The English poet and controversialist John Milton (1608-1674) was a champion of liberty and of love-centered marriage. He is chiefly famous for his epic poem "Paradise Lost" and for his defense 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 humor 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 esthetic 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 nonconsummation, 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."
The standard biography is Milton: A Life (2 vols., 1968), by William Riley Parker. The most inclusive edition is The Works, prepared by general editor Frank Allen Patterson (18 vols., 1931-1938), known as The Columbia Milton. However, for the nonpoetic writings, Complete Prose Works, prepared by general editor Don M. Wolfe (8 vols., 1953 and later), is more reliable. For the poetry, the most accurate texts are provided in editions by Helen Gardner (2 vols., 1952-1955), Douglas Bush (1965), John Carey and Alastair Fowler (heavily annotated, 1968), and John T. Shawcross (rev. ed. 1971). The Prose, edited by J. Max Patrick (1967), includes generous selections, a survey of all the prose works, and annotations. The Student's Milton, edited by F.A. Patterson (1930), gives all the poetry and most of the prose in one volume with few notes (1930). The Complete Poems and Major Prose, edited by Merritt Y. Hughes (1957), is widely used as a textbook.
A brief, sound entree for the beginner is Douglas Bush, John Milton: A Sketch of His Life and Writings (1964). The general reader may prefer John Milton, Englishman, by James Holly Hanford (1949), but students will find wider guidance in A Milton Handbook by Hanford and James A. Taafe (5th ed. 1970).
The best treatment of Milton's prose in its intellectual context is Milton and the Puritan Dilemma by Arthur E. Barker (repr. 1956); he edited Milton: Modern Essays in Criticism (1965), an excellent introduction to 20th-century approaches to the poetry, with guidance for further reading. Milton's Epic Poetry, edited by C.A. Patrides (1967), contains a variety of essays and an annotated reading list.
Except for Shakespeare, more scholarship and criticism is devoted to Milton than to any other English author. In general, works published before about 1930 have been superseded. Among the best are the books by James Holly Hanford, John M. Steadman, Joseph Summers, Stanley Fish, Merritt Y. Hughes, Kester Svendsen, Don Cameron Allen, E. M. W. Tillyard, Rosemond Tuve, William Riley Parker, A. S. P. Woodhouse, F. Michael Krouse, Louis Martz, and Barbara Lewalski; however, this list is highly selective. The biographies, guides, and editions listed above usually suggest further reading. For fuller guidance see Calvin Huckabay, John Milton: An Annotated Bibliography (rev. ed. 1969). □
"John Milton." Encyclopedia of World Biography. 2004. Encyclopedia.com. (August 23, 2016). http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1G2-3404704480.html
"John Milton." Encyclopedia of World Biography. 2004. Retrieved August 23, 2016 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1G2-3404704480.html
Milton, John (1608–1674)
MILTON, JOHN (1608–1674)
MILTON, JOHN (1608–1674), English poet. England's epic poet and champion of civil and religious liberties was born in London on 9 December 1608, entered Christ's College, Cambridge, in 1625, and earned his M.A. in 1632. His conscience prevented him from becoming a clergyman in the Church of England under the repressive Archbishop William Laud, and his talent and his "great taskmaster" (Sonnet 7) led him to poetry, "the inspired guift of God . . . of power beside the office of a pulpit, to imbreed and cherish in a great people the seeds of vertu, and publick civility . . . and set the affections in right tune" (CPW 1:816–817). In 1638–1639 Milton traveled in Europe, met members of the Florentine Academies, visited Galileo Galilei, "a pris[o]ner to the Inquisition" (CPW 2:538), and shipped music books from Venice; but hearing that "my fellow-citizens at home were fighting for liberty" (CPW 4.1:619), he returned to write on behalf of the religious and political reformation of England.
In 1649, after the parliamentary victory, Milton was appointed secretary for foreign tongues by the Council of State and asked to defend the execution of Charles I; he produced Eikonoklastes (The image-breaker), arguing that the king is not above the rule of law. In 1652 he became blind but continued his work for the Commonwealth government, with assistance from Andrew Marvell, who also helped obtain his release from imprisonment after the Restoration.
Milton's major prose concerns religious, political, and domestic liberty. Five tracts promoting religious reformation appeared in 1641–1642. Of Education (1644) proposes a curriculum "to repair the ruins of our first parents" (CPW 2:366) through biblical and classical works in their original languages and the direct observation of nature and technology. Areopagitica (1644), credited with a part in the founding principles of the American republic, opposes prepublication licensing of books and urges that truth seeking requires the freedom of a well-instructed conscience. Four tracts on marriage and divorce (1643–1645) argue that God instituted marriage for mutual help and companionship in both spiritual and domestic life and that God's laws should be interpreted by the rule of charity. Whether these were motivated in part by the three-year sojourn of his young wife, Mary Powell, with her Royalist parents is disputed. After her return the union produced three daughters and a short-lived son. Four years after Mary's death following childbirth, Milton married Katherine Woodcock, who died three months after the birth of a daughter who also died, and later Elizabeth Minshull, who outlived him.
