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John Milton, London Writer

Patrick Cook

Born in Bread Street three houses south of Cheapside and living there for thirty-two years, educated at St. Paul’s school, John Milton spent nearly all of his life in or very near London — the only confirmed exceptions are the terms spent at Cambridge from 1625 to 1632, his grand tour of Europe in 1637-38, and a quick trip, of about a month, to Oxfordshire in 1642 to acquire his first wife. And yet, because Milton’s fame derives principally from his biblical poems, set at such great distance spatially and temporally from the seventeenth century readers who purchased his works at Saint Paul’s churchyard, he is not often thought of as a London writer. As this essay will demonstrate, however, Milton was intensely interested in the metropolis whose cultural resources he absorbed and from which all of his works were disseminated, and he used it prominently as a real and symbolic location throughout his career.

Early poems

The first extended reference to London in the poetry occurs soon after the poet’s first absence from the metropolis. The facts surrounding Milton’s disagreement with his first Cambridge tutor and his “rustication” remain unclear. But we can say that the event occasioned some remarkable play with the image of the city. The first Latin elegy is a letter, densely alluding to a range of texts by Ovid, addressed from London to Milton’s dear friend Charles Diodati. It is primarily, as Ralph Condee notes, a “cross-comparison of Milton’s exile with Ovid’s” (Condee 499-500). If Ovid was exiled from the center of civilization to barbaric shores of the Black Sea, Milton finds that his dispute with a tutor has ironically “rusticated” him from bleak Cambridge to the new Rome of London. This is the poet’s earliest use of the convention of “translatio studii,” and he manipulates this trope with a bold combination of seriousness and humor.[1] Together with the translation of learning from ancient to modern metropolis comes the translation of empire: if, as Milton here claims, exile prevented Ovid from exceeding the epic supremacy of Homer and Virgil, the implications are clear not only for London’s future imperial greatness but for the supremacy of the English epic bard as well. This thought leads naturally into the advantages that London offers the formative poet. Unlike Cambridge, with its oppressive scholastic heritage and rigid pedagogy, London combines intellectual stimulation with freedom. His sweet “patria” — which I take to indicate both his native place and his father’s house — is a more appropriate domain of the “Phoebicolis” (14), the worshipper of Apollo, who may “freely devote his spare time to the tranquil muses” (25).[2] Here, he writes from his home a stone’s throw from the city’s largest book market, “books, which are my life, quite carry me away” (26). When weary of reading, he can attend the theater, where comedy and tragedy are thriving. Both dramatic genres are described at length in the poem in terms that blend Greco-Roman with Jacobean details. Milton seems to be combining both his classical reading and his London experience — as the son of a trustee of the Blackfriars playhouse, young Milton likely could attend free of charge (Berry 514) — to adumbrate an even more glorious hybrid theater for the new Rome.

That the utopian, even millennial dimension of the new Rome is, after all, an adolescent fantasy becomes clear as effusions over London’s promotion of the cult of Phoebus give way to effusions over the cult of Venus, who, Milton claims, was destined to prefer the British capital to her traditional Mediterranean habitats. With perfect symmetry, Milton balances his praise of intellectual and artistic London with a section of identical length on the city’s erotic glories, deliberately overgoing exiled Ovid’s heated memories of Rome’s beautiful women. Translation of learning and empire has been accompanied by translation of supreme beauty:

Surrender, you maidens of Greece and of Troy and of Rome. Let the Tarpeian Muse stop boasting about Pompey’s colonnade, or about theatres crowded with the matrons of Italy. The first prize goes to the British girls. Be content, foreign woman, to take second place! And you, London, a city built by Trojan settlers, a city whose towery head can be seen for miles, you are more than fortunate for you enclose within your walls whatever beauty is to be found in all this pendant world. (67-76)

Despite the phallic power symbolized by the city’s towery head, the new domicile of Venus poses dangers. As the elegy closes, London quickly metamorphosizes into the “infamous halls of faithless Circe” (87-88), to be escaped only with the assistance of divine herb, moly.

