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John Milton
1608 - 1674
 


The English poet and controversialist John Milton was a champion of liberty and of love-centred marriage. He is chiefly famous for his epic poem "Paradise Lost" and for his defence of uncensored publication.
 

 

The lifetime of John Milton spanned an age of sophistication, controversy, dynamism, and revolution. When he was born, England was illuminated by the versatile genius of Francis Bacon, William Shakespeare, William Byrd, Orlando Gibbons, and Inigo Jones. Christopher Wren was at the height of his powers when Milton died in 1674. At that date Henry Purcell was the major composer; Isaac Newton dominated in mathematics and physics; and literature enjoyed the varied talents of John Dryden, Andrew Marvell, John Bunyan, and Samuel Pepys.

In the middle period of Milton's life, England, after two revolutionary wars, became a republic and then a protectorate under Oliver Cromwell. When monarchy and the Anglican Church were restored in 1660, mercantilist capitalism had been firmly established, and the foundations of the British Empire and navy were laid.


Background and Education

The poet's father, John Milton, Sr., emerged from a line of obscure Roman Catholic yeomen in Oxfordshire, was educated as a chorister, went to London, and became a scrivener - a profession that combined moneylender, copyist, notary, and contract lawyer. About 1600 he married Sara Jeffrey, the wealthy daughter of a merchant-tailor. Three of their children survived infancy: Anne; John, born on Dec. 9, 1608; and Christopher. Their father was not only an able man of business but a musician. He composed madrigals, choral pieces, and some hymns that are still sung. From him young John derived the love of music that pervades his works.

According to Milton's own account in his Second Defense (1654), "My father destined me while still a child for the study of humane letters, which I took up so eagerly that, from the age of twelve on, I hardly ever took to bed from my intense studies before midnight." After private tutoring, about 1620 he entered St. Paul's School, where he studied Sallust, Virgil, and Horace and the New Testament in Greek.

"After I had thus been taught several languages and had tasted the sweetness of philosophy, my father sent me to Cambridge." Admitted to Christ's College at the age of 15, he intended to become a Church of England priest. Because of a disagreement with his tutor, he was "rusticated" (temporarily expelled) in 1626. From home he wrote a Latin poem to his best friend, Charles Diodati, about the joys of exile - reading, plays, walks, and girl watching.

Back at Cambridge about April 1626, Milton was assigned a different tutor and resumed the study of logic, ethics, Greek, Latin, and Hebrew. He composed Latin poems on the deaths of prominent men, some antipopish epigrams, and In quintum Novembris (On the Fifth of November), a melodramatic little epic on the Gunpowder Plot. In 1628 his first major English poem, "On the Death of a Fair Infant, Dying of the Cough," was occasioned by the death of his sister's baby. A year later, in images of light and music, "On the Morning of Christ's Nativity" celebrated the harmonizing power of divine love.

In one of his Prolusions (college orations), Milton digressed into English verse, beginning "Hail native language." Thereafter he wrote Latin verse occasionally and a series of sonnets in Italian, but he composed increasingly in English, his tone ranging from the humour of a mock epitaph, "On the University Carrier," to somber dignity in "An Epitaph on the Marchioness of Winchester." The companion poems "L'Allegro" and "Il Penseroso" contrasted the pleasures of the "joyful man" with the more serious ones of the "contemplative man," thus revealing the complementary sides of Milton's own nature.


The Graceful Thirties

After receiving the bachelor of arts and the master of arts degrees in 1629 and 1632, Milton lived in his family's suburban home in Hammersmith and then at its country estate in Horton, Buckinghamshire, continuing studies in theology, history, mathematics, and literature but participating in social and cultural life in London and the country. The presence of his "On Shakespeare" in the 1632 folio of Shakespeare's plays suggests that Milton was in touch with actors. In his sonnet "How Soon hath Time," Milton modestly lamented his lack of accomplishments in 23 years; but he was soon writing lyrics for his Arcades, an entertainment. In 1634 A Mask (better known as Comus) was performed at Ludlow Castle, with music by Henry Lawes. This mixture of song, dance, pageantry, and poetry is imbued with youthful charm and glorifies the purity of chastity with exquisite lyricism; but with his characteristic readiness to do justice to opposing viewpoints, Milton did not neglect to put an attractive case for seduction into the mouth of his epicurean villain. Thus Milton began his concentration on temptation themes.

Milton's themes were both particular and universal. Lycidas (1637), a pastoral elegy occasioned by the death of a promising young acquaintance, dealt with why God allows the good to die young and asked if, instead of dedicating one's self to study and writing, it would not be better to do as others do and "sport with Amaryllis in the shade." Milton's answer was that "laborious days" are not wasted: eternal life lies ahead. In 1639, when he learned that his friend Diodati had died, he penned a moving Latin elegy, finding solace in Christian hope and resolution for his grief in aesthetic expression. The poem also served as an outlet for a condemnation of negligent clergymen. Though Milton had abandoned the idea of entering the ministry, he was dedicated to making the Church of England more Protestant.

