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by Bamber Gascoigne

John Milton (1608-1674)


One of the greatest poets of the English language, best-known for his epic poem Paradise Lost (1667). Milton's powerful, rhetoric prose and the eloquence of his poetry had an immense influence especially on the 18th-century verse. Besides poems, Milton published pamphlets defending civil and religious rights.

"Of Man's first disobedience, and the fruit
Of that forbidden tree whose mortal taste
Brought death into the world, and all our woe,
With loss of Eden."

(from Paradise Lost)

John Milton was born in London. His mother, Sarah Jeffrey, a very religious person, was the daughter of a merchant sailor. Milton's father, named John, too, had risen to prosperity as a scrivener or law writer - he also composed madrigasl and psalm settings. The family was wealthy enough to afford a second house in the country. Milton's first teachers were his father, from whom he inherited love for art and music, and the writer Thomas Young, a graduate of St Andrews University. Milton took part in small domestic consorts, he played often a small organ and he had "delicate, tuneable voice". At the age of twelve Milton was admitted to St Paul's School near his home. Five years later he entered Christ's College, Cambridge. While considering himself destined for the ministry, he began to write poetry in Latin, Italian, and English. One of Milton'e earliest works, 'On the Death of a Fair Infant' (1626), was written after his sister Anne Phillips had suffered from a miscarriage. 'In inventorem bombardae' (On the inventor of gunpowder), a piece in a series on the occasion of the Gunpowder Plot, contains Milton's first portrayal of Satan.

Milton did not adjust to university life. He was called, half in scorn, "The Lady of Christ's", and after starting a fist fight with his tutor, he was expelled for a term. On leaving Cambridge Milton had given up his original plan to become a priest. He adopted no profession but spent six years at leisure in his father's home, writing during that time L'Allegro, Il Penseroso (1632), Comus (1634), and Lycidas (1637), about the meaning of death, which was composed after the death of his friend Edward King. Milton wrote in Latin as was usual for the time. His first published poem was the sonnet 'An Epitaph on the Admirable Dramatic Poet, W. Shakespeare', which was printed anonymously in the Second Folio of Shakespeare's works (1632).

In 1635 the Miltons moved to Horton, Buckinghamshire, where John pursued his studies in Greek, Latin, and Italian. He traveled in France and Italy in the late 1630s, meeting in Paris the jurist and theologian Hugo Grotius. While in Florence, he made friends with Vincenzo Galilei, the illegitimate son of the astronomer Galileo Galilei, who introduced him to his father - there are references to Galileo's telescope in Paradise Lost. His conversation with the famous scientist Milton recorded in his celebrated plea for a free speech and free discussion, Areopagitica (1644), in which he stated that books "preserve as in a vial the purest efficacy and extraction of that living intellect bred in them." Milton returned to London in 1639, and set up a school with his nephews and a few others as pupils. He had planned to write an epic based on the Arthurian legends, but then gave up his literary pursuits, partly due to the Civil War, which divided the country as Oliver Cromwell fought against the king, Charles I.

Concerned with the Puritan cause, Milton published a series of pamphlets against episcopacy (1642), on divorce (1643), in defense of the liberty of the press (1644), and in support of the regicides (1649). He also served as the secretary for foreign languages in Cromwell's government. After the death of Charles I, Milton expressed in The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates (1649) the view that the people have the right to depose and punish tyrants.

In 1651 Milton became blind, but like Jorge Luis Borges centuries later, blindness helped him to stimulate his verbal richness. "He sacrificed his sight, and then he remembered his first desire, that of being a poet," Borges wrote in one of his lectures. One of his assistants was the poet and satirist Andew Marvell (1621-78), who spoke for him in Parliament, when his political opinions stirred much controversy. After the Restoration of Charles II in 1660, Milton was arrested as a noted defender of the Commonwealth, but was soon released. However, for his opposition Milton was forced to pay a massive fine. Besides public burning of Eikonoklastes (1649) and the first Defensio (1651) in Paris and Toulouse, Milton escaped from more punishment, but he became a relatively poor man. The manuscript of Paradise Lost he sold for £5 to Samuel Simmons, and was promised another £5 if the first edition of 1,300 copies sold out. This was done in 18 months.

Milton was married three times. His first marriage started unhappily; this experience promted the poet to write his famous essays on divorce. He had married in 1642 Mary Powell, seventeen at that time. She grew soon bored with her busy husbandand went back home where she stayed for three years. Their first child, Anne, was born in 1646. Mary died in 1652 and four years later Milton married Katherine Woodcock; she died in 1658. For her memory Milton devoted the sonnet 'To His Late Wife'. In the 1660s Milton moved with his third wife, Elizabeth Minshull, again a much younger woman, to what is now Bunhill Row. The marriage was happy, in spite of the great difference of their ages. Milton spent in Bunhill Row the remaining years of his life, apart from a brief visit to Chalfont St Giles in 1665 during a period of plague. His late poems Milton dictated to his daughter, nephews, friends, disciples, and paid amanuenses.

In Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce (1643), composed after Mary had deserter him, Milton argued that a true marriage was of mind as well as of body, and that the chaste and modest were more likely to find themselves "chained unnaturally together" in unsuitable unions than those who had in youth lived loosely and enjoyed more varied experience. Though Milton morally austere and conscientious, some of his religious beliefs were very unconventional, and came in conflict with the official Puritan stand. Milton who did not believe in the divine birth, "believed perhaps nothing," as Ford Madox Ford says in The March of Literature (1938). Milton's depiction of God changes from one work to the next, but basically he rejected the doctrine, that God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Ghost are coessential and coeternal.

Milton died on November 8, 1674. He was buried beside his father in the church of St Giles, Cripplegate. It has been claimed that Milton's grave was desecrated when the church was undergoing repairs. All the teeth and "a large quantity of the hair" were taken as souvenirs by grave robbers.

Milton's achievement in the field of poetry was recognized after the appearance of Paradise Lost. Before it the writer himself had showed some doubt of the worth of his work: "By labor and intent study (which I take to be my portion in this life), joined with the strong propensity of nature, I might perhaps leave something so written to after-times, as they should not willingly let it die." (from The Reason of Church Government, 1641) Milton's cosmic vision has occasionally provoked critical discussion. Even T.S. Eliot has attacked the author and described him as one whose sensuousness had been "withered by book-learning." Eliot claimed that Milton's poetry '"could only be an influence for the worse, upon any poet whatever." (Faithful Labourers: A Reception History of Paradise Lost,  1667-1970, Volume II: Interpretative Issues by John Leonard, 2013, p. 191)

The theme of Fall and expulsion from Eden had been in Milton's mind from the 1640s. His ambition was to compose an epic poem to rival the ancient poets, such as Homer and Virgil, whose grand vision in Aeneid left traces in his work. Originally it was issued in 10 books in 1667, and in 12 books in the second edition of 1674. Milton, who wanted to be a great poet, had also cope with the towering figure of Shakespeare, who had died in 1616 - Milton was seven at that time. In his own hierarchy, Milton placed highest in the scale the epic, below it was the drama.

Paradise Lost is not easy to read with its odd syntax, difficult vocabulary, and complex, but noble style. Moreover, its cosmic vision is not actually based on the Copernican system, but more in the traditional Christian cosmology of its day, where the Earth (and man) is the center of the universe, not the sun. The poem tells a biblical story of Adam and Eve, with God, and Lucifer (Satan), who is thrown out of Heaven to corrupt humankind. Satan, the most beautiful of the angels, is at his most impressive: he wakes up, on a burning lake in Hell, to find himself surrounded by his stunned followers. He has been defeated in the War of Heaven. "All is not lost; th' unconquerable Will, / And study of revenge, immortal hate, / And courage never to submit or yield... /" Milton created a powerful and sympathetic portrait of Lucifer. His character bears similarities with Shakespeare's hero-villains Iago and Macbeth, whose personal ambition is transformed into metaphysical nihilism.

Milton's view influenced deeply such Romantic poets as William Blake and Percy Bysshe Shelley, who regarded Satan as the real hero of the poem - a rebel against the tyranny of Heaven. The troubled times, in which Milton lived, is also seen on his theme of religious conflict. In The Marriage of Heaven and Hell Blake stated that Milton is "a true Poet, and of the Devil's party without knowing it." Many other works of art have been inspired by Paradise Lost, among them Joseph Haydn's oratorio The Creation, Alexander Pope's The Rape of the Lock and The Dunciad, John Keat's poem Endymion, Lord Byron's The Vision of Judgment, the satanic Sauron in J.R.R. Tolkien's saga The Lord of the Rings. Noteworthy, Nietzsche's Zarathustra has more superficial than real connections with Milton's Lucifer, although Nietzsche knew Milton's work.