If divine moly helped the poet escape in his first depiction of London, in his second he is not so fortunate. The seventh elegy adds to the Ovidian contexts of the first Milton’s new interest in Dante and Petrarch. One should picture the poem’s climactic event occurring at Moorfields, a popular walking place near Milton’s home (or perhaps Lincoln’s Inn Field, which James in 1618 ordered to be laid out in similar promenades):

Sometimes the city promenades provided me with entertainment, sometimes the countryside near the outlying houses. A crowd of girls, with faces just like goddesses, go to and fro along the walks, resplendently beautiful… Heedless, I let my eyes meet theirs: I was unable to keep my eyes in check. Then, by chance, I caught sight of one girl who was far more beautiful than all the rest: that radiance was the beginning of my downfall. (51-54)

Unfortunately, the woman is “taken away” from the poet’s sight, “never to return.” Milton’s first version of the donna angelicata, inhabiting a space less Platonic and more concretely urban than her Italian predecessors, disappears into the milling crowd. In the original Latin the repeated “turba” (crowd) and “frequens” connote turbulence and great numbers. The speaker laments, “Believe me, no one has ever fallen in love in such an unlucky way” (91). The London crowd, by this point in history already the object of much commentary (cf. Munro), has complicated Renaissance Petrarchism.

The sonnets and the prose

Despite the difficulty of his playing Petrarch in crowded Moorfields, or perhaps because of it, young Milton soon began a sonnet sequence. After first exploring the form with an unlocalized song to the nightingale, he composed five sonnets in Italian. Early on, these sonnets were assigned to the period of the Italian journey, and were thus assumed to have an Italian setting.[3] But such readings ignore a crucial detail from Sonnet 3, where the poet claims to exchange “the beautiful Thames for the beautiful Arno (without my worthy fellow countrymen understanding me at all)” (Sonnet 3, 10), a metonymy that signifies a change of language from English to Tuscan while asserting a London setting. The discrepancy between place and language is central to the meaning of the Italian sequence. Milton includes an Italian canzone with the sonnets as a kind of meta-commentary.

Girls and boys in love press about me, laughing, and say, “Why, O why do you write your love poems in an alien and unknown language? How do you dare to do it? Tell us, so you may never hope in vain, and may your dreams come true.” They tease me and say, “There are other rivers and shores and other waters for you, by whose grassy brinks the immortal reward of unfading leaves is already sprouting for your hair. Why take this excessive load upon your shoulders?” Canzone, I will tell you, and you can answer for me. My lady says — and her word is my heart — “This is the language on which love prides itself.”

It is now the foreignness of the lady, both in her appearance and her language, that overcomes the anonymity of the London crowd. The singularity of lover and beloved draws them together. The poet’s heart rejoices, most literally, at a “pilgrim beauty under a new idea” (Sonnet 4, 6-7). Working a remarkable twist on the Petrarchan image of the lover as pilgrim, Milton makes the “pellegrina bellezza” both the beautiful Italian woman who has journeyed to the new Rome and who reveals a new and distinctive form of beauty, and the poet’s new aesthetic sense that has metaphorically journeyed to her, adjusting to a new revelation. No longer dazzled by the “tresses of gold or vermeil cheeks” of London ladies (5), but by the Italian lady’s “speech that is adorned with more than one language” (10) — as well as by her dignified manner, black eyes, and ravishing singing—the poet honors her with linguistic imitation, and in the process forms a speech community that unites them in their distinction from the canzone’s crowd of laughing London youth who “press about him” (“M’accostandosi attorno” 2).

As Milton continued to add sonnets to his sequence, and to reconceptualize the whole sonneteering tradition, the London setting recurs at times explicitly, and at times implicitly, through biographical details. Anna Nardo argues, rightly I think, that the sequence unites ostensibly occasional sonnets into a planned and coherent celebration of an ideal community. She does not note, however, that this community is emphatically based in London, which in mid-century was more and more the object of what Laurence Manley calls “centripetal millennial fervor” (552), to which Milton increasingly contributed in his prose. In the sonnets addressed to male and female friends, and in the sonnets on “public policy” addressed to revolutionary leaders (Cromwell, Fairfax, Vane), the addressees are all of local domicile, and the early readership of these sonnets would perceive their local status. Milton stresses his own local residence in Sonnet 8, addressed to a Royalist “Captain or Colonel, or Knight in Arms” when, as a deleted manuscript title informs us, “the assault was intended to the City” perhaps in 1642. Milton’s biography allows us to assign a London setting to all of his other sonnets about himself as well.

