One of the challenges of writing about John Milton—the man, the poet, the political figure—is the paucity of materials from which to reconstruct the first three decades of his life. There are records of baptism and education and suchlike, but his biographers have for the most part been confined to what Milton himself wrote about his upbringing and early adulthood. In compiling his brief life of Milton around 1680, John Aubrey had the advantage of being able to interview Milton’s widow, brother, nephew and various contemporaries. But other than recording such memorable details as Milton having been known as “the lady of Christ’s” while at Cambridge (ostensibly on account of his fair complexion), even he could put little flesh on the bones.
On one thing Milton and all his biographers agree. From an early age he was determined to become a poet of the first rank. To this end, he studied with unbending dedication before, during, and after his time at university. What is more, he succeeded. His 1645-1646 collection of Poems marked him out for greatness, and he duly achieved it in the marmoreal immensity of Paradise Lost (1667)—an English-language epic unlike anything that had gone before it, in which Milton justifies “the ways of God to man.”
And yet in his own day, Milton was famous less as a poet than as the author of controversial pamphlets championing free speech and the right to divorce, the energetic defender of Charles I’s execution and the leading propagandist for the virtues of the English Commonwealth until Charles II’s return from exile in 1660. Indeed, Paradise Lost can itself be read as a meditation on the overthrow of the English republic to which he had committed so much time and energy. Milton remains a hero to much of the left to the present day. Where did this radical zeal come from?