Numerous tracts against absolute monarchy and against any usurpation of conscience by civil or ecclesiastical powers appeared between 1649 and 1673. Other prose works include academic prolusions, letters, and state papers, a Christian Doctrine (authorship of parts disputed), a grammar textbook, The History of Britain (1670), and an Art of Logic (1672).
In 1645 Milton published his Poems . . . Both English and Latin: masques, odes, hymns, epigrams, elegies, epitaphs, sonnets often praising particular men and women, and metrical translations of Psalms 114 and 136, both songs of liberation. The Poems include a prophetic ode, "On the morning of Christ's Nativity," written in 1629; companion poems on the active and the contemplative life, "L'allegro" and "Il penseroso" (both 1632); and "At a Solemn Musick," in praise of the power of words and music to raise the imagination to the "Song of pure concent" that "we on Earth . . . May rightly answer" as we did before sin "Broke the fair music that all creatures made"—a prelude to Paradise Lost. "Lycidas," a pastoral elegy written in 1637, laments a drowned schoolmate as shepherd-poet and promising pastor and considers hard questions about God's ways. Arcades (1633?) and A Mask Presented at Ludlow Castle (sometimes called "Comus"; written in 1634 and published in 1637) concern good government and the right use of nature. The young heroine of A Mask defends chastity against Comus's lures and argues for the just and temperate use of nature's gifts. The Latin poems include elegies and epigrams, two on the Gunpowder Plot of 1605; a revealing verse letter to his father; and a poignant epitaph for his friend Charles Diodati. Milton's Poems, &c. upon Several Occasions (1673) adds others both personal and political. "On the Late Massacre in Piedmont" (1655) is a cry of outrage against violent persecution.
Paradise Lost was published in ten books in 1667 and twelve in 1674. Rather than a national epic with warrior heroes, Milton wrote an epic of all humanity and the claims of God and Satan, founded on Genesis and incorporating classical allusions, that redefines heroism and merit. Milton raises hard questions—for example, how can liberty be preserved in the face of evil?—and provokes complex responses. Because of its biblical sources, some readers associate the epic with interpretations of the Bible that postcolonial, gender-conscious, and ecologically aware readers reject. But Milton did not accept traditional readings that had been used to support dominion and conquest over nature, women, and peoples. He reorients the Genesis story—to what extent is a matter of debate—toward a more liberal and complex understanding of human liberty and responsibility. His rejection of the separability of body and spirit and his interpretation of the Trinity, which portrays the Son not as coequal and coeternal with the Father but as having free will and being exalted by merit, are heretical according to the orthodoxy of his time and are still controversial. Recent scholarship shows that as a monist materialist he believed that all creatures are kindred, created from the same matter derived from God, and that the divine image in men and women, though tragically obscured by the Fall, is, for those who choose regeneration, more fully reparable on earth, as well as in heaven, than orthodox predestinarian and dualistic believers could imagine.
Milton's other major poems came forth in 1671 as Paradise Regain'd. A Poem. In IV Books. To which is added Samson Agonistes. Paradise Regained expands the biblical temptations to power and glory (Luke 4:1–13 and Matthew 4:1–11) to include wealth and luxury. It represents the Son of God, fully human though divine, clarifying his understanding of his mission while Satan tests him to find out who he is and whether he can be foiled. Jesus refuses easy answers, rejects war, power, riches, and philosophies inconsequential to his calling, and stands miraculously on the temple pinnacle by his own balance as well as God's will. Samson Agonistes, though not intended for the stage, is structured as a Greek tragedy, in which encounters with the disordered passions of others provoke Samson's recovery from despair. Some readers see in the blind and exiled Samson, whose story is told in the Book of Judges, correspondences with Milton's own situation. Current critics debate the problem of Samson's violence: Is he a terrorist, a divinely led liberator, or an imperfect type of divine justice that Christ will perfect? Further, does Milton attempt to control his readers or to provoke response and dialogue? His poems engage responsive reading with all the resources of language, including surprising syntax, alternative definitions and allusions, punning etymologies, rich imagery, many-layered metaphor, and prosody that mimes the actions of human and angelic characters and other living things. The music of his language is an inexhaustible delight. He teaches readers to hold complex relations in mind and to imagine polyphonically—as one must do to think responsibly and feel responsively in a complex world. A reading community debating these choices and enjoying these pleasures will learn to perceive the interwovenness of experience and the misuse of power. Milton's epic and dramatic poems do not offer easy answers but help us think creatively and deliberatively about the difficult issues of our own times.
