John Milton is most famous today for his epic poem Paradise Lost, a poem that was almost lost due to the cause of Milton’s fame (or infamy) in 1660: his work writing defences of the Commonwealth against Royalist attacks. These were written when Milton was Secretary of Foreign Tongues to the Council of State from 1649. The works included Eikonoklastes (1649, justifying Charles I’s execution) and The Ready and Easy Way to Establish a Free Commonwealth (1660, arguing against the Restoration). After the Restoration, Milton had to be hidden by friends: he eventually was arrested and held in custody for a few months. Friends in high places worked to ensure he was included in the Act of Free and General Pardon, Indempnity and Oblivion. Their success meant that Milton was released from prison, allowing him to complete his half-finished epic poem 1.
Milton had first come to attention as a poet. His first published work was Lycidas, an acclaimed pastoral elegy written for Dorothy Moore‘s brother Edward King. It’s likely that Dorothy Moore met Milton at some point, though as far as I’m aware there is no record of it. In the 1640s Milton became acquainted with members of the Hartlib circle, including Samuel Hartlib, John Durie, Henry Oldenburg and Lady Ranelagh. Milton and Hartlib probably met in 1643 and in 1644 Hartlib circulated Milton’s tract Of Education, To Master Samuel Hartlib2.
In 1645, Lady Ranelagh sent her nephew Richard Barry to be educated by him. Lady Ranelagh and Milton appear to have been good friends: she sent her own son Richard Jones to be educated by Milton in 1653, and may have chosen Henry Oldenburg to accompany Jones as private tutor to Oxford on Milton’s advice. In a letter written to Richard Jones advising him on how best to profit from his Oxford education, Milton advises Jones to take as a model of virtue “that most excellent woman your mother”, and in another letter says that, “to me also she has stood in the place of all relations.” Though records are scanty, the friendship seems to have continued up to Milton’s death3.
Milton’s reputation, however, affected the reception of Paradise Lost. Though acclaimed as a masterpiece, Dryden’s adaptation of Paradise Lost for the stage outsold the original in the 17th century4.
Six years after Milton’s death saw the 1680 exclusion crisis, where a group in parliament led by the second Lord Shaftesbury tried to ensure James was excluded from the succession. During the debates, they were labelled as “Whigs”, a name that probably derived from the Whiggamores, the Scottish Presbyterian anti-Royalists of the 1640s 5 While the Whigs accused Tories of favouring arbitrary government, the Tories retaliated by calling the Whigs Roundheads and regicides. James Tyrrell, grandson of James Ussher and friend of Locke, was one of the first to see that the only way to escape these accusations was to separate parliamentary leaders from the army regicides, and vindicate the former on the grounds they themselves had adopted – that Charles I was breaking the ancient constitution6.
The work of redemption was done by Irish freethinker John Toland, “the archivist and to some extent the mythmaker of English republican theory”7 Toland, fresh from his eventful visit to Dublin, started work on a commonwealth canon including Edmund Ludlow, Algernon Sidney and James Harrington, starting with Milton. “John Milton was the central political martyr identified in this sequence of works, whose persona, Toland averred, was one of probity, humanity and patriotism”8.
In 1698 the A complete collection of the Historical, Political and Miscellaneous Works of John Milton was published under Toland’s name. Toland contributed a life of Milton which was designed to shape how the other texts were read. The Milton presented is a man of learning, devoted to defending liberty and combating the corrupting force of “priestcraft”. His actions were aimed “to rescue his fellow citizens from slavery”, one of the many quotes Toland used to bolster his depiction. Even Milton’s tracts on divorce which many thought scandalous were part of the same theme of liberty, aimed at removing “a kind of servitude at home”9.
The Life also touched on current political concerns: Toland depicted the Areopagitica as a republican critique of censorship: unjust, dishonourable and a tool of tyranny, at a time when the Licencing Act had recently been suspended (in 1695) and when efforts were being made to restrain religious expression. Equally, Toland’s straightforward account of how Charles I was “judically try’d and condemn’d” invoked arguments used to support the deposition of James II in 1689: the people had a right to deliever themselves from tyranny10.
While the suggestion that domineering and ambitious clerics were a danger to freedom could never be popular with the clergy, Toland’s support of Milton’s Eikonoklastes was even more controversial. That work argued that the Eikon Basilike was not written by Charles I, as had been claimed. Toland added additional evidence since Milton’s time that supported Milton’s view. Clerics attacked not only this accusation of fraud, but critised the project of republishing Milton’s works and accused Toland of reshaping Milton in his own image. Toland reacted by defending his work in Amyntor published in 1699. Toland insisted that he was simply giving a truthful account of Milton’s opinions, concealing nothing and leaving it up to the reader to judge the merit of Milton and his works. He also doubled down on the criticism of Eikon Basilike, actively restating the case against Charles’ authorship11.
John Toland was actively identified with his work on Milton, such as in this satirical print (1710) dealing with the Sacheverell affair, and in the reference to the “scribbler” in Edward Ward’s (1703) “A Secret History of the Calves Head Club”, claiming his recent entry to a club founded by Milton to celebrate Charles I’s execution. He had already been labelled “Milton Jr” in 1695 due to an earlier pamphlet he wrote about Charles I12. It was a label he was almost certainly proud to carry.
Featured Image: A blind John Milton dictating ‘Paradise Lost’ to his daughter. Line engraving by C. Grignion after S. Wale. Original image cropped and edited. Wellcome Images on Wikimedia (CC BY 4.0).
- Katharine Fletcher (2008) “A biography of John Milton 1608-1674” on Darkness Visible, Christ’s College at Cambridge University (website) ↩
- Barbara Lewalski (2000) The Life of John Milton, pp. 172-3 ↩
- Lewalski (2000) pp. 199, 293-4, 332, 337, 409 ↩
- Sophie Read (2008) “Milton and the critics: the reception of Paradise Lost” on Darkness Visible, Christ’s College at Cambridge University (website) ↩
- Oxford Dictionary of English, 3rd Edition, p. 2021. Stephen C. Manganiello (2004) The Concise Encyclopedia of the Revolutions and Wars of England, Scotland and Ireland, Maryland, US: Scarecrow Press, p. 576. ↩
- J. G. A. Pocock (1985) “The Varieties of Whiggism from Exclusion to Reform” in Virtue, Commerce and History: Essays on Political Thought and History, chiefly in the Eighteenth Century, Cambridge University Press, pp. 215-310. See pp. 232-3. ↩
- Pocock (1985) p. 233. ↩
- Michael Brown () A political biography of John Toland ↩
- Justin Champion (2003) Republican Learning: John Toland and the Crisis of Christian Culture, 1696—1722 Manchester University Press, pp. 100-102 ↩
- Champion(2003) pp. 101-102 ↩
- Champion(2003) pp. 103-105 ↩
- Champion(2003) pp. 93-95 ↩