Posted by: Kenn Hermann | July 24, 2006

How Milton’s Elegant Latin Prose Saved Him and His Scholarship from the Flames

Time for a light change-of-pace. . . .

One of the rewards of rummaging through old books is finding gems like the following. John Milton is best known for his poetry and stirring prose in defense of freedom and republican government. He is perhaps less well-known as Cromwell’s Latin secretary. Shortly after Charles I was executed in 1649, Milton’s eloquent defense of regicide and the new republic earned him an appointment as the secretary for foreign tongues to the council of state in Oliver Cromwell’s new Commonwealth. His special duty was drafting in Latin all of the official state correspondence of Parliament to foreign states, translating the replies, and, when necessary, translating the conversations of foreign emissaries.

It is a mystery how Milton escaped the gallows when Charles II was restored to the throne in 1660, but escape he did. Though now blind and relying completely on an amanuenses, he spent the remaining years of life in productive scholarship. When he died in 1674 he was celebrated as the most learned man in England.

There was no doubt that Milton’s poetry would be published posthumously. However, the Crown initially considered his state papers to be dangerous to the youth and refused to publish them. Finally, the government relented and published them in 1679, but not without hedging them with suitable warnings. This “Printer to the Reader” is a wonderful defense of how the Royal government could justify publishing the ‘scoundrel’ Milton’s eloquent Latin state papers. Read and enjoy!

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