Milton was born into a well-to-do family of scriveners and property dealers. He went to St Paul's School (yards from his home) and then Cambridge (a bit further). He was extremely studious: a kind of Stephen Fry of his generation. He had a number of close male friends and rumours of his being a sodomite pursued him through his life. He wrote a little and studied a lot. The government suspended the rule that all publications must be licensed (cleared through the censors) and an explosion of pamphleteering began similar to the blogospheric explosion of our times. Milton was just another pamphleteer until he achieved notoriety with his views on Divorce (he believed an unhappy marriage was grounds for divorce). This might have been linked to his own first marriage: a wife many years younger than himself who went home after a month although she later returned and bore him at least four children.
He weighed in on the republican side during the English Civil War, later becoming a civil servant with the new Commonwealth government. This made him persona non grata during the Restoration: he had to go into hiding for a while. Meantime he was losing his eyesight.
Blind and unemployed; becoming poor under the Stuarts; he wrote Paradise Lost. This was immediately recognised as a classic; an MP burst into the Commons wielding it and talking about the most marvellous poem ever. Later he wrote Paradise Regained and Samson Agonistes ("Eyeless in Gaza") before becoming gout ridden and dying.
- Samson Agonistes is effectively a poem in praise of terrorism; by pulling down the temple on himself Samson is the classical equivalent of a suicide bomber.
- A Civil War rumour: that "Royalist soldiers arrived in a [Somerset] village and demanded the services of a woman. In fear, the villagers handed over a particular woman who was 'given to them all'. In the morning, the woman was ostracised by the village." (p156) Shades of the disgraceful hosts in both Sodom (Genesis) and Gilead (Judges 19).
A slow moving biography. Sadly, the most interesting bits where when she described what happened to other people during the Civil War.
August 2010; 401 pages