In 1638-1639 Milton toured France and Italy. His short but well-formed body, long auburn hair, blue eyes, and fair skin enhanced his intellectual vivacity and graceful manners. His earnest enthusiasms and versatility in languages also conduced to his being welcomed into polite society abroad. He intended to go to Greece, but news of the growing political and religious crisis in England led him to return to London so that he could help to advance liberty if his talents were needed. In the meantime he tutored his nephews and other students.


Crucial Decades, 1640-1660

It was by writing prose that Milton found opportunity to serve his God and country. In 1641-1642 he poured out tracts opposing the bishops' control over religion. In his judgment, their powers were based on man-made traditions, self-interest, and a combination of ignorance, superstition, and deliberate falsification.

Part of what Milton regarded as episcopal tyranny was the regulation of marriage by canon law and the bishops' courts. In his Commonplace Book (classified notes based on his reading), he had already shown interest in divorce, before Mary Powell became his wife about May 1642. She was about half his age and came from an Oxfordshire family. A few months later, while she was on a visit to her parents, the civil war between King and Parliament erupted. Her family were royalists living in royalist territory, whereas Milton's attacks on the bishops had committed him to the rebels. Accordingly, she failed to return to him despite his urgings. Under these circumstances his publishing a series of pamphlets on divorce (1643-1645) was hardly tactful; but if Mary read them, she discovered that, instead of urging England to follow Protestant example abroad and permit divorce for adultery, desertion, and non-consummation, Milton emphasized the spiritual and mental aspects of marriage: he held that what is essential is neither physical nor sacramental nor contractual but lies in marital love, in the union of what distinguishes human beings from animals - their rational souls. Milton taught that if such compatibility was lacking and could not be achieved after sincere effort, all concerned should recognize the right of divorce, inasmuch as God had not joined such an ill-yoked couple. However, it is doubtful that Milton regarded his own marriage in such a light, for in 1645 he forgave a repentant Mary - she blamed her mother - and as far as is known they lived contentedly together until she died in 1652.

In 1644 Milton's "Of Education" dealt with another kind of domestic freedom, how to develop in schoolboys discipline, reasonableness, broad culture, all-round ability, and independence of judgment. The same year saw Areopagitica, his defense of man's right to free speech and discussion as the best means of advancing truth. To this end he opposed prepublication censorship though admitting that if a book or those responsible for it broke clear and reasonable laws against libel, pornography, blasphemy, or sedition, the work could be repressed or those responsible for it could be fairly tried and punished if found guilty. Milton advocated neither licentiousness or avoidable interference with individuals but, rather, responsible freedom under just laws and magistrates.

The divorce tracts made Milton undeservedly notorious as a fanatic libertine advocate of free love. Readers of his collected Poems (1645) were therefore probably surprised to find the charming seriousness of an author who, had he died then, might have been ranked with George Herbert and Robert Herrick as an Anglican poet. The volume contained not only the poems mentioned above but also exquisite lyrics such as "On a May Morning" and "At a Solemn Musick." Milton also put new life into the sonnet genre, investing it with wider subject matter.

As the civil war drew to a close, Milton turned from defending the liberty of religion, marriage, and publication to condemning royal tyranny. The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates (1649) argued that men have a natural right to freedom and that contracts they make with rulers are voluntary and terminable. Soon after its publication he began a decade as the revolutionary government's secretary for foreign tongues: his chief duty was to put state letters into choice Latin. His next pamphlet, Eikonoklastes (1649), answered "The King's Book," a self-justification attributed to Charles I. This was followed by two Defenses of the English People (1651, 1654) to explain why they revolted and a Defense of Himself (1655) against various attackers. These works were in Latin: Milton was the revolution's chief international propagandist.

For some years Milton had been losing his eyesight, and by early 1652 he was totally blind. Reflecting that this could prevent the use of his talent in God's service, he composed the sonnet "When I consider how my light is spent" with its famous conclusion, "They also serve who only stand and wait."

In 1656, four years after his first wife's death, Milton married Kathrine Woodcock. Two years later she died as a result of childbirth, and he tenderly memorialized her in a sonnet, "To my late departed Saint."

Despite adversities Milton heroically persisted. During the crisis preceding restoration of the monarchy he dictated several tracts. In A Treatise of Civil Power (1659) he again urged toleration and separation of Church and state. Ready and Easy Way (1660) argued for preservation of a republic.