The most interesting use of the London setting occurs in the humorous sonnet 12, written in exasperation over the uncomprehending reception of a divorce tract:

A book was writ of late called Tetrachordon;
And woven close, both matter, form and style;
The subject new: it walked the town a while,
Numbering good intellects; now seldom pored on.
Cries the stall-reader, Bless us! what a word on
A title-page is this! And some in file
Stand spelling false, while one might walk to Mile-
End Green. Why is it harder sirs then Gordon,
Colkitto, or Macdonnel, or Galasp?
Those rugged names to our like mouths grow sleek
That would have made Quintilian stare and gasp.
Thy age, like ours, O soul of Sir John Cheke,
Hated not learning worse than Toad or Asp;
When thou taught’st Cambridge, and King Edward Greek.

The epigram by Martial often cited as the precedent for Milton’s town-walking book assumes an understanding of Rome’s highly sacralized topography. Milton imitates Martial in making a similar assumption. In a city founded upon the Roman cosmic model, as London was, the primary spatial parameters are center and periphery. “Mile End” is the only local place name in the sonnet sequence, and Milton took pains to locate it, by changing the original order and numbering of the sonnets, not only at the poem’s precise center, broken and enjambed across lines seven and eight, but at the sequence’s precise center as well.[4] The hypothetical two-mile walk to Mile-End Green, which can be assigned to either the speaker or one of the stall-readers, is a highly resonant gesture. At its simplest level a temporal comparison satirizing slow intellects, it also represents for the seventeenth century Londoner the threat of collective self-defense. As the old Roman boundary between civilian and military legal spheres, Mile-End became “the place where the citizens assembled in arms.” [5] What’s more, the threatened walk that would eliminate the stall-readers’ incomprehension by violent communal means would begin from where the speaker addresses them, immediately recognizable as St. Paul’s churchyard, where the bookstalls clustered around the cathedral, the city’s geographical and spiritual center.[6] At the center of Milton’s ideal community of good intellects lies the ever-present potential for incomprehension, the inability of selves to accommodate the other, here represented by the Greek title of Milton’s divorce tract and Scottish names, which the civil war had brought into prominence. Even more precisely central is the peripheral means for restoring the center’s integrity.

The stall-readers’ lack of comprehension, and Milton’s corrective direct address to them takes place in a revolutionary environment that is also evoked in Milton’s prose of the period. In the History of Britain, for example, where Milton first develops his heroic model of the “one just man” that prevails in the late poetry, London is exceptional: the sole example of collective heroism in its valiant defense against the Danes (e.g., 254, 261, 271). London’s past thus foreshadowed its present and future, which is depicted most vividly in Areopagitica:

Behold now this vast City; a City of refuge, the mansion house of liberty, encompast and surrounded with his protection; the shop of war hath not there more anvils and hammers waking, to fashion out the plates and instruments of armed Justice in defense of beleaguer’d Truth, then there be pens and heads there, sitting by their studious lamps, musing, searching, revolving new notions and idea’s, wherewith to present, as with their homage and their fealty, the approaching Reformation: others as fast reading, trying all things, assenting to the force of reason and convincement. (Prose Works 2.553-54)

Because the Revolution was as much a war of ideas as a military conflict, the passage from Areopagitica helps explain why Milton puts an image of this intellectual warfare at the center of his sonnet sequence, why at the center of London he features the book trade. The 1557 charter of the Stationers’ Company had produced a book trade in England that was remarkably centralized, and with the lapsing of the Licensing Act in 1642, London’s publishing industry was the most active in the world. Milton’s contribution to the ideal community envisioned during the revolutionary years, his work as pamphleteer and propagandist, was an activity strongly identified with London, indeed only possible in London. His international fame deriving from this work was so great that, as John Aubrey tells us, during the Interregnum:

