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John Milton and the King of Poland

ISSUE:  Autumn 1991

In 1674, the the last year of his life, John Milton translated from the Latin what might be described today as a press release by a foreign power, Poland. It announced the election of John Sobieski as the country’s new king. The document did not carry Milton’s name.

Why did Milton undertake what must have been, certainly at that late point in his career, such an unusual, not to say bizarre, task? He had completed and, in the preceding six years, had published the three great works which established his reputation, Paradise Lost, Paradise Regained, and Samson Agonistes. He was widely accepted as the great poet of his time. Personages in England and from the continent visited and honored him. Andrew Marvell, as a member of parliament under Charles II, had not only helped protect him against royalist retribution after the Restoration, but had added his encomium to an edition of Paradise Lost.

In particular, the poet laureate, John Dryden, was reported as waving to a large gathering an early copy of Paradise Lost and saying, “This man cuts us all out and the ancients too.” Some two years before the translation, Dryden had paid Milton a “memorable visit,” as one of Milton’s biographers called it, to ask permission to “tag” Paradise Lost, that is, to render it into rhymed couplets. For a good decade thereafter, Dryden’s major ambitious works, in satire, political epic, criticism, and drama, were written in the shadow of Milton’s range of styles, a grand testimonial by the establishment poet to a living contemporary already regarded as among the world’s immortal writers.

Why indeed did Milton, fulfilled in his lifelong literary ambitions, honored by as fit an audience as even he might have wished, and probably larger than he ever expected, sick at the time and variously troubled, bother to make available in English A Declaration, or Letters Patents of the Election of this present King of Poland, John the Third, Elected on the 22d of May last past?

Any answer, after three centuries, must remain a hypothesis, but it may be as much as one might sensibly hope for or sensibly wish to have. The pinhole may be tiny through which we view the past, like that construction by Marcel Duchamp which requires us to bend over and squint through a crack in a wall of rotting planks to see a landscape evocative of memory and dreams, but it is a way to summon an authentic feeling, however fleeting, of another world, another time, other persons. We might wish to have a fuller, more circumstantial, more documented picture, but we accept what we get.

Posing the question about Milton’s last known work to emphasize its oddity raises the further one of why scholars have not pursued it. For a considerable period in 20th-century Miltonic study, the translation was not even attributed to Milton although it had been very early accepted as unquestionably by him. The question seemed inconsequential, somehow embarrassingly petty, not worthy to be formulated about a great poet. When it was brought up at all, it was evaded or begged or its implications inflated. “The subject . . . must have been strongly interesting to Milton,” David Masson blandly allowed in his massive 19th-century biography, as, we may presume, was the subject of Paradise Lost itself. In the cottage industry of contentious Miltonic trivia (we can count more than 150 short articles explicating the phrase “the two-handed engine” in “Lycidas”), a handful of self-cancelling speculations and explanations to account for the translation have been allowed to lie unexamined side by side. In spite of its distinction as Milton’s last work, no one has approached the question in terms of what it might reveal about the substance of his poetry, or about the conventional reverential characterization of him as a literary saint, or about the processes of writing, on each of which, I think, it does bear.

Hypotheses for the translation range from the offhand to the portentous. J. Milton French, in his analysis of Milton’s life records (1949—1958), and William Riley Parker, in his weighty, two-volume, posthumously published biography (1968), the most recent and inclusive we have, both proposed, almost in passing, that Milton did the work because he needed the money. Earl Wasserman in an article (1958) and, more recently, Christopher Hill in his book-length examination of Milton’s place in the Puritan revolution (1977), speculated that Milton, too often casually regarded as one of our earliest champions of modern democracy, was attracted to the project by the notion of an “elected” king. (Parker added to his discussion that “it is possible that [Milton] saw an oblique justification of Cromwell in the free election of a famous warrior to the sovereignty of a grateful nation.”)

None of these stands up to skeptical scrutiny. Milton’s financial need, at that point in his life, could not have been significantly satisfied by the “small sum” Parker says Milton was “doubtless offered” for the project. Milton’s publisher at the moment, Brabazon Aylmer, could hardly have wished to exploit Milton’s reputation, as Parker suggests, since he issued the translation without Milton’s name. Aylmer was looking for materials that would sell on the basis of the subject matter and believed, Parker also says, that news of the election of the Polish king by itself would command an audience.

At any rate, hypotheses that the publisher elicited the translation for business reasons or that Milton did it for the money negate the force of the far more serious contention that the subject of an elected king intrigued Milton. In his discussion of the translation, French neutrally concludes that “no satisfactory explanation for his having performed this unusual task at this period in his age has been offered.”

