Austen Saunders

John Milton’s ambiguous love for Oliver Cromwell – Discovering poetry

‘To Oliver Cromwell’

Cromwell, our chief of men, who through a cloud
Not of war only, but detractions rude,
Guided by faith and matchless fortitude
To peace and truth thy glorious way hast ploughed,
And on the neck of crowned fortune proud
Hast reared God’s trophies and his work pursued
While Darwen streams with blood of Scots imbrued,
And Dunbar field resounds thy praises loud,
And Worcester’s laureate wreath; yet much remains
To conquer still; peace hath her victories
No less than those of war; new foes arise
Threatening to bind our souls in secular chains:
Help us to save free conscience from the paw
Of hireling wolves whose gospel is their maw.

This sonnet was written in 1652 when Milton was part of Oliver Cromwell’s civil service. He was sitting on a committee considering plans to establish a new national church with ministers paid by the state. Milton believed that this would undermine the religious freedoms which had emerged during the civil wars. Like Cromwell himself, he believed in absolute freedom of religious conscience (for Protestants anyway). The ‘hireling wolves’ who would ‘bind our souls in secular chains’ are his way of describing the proposals. The sonnet urges Cromwell to stick to his instincts.

When you want someone’s help, it’s a good idea to be nice about them. So Milton pays tributes to Cromwell the conquering hero. He draws attention to his three great victories against Scottish armies – at Preston in 1648 (near the River Darwen), at Dunbar on September 3 1650 and, exactly one year later, at Worcester. These were the victories that secured the new English republic.

However, the poem is haunted by two biblical verses which hover in the background and allow triumph to slide into warning. They are the last two verses of I Corinthians, chapter 13:

For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.

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