John Milton: Life, Work, and Thought

By GORDON CAMPBELL andTHOMAS N. CORNS

John Milton is one of the enigmas of English letters; his imprint is deep, and yet its outlines are indistinct. Philip Pullman has done much to renew popular interest in Milton, even as he contests the poet’s account of Good and Evil. Like Lyra’s Oxford, the parallel universe that is the chief setting of Pullman’s His Dark Materials series, Milton’s world was topsy-turvy by present-day standards. In his strife-torn England, it was humanists who stood in the camp of monarchy, tradition, and authoritarianism, while religious conservatives were champions of science, representative government, and freedom of speech. John Milton: Life, Work, and Thought finds its force not only as a scholarly study of Milton’s life and works but as a wide-ranging introduction to an age that, for all its strangeness, set the stage for modernity. Authors Gordon Campbell and Thomas N. Corns assemble the materials of Milton in all their knotty particulars, tracing the tender complexities of Milton’s personal life, comprehending the rigors and rituals of the academic and clerical spheres in which he moved, and cataloging the difficulties (not to mention the mortal dangers) of living as a public intellectual in the time of Cromwell and King Charles. Milton navigated these turbid streams with a combination of flexibility and stubborness, and Campbell and Corns are scrupulousy attentive to the twists and turns of a career that combined profound theology and political engagement with poetic invention at its highest pitch. The lengthy job of work they set for their readers is repaid in rich fare for the historical imagination. “For books are not absolutely dead things,” as Milton wrote, “but do contain a potency of life in them to be as active as that soul was whose progeny they are.”

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