by Unknown artist, oil on canvas, feigned oval, circa 1629

I take the title of my review directly from the text of this book by Stephen Dobranski. As one of the world’s leading experts on John Milton, Dobranski brings his pen to bear on the lessons Milton learned in his difficult life. And while the subtitle implies that this book somehow creates a roadmap for us to navigate the perilous times we live in now, it really does not address that at all. Rather, it shows that even Milton, who is now so highly regarded as having written the greatest prose poem in the English language, was often derided in his own lifetime.

In 1660, Dobranski tells us, “Priests and academics as far away [from London] as West Yorkshire spent great sums buying up copies of Milton’s prose works for the pleasure of setting them on fire and watching them burn.”

An especially seditious book Milton wrote was a Latin polemic (Defense of the People of England) commissioned by Parliament while Cromwell was lording it over England. Ominously for Milton, once Charles II regained the throne of England in 1660, “copies of Milton’s Defense were set on fire by the hangman outside the Old Bailey, the nation’s central criminal court.” It had already been publicly burned in France in 1651. Milton’s theological treatise, On Christian Doctrine, was never published in the face of such opposition; the only copy of it was discovered more than a century after he died. Dobranski gives us a photo of the first page of this manuscript, now at the National Archives in Kew.  In it, Milton could be found laying the seeds of civil disobedience, first published by Thoreau in 1848. Milton asserted that even the Ten Commandments could be broken. He even went so far as “offering a divine rationale for slavery.”

The strictures against Milton continued for a long time: in 1683 (9 years after he died) Oxford University condemned all of Milton’s books defending regicide. Rather surprisingly, Dobranski merely reports these incidents without offering any judgment on them. So let me offer my own: the clergy, and academics, and the hangman were all doing good work. Even though I have written professionally on Milton’s Paradise Lost, I would never even touch his books defending regicide.

Getting back to being dauntless: Dobranski very cleverly revisits that in his analysis of Milton around the year 1658, when he began writing Paradise Lost. In “creating the rebel Satan, he seems to have paused to wonder whether he was utterly justified and whether England’s revolution had been purely motivated.” Milton reconsidered the man he was at the start of the Civil War, “his insistence and his high self-regard. What was the difference between dauntless courage and damning pride?” Indeed, Dobranski believes that the “proud fiend” Satan “reflects a version of Milton’s own striving and combativeness. As he meditated on England’s recent history, he created a corrupt but not entirely contemptible version of the ardor that drove him.”

It all seems so far removed from the young Milton, who wrote “For though I do not know what else God may have decreed for me, this certainly is true: He has instilled into me, if into anyone, a vehement love of the beautiful.” He wrote this with affection to his friend Diodati, who died young at 29. Since death is a prime topic for Milton (a physician even wrote a poem for the second edition of Paradise Lost) I’m surprised the author did not mention Milton’s only alcaic poem. Written when he was just 17, it dwells on the thought that even physicians die.

One does not have to be a Milton scholar to benefit from this book, which is written for a general audience. So many Milton books are done in a dense, academic, style, so it is a pleasure to recommend this to the many people who only know Milton by reputation. If you only add one Milton book for your library, this is the one.

Stephen B. Dobranski is Distinguished University Professor at Georgia State University and the editor of the journal Milton Studies. His books include Readers and Authorship in Early Modern England (2005), Milton’s Visual Imagination (2015), and a new edition of Paradise Lost (2022).

Reading John Milton: How to Persist in Troubled Times is by Stanford Univ. Press. It lists for $35.

By Dr. Cliff Cunningham

Dr. Cliff Cunningham is a planetary scientist, the acknowledged expert on the 19th century study of asteroids. He is a Research Fellow at the University of Southern Queensland in Australia. He serves as Editor of the History & Cultural Astronomy book series published by Springer; and Associate Editor of the Journal of Astronomical History & Heritage. Asteroid 4276 in space was named in his honour by the International Astronomical Union based in the recommendation of the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. Dr. Cunningham has written or edited 15 books. His PhD is in the History of Astronomy, and he also holds a BA in Classical Studies.