A worldly Puritan

<strong>Milton: Poet, Pamphleteer and Patriot</strong>

Anna Beer <em>Bloomsbury, 480pp, £20</em>

Of the great English poets, few are so controversial as John Milton. T S Eliot and F R Leavis said his “grand style” lacked precision; feminists accused him of misogyny. Perhaps most offensive to the 21st-century hedonist is his identification with puritanism: Milton is presumed to have despised the body.

This book shows him as a man actively grappling with such issues. In his early Latin poems and his letters, he struggled to reconcile the eroticism of pagan poetry with the Christian emphasis on chastity, revealing a complex view of love and abstinence further explored in his arguments for relaxing the divorce laws.

The onset of pamphlet culture in the 1640s profoundly shaped Milton’s writing. As Beer writes, “John Milton almost single-handedly created the identity of the writer as political activist.” His Areopagitica is an early argument for the freedom of the press, and The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates gave intellectual justification to the trial and execution of Charles I. That someone so worldly should later write Paradise Lost may seem incredible, but Beer’s book shows that, for Milton, aesthetic contemplation and political action were always intertwined.

Matthew Taunton is a Leverhulme Fellow in the School of Literature, Drama and Creative Writing at UEA, and is currently working on a book about the cultural resonances of the Russian Revolution in Britain.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Now it gets really dirty