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This review is taken from PN Review 33, Volume 10 Number 1, September - October 1983.

DIMINISHING MILTON A. N. Wilson, The Life of John Milton (Oxford) £9.95

What is a man's life? How should one describe it? Two rather basic questions, it may seem, but try answering them. Is there some essence that we can see persisting through the events in a man's life and can describe independently of these events? Or can we understand a man only in the context of his times, his nation, his class, his knowledge and beliefs? Unless one is determined to lose oneself in the dark forest of 'psycho-history', where the arbitrary is the rule, the latter is surely the best course, as being more likely to throw light on one's subject, particularly in the case of a man like John Milton, who regarded poetry as a public affair and adopted a public role, both as poet and polemicist, in one of the most turbulent periods of English history.

A.N.Wilson's biography of Milton is unsatisfactory, not so much because he writes the kind of 'psycho-history' popularised by John Carey in his book about Donne, but because he begins with an idea of what he would like Milton to be and then doctors the evidence to prove it. He does not give sufficient weight to such public matters as Classical and Renaissance literary theory and traditions, preferring to discuss Milton's poetry in terms of the poet's personality (as distinct from intellectual interests, etc. though these surely cannot be distinguished in any satisfactory way); this leads Wilson to trivialise and misinterpret many of the poems.

In addition, Wilson ...

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