I used to own a copy of an old book entitled If It Had Happened Otherwise. As has happened to me more than a few times when a rare and out of print volume of particular interest has come into my possession, I lost this one. I have never been able to find another. If It Had Happened Otherwise is a collaborative effort of several authors, whose number include G.M. Trevelyan, Harold Nicolson, G.K. Chesterton, Andre Maurois, and Winston Churchill. Each of the several writers supplies an essay in imaginative history; Ronald Knox presents an alternative account of Britain in the 30’s in which a communist revolution has brought the reds to power; Chesterton gives the reader an opportunity to consider how the political and religious course of the sixteenth century might have been altered had Mary, Queen of Scots married Don Juan of Austria, the hero of Lepanto. Harold Nicolson offers us a new life of Lord Byron, not prematurely dead of fever but victorious general in the Greek War of Independence, and finally king of the nation which he has liberated from the Turk. The book from beginning to end brought forth one delightful improvisation after another, and having written this paragraph, I find that I must now pause from my writing to kick myself once again for having lost my copy.
Were another such volume to be written today, and I had the opportunity of contributing to it, I think I would take for my title If John Milton Had Been Beheaded for High Treason. The scene would open with a newly restored King Charles II conferring with his advisors in Whitehall about what to do with the imprisoned writer of republican pamphlets and political sonnets who had (no son could forget) argued with such violence for the execution of the young king’s royal father. As if the regicide writings had not been enough, here was a man who had acted many times over as an enemy of episcopacy and the Established Church; of all churches, in point of fact; was it not rumored that he held unorthodox views respecting the divinity of the Savior, as well? And had he not been so bold as to publish the thesis that marriages might be dissolved without appeal either to the authorities of Church or State? Surely a character like this was too dangerous to let live. Other men of his party had been executed for as much, or for less, and though a general amnesty was forthcoming, this enemy of thrones, bishops and the entire moral order of the kingdom could not be spared. At this stage of the discussion, no Andrew Marvell or other high-placed friend intervenes to counsel mercy in the matter; the blood of the king must be repaid with the blood of the king-killer; the command is given, the warrant issued, Milton arrested, and Milton’s head, in due course, removed from his shoulders. His remains are left hanging at Tyburn by the public executioner, and, as the years and generations pass by, he enters the annals of memory, or rather the annals of oblivion, alongside such similarly condemned peers as Thomas Harrison, John Okey, Adrian Scrope, Miles Corbet and several other similar unfortunates whom neither you nor I have heard of.
Naturally, Paradise Lost is never written. The entry on Milton in the latest edition of the Oxbridge Dictionary of English Literature, (Shallow and Square, eds.) is a dozen lines long, and reads as follows: “John Milton. Lyric poet, political controversialist. His early Comus and On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity show respectively the influence of Ben Jonson, George Herbert, and certain of the Italian Baroque poets. His sonnets, of which there are two dozen, show occasional flashes of brilliance, but are for the most part argumentative journalism in verse whose interest is bound to the long-forgotten controversies which inspired them. His writings on education, divorce, ecclesiastical reform and various other subjects are mostly lost, and the Latin MSS. of a treatise on Christian Doctrine, mislaid for many years and only rediscovered during the reign of George IV, has not awakened sufficient interest to find a translator. It is reported by Milton and others that he was acquainted with many better-known contemporaries, including Edward King and Andrew Marvell; during the Commonwealth he performed secretarial work in the service of Cromwell’s government, after whose downfall he suffered the utmost penalty. Beheaded 1660. Place of burial unknown.”
Had this been Milton’s fate, the life of English letters after him would necessarily have been a much different tale than was the case, and, I can only suppose, depressingly anemic: the grand style of Paradise Lost and Samson Agonistes from which the authors of the Restoration and the Augustan period drank so deeply-the source is there no longer. The towering Satan who supplied Shelley and Byron with a figure on which to model their own defiant antiheroes in Prometheus Unbound and Manfred-both the original and the imitations disappear. Without the great quarry of Milton to draw from, Shelley would probably have been a minor species of radical journalist and ballad writer of the Leigh Hunt type; Byron could still have figured as a fine satirist-his Vision of Judgment and the Don Juan might not have been wiped out of existence-but would he have been as determined and sublime an antinomian? Is it not easier to imagine him degenerating into a lazy and cynical middle age, dividing his time between losing money at the card table, taking the waters at Bath, and dozing through his middling career in the House of Lords? As for poor William Blake, without Milton to kindle his own imagination, I imagine that he would have employed his much diminished talent as a passable writer of Methodist hymns and equally edifying children’s stories along the lines of those by Hannah More. Possibly he still might have managed to write Little Lamb, Who Made Thee?, but certainly little else in his oeuvre as we have it would be left standing.
The longer we pursue this counterfactual hypothesis, the more gloomy it becomes, so we shall leave off here, and I will close with a word of gratitude for whatever good breakfast or pleasant hour spent with his mistress it was that left King Charles in so forgiving a mood that morning in 1660 when he decided, having weighed the arguments on one side and the other, that it would best serve the interests of the kingdom if he did not strike off the head of the troublesome old man who was about to recreate Heaven, Hell, and the Garden of Eden in the immortal epic of the English tongue.