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This article is taken from PN Review 9, Volume 6 Number 1, September - October 1979.

Rickword and Milton Christopher Hill

In 1939 I was asked to edit a volume of essays, The English Revolution 1640, to celebrate the tercentenary of that revolution. One essay, 'Milton: the revolutionary intellectual', was by Edgell Rickword. I thought at the time it was very good indeed, and reviewers confirmed this view. But I did not appreciate quite how superlative it was until I came to write a book of my own on Milton and the English Revolution, published in 1977. Edgell Rickword's essay of 1940 must have sunk deep into my consciousness, but I did not re-read it until I had finished the first draft of my book. I then realized that though I had expanded some factual points, and had dealt more fully with Milton's last great poems than Edgell Rickword did, in all essentials I had merely elaborated arguments which he had stated with beautiful brevity and clarity in 1940.

His achievement was all the more remarkable if we recall the date. In 1940 the campaign against Milton was at its height, led by T. S. Eliot and F. R. Leavis, then two of the most respected names in English letters. Rickword must have been tempted to answer their denigrations. Instead, much more effectively, he ignored them and stated the case for Milton the revolutionary intellectual. There was then no need to argue that there might be non-literary reasons for attacking Milton.

Rickword made his case with superb economy. Starting with the relatively uncontentious statement 'there is ...


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