See also English Civil War and Interregnum ; English Literature and Language ; Laud, William ; Puritanism .
Milton, John. Complete Prose Works of John Milton, gen. ed. Don M. Wolfe. 8 vols. New Haven, 1953–1983. [Cited as CPW. ]
——. Milton: The Complete Poems. Edited by John Leonard. London, 1998. Modern spelling with original forms retained as needed to preserve prosody, puns, and ambiguities.
——. The Works of John Milton. Edited by F. A. Patterson, et al. 18 vols. New York, 1931–1938.
Bennett, Joan S. Reviving Liberty: Radical Christian Humanism in Milton's Great Poems. Cambridge, Mass., and London, 1989.
Corns, Thomas N., ed. A Companion to Milton. Oxford, 2001. Paperback, 2003.
Danielson, Dennis, ed. Cambridge Companion to Milton. 2nd ed. Cambridge, U.K., 1999.
Dobranski, Stephen B., and John P. Rumrich, eds. Milton and Heresy. Cambridge, U.K., 1998.
DuRocher, Richard J. Milton among the Romans: The Pedagogy and Influence of Milton's Latin Curriculum. Pittsburgh, 2001.
Edwards, Karen L. Milton and the Natural World: Science and Poetry in Paradise Lost. Cambridge, U.K., and New York, 1999.
Fallon, Stephen M. Milton among the Philosophers: Poetry and Materialism in Seventeenth-Century England. Ithaca, N.Y., and London, 1991.
Labriola, Albert, C., Paul Klemp, et al., eds. A Variorum Commentary on the Poems of John Milton. New York, 1970–.
Lewalski, Barbara K. The Life of John Milton: A Critical Biography. Oxford, 2000.
Milton Quarterly, ed. Roy C. Flannagan.
Milton Studies, eds. James D. Simmonds (1967–1991) and Albert C. Labriola. (1992–).
Parry, Graham, and Joad Raymond, eds. Milton and the Terms of Liberty. Cambridge, U.K., and Rochester, N.Y., 2002.
Patterson, Annabel M. ed. John Milton. London and New York, 1992.
Rajan, Balachandra, and Elizabeth Sauer, eds. Milton and the Imperial Vision. Pittsburgh, 1999.
Revard, Stella P. Milton and the Tangles of Neaera's Hair: The Making of the 1645 Poems. Columbia, Mo., 1997.
Schulman, Lydia Dittler. Paradise Lost and the Rise of the American Republic. Boston, 1992.
Shawcross, John T., ed. Milton: The Critical Heritage [1624–1731]. London and New York, 1970.
——. Milton 1732–1801: The Critical Heritage. London and Boston, 1972.
Diane Kelsey Mccolley
MCCOLLEY, DIANE KELSEY. "Milton, John (1608–1674)." Europe, 1450 to 1789: Encyclopedia of the Early Modern World. 2004. Encyclopedia.com. (August 23, 2016). http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1G2-3404900742.html
MCCOLLEY, DIANE KELSEY. "Milton, John (1608–1674)." Europe, 1450 to 1789: Encyclopedia of the Early Modern World. 2004. Retrieved August 23, 2016 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1G2-3404900742.html
Born: December 9, 1608
Died: November 8, 1674
English poet and essayist
The English poet John Milton was a champion of liberty. As a Protestant, he believed that the individual reader should interpret the Bible. He is chiefly famous for his epic (a long poem centered around a legendary hero) poem Paradise Lost and for his defense of uncensored (not checked for materials that may be harmful) publication.
Background and education
John Milton was born on December 9, 1608, in London, England. The future poet's father, John Milton, Sr., was a scrivener (a person who draws up deeds and wills). About 1600 he married Sara Jeffrey, the wealthy daughter of a merchant-tailor. Three of their children survived infancy: Anne, John, and Christopher.
The young Milton was known for his devotion to his studies, and his early interest in poetry. From his father, who was an amateur composer (a writer of music), young John developed the love of music, which later spread through his poetry. After private tutoring, he entered St. Paul's School in about 1620. Admitted to Christ's College at the age of fifteen, he intended to become a priest in the Church of England. Because of a disagreement with his tutor, he was rusticated (temporarily expelled) in 1626. 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 and epigrams (short poems dealing pointedly with a single thought or event and often ending with a clever turn of thought).
