eagelton on milton


Most poetry in the modern age has retreated to the private sphere, turning its back on the political realm. The two intersect only in such absurd anomalies as the poet laureateship. But whereas Andrew Motion does his bit to keep the monarchy in business, one of the greatest of English poets played his part in subverting it. John Milton, who was born in Cheapside 400 years ago today, published a political tract two weeks after the beheading of Charles I, arguing that all sovereignty lay with the people, who could depose and even execute a monarch if he betrayed their trust. We are not used to such revolutionary sentiments in our poets. When he left Cambridge, Milton refused to take holy orders and, in his first great poem Lycidas, he mounted a blistering assault on the corruption of the clergy. He was a champion of Puritanism at a time when that meant rejecting a church in cahoots with a brutally authoritarian state.

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