K NOWN in his own day more as a political polemicist than as a poet, Milton's poetic renown grew soon after his death in the last part of the seventeenth century. From the end of the eighteenth century his reputation, built mainly on Paradise Lost, reached monumental status because of the enormous significance assigned variously to three dimensions of his work: his philosophical and theological ideas, his artistic genius, and his revolutionary politics; it has waxed and waned depending on how decisively the prestige accorded him in any one of these dimensions outweighed distaste for the other two.
It is one of the ironies of Milton's reception that, as the poet who did most to legitimate the literary artist's quest for fame, he never quite saw his own poetic fame realized in his lifetime. And yet Milton was to achieve posthumous celebrity in a manner that helped shape the cultural ideal and personality type that we have come to know as the Author. We now take for granted a literary culture dominated by authors, full-time writers who claim an authority based on a superior ability to perceive a higher truth. In Milton's day it was still more likely that a writer of poetry was a cultivated amateur whose full-time occupation was more typically that of courtier or statesman and who wrote poetry often as a form of sophisticated recreation. The fits and starts of Milton's attempt to establish literary authority for himself reveal the uneasiness that accompanied authorship in its early stages.
Among seventeenth-century English poets, Milton stands out in his immensely self-conscious, self-constructed, single-minded drive to gain fame through the religious, moral, and political authority of poetic pro-