Finally, the argument that Milton was absorbed by the notion of an “elected” king, however, raises more complicated questions than it answers. Satan in Paradise Lost argues that “merit” should have entitled him to selection by God over Christ. He attacks God’s arbitrary primacy and tyranny, the absolutism of heaven. Although Satan may stir a grudging sympathy, Milton makes clear that he despised him as ridiculously paranoid and pathologically solipsistic, repeatedly whining about his neglected merit. At one point, Satan asks how the angels can know God created them since they weren’t present at the event. We are intended to reject with derision and contempt, at best to regard with suspicion, anything Satan says.

The early 19th-century notion of Satan as a persecuted Byronic champion of individual rights we may charitably dismiss as self-serving naïveté. Milton’s own comments in the epic decry a democratic rabble and extol a “fit few.” Even if we discern any ambivalence on Milton’s part toward Satan in Paradise Lost, we cannot doubt his feelings in Paradise Regained about Christ, who contemptuously rejects Satan’s offers of glory and political power dependent on popular support.

To account for Milton’s translation on the basis of his “democratic” sympathies without extensive elaboration and qualification is reductive and simplistic, although the common portrait of Milton as a brave, uncomplicated spokesman for liberty invites it. Our understanding about “democracy” and “freedom” has become so imprecise, complex, and confused in the modern world that official Soviet and Red Chinese reference works remarkably pair Milton with Satan as champions of liberty and foes of despotism.

Scholars, biographers, historians often fall in love, or at least come to resonate in harmony, with their idealized subjects. It is a way of justifying their labors. Marjorie Nicolson liked to tell the story of the Miltonist who, after listening to a learned paper at a national meeting which suggested that Milton may not always have been utterly candid, announced tearfully that his whole life would be wasted if Milton were proved to be a liar. Another Miltonist insisted that Milton’s first supposedly unhappy marriage had nothing to do with his writing his divorce pamphlets so soon after the event (and that, therefore, the marriage had to be happy, as though Milton would not demean himself by an unhappy one, which, in addition, prompted him to plead a private cause); and that Samson Agonistes, about a blind and impotent hero of his people betrayed by his wife, must have been written many years before it was published, before Milton lost his sight. His arguments were inspired by the then fashionable critical thesis that great works of literature should not be read as autobiographical. Scholars often seem less detached about the subjects of their study than medical specialists or painters who can cooly recognize warts without going into tantrums of disillusion and denial.

Perhaps most pointedly, no political crisis involving the monarchy was gripping the English in the 7O’s. By 1674, the year of Milton’s translation, Charles II was well ensconced. The issue of who would succeed him had not yet fully developed. Moreover, when the issue did emerge in all its strength, around the end of the decade, the announcement of the Polish king’s election was used to attack opposition to the established succession of the English throne, not to urge an elected king.

Nevertheless, a combination of local and international events in the 6O’s and early 7O’s may have piqued Milton’s deepest feelings and inspired him, through the translation, to elaborate on an aspect of Paradise Lost. We may read the translation as an important footnote to that great work.


We best conjecture about Milton’s interest in the election of the king of Poland circuitously, by way of Dryden’s Absalom and Achitophel of 1681 and its sequels of 1682, The Second Part of Absalom and Achitophel and The Medal, and the political events and persons referred to in those works.

Charles II, who returned to England in 1660, never did father a legitimate heir. In the late 1670’s it became increasingly clear that he was not likely to father one since the queen was evidently infertile. His normal successor, then, would have been his brother, James, Duke of York, who was Catholic and backed by the Tories and by Charles himself. The Whigs sponsored a bill to exclude Catholics from the throne and to allow Charles’s eldest illegitimate son, the Duke of Monmouth, to succeed him. The principal Whig leader supporting Monmouth’s succession, and thus opposing the king, was Anthony Ashley Cooper, Earl of Shaftesbury, who had begun his post-Restoration political career as a close and powerful ally of Charles. In reward for his support, the king had earlier named him Earl of Shaftesbury, the first with that title.

Dryden, as poet laureate, took on the task of attacking Shaftesbury’s opposition to the king in a large political, philosophical, and moral context, in the manner of much of the century’s public poetry and prose. In the opening of Absalom and Achitophel, offered as a major effort to set in perspective persons, events, and issues in the then raging political struggle, Dryden immediately makes plain that the leading figures are to be understood in terms of the characters and situations of Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained. This virtually semiofficial document is to carry the weight of the great poems of the preceding era.

