There's a lot that's attractive about John Milton: champion of freedom and democracy, scourge of priests, magnificent wordsmith. Who indeed couldn't like a man who defended open and spirited public debate thus?
"I cannot praise a fugitive and cloister'd virtue, unexercis's & unbreath'd, that never sallies out and sees her adversary, but slinks out of the race... that which purifies us is trial, and trial is by what is contrary."
But then you get away from his words to his character, the person John Milton in Neil Forsyth's new biography: a modestly sized, but solidly constructed popular work that aims to incorporate recent research into a fairly familiar tale. (And there have been some quite spectacular discoveries in recent years — it was only in 1996 that documents were found in the Hammersmith and Fulham Record Office confirming that his family moved to the village of Hammersmith in 1632 and that his father became a churchwarden there.)
Forsyth is a scrupulously fair biographer – a man clearly enraptured by the poet's words, but trying to see the man clearly. And, when you get down to it, this is not an attractive picture, particularly when it comes to his attitude towards women, and indeed his general moral character. He comes across as a man who's never grown beyond late adolescent priggishness, the desperate assertion that he's always right, and always on the high moral ground, and no one else quite lives up to his standards.
In Naples on his "Grand Tour", Milton met one of Europe's great literary patrons, Giovanni Battista Manso, Marquis of Villa. Manso wrote a lovely epigram for Milton, Forsyth reports, but also said that he would have been a better host had Milton been less explicit about his religious views. One can just hear the stiff-necked young Englishman expounding loudly on subjects better left to polite silence.
Milton's not a man for false modesty, claiming for example that the abilities of a poet are rare, but given to every nation, being "of power beside the office of the pulpit to inbreed and cherish in great people the seeds of vertu, and public civility, to allay the perturbations of the mind and set the affections in right tune." Not long after, admittedly responding to a slander that he was a regular brothel-goer, he admits to no flaw, saying, in which Forsyth described as a "heroic but deeply unsettling" passage, that he has conducted an "unfained and diligent inquiry of mine owne conscience at home" and found no sins. And, Forsythe adds, "the claim to be somehow above the rest of us, exempt, is a recurring characteristic of Milton's prose".