Rich, often laudatory biography of the creator of Paradise Lost.
John Milton’s life (1608–74) encompassed one of the most turbulent periods in English history, notes Beer (Literature/Oxford Univ.; My Just Desire: The Life of Bess Ralegh, Wife to Sir Walter, 2003, etc.). A civil war, a beheaded king, a democracy that turned into dictatorship, a restoration of royalty, plague and the Great Fire are among the events that shaped his destiny. Beer’s Milton emerges as a courageous, often wildly incautious republican whose life was more than once in jeopardy, though he was merely jailed while heads of his allies rolled. He was also a classical scholar nonpareil, one of the first political pamphleteers and, of course, a master of blank verse and of just about every other poetical form he attempted. Beer often digresses from the chronological narrative to examine such material as street life in Milton’s native London, his attitudes toward women’s education, his participation in the theological and political debates of the day and the titillating question of whether the revered author of a great religious poem at any point in his life “turn’d pure Italian” (i.e., had homosexual affairs). Readers will surely wince at her horrific account of contemporary medical practices, which did little to help Milton when he began going blind in 1644, or during his final torments from renal failure. Not wanting to try the patience of general readers by venturing too far into the deep end of prosody’s pool, the author tends to praise more than analyze, and she occasionally offers block quotations from sources identified only in the end notes. Still, Beer takes us on an educative and often inspiring journey through Milton’s life and major works, dealing as best she can with the paucity of personal information (no family letters survive) and careful to note when she is speculating and when she is not.
A well-researched, graceful account of the life of a literary giant.