John Milton: A Hero of Our Time, by David Hawkes. Berkeley, California: Counterpoint, 2009. 354 pp. $28.
Instead of putting John Milton in the context of his own time, David Hawkes proposes in this study to put him in the context of ours. He refutes the anticipated charge that such an attempt would be anachronistic by pointing out that Milton thought of himself as a prophet who was speaking to the future. Hawkes believes that the great poet and political writer’s life and work offer solutions to our own predicament. A prophet not honored in his own country or time, Milton was often considered an extremist in his political views—he not only favored deposing the king of England but justified his execution—and his private ones: he wrote several tracts arguing that divorce on the basis of incompatibility was justifiable. That the citizens of his own country failed to adopt his views he attributed to their slavish mentality, a state of mind natural to human beings but which the poet thought could—and should—be resisted. Hawkes agrees, and he enlists Milton as an ally in his own iconoclasm regarding perceived evils of the present day.
If there is a salient characteristic that organizes Milton’s life and work, Hawkes believes it is that he stood for an “ethics of signification.” By this he means that images, including those created by words, law, religion, and customs of all kinds, should be truthful representations of reality. If they are not, then they must be reformed lest . . .
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