Foreigners came much to see him, and much admired him, and offer’d to him great perfermets to come over to them; and the only inducement of severall foreingers that came over into England, was chiefly to see Oliver Protector, and Mr. John Milton; and would see the hous and chamber wher he was borne. (Aubrey, 200; quoted in Santesso, 383)

Paradise Lost

Although Paradise Lost is commonly viewed as part of Milton’s withdrawal from this London-based war of ideas, a number of recent critics — including Joan Bennett, Stevie Davis, and David Quint — have demonstrated “the persistence of anti-Royalist sentiments in the poem, voiced by topical allusions that citations that connect Satan…with Charles I and that echo Milton’s pamphlets of the 1650s” (Quint 269). Milton’s implied readership for the epic in its eschatological dimension is, of course, universal; it represents an extension of the Renaissance “dynastic epic” to the entire human race, addressing as its implied noble “patron” all who are open to its message.[7] But there is as well a crucial local element, aimed at a metropolitan readership conditioned by decades of turbulent politics and more recent traumatic events. Whether out of necessary obliquity under royal censorship, or arising from his increasingly dialogical methods, his inclusion of multiple, even opposing points of view, Milton’s use of the city is invariably complicated, ironic, even contradictory. Consider his method of addressing a Restoration readership that necessarily included Royalists for whom Milton was primarily a defender of regicide. London had recently re-filled with Royalists whose memory of overseas exile remained painful. As Thomas Hobbes recalled his time in Paris as a man without property, and cut off from news of his homeland, cut off from London’s war of ideas, he stood “amazed, like a poor exile, / Encompassed with Terrour all the while” (“Verse Vita,” line 260); one should note the influence of this experience on his idea of the brutal state of nature and the requirement of absolute obedience. Such post-exilic readers, some of whom provide the earliest recorded positive responses to Paradise Lost, would experience an uncanny moment in reading of the parallel experience of the poet, whose well-known current residence in the city produces the kind of exile they experienced in foreign lands:[8]

though fallen on evil days
On evil days though fallen, and evil tongues;
In darkness and with dangers compassed round,
And solitude. (7.25-7)

In many other cases as well, Royalist readers would encounter in Milton’s Restoration writings familiar mythic images of their own experience, such as the Egyptian captivity and the stabilizing of the island Delos, birthplace of Apollo and Diana, but now with the roles reversed.[9] Milton represents himself as in exile, even as he remains a prominent resident of London, drawing visitors who have made his Bread Street birthplace a sort of shrine.

Rather than a retreat to the paradise within, Milton’s epic is better seen as a calibrated re-entry into the world of London print polemics. By the time of its publication in 1667, a broad spectrum of Londoners had grown weary of the court’s lasciviousness and empty revelry, what Laura Knoppers (67) calls its “politics of joy.” The poem’s sublime style is itself an answer and alternative to such prominent Restoration literary discourses as the bombastic heroic drama and ribald satire. London readers would encounter a number of images inviting comparison with their urban experience. In the 1660 Readie and Easie Way to Establish a Free Commonwealth Milton warned his compatriots of the royalists’ “diabolical forerunning libels, the faces, the gestures, that now appeer foremost and briskest in all public places,” the “insultings” of those “enemies lately out of their holes, their hell, by the language of their infernal pamphlets” (Prose Works, 7.452). Seven years later the epic reveals the progress of this infernal restoration. Concluding the great catalogue of devils in Book I, the narrator slips notably into the present tense when speaking of:

… luxurious Cities, where the noise
Of riot ascends above the loftiest Towers,
And injury and outrage: And when Night
Darkens the streets, then wander forth the Sons
Of Belial, flown with insolence and wine. (1.498-502)

The London crowd, described as early as 1603 by the anti-theatricalist writer Henry Crosse as “the very sonnes of Belial” (quoted in Munro, 43), consists now of drunken persecutors of the Republican remnants.[10]

Pandemonium becomes the devils’ “metropolis” (10.439), a increasingly favored term in the seventeenth century discourse of London.[11] Satan travels from the metropolis to Eden,

As one who long in populous city pent,
Where houses thick and sewers annoy the air,
Forth issuing on a summer’s morn to breath
Among the pleasant villages and farms. (9.445-48)