The key is clear: England is Israel (a common blending of the time); Charles II is David, king of the Jews; the Duke of Monmouth is Absalom, his son; and Shaftesbury is Achitophel, an elder statesman and unscrupulous adviser to the young Absalom. Charles-David is “God-like” (in a wonderful satiric yet respectful stroke, Dryden describes him as scattering “his Maker’s image thro’ the land,” a reference to the king’s bastards). Achitophel’s temptations of Absalom parallel and echo those by Milton’s Satan of Eve and of Christ.

In mixing Achitophel with Satan in his depiction of Shaftesbury, Dryden was combining a popular epithet, extant since the early 1630’s, with Milton’s specific portrait of the devil. He may, more pertinently, have recognized Milton’s own implicit use of the political import of that epithet. “Achitophel” had become by the middle of the 17th century a label for a traitorous politician, somewhat as “quisling” has been used in our century.

We have no problem seeing Satan and his chief henchmen in Paradise Lost as contemporary politicians, especially during the debate in Pandemonium. As Latin Secretary, a high functionary in Cromwell’s government, Milton attended official meetings, including those of the Council of State, and observed in action Anthony Ashley Cooper, who played roles under Cromwell of utmost loyalty followed by utmost opposition, similar to his later performances under Charles II. Milton’s portrait of Satan in heaven, like Dryden’s of Achitophel at court, paralleled the public career and character of Cooper-Shaftesbury.

In his political skills (a contemporary observer described Cooper’s parliamentary oratory in terms similar to those used by Milton for Belial at the conclave in hell), in his military boldness, in his fall from God’s closest lieutenant to God’s most implacable opponent, Satan from his first appearance in Paradise Lost to his last emerges as a combination of a Commonwealth general and politician.

Like any literary character, Satan was no doubt an amalgam, but in any study of the leaders clustered around Cromwell, Cooper comes forward as the most likely single source for Milton’s Satan. He was, for example, the most prominent person to serve on successive Councils of State. We do not have to conjecture at all that Cooper/Shaftesbury was the source for Dryden’s satanic Achitophel, an association that may have been strengthened for Dryden by his contemporary understanding of the original of the Satan of Paradise Lost.


Shaftesbury’s developing activities against the monarchy were such as finally to gain him imprisonment for a period in the Tower. On his release, his followers struck a medal in his honor, a common enough occurrence at the time and as had been done earlier on the election of Sobieski as king of Poland. Dryden, in a renewed attack on Shaftesbury, in “The Medal,” referred to him now as the “Polander.” Dryden thus gave explicit currency to the widespread understanding that among Shaftesbury’s ambitions was to be king of Poland (although we may still understand the term “Polander” as simply linking the celebratory medals of Sobieski and Shaftesbury).

In his article, “The Meaning of “Poland” in The Medal,” Wasserman dismisses “the preposterous story of Shaftesbury’s personal ambition to be king of another country.” Sir Walter Scott, an early editor of the works of Dryden (1826), also dismissed any such ambition on Shaftesbury’s part, but in doing so provided another clue to Shaftesbury’s contemporary reputation as a vainglorious boaster. The Polish charge, Scott wrote, “was probably only a revival and new edition of an improbable story, that he expected Cromwell would have made him king of England.”

But it was not preposterous at the time for an alien to be a contender for the Polish throne, somewhat like an outside candidate for a campus post today. The Poles themselves considered a number of such candidates in 1673, including Charles’s brother, James, the Duke of York. Another short-listed foreign contender was a member of the French royal family. “The struggle over the Wisniowiecki succession was in international politics a strife between Vienna and Versailles,” reports The Cambridge History of Poland to 1696. “From the first, however, no one except the Prince of Lorraine or Sobieski was taken seriously into account. . . .”

Shaftesbury’s character and career, whether one considers him “a wicked politician,” as the Achitophel of the 17th-century pamphlets was referred to, as Dryden plainly did consider him, and as Milton may have done, or marvels at his indefatigable capacity to play, seemingly simultaneously, so many extraordinary and diverse roles (he was actively involved at one point in the early development of South Carolina), were not such as to make any contemporary suspicion or rumor about him “preposterous.” It was Shaftesbury who inspired Dryden, in awe, to declare that “great wits are sure to madness near allied. . . .”

The pamphlets ridiculing Shaftesbury as king of Poland made a point of specifically contrasting him with Sobieski, a noble man and a victorious general who did not puff himself. The widespread attacks on Shaftesbury compared his lack of worth with the genuine greatness of the man who was elected king, who, among other achievements, had repelled the Turks at the gates of Vienna. Shaftesbury’s imprisonment in and release from the Tower by themselves would not have called for such specific derision.

