The three-part format of this guide is largely self-explanatory. A brief biography of Milton, his life and times, is followed by a middle section in which each of his poems is examined in detail. The third part considers the critical controversies and questions addressed by Milton's critics from the seventeenth century to the present day.
More important than the separate functions of each section are their mutual relationships, and here John Milton almost demands this Guide's triple perspective. Few, if any, major British writers have been so closely involved with the crucial issues and events of their time. If Milton had never written a poem his vast number of pamphlets and tracts of the 1640s and 1650s and his role in the post-war Cromwellian government would have earned him a place in surveys of seventeenth century British history. But he did, of course, write many poems, one of which, Paradise Lost, remains as the only serious British contender for equal ranking with the epics of Virgil and Homer. Readers and critics of Milton have speculated constantly on how the different dimensions of his life and work intersect. This Guide will not offer final answers to the questions raised by such speculations, but it will, for the first time in a single book, provide the reader with a map and a set of directions so that they can follow with confidence their own enquiries and reach their own conclusions.
For example, it has often been suggested that the picture of Satan and his defeated compatriots offered in Books I and II of Paradise Lost is a political allegory. Perhaps Milton expected his reader to find parallels between the denizens of hell and another more recent group of failed rebels: by 1667, when Paradise Lost was published, the Cromwellian experiment in republican government was a recent memory. A survey of what actually happens in Books I and II is available in Part II of this Guide, which will address the reader to the question of political allegory. To properly consider the question the reader will need a clear perception of what the Civil War and its aftermath involved, particularly for Milton: a detailed account of this will be provided in Part I. The reader will also want to know how literary critics have dealt with the same questions and what conclusions they have reached. Part III will deal with this. Throughout the Guide bracketed references will assist the reader in their pursuit of such contentious issues, directing them to the relevant parts of each section.