Triumph in Defeat

Inevitably the eloquent defender of monarchy's overthrow was in acute danger when Charles II, son of the executed Charles I, regained the throne in 1660. Milton was harassed and imprisoned; his seditious books were publically burned; but he was included in a general pardon. In 1663 he married Elizabeth Minshell. In 1667, Paradise Lost, his long-planned epic on the fall of man, was published. In 1671 its sequel, Paradise Regained, appeared in one volume with Samson Agonistes, a tragedy modeled on Greek drama and the Book of Job. Milton also published some previously written prose works on grammar, logic, and early British history; his Prolusions with some familiar letters; and an enlarged edition of his earlier Poems. In 1673 he reentered public controversy with Of True Religion, a brief defense of Protestantism. Before his death about Nov. 8, 1674, he was planning to publish writings that appeared posthumously: his Latin state papers (1676) and a short history of Moscovia (1682). In 1694 his nephew Edward Phillips published a life of his uncle with an English translation of the state papers.

In the early 19th century the Latin manuscript of Milton's Christian Doctrine was discovered and translated (1825). In it he systematically set out to disencumber scriptural interpretation from misinterpretation by discovering what the Bible itself said on such matters as predestination, angels, and saving faith. One of his central convictions was that what God accommodated to limited human understandings was sufficient and that man should not impose on what God left vague a precision unjustified by what He revealed.

Paradise Lost was not suspected of unorthodoxy by centuries of Protestant readers, and, except for a few jabs at Roman Catholicism, it has universally appealed to Christians. However, because Satan is portrayed with a rebelliousness against the nature of things that dissidents find attractive, the poets William Blake and Percy Bysshe Shelley and other "Satanists" alleged that Milton was knowingly or unknowingly on the side of the devils. Their notion is evidence of the epic's tremendous imaginative power. In majestic blank-verse paragraphs it relates the whole of history from the Son's generation, through the war in heaven, the fall of the rebel angels, the creation, and man's fall, to a vision of the future, Satan's final defeat, and the establishment of Christ's kingdom. Milton did not intend most of it to be taken literally: it is largely a product of his imagination, inspired by, but not directly based on, the Bible. Paradise Lost is a fictionalized, imaginative attempt to dramatize approximations of complex truths. Underlying the fictive is Milton's effort to convey to his fellowmen some insight into God's wisdom and providence.

Paradise Regained, a far shorter epic, treats the rejection by Jesus of Satan's temptations. Its central point is that the true hero conquers not by force but by humility and faith in God. Like the two epics and Comus, Samson Agonistes treats the theme of temptation, dramatizing how the Hebrew strong man overtrusted himself and, like Eve and Adam, yielded to passion and seeming self-interest.


Reputation and Influence

For a few decades after his death, Milton was damned as a rebel and divorcer. But since then reformers and revolutionaries have been inspired by his works, especially Areopagitica. His influence on poets has been tremendous, though not always beneficial. John Dryden partially based his Achitophel on Milton's Satan and so admired Paradise Lost that he recast it as an opera, The Fall of Man. Joseph Addison in the Spectator demonstrated that Milton ranked with Homer and Virgil. Alexander Pope delightfully satirized some features of Paradise Lost in The Rape of the Lock. In The Lives of the Poets Samuel Johnson somewhat grudgingly conceded Milton's achievement as a poet but was so prejudiced by his royalist, Anglican sympathies that he portrayed Milton as a domestic tyrant. In general, 18th-century poets lauded him for sublimity. William Blake and Percy Bysshe Shelley exalted his Satan as a romantic rebel. William Wordsworth, viewing the poet as a liberator, wrote, "Milton, thou shouldst be living at this hour." Samuel Taylor Coleridge in his critical writings praised Milton's artistry and profundity. John Keats and Alfred, Lord Tennyson, were perhaps overinfluenced by his poetry. The Victorians put Paradise Lost alongside the Bible in their parlors for Sunday reading; and Milton's great 19th-century biographer, David Masson, transformed him into Victorian solidity.

Milton's poetic reputation remained high until the 1920s, when there was an adverse reaction from T.S. Eliot and other poet-critics. Somewhat oddly, they condemned his verse chiefly because of its influence. But the academic critics came to the rescue, and since about 1930 Milton studies have been revolutionized. He has been restored to a high eminence, though both his personality and works are still much controverted. Indeed, he has been extraordinarily successful in his aim of stimulating seminal discussion. However, the notion that he was sour and puritanical dies slowly. As a corrective, it is well to remember how his own daughter remembered him: "She said He was Delightful Company, the Life of the Conversation, and That on Account of a Flow of Subject and an Unaffected Chearfulness and Civility."

 

 

 

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This web page was last updated on: 13 December, 2008