For further reading: Life of Milton, Narrated in Connection with the Political, Ecclesiastical and Literary History of his Time by David Masson (1859-1880); The Miltonic Setting by E.M.W. Tillyard (1938); The Living Milton, ed. by F. Kermode (1960); Milton: A Biography by William Riley Parker (1968); Milton's Grand Style by C. Ricks (1963); Milton and the English Revolution by C. Hill (1977); also full biographies and W.R. Parker (1968); John Milton, a Literary Life by Cedric C. Brown (1995); Divided Empire: Milton's Political Imagery by Robert Thomas Fallon (1996); Milton Unbound by John P. Rumrich (1966); Eden Renewed: The Public and Private Life of John Milton by Peter Levi (1997); John Milton: The Prose Works by Thomas N. Corns (1998); John Milton: A Comprehensive Research and Study Guide, ed. by Harold Bloom (1999); Milton: Life, Work, and Thought by Gordon Campbell and Thomas N. Corns (2008); Is Milton Better Than Shakespeare? by Nigel Smith (2008); Milton and the Metamorphosis of Ovid by Maggie Kilgour (2012); Reading John Milton: How to Persist in Troubled Times by Stephen B. Dobranski (2022) - Note: Milton appears himself in William Blake's visionary Milton (c. 1814) and in Rober Graves's Wife to Mr Milton (1944) - Note: Alastair Fowler's annotated edition of Paradise Lost is considered among the best guides to Milton's poem - first edition in 1968, second edition in 1998.

Selected works:

  • Ode on the Morning of Christ's Nativity, 1627
  • L'Allegro, 1632
  • Il Penseroso, 1632
  • Epitaph on Shakespeare, 1632
  • Arcades, 1633
  • A Maske presented at Ludlow Castle, 1634 (Comus)
  • Lycidas, 1637
  • The Reason of Church-Government Urg'd against Prelaty, 1641
  • An Apology against a Pamphlet call'd A modest Confutation of the Animadversions upon the Remonstrant against Smectymnuus, 1642
  • The Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce, 1643
  • Of Education, 1644
  • Areopagitica; A Speech of Mr. John Milton for the Liberty of Unlicenc'd Printing, To the Parlament of England, 1644
  • Colasterion, a Reply to a Nameles Answer against "The Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce," 1645
  • Tetrachordon: Expositions upon the Foure Chief Places in Scripture, which Treat of Mariage, or Nullities in Mariage, 1645
  • The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates: Proving That it is Lawfull, and hath been held so through all Ages, for any, who have the Power, to call to account a Tyrant or wicked King, and after due conviction to depose, and put him to death, 1649
  • Eikonoklastes, 1649
  • Defensio pro Populo Anglicano, 1651
  • Defensio Secunda / The Second Defence of the People of England, 1654
  • A Treatise of Civil Power in Ecclesiastical Causes, Shewing That It Is Not Lawfull for Any Power on Earth To Compell in Matters of Religion, 1659
  • The Ready and Easy Way to Establish a Free Commonwealth, 1660
  • Paradise Lost, 1667
    - Kadotettu paratiisi: runoelma (suom. Yrjö Jylhä; elämäkerran ja selitykset kirj. Eino Railo, 1933)
  • History of Britain, 1670
  • Samson Agonistes, 1671
  • Paradise Regained, 1671
  • Poems, &c. Upon Several Occasions, 1673
  • Of True Religion, Haeresie, Schism, Toleration, and what Best Means May be Us’d Against the Growth of Popery, 1673
  • A Brief History of Moscovia, 1682
  • The Poetical Works of Mr. John Milton, 1695
  • The Poetical Works of Mr. John Milton, 1705 (2 vols.)
  • De Doctrina Christiana, 1825 - A Treatise on Christian Doctrine: Compiled from the Holy Scriptures Alone (translated from the original by Charles R. Sumner, 1825)
  • The Poetical Works of John Milton, 1874 (edited, with introductions, notes, and an essay on Milton’s English, by David Masson)
  • Commonplace Book, 1874
  • Milton’s Minor Poems, 1913 (ed. by Robert T. Kerlin)
  • Complete Poems and Major Prose, 1957 (edited, with notes and introduction, by Merritt Y. Hughes)
  • Selected Prose, 1974 (edited by C.A. Patrides)
  • John Milton, 1994 (edited by Jonathan Goldberg and Stephen Orgel)
  • The Complete Poems, 1998 (edited with a preface and notes by John Leonard)
  • The Poetical Works of John Milton, 2000- (edited by Helen Darbishire)
  • The Complete Works of John Milton, 2008- (edited with introduction, notes, and commentary by Laura Lunger Knoppers)
  • Paradise Lost: Books 1 and 2, 2009 (edited by Anna Baldwin)
  • Milton’s Latin Poems, 2011 (translated by David R. Slavitt; introduction by Gordon Teskey)
  • The Complete Works of John Milton. Vol. III: The Shorter Poems, 2012 (edited by Barbara Lewalski and Estelle Haan)
  • The Complete Works of John Milton. Vol. VIII: De Doctrina Christiana, 2012 (edited by John Hale and J. Donald Cullington)
  • Young Milton: The Emerging Author, 1620-42, 2012 (edited by Edward Jones)
  • John Milton’s Prose: Major Writings on Liberty, Politics, Religion, and Education, 2013 (edited by David Loewenstein)

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