For Satan’s sojourn outside the walls, where he is entranced by the “sweet recess of Eve” (456), Milton uses the courtly genre of pastourelle to satirize the Restoration court’s lasciviousness and parody the extra-mural Petrarchism of his own seventh elegy. At the same time, the infernal metropolis of Paradise Lost parodies the role played by the capital in the pre-Restoration apocalyptic discourse of which Milton was such a potent contributor. Laurence Manley describes the paradoxical role of London in the revolutionary period. On the one hand, there was a “centripetal millennial fervor” (552) that transformed the Tudor vision of “a Christian empire seated in the British throne” (544) into an anti-royalist idealization of London as the seat of liberty. On the other hand, there was a “centrifugal turn” (544) in apocalypticism that decried the “bondage of place” (549) and the restrictive organizational structures of the city. Milton participated in both movements, the former in his sonnets of idealized local community, the latter in the Latin prose works distributed throughout Europe. The infernal accommodationists Belial and Mammon model their recommendations on the former, hoping to transform hell into, if not heaven, at least a space of relative freedom from monarchical oppression. Satan embodies the centrifugal impulse of infernal millennialism, carrying revolution out from the capital to the provinces and beyond. As such he too imitates his author, Oliver’s Latin Secretary.

Janel Mueller, in an essay subtitled “Samson as a Hero of London Nonconformity, 1662-1667” describes the way in which both sides, Royalist and Republican, saw the righteous hand of God’s punishment of their respective enemies in the most spectacular events of 1660s London, the 1665 plague and the Great Fire of 1666, the year most favored for apocalypse. But even before Samson Agonistes, Milton seems to incorporate both arguments. Paradise Lost was not printed until 1667, leaving open the possibility that its author, who habitually supplied last-minute revisions to his works (cf. Dobranski), played even in the epic to his metropolitan audience’s traumas. In the scene of the fallen angels’ expulsion from heaven, located at the center of the poem, the chariot-borne Son first “in their souls infixed / Plagues” (6.837-38), then “shot forth pernicious fire / Among the accursed” (849-50). Following this double blow, the fallen angels throw themselves headlong into the bottomless pit. But are the devils now the Royalists cast into exile, only to return and triumphantly spread the imperium of their metropolis? Or are they Milton’s own Republican colleagues, who have now cast themselves into the hell of Restoration London?


[1] For Milton’s interest in the translatio studii convention, see Brennan.

[2] Quotations of Milton’s poetry are by line number from the Longman editions edited by Carey and Fowler. Quotations of the prose are by volume and page from the Complete Prose Works edited by Wolfe. Carey numbers the sonnets according to the 1673 edition rather than the MS, thus labeling “I did but prompt the age” as Sonnet 12 and “A book was writ of late” as Sonnet 11. Honigman retains the original numeration.

[3] The most notorious holdout for assigning the Italian sonnets to the Italian journey is Honigman (see p. 76).

[4] For Milton’s elaborate, almost obsessive use of centric and symmetrical structures in Paradise Lost, see Qvarnstrom’s The Enchanted Palace.

[5] Complicating the image of Mile-End Green is its prominence as the main eastern defense outwork of the hurriedly constructed defensive wall, the “Lines of Communication” around greater London built in 1642 (Smith and Kelsey 123). Thus the delaying stall readers might be contrasted with someone rushing to defend the city from an outside force. Milton would know that Sir Kenelm Digby was arrested there in disguise observing the construction of this crucial defensive site. On Milton’s Tetrachordon sonnet and it’s centrality within the sequence, see Cook. For another seventeenth-century use of Mile-End, see Dillon.

[6] On St. Paul’s as the lively center of the London book trade, see Blayney.

[7] On the Renaissance development of Vergilian dynastic epic, see Fichter.

[8] Von Maltzahn observes that the epic “displayed a sophisticated literary decorum that saved it from any charge of that insolence associated with ruder conventiclers or Quakers” (489), a decorum that helped it find such London Royalist admirers as John Denham, John Beale, and John Evelyn, and the “conservative” (490) Presbyterian John Hobart.

