Authors: John Milton

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Last reviewed: June 2018

English poet

December 9, 1608

London, England

November 8, 1674

London, England

Biography

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

(Library of Congress)

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.

Author Works Poetry: L'Allegro, 1631 Il Penseroso, 1631 Lycidas, 1638 Poems of Mr. John Milton, 1645 When I Consider How My Light Is Spent, 1652 On the Late Massacre in Piedmont, 1655 Paradise Lost, 1667, 1674 Paradise Regained, 1671 Samson Agonistes, 1671 Poems, &c, Upon Several Occasions, 1673 The Poetical Works, 1952-1955 Drama: Comus, pr. 1634, pb. 1637 (as A Maske Presented at Ludlow Castle) Nonfiction: Animadversions upon the Remonstrant’s Defence Against Smectymnuus, 1641 Of Prelatical Episcopacy, 1641 Of Reformation Touching Church Discipline in England, 1641 The Reason of Church-Government Urg’d Against Prelaty, 1642 An Apology for a Pamphlet , 1642 (also known as Apology for Smectymnuus) The Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce, 1643 Areopagitica, 1644 Of Education, 1644 The Judgement of Martin Bucer Concerning Divorce, 1644 Colasterion, 1645 Tetrachordon, 1645 Eikonoklastes, 1649 The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates, 1649 Pro Populo Anglicano Defensio, 1651 Pro Populo Anglicano Defensio Secunda, 1654 Pro Se Defensio, 1655 Considerations Touching the Likeliest Means to Remove Hirelings Out of the Church, 1659 A Treatise of Civil Power in Ecclesiastical Causes, 1659 The Readie and Easie Way to Establish a Free Commonwealth, 1660 Brief Notes upon a Late Sermon, 1660 Accedence Commenced Grammar, 1669 The History of Britain, 1670 Art of Logic, 1672 Of True Religion, Heresy, Schism, and Toleration, 1673 Epistolae Familiaries, 1674 Prolusiones, 1674 De doctrina Christiana libri duo Posthumi, 1825 Complete Prose Works of John Milton, 1953–1982 (8 volumes) Miscellaneous: Works, 1931–1938 (18 volumes) Bibliography Bloom, Harold, ed. John Milton. New York: Chelsea House, 1986. Contains a selection of some of the best Milton criticism from the previous thirty years. Includes a bibliography and an index. Bradford, Richard. The Complete Critical Guide to John Milton. New York: Routledge, 2001. An accessible, comprehensive guide to Milton for students. Bradford brings Milton to life in an overview of his life and work and provides a summation of the main critical issues surrounding his work. Includes bibliographical references and an index. Cummins, Juliet, ed. Milton and the Ends of Time. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003. A collection of essays that examine Milton’s focus on the millennium, eternity, and the apocalypse in his works. Duran, Angelica, ed. A Concise Companion to Milton. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell Publishers, 2007. This book raises the question of how and why Milton continues to be an important literary figure, while also taking a critical look at his individual texts. Some issues prominent in his writing, such as gender and religion, are examined in this volume’s fourteen essays. The writing is basic and easily accessible to readers of all levels. Includes an introduction, chronology, and bibliography. Fish, Stanley. How Milton Works. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2001. Argues that all of Milton’s work can be seen from the poet’s firm belief that the value of his (or any) work lay in its author’s commitment to divine truth, not in the tools and devices—plot, narrative, representation—of his aesthetic craft. Forsyth, Neil. John Milton: A Biography. Oxford: Lion Publishing, 2009. This biography offers insight on Milton’s writing as well as his personal life, including his marriages, his Christian beliefs, and his relationships with other writers. A great resource for anyone interested in Milton, or the times in which he lived. Hunter, G. K. Paradise Lost. Boston: Allen & Unwin, 1980. The great advantage of this short study is its ability to make the poem enjoyable. It suggests ways of reading the text that still take full account of Milton’s art, complexities, and contradictions. Contains a bibliography and an index. Jordan, Matthew. Milton and Modernity: Subjectivity in Paradise Lost. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000. Sees Milton’s works as essentially revolutionary, necessarily understood in a context of the author’s belief in individual human freedom. Includes bibliographical references and an index. Lewalski, Barbara Kiefer. The Life of John Milton: A Critical Biography. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 2000. A detailed account of Milton’s life and career. Lewalski provides a close analysis of Milton’s prose and poetry and shows his development of a revolutionary prophetic voice. Includes bibliographical references and an index. Martz, Louis L. Poet of Exile: A Study of Milton’s Poetry. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1980. Sixteen chapters center on Paradise Lost as a poem of exile. Two separate sections cover the rest of the poetry, and a fourth section looks closely at the interaction with Ovid in Paradise Lost in terms of heroic and pastoral love. Contains appendices and an index. Silver, Victoria. Imperfect Sense: The Predicament of Milton’s Irony. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2001. Silver engages the central question of Milton readers: Why do we hate Milton’s God? She argues that Milton deliberately presents a repugnant deity, one divided from himself, in an effort to reveal the human experience of a divided or self-contradictory universe driven by our own, ironically limited, vantage.

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