Citizen Milton

Bodleian Library Bodleian Library, Oxford
Dec 2007 - Apr 2008

Text by Sharon Achinstein

Site designed by Richard Rowley


"At the core of British history, the very British ideas of 'active citizenship,' 'good neighbour', civic pride and the public realm." — Gordon Brown, 2007

John Milton was born 400 years ago, and his ideas about citizenship are still relevant to us today. The author of the greatest epic poem in English, Paradise Lost, was also a reforming prose writer, a member of a revolutionary government, and the victim of censorship, whose daring positions we now consider vital to modern governance. Advocate of freedom of the press, transparency in government, public debate, education for liberty, the right to divorce, the disestablishment of the church and the abolition of monarchy, Milton espoused positions radical even by today's standards. The cornerstone of Milton's concept of liberty was the virtuous citizen, an individual endowed with reason to make choices and to act freely in the world.

As a poet and as politically engaged writer, Milton saw his lifelong struggle as in defense of liberty. He despised all forms of tyranny, from political to religious to domestic. Milton drew censure for his daring views. After the abolition of monarchy in 1649, which Milton defended, the poet served the republican government, his writings justifying the execution of the king to the rest of Europe. After the return of monarchy in 1660, Milton's republican writings were condemned to be burnt, and the author was sent to prison. There the poet began composing Paradise Lost, a poetic retelling of the Biblical story of the Fall of humankind, embarking on a poetic mission to help humans understand themselves, their history, their place in the cosmos, and to empower citizens to a virtue "equal to their calling."

This exhibition gives an account of this remarkable writer, with especial focus on Milton's concept of citizenship and the ways that later artists grappled with the complex legacy of his powerful words.

Please also see the Milton Quatercentenary site at the University of Cambridge.

For further information about early modern studies at the University of Oxford, please visit the Centre for Early Modern Studies.

Top image: 'Satan presiding in Hell', an illustration by John Martin for Paradise Lost (1825-26). See Section 8. 'Of the Devil's Party'.