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".
And even his personal vanity seemed to remain throughout his life at a highly adolescent phase. In the rhetorical heat of 1652 (as Forsyth provides a solid but not overly complicated account of the toings and throughings of the fragile Republic), Milton is caught in a vicious pamphleteering war. What really seems to exercise him is not the debate, but the personal insult. Forsyth quotes: "Ugly I have never been thought by anyone…I admit that I am not tall, but my stature is closer to the medium than the small, as is the case with so many men of greatest worth."
Yet Milton could sometimes be almost human. When Thomas Hobson, the man who had driven generations of Cambridge students to London and back, died in 1631, several university wits wrote poems of remembrance. (Hobson was obviously a character – we draw the saying "Hobson's choice" from his stance to the students that they could have any horse they liked, so long as it was the one beside the stable door." Milton's words were unusually lacking in heavy moralising:
[Death] lately finding him so long at home
And thinking now his journeys end was come,
And that he had tane up his latest Inne,
In the kind office of a Chamberlin
Shew'd him his room where he must lodge that night,
Pull'd off his boots, and took away the light.
If any ask for him, it shall be sed,
Hobson has supt and's newly gone to bed.
But you keep coming back to his attitudes towards women. Forsyth notes that he's a man who writes often of his father, but barely mentions his mother, Sara, nee Jeffrey, saying only in one formulaic passage that she was "a woman of purest reputation, celebrated throughout the neighbourhood for her acts of charity". She must indeed have been a woman of some standing, the daughter of a merchant tailor of St Swithin's parish. A pupil who knew him well told an early biographer that she "had very weake eies, & used spectacles" after the age of 30 – so you'd have thought Milton might have had something to say about his inherited condition.
Then, at the age of 33, his only close known friendship having been with a man, Charles Diodati (who had died), he suddenly married (although he had, Forsyth tells us), hinted a few months before at his desire for a virgin "of mean fortunes honestly bred". Thus he came, after an acquaintance of one month, to marry a 17-year-old girl, Mary Powell, whose father owed his father a debt and was struggling to pay. Forsyth is convinced that at this point Milton is also a virgin, and one with some curious ideas about "purity".
Reading between the lines of Forsyth's cautious prose — "There may well have been something wrong with the Miltons' sexual connection" — you can bet that there are some wild and wacky theories in ivory towers on this subject. But this biographer only explains that she left after a few months, and returned after three years only when the fortunes of the Civil War left her family in grave peril, on the "wrong", royalist side, while Milton of course was on the other.
Forsyth closely follows Milton's radical support for divorce (and its personal relevance). He notes that Milton was forced by his arguments to admit that women should also be allowed to sue for divorce, but adds that "a standard kind of misogyny intervenes: it was Eve's fault first (read Mary Powell's)… no longer is a difficult marriage a matter of incompatability. Blameless error is occasionally transmitted into the woman's "most unnatural fraud".
There's contradictory evidence about whether he deprived his daughters of education, or forced it on them then complained that they did not live up to his standards, Forsyth reports, but what is certain is that at the Restoration this was one seriously unhappy household. In 1662 the daughters were collectively stealing from the household and selling his books, presumably because they felt inadequately provided for. When Milton married for a third time (to Elizabeth Minshull, 24, when he was 54) he didn't bother to tell his daughters.
Forsyth also provides a brief summary of the works in this "life", focusing particularly on Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained, but it is a biography, not a literary critique. And a decent one as a work of popular scholarship. If it leaves you not particularly looking to extend your acquaintance with the poet, well, that isn't the biographer's fault.