IT USED to be one of those dates that every schoolchild supposedly knew. On the icy morning of 30 January in 1649, a shivering Charles I mounted the scaffold at Whitehall, lost his head with dignity, and ushered in the audacious 11-year experiment of the English Commonwealth and Protectorate.
According to Andrew Marvell - John Milton's fellow-poet, lifelong supporter but lukewarm comrade in the Republican ranks - the condemned king "nothing common did or mean / Upon the memorable scene". Perhaps not; but the truly uncommon deed had already been done by Parliament. The English had executed their anointed monarch, not as an act of court intrigue but after due process, as punishment for the traitorous "man of blood" who made war on his people. The aftershock convulsed the palaces, churches and universities of Europe.
How dare they not merely commit regicide, but justify it with advanced political theory? For the man who staged that defence, chief international spin-doctor of revolutionary England, was John Milton. The Puritan firebrand, already both a gorgeously sensuous poet and dangerous, radical polemicist, proudly became the Secretary for Foreign Languages to the new Council of State.
It all ended in blood and tears. Milton came to despair of Cromwell's corrupted regime, though he served it well. After the Restoration, he struggled to keep his own head off a traitor's spike. Blind and beset by foes, "fallen on evil days", he alchemised his grief and disppointment into a matchless epic of freedom and faith, revolt and reconciliation, under the eye of an unfathomable God. In Paradise Lost (1667), it is Satan who rails against the "tyranny of Heaven" and scorns those who "choose to bend / The supple knee" - but Milton, as his literary heir William Blake said, may have been "of the Devil's party without knowing it".
"Not to know me," growls Satan at one point to some disrespectful cherubs, "argues yourselves unknown." Your ignorance makes you obscure. I recalled that line when, last year, a newspaper poll found that 93 per cent of young people failed to name Paradise Lost as Milton's major work; in contrast, the same percentage could identify Fatboy Slim. …