Last reviewed: June 2018
December 9, 1608
November 8, 1674
John Milton was born in 1608 above his father’s scrivener’s shop on Bread Street, Cheapside, London. He was born to troubled times, living through the late Elizabethan period, the Jacobean upheavals and the Commonwealth corrections, and the fluctuating Restoration ascendancy. John Milton
The future poet’s grandfather, Richard Milton, a yeoman and under-ranger, lived near Oxford. Unswervingly Roman Catholic, he disinherited his son John for joining the Church of England. The latter moved to London, where he earned a satisfactory fortune to provide comforts for himself, his wife, and their three children, John, Christopher, and Anne. The home above the Bread Street shop must have possessed a cultural, artistic air, for John senior was a musician and composer. When the firstborn child showed eagerness for reading and study, there was ample parental encouragement. Young John enrolled as a day student at St. Paul’s School and was tutored privately by a Scottish curate, Thomas Young. At St. Paul’s the lad formed an abiding friendship with Charles Diodati.
In 1625, when he was sixteen, Milton entered Christ’s College, Cambridge. Fellow students dubbed him the “Lady of Christ’s”—referring derisively to his meticulous conduct or more complimentarily to his benignly handsome face. The one visible rift in his Cambridge career occurred in 1626, when, because of a disagreement with his tutor, William Chappell, he was briefly suspended. His period of rustication proved enjoyable, however, for he went to London, attended theaters, visited parks, and eyed city girls. Returning to Cambridge, he was allowed a new tutor. Besides studying consistently, he wrote Latin verse and several English poems, the best being “On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity.” He took the B.A. and M.A. degrees on schedule and departed from the university in 1632.
John Milton’s father had wanted his son to take holy orders in the Established Church, but when the young man proved averse to the ministry and to the Church of England itself, the parent attempted no coercion. Undoubtedly he remembered the bitterness of his own father’s attitude.
The university graduate showed no interest in a business or profession. His father, with means sufficient, had retired to Hammersmith, then to Horton, a village in Buckinghamshire, seventeen miles west of London. From 1632 to 1638 John lived quietly and pleasantly under the parental roof, where, according to his own statement, he “spent a long holiday turning over the Latin and Greek authors.” At Horton his poetic genius flowered in “L’Allegro,” a glorification of the mirthful man; “Il Penseroso,” an extolling of the pensive soul; Comus, a masque; and “Lycidas,” a combination elegy and satire, which berated corrupt members of the clergy—“blind mouths,” whom he was finding increasingly offensive.
Visiting Italy in 1638, Milton met the scientist Galileo. He returned to England in August, 1639, as threats of civil conflict grew constantly darker. In the ensuing war between Charles I and Parliament, Milton espoused the latter cause as the people’s fight for freedom. He was no soldier, but he battled with his pen. In 1649 he was appointed Latin secretary to Oliver Cromwell, with the duty of translating foreign diplomatic correspondence. Moreover, he voluntarily composed propaganda pamphlets. So strong was his sense of consecration that, though his doctor warned continued writing would cost his eyesight, he completed Pro Populo Anglicano Defensio (defence of the English people), an attempted justification of the execution of King Charles. He paid the predicted price: At forty-three, he became totally blind. With Andrew Marvell as his assistant, he retained the Latin secretaryship until dismissed by General Monk in 1659.
Milton’s religion typified the man and the time. A Christian trinitarian in a broadly orthodox sense, he found little contentment with any sect. After Episcopal rearing, he turned Presbyterian, then later recanted, asserting that “New Presbyter is but old Priest writ large.” He is best characterized as a truly independent thinker. Prelatic authoritarianism of any flavor offended him. “True religion is the true worship and service of God, learned and believed from the word of God only,” he wrote. And further: “Heresy . . . is a religion taken up and believed from the traditions of men, and additions to the word of God.”
With the restoration of Charles II in 1660, Milton went into uneasy retirement in London and in the village of Chalfont St. Giles near Horton. The Royalist government, reinstated by a Puritan-sickened, Cromwell-sated citizenry, did him no harm.
Milton married three times. His first wife, Mary Powell, the seventeen-year-old daughter of a Cavalier squire, left him shortly after their wedding in 1642, for reasons unknown. Their separation might have been permanent had the king’s troops been victorious, but when in 1645 Cromwell’s triumph became apparent, Mary, spurred by relatives who needed an alliance on the winning side, rejoined her husband. She and Milton had three daughters and a son who died in infancy. Mary died in 1652. Milton’s second marriage was in 1656 to Katharine Woodcock, who survived only fifteen months. His third wife, Elizabeth Minshull, wedded the poet in 1663 and outlived him.
As early as 1639 Milton wanted to write a master poem. He long pondered whether it should be epic or dramatic, national or religious. By 1642 he had a list of subjects, but the Civil War and his prosaic tasks for the Commonwealth delayed his start. He accomplished his literary ambition when physical blindness permitted spiritual visions and when political defeat provided leisure necessary for contemplation. Debate exists concerning when he began Paradise Lost, which was complete by 1663. This blank verse religious poem is unique in the English language. Its purpose, to “assert Eternal Providence/ And . . . justify the ways of God to men,” transcends sectarianism. Originally published in ten books (1667), suggesting a hymnlike celebration of God’s love for humanity, Milton appears to have carefully altered it into a twelve-book structure for the purpose of selling it as an epic (1674). There has been much critical discussion of the poem as epic, with Satan as a potential hero—hardly a probable authorial intent. Paradise Lost’s allegory of Satan, Sin, and Death at the gates of Hell, graphic scenes of Heaven’s war, humor in the embellished account of Adam’s fall, and softly cadenced final lines all have enthralled readers through the centuries.
The sequel epic, Paradise Regained—a paraphrase of Christ’s temptations—is a shorter and more predictable poem. Milton’s other long poem, Samson Agonistes, is religious drama. Its blind protagonist, duped by Dalila, imprisoned by Philistines, dying in victory, is often questionably construed as an autobiographical figure.
Happily, in his last years Milton’s wife Elizabeth was a comfort to him. He in turn was vocally appreciative. His custom was to rise at four or five, hear a chapter of the Bible, eat and drink temperately, have someone lead him about the streets for exercise, listen to music, smoke a pipe of tobacco, and dictate to any available amanuensis. In “his house, near Bunhill Fields, without Moorgate” a visitor saw him in “black clothes, and neat enough, pale but not cadaverous, his hands and fingers gouty and with chalk-stones.” He died on Sunday, November 8, 1674. Milton was buried near his father in the chancel of St. Giles’ Church, Cripplegate.