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Eden Renewed: The Public and Private Life of John Milton.

John Milton's 'attempt on Parnassus' could not have been achieved without Christianity. From his lesser poems, to his prose, to his epic, Paradise Lost, he remains a writer of religion. He is not, however, a religious writer per se. (He was among other things an Arian, Unitarian, and acceptor of divorce and polygamy.) Living in an age of profound schisms and 'credal cleansing' his own doctrinal position is elusive - and Peter Levi's exploration into how the 'honey of poetry is produced by that writer in precise relation to his world' is both daring and awesome.

Milton always intended to be an outstanding achiever, a canonical champion - in the sense Harold Bloom discusses in The Western Canon. Knowing that with the composition of Paradise Lost he would begin his great ascent he, as Levi puts it, 'deliberately invented a language for it'. Like Dante, he was attempting nothing short of writing a third testament. Even his blindness and manner of composition (dictation to his daughter late on winter nights between the two equinoxes; he later described this as being 'milked') are details which seem fine tuned for grand posterity.

In a fascinating England of dissent, regicide, recriminations, plagues, and fires, Milton led a charmed life. Despite never having a major patron he was undoubtedly well-connected. Yet, no one knows exactly who looked out for him during times of serious threat. Following the death of Cromwell in 1658 (behind whose coffin walked blind Milton, young Dryden and Andrew Marvell) his books were ordered to be burnt by the Act of Indemnity in 1660. After being named in the subsequent witch - hunt by the House of Commons, the Lords never named him, and, amazingly, he was left unscathed, free to complete his magnum opus, as well as Paradise Regained, and Samson Agonistes.

Levi masters his subject by sheer weight of learning and scope of meditation. Yet, the writing is candid where it needs be (on a verse from Comus: 'This nonsense surely touches the verge of pantomime') and critical in quite lyrical ways: 'neoclassicism . . . affected him at times like arthritis in the fingers'.

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Author:Wong, Nicholas
Publication:Contemporary Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jan 1, 1997
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