hill has drawn in this little political biography a portrait of Milton as a man enmeshed in his times his seminal poetic and other literary work after his narrow escape from the clutches of a vengeful Charles II in 1660- the trilogy, "Paradise Lost", "Paradise Regained" and "Samson Agonistes" are also well analyzed. I do not, however, want to enter into that post-revolutionary literary/political discussion which takes up the last part of the book here, interesting as it is. As mentioned above more than enough ink has been spilled over the last four hundred years deciphering the meanings of those works by the literary set. The reader can read this section and make up his or her mind without my layman's literary comments. To conclude then, this book pays due homage to the prime literary defender of the "Good Old Cause", a cause that WAS worth fighting for. All Honor To The Memory Of John Milton, Revolutionary And Poet.