Readers of Paradise Lost have argued this perennial question of Milton’s problematic depiction of Satan. As William Blake so beautifully puts the pro-Satan reading, “Milton was of the Devil’s Party without knowing it.” In The Satanic Epic (2003) Neil Forsythe actually takes this reading, which was popular among such Romantic poets as Byron, Keats, and Percy and Mary Shelley, to another level, arguing that Milton fully intended Satan to be the hero of the poem. (For those fans of Animal House, you’ll recall that Prof. Jennings [Donald Sutherland] suggests this reading to his class of undergrads, before confessing that he finds Milton to be as dull as they do. Blasphemy, I say!)
The best reading against seeing Milton as writing essentially a satanic epic comes from Stanley Fish’s Surprised by Sin (1967). Essentially Fish’s interpretations boils down to this: the poem lures the reader into admiring Satan only to yank the rug out from under in pointing out that this is only due to the reader’s own sinful state. Or as my friend, Bob Kilker, brilliantly summarized at a party: “The poem has you start to like the character only to say, ‘No, you idiot. He is Satan!’”
It is a shame, I suppose, this film wasn’t released three years ago, during Milton’s quadricentennial. Yes, the boy of Bread Street, nicknamed the “Lady of Christ’s College” by his classmates at Cambridge, turned 400 years young on December 9, 2008.
The “Onslaw Portrait”
To commemorate his birthday, numerous books were released, offering new perspectives of the poet who claimed to explain the ways of God to man. In anticipation of the quadricentennial, Laura Lunger Knoppers and Greg M. Semenza edited a collection of essays entitled, Milton in Pop Culture (2006). The topics range from examining PL’s influence on horror films to exploring Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials as a re-imagining of PL.
What I have found really interesting in looking back over the scholarly literature that has come out since then is how our generation looks at Milton. Two excellent biographies have been published since 2008, each giving complementing picture of the English Virgil. Anna Beer’s Milton: Poet, Pamphleteer, and Patriot (2008) situates Milton in the turbulent world of London during the English Civil War, Interregnum, and Restoration. For Beer, Milton was first and foremost a denizen of London. Milton’s life really was contained to a just a few blocks. As Beer points out,
“Back in 1608, [Milton] had been born in Bread Street; his school, St. Paul’s, was his nearest grammar school, just a few yards from his home; even when he returned from the transformational journey to Italy, he only moved to lodgings in St. Bride’s Churchyard, at the other end of Fleet Street, less than a mile from Bread Street. His first children, and his first pamphlets, were produced in Aldersgate Street, north of St. Paul’s, also the home of the Simmonses, the printing family that had been so important to his writing.” (388)
Beer does touch on such issues as Milton’s complicated marriages (he was three times a husband) and his strained relationship with his daughters, Mary, Anne, and Deborah (while Milton essentially cut them out of his will, they did steal their blind father’s books to sell). However, the thrust of Beer’s biography is directed towards contextualizing in the 1640s pamphleteering and his position as propagandist to the Cromwellian government. Beer rightfully remarks that “John Milton almost single-handedly created the identity of the writer as political activist, of writing as a political vocation” (121). Milton found the times apt for his belief in the power of the writer. In 1642, Parliament abolished the Star Chamber, the state body that censored the presses. For a piece writing to be published, the king had to grant the printer a license to do so. Now that this was no longer the case, London saw a flood of pamphlets, the modern day equivalent of the blog. This was Milton’s moment: he would go on to write pamphlets promoting ideas like divorce based on irreconcilable differences (The Doctrine and Disciple of Divorce ), the moral necessity of the freedom of the press (Areopagtica  ), and the right of the state to execute a monarch (Eikonoklastes ). Eventually on March 20th, 1649, Milton took up the position of Sectary of Foreign Tongues in Cromwell’s regime, his responsibilities being translating the government’s correspondence and defending the government in print.
In John Milton: A Hero of Our Time (2009), David Hawkes focuses on Milton’s own belief that he was destined for greatness.
Turning to Milton’s youthful poetry, Hawkes finds a young man essentially writing his own autobiography. Particularly in “Ad Patrem,” Hawkes argues that the young Milton attempted to convince his father that the investment that he has made in John’s education will return many times over. (At 32 years old, Milton was still shiftless, living in his family’s home and visiting the books sellers at St. Paul’s. By this point, Milton had really only produced one memorable poem “Lycidas,” a eulogy to his dead Cambridge classmate, Edward King, and Comus, a masque performed at Ludlow Castle for the Earl of Bridgewater.) As Hawkes reads the autobiography that Milton constructs for himself, his intellectual legacy – his poems and prose – Milton had already foreseen. While lamenting that fact that “Milton is now read mostly by reluctant undergraduates and studied in detail by their tutors,” Hawkes adroitly demonstrates the relevance that Milton’s writings have for the modern rise of religious fundamentalism and the phenomenon of paperless currency (how money is rapidly losing its materiality and possessing an almost “magical” quality). For one considering delving into Milton’s bio, I would recommend these two biographies: where Beer gives us a Milton who is a product of his time, Hawkes allows Milton to speak to our own.