The Poet as Daemon

The radicalising dangers of reading and writing poetry.

Sin Pursued by Death (John Milton, Paradise Lost, Book 2, 787, 790-792) Frederick Christian Lewis, 1804. Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Joseph Mede, one of John Milton’s tutors at Christ’s College, Cambridge, thought that Calvinists who believed in the doctrine of absolute reprobation were themselves fixed in strong opinions and so ‘according to their own Tempers made a judgement of God and his Decrees’. Men invent God in their own image. It’s much the same with Miltonists.

For this reason, postwar Milton scholarship is a map of the changing demographics and politics of universities. In this outstanding new biography of the poet and polemicist, Nicholas McDowell takes on what he identifies as two main tendencies in biographically oriented Milton scholarship. The first identifies young Milton as a Laudian or conformist churchman, who became radicalised through personal experience and later turned into the outspoken revolutionary. The second views him as always a radical, whose politics were crystallised, without rupture or sudden shift, through the 1630s and 1640s. 

There is more at stake than Milton here: the question of how a privileged and self-regarding English schoolboy could become the most audible proponent of regicide and republicanism in Europe concerns not only the man but also the causes and nature of the civil wars of 17th-century Britain. And the narrative of the early Milton’s poetic ambitions always complements and is complemented by interpretations of Paradise Lost, the greatest long poem in English, written after two decades of polemical prose. 

McDowell’s book is in many respects a conventional intellectual biography. It follows Milton (1608-74) from birth, through education at St Paul’s and Cambridge, years of quiet study at his father’s house in Horton (1635-38), travels mainly in Italy (1638-39), then his return to London and the beginning of his career as a prose writer (1641-42). McDowell attends in great detail to Milton’s education, to what he read, how and why he read it; and to who taught him, how those personal connections were made, who the people in Milton’s family’s life were. It is a wonderful account of the impact of Milton’s education upon him, set in the rich context of changing educational practices in early modern England. McDowell stops in 1642 and so doesn’t directly resolve the matter of Paradise Lost’s genesis, which he defers to a second volume – though grounds for this are laid.

Through this narrative of the study of the classics, McDowell seeks to identify how and when Milton was radicalised. He offers a third and contrarian alternative to the two sketched previously. Milton was gradually radicalised from his youth onwards, not by politics or theology but by humanist scholarship. Careful reading of classical Latin and Greek texts, and their emphasis on the relationship between eloquence and personal moral virtue, fostered poetic ambition and a sense of the role of the poet as a superior being or daemon, who mediated the divine to ordinary humans. Milton read a traditional curriculum in a distinctive, ambitious way; he idealised and pursued a notion of ‘general learning’, or universal knowledge, equipping the scholar to debate across the humanities and the poet to excel. In Italy he conversed with scholars and witnessed the risk that clerical domination posed to free humanist scholarship. This, and his reading in British history on his return, made the young man into a critic of false church discipline and doctrine.

McDowell strikingly emphasises the notion of the poet-as-daemon, which Milton derived from Christian Neoplatonism and from Joseph Mede’s writings. These daemons, transcendent spiritual beings between humans and God, sound like metaphors, but Milton means this ‘reasonably seriously’. This state is achieved by universal knowledge and virginity (not the more orthodox Protestant commitment to chastity, which can be sexually active). Milton, in McDowell’s account, comes to imagine that the poet is a kind of daemon, self-deified, more than human. Not scripture, but this vision of the daemonic poet leads to the prevalence of the ‘celestial’ in Milton’s writings. The daemonic poet, learning and virginity saturate the early poetry. 

His concern with protecting the true poet’s vocation and his experience of censorship and grasp of British history, makes Milton’s turn to writing prose in the five antiprelatical tracts of 1641-42 an intelligible continuation of existing values. They were political because they concern church government, an issue dividing king and Parliament, and he may have to have been asked to write them by his former tutor Thomas Young, who had introduced Milton to classical poetics. Poetry is the basis, and not just the voice, of his political opposition. 

In this account Thomas Hobbes – who complained that reading the classics turned young men into republicans – was right. However, in this version the threat is not Livy or Thucydides, but Virgil, the Plutarch of the Moralia and humanist textual criticism of the classics. It’s not political theory or reason of state that make you dangerous, so much as philology, morality and a love of beauty. For McDowell’s Milton, education leads to poetic ambitions and poetry leads to radicalisation and this leads to profound theological and political critique. It is not politics that makes Milton’s poetry radical so much as poetry that makes Milton a political radical.

For McDowell, Milton’s 1640s radicalism has nothing to do with pamphlet culture or popular politics, but is rooted in a scholarly and intellectual milieu and tradition. He sees this Erasmian humanism as explaining Milton’s ‘perplexing’ attention to his own intellectual development and poetic ambitions in Reason of Church Government, the first work with his name appended to it. In truth, however, Milton seldom overlooked an opportunity to write about himself, his abilities and poetic ambitions. It was a topic of which he was fond, though on this occasion he did so in controversial print, for a non-coterie audience. 

McDowell’s portrait of a self-championing scholar trudging a heroically independent path, despised by the world, needs to be read in the light of Milton’s extraordinarily privileged education, at St Paul’s School, with additional private tutors, and Christ’s College Cambridge, followed by a period living on his father’s munificence. We read that Milton emulated Dante; yet Dante’s devotion to poetry and learning, according to Boccaccio, involved sacrificing food and heating. Milton lived comfortably (progressively risking this through anti-monarchism) and was a product of the inequality of his times. Milton’s self-praise evidently lacks humility, but it often lacks self-knowledge.

McDowell’s Milton professes commitment to pursuit of the beautiful and this beauty is independent of politics, theology and the world. McDowell sometimes collapses this beauty into knowledge; it lies in general learning rather than creativity or aesthetics. I would have liked to have read more about what the young Milton thought beauty was and where it lay.

In a way the emphasis on continuing and exalted poetic ambition is a traditional account of Milton’s development and his consistent sense of vocation. Milton speaks of it, repeatedly. Even in the early 1630s Milton was crafting an image of his future career, in turn facilitated or amplified by what he chose to preserve. What is new here is the identification of a continuous commitment to learning and criticism in the poetry and prose and the – important – early emphasis on learning and scholarship, rooted in an examination of the records of education and reading. McDowell’s life is thoroughly researched and elegantly written. It is accessible to the general reader (who won’t detect its occasional partisanship). It is a wonderful book, and I look forward to the second volume.

Poet of Revolution: The Making of John Milton
Nicholas McDowell
Princeton University Press 502pp £30

Joad Raymond is Professor of Renaissance Studies at Queen Mary University of London.