[9] Milton hints at the Delos analogy first in the companion sonnet to the Tetrachordon sonnet, “I did but prompt the age to quit their clogs” (Sonnet 11 in the MS, Sonnet 12 in Carey), then deploys it explicitly as an image of exile in Paradise Lost 5.265 and 10.296.

[10] The Belial passage of Book 1 alludes grimly to Judges 19, where the unnamed Levite and his concubine are rescued from sleeping in the city square of Gibeah, after which the concubine is raped to death by the sons of Belial. The biblical phrase “sons of Belial” has been associated traditionally with the unruly urban mob, from its first use in Deuteronomy 13. The King James Bible translates the phrase literally from the original Hebrew, avoiding the Vulgate practice of de-personifying Belial.

[11] See Manley’s chapter entitled “Metropolis: the Creation of an August Style,” and Harding.

Works Cited

Aubrey, John. Aubrey’s Brief Lives. Ed. Oliver Lawson Dick. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1949.

Berry, Herbert. “The Miltons and the Blackfriars Playhouse.” Modern Philology 89.4 (1992): 510-14.

Blayney, Peter. The Bookshops in Paul’s Cross Churchyard. London: The Bibliographical Society, 1990.

Brennan, William. “Milton’s Of Education and the Translatio Studii.” Milton Quarterly 15.2 (1981): 55-59.

Condee, Ralph Waterbury. “Ovid’s Exile and Milton’s Rustication.” Philological Quarterly 37.4 (1958): 498-502.

Cook, Patrick J. “Resembling Unlikeness: A Reading of Milton’s Tetrachordon Sonnet.” Milton Quarterly 26. 4 (1992): 121-29.

Dillon, Janette. “’Is Not All the World Mile End, Mother?’ The Blackfriars Theatre, the City of London, and The Knight of the Burning Pestle.” Medieval and Renaissance Drama in England 9 (1997): 127-48.

Dobranski, Stephen B. Milton, Authorship, and the Book Trade. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

Fichter, Andrew. Poets Historical: Dynastic Epic in the Renaissance. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1982.

Gomme, George Laurence. The Governance of London. London: T. F. Unwin, 1907.

Harding, Vanessa. “London, Change and Exchange.” The Culture of Capital: Property, Cities, and Knowledge in Early Modern England. Ed. Henry S. Turner. London: Routledge, 2002. 129-38.

Hobbes, Thomas. The Life of Mr. Thomas Hobbes of Malmesbury, and Thomae Hobbesii Malmesburiensis vita. Exeter: The Rota, 1979.

Honigman, E. A. J., ed. Milton’s Sonnets. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1966.

Knoppers, Laura Lunger. Historicizing Milton: Spectacle, Power, and Poetry in Restoration England. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1994.

Manley. Lawrence. Literature and Culture in Early Modern London. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995.

Milton, John. Complete Prose Works of John Milton. Gen. ed. Don M. Wolfe. 8 vols. New Haven: Yale University Press.

—–. Complete Shorter Poems. 2nd ed. Ed. John Carey. London: Longman, 1997.

—–. Paradise Lost. 2nd ed. Ed. Alastair Fowley. London: Longman, 1998.

Mueller, Janel. “The Figure and the Ground: Samson as Hero of London Nonconformity, 1662-1667.” Milton and the Terms of Liberty. Ed. Parry, Graham and Joad Raymond. Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2002. 137-62.

Munro, Ian. The Figure of the Crowd in Early Modern London: The City and Its Double. New York: Palgrave, 2005.

Parker, William Riley. Milton: A Biography. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1968.

Quint, David. Epic and Empire. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993.

Santesso, Aaron. “The Birth of the Birthplace: Bread Street and Literary Tourism before Stratford.” ELH 72.2 (2004): 377-403.

Smith, Victor and Peter Kelsey, “The Lines of Communication: The Civil War Defenses of London.” London and the Civil War. Ed. Stephen Porter. London: Macmillan, 1996. pp. 117-48.

Von Maltzan, Nicholas. “The First Reception of Paradise Lost (1667).” Review of English Studies 47.188 (1996): 479-99.

To Cite This Article:

Patrick Cook, ‘John Milton, London Writer’. Literary London: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Representation of London, Volume 8 Number 1 (March 2010). Online at Accessed on [date of access]