Dryden’s contempt for Shaftesbury was fiercely emotional, exceeding mere political animosity or the anger generated by satire. Shaftesbury quite frightened Dryden in the complexities of his machinations, his vicious impulses, his threat to stability. The Eleventh Edition of The Encyclopedia Britannica describes Shaftesbury’s activities during the Popish Plot of 1678 as follows: “. . .the manner in which he excited baseless alarms, and encouraged fanatic cruelty, for nothing but party advantage, is without excuse.” The fervor of Dryden’s sentiments, made all the stronger by his respect for Shaftesbury’s patent abilities, echoed Milton’s mixed regard for Satan.


My contention is that Milton incorporated into his portrait of Satan the same complex of feelings Dryden did in his portrait of Achitophel, and that the same person contributed to those portraits, as Cooper early to Satan, as Shaftesbury later to Achitophel. The activities of Cooper, first as supporter of Cromwell and all that the Lord Protector meant to Milton, then as betrayer of those causes, seemed to Milton nothing less than satanic in all the implications the century gave to that term.

We must remember how deeply Milton responded to events and issues that fell within his orbit of attention. “Comus,” in spite of its youthful awkwardness, contains moving passages exalting the powers of chastity and virtue, reflecting Milton’s solemn, life-long convictions, in the constrained context of a one-time performance of a birthday play by and for children. “Lycidas” is an early impassioned rumination about values and commitments, provoked by the death of a fellow student Milton scarcely knew. Throughout his life, he intermingled public position, private belief, a powerful and informed reason, activity, and expression. We separate his prose and poetry, the private sonnets from his political ones, his official state documents and declarations from his entirely personal ones, his writing for Cromwell’s government from that in his study, but we do this for our convenience, in violation too often of the threads which organically integrated them. We relish and cherish the autobiographical details in the Second Defense of the People of England, but we minimize them in the poetry.

Milton’s involvement in politics was rarely less than passionate and it was often bilious. Whether or not he wrote the divorce pamphlets in the early years of his first marriage to meet a private need, he certainly wrote his eloquent plea for freedom of the press, the Areopagitica, to meet a public one, to allow for their untrammeled publication. He peppered his defenses of the British people for executing Charles I with taunts at the attackers and elaborate, poignant defenses of himself. He insisted that his blindness was not the result of profligacy, as the attackers declared, but of too much reading and writing in great causes; he insisted, on the evidence of sighted friends, that the blindness did not disfigure him as charged. His anti-prelatical tracts pick up fully the disgustingly ad hominem insults of adversarial debate of the time, including references to the offensive body odors of his episcopal targets.

Milton remained to his last days a close observer of contemporary events at home and abroad. Throughout his mature life he had kept up a correspondence with foreign dignitaries. Obviously he knew of the Polish search for and election of a king, and it would have been odd if he had not known of Cooper/Shaftesbury’s link to those occasions. Milton’s bitterness about the decline of the Commonwealth, his outrage at the leaders of the opposition who contributed to it, focused in his epics on the character and machinations of Satan who had conspired, nothing less, to dethrone God. The document he translated recorded the ascension to the Polish throne of a truly noble hero far superior to Satan/Cooper/ Shaftesbury. In its oblique way it was a reminder to Englishmen of the sort of person Cooper/Shaftesbury was by contrast with Sobieski (and by contrast, certainly, with the late Lord Protector), and it provided to Cooper-Shaftesbury’s opponents the opportunity to deride him as a “Polander.” Milton’s personal obsession with the evil that one powerful, determined man can work in the state was only a pale reflection of the extended obloquy heaped on Shaftesbury by pamphleteers and poet laureate alike.

To the extent that the Satan of Paradise Lost and his associates embody features of the politicians who contributed to the failure of the Commonwealth, we can recognize the basis of Milton’s fierce anger toward the devils and their models in real life. Like Lucifer (Satan before the fall), Cooper/Shaftesbury liked to regard himself as virtually heir, or at least the eminence grise, of the prevailing power. The rumor that he thought of himself as a royal successor to Cromwell may have derived from another personal attack, as Scott believed, but it was nevertheless a charge thought plausible enough to be disseminated.

The translation from the Latin announcing the election of Sobieski as king of Poland was a climactic opportunity Milton seized to emphasize the lack of redeeming merit of a contemporary devil.


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Dr. Mark Heumann's picture
Dr. Mark Heumann · 9 years ago

I would be interested to see, as a follow-up, something about the subsequent identification of Shaftesbury with the King of Poland (e.g., The Last Will and Testament of Anthony, King of Poland [1683]).


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