This year is the 400th anniversary of John Milton’s birth, and once more this most elusive and fascinating of men demonstrates the difficulties of penetrating his life and mind. Blair Worden, one of our most distinguished historians of the seventeenth century, nonetheless roundly succeeds in doing so. While most people have a predominant impression of Milton as a poet, for Worden it is his political life, lived at a time when a ferment of ideas was boiling up, that fascinates and requires examination. Worden’s thesis is that Milton, like his fellow (and less ideological) poet Andrew Marvell, came under the strong influence of the hack, propagandist and serial turncoat Marchamont Nedham when extolling the regime that executed Charles I in 1649 and then morphed into the Protectorate four years later. Although Marvell and Nedham share the billing in the subtitle to Worden’s book, it is Milton who steals the show: and Worden reminds us – indeed, given how forgotten this part of Milton’s life now is, perhaps informs some – what a formidable, articulate and driven pamphleteer Milton was, and how explicitly his writings in this genre revealed the man’s soul and the towering nature of his convictions.
Marvell had been a royalist – as the journalist Nedham had, when such an allegiance was the most effective way for him to earn a living – but Milton, an intellectual on an altogether higher level, was of the mind that revolutionised England in the 1640s right from the very