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Happy Birthday John Milton

December 9, 2013

Milton

John Milton was not only England’s greatest epic poet, he was also one of England’s greatest republicans. Paradise Lost is, among other, an epic interrogation of the nature of power. It is an intensely controversial poem in which the nature of tyranny and political virtue is tried and tested. In some of the most powerful and syntactically convoluted verse every written in English, Milton eventually makes a hero out of the reader her or himself.

He worked translating foreign documents during the commonwealth period, but he was more important as a pamphleteer and controversialist. Author of The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates and Eikonoklastes in English and Defensio pro Populo Anglicano and Defensio Secunda in Latin, Milton became the international champion of English republicanism. He repeatedly argued for the principle that power is contractual and that the people have the right (and perhaps also the duty) to bring their rulers to account.

Milton regarded monarchy as a kind of lack of faith. Trusting in a dynasty is, for Milton, a species of distrust, an inability to believe that charismatic and politic leadership will not be provided as and when the times demand it. He was a republican on both moral and aesthetic grounds – believing that monarchy sponsored servility and duplicity while republicanism inspires civic virtue and promotes a spirit of healthy aspiration.

Milton always recalled the story in the Old Testament of how the prophet Samuel is asked by the Children of Israel if he can ask God to give them a king.  After a chat with God, Samuel reports back with a divine warning that kings are a terrible idea.    Kings will take a big chunk of your stuff – take your daughters as concubines and your sons as spear fodder in wars of self aggrandisement and you will rue the day you ever asked for a king.  The tribal elders are still keen on a king because they want to be “like other countries”.  In other words, they don’t want to be special.  They also want to know where the next leader is coming from, instead of relying on the ad hoc charismatic leadership of the Judges.

Following the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, the English seemed even more like the  errant Children of Israel in Milton’s eyes.  They had spoiled their own chance of “being special” and so deferred the opportunity for real freedom for at least another generation.  Ho hum.  Nevertheless, the exemplary value of history will ensure that nothing has been wasted (in Milton’s view) and there will be another attempt at building a better world – even if Milton himself won’t live to “see” it.

Compared to the great poetry of republicanism, the poetry of Milton, Shelley, Byron etc., monarchist verse seems rather drab and predictive, complacent and unrewarding.  Monarchism nurtures none of the restless aspirational energies that make the best poetry happen.

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3 Comments
  1. Re monarchism and poetry, what would you say to the poems of Horace and Vergil, those tireless panegyricists of Augustus? Some say there are “further voices” in their work that subtly subvert the regime, but if there are, they are submerged pretty deep!

  2. Horace and Vergil were flattering the status quo at a time when dissent was pretty much impossible. Are these digressive eulogies the things we most remember from these poets though? Is flattering Augustus where their best energies were focused?

    Another point is that they may well have persuaded themselves that Augustus was “not really” a monarch but rather the saviour of the republic. This was certainly Augustus’ own preferred identity and he was careful to abjure the hated word “rex”. It’s possible that Horace and Vergil may have seen Augustus as a necessary princeps/dictator for life without necessarily reconciling themselves to dynastic rule.

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