In 1628 Milton wrote his first major English poem, On the Death of a Fair Infant, Dying of the Cough, about the death of his sister's baby. A year later he wrote On the Morning of Christ's Nativity, celebrating the harmonizing power of divine love.
Milton, in one of his college orations (public speeches), broke with the usual practice of speaking in Latin by delivering English verse, beginning "Hail native language." Thereafter, he wrote Latin verse occasionally and a series of sonnets (poems of fourteen lines with a specific rhyming pattern) in Italian, but he composed increasingly in English.
The graceful thirties
After receiving bachelor of arts and master of arts degrees in 1629 and 1632, Milton lived in his family's suburban home in Hammersmith, England, and then at their country estate in Horton, Buckinghamshire, England. He continued studies in theology, history, mathematics, and literature, and participated in social and cultural life in London and the country. At this time he wrote sonnets, lyrics, and A Mask (better known as Comus; a mixture of song, dance, pageantry and poetry).
Milton's themes were both particular and universal. In Lycidas (1637) he deals with why God allows the good to die young. In 1639, when he learned that a friend had died, he penned a moving Latin elegy (poetry for the dead), finding solace in Christian hope. By this time Milton had abandoned the idea of entering the ministry. He was, however, dedicated to making the Church of England more Protestant (non-Catholic).
In 1638 and 1639 Milton toured France and Italy. His good looks, enthusiasm, and his ability to speak many languages helped him to enter polite society abroad. He intended also to go to Greece, but news of the growing political and religious crisis in England led him to return to London.
Crucial decades, 1640–1660
It was by writing prose that Milton found opportunity to serve his God and country. There was a civil war in England that lasted from 1642 to 1648. King Charles I (1600–1649), who was Catholic, was opposed by a large number of his subjects, who were Puritan Protestants. King Charles was defeated and executed. In 1641 and 1642 Milton poured out tracts (leaflets) opposing the control over religion held by the Catholic bishops. He felt their powers were based on man-made traditions, self-interest, and a combination of ignorance, superstition, and deliberate lies.
In 1644 Milton's Of Education dealt with another kind of domestic freedom: how to develop discipline, reasonableness, broad culture, all-round ability, and independence of judgment in schoolboys. The same year saw Areopagitica, his defense of man's right to free speech and discussion as the best means of advancing truth. As the civil war ended, Milton turned to condemning royal tyranny (the abuse of power). 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 can be ended. Soon after its publication Milton began a decade as the revolutionary government's secretary for foreign tongues. His chief duty was to translate state letters into Latin. For some years, however, Milton had been losing his eyesight, and by early 1652 he was totally blind.
Milton had married Mary Powell in May 1642. In 1656, four years after his first wife's death, Milton married Kathrine Woodcock. Two years later she died after giving birth to a child, and he tenderly memorialized her in a sonnet, To my late departed Saint. In 1663 he married Elizabeth Minshell.
Milton heroically persisted despite his misfortunes. During the crisis preceding restoration of the monarchy he wrote 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, a government in which citizens hold power and vote to elect officials as their representatives in the government.
Triumph in defeat
When Charles II, son of the executed Charles I, regained the throne in 1660, Milton was in danger for supporting the overthrow of the monarchy. Milton was harassed and imprisoned and several of his books were burned. However, he was included in a general pardon.
Paradise Lost, the epic published in 1667, is inspired by the Bible story of the Creation, the fall of Adam and Eve, the rebellion of Satan against God, and Satan being cast out from heaven. In it Milton tried to convey some insight into God's wisdom and providence, but he did not intend it to be taken literally. Paradise Lost is generally regarded as the greatest epic poem in the English language. In 1671 its sequel, Paradise Regained, appeared in one volume with Samson Agonistes. Paradise Regained 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. Samson Agonistes deals with the theme of temptation, dramatizing how the Hebrew strong man yielded to passion and seeming self-interest.
In 1673 Milton reentered public controversy (open to dispute) with Of True Religion, a brief defense of Protestantism. Before his death he was planning to publish writings that appeared posthumously (after death): 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 nineteenth century the Latin manuscript of Milton's Christian Doctrine was discovered and translated (1825). In it he systematically set out to free the Scriptures from misinterpretation by discovering what the Bible itself said on such matters as fate, angels, and faith.
Reputation and influence
Milton influenced many writers. Some, like John Dryden (1631–1700), admired his work and used it as the basis for their own writing. Others, including Alexander Pope (1688–1744), poked fun at it. Still others, such as Samuel Johnson (1709–1784), admitted the worth of Milton's work but disagreed with his religious and political views.
In general, eighteenth-century poets praised him for possessing outstanding spiritual, intellectual, and moral worth. William Blake (1757–1827) and Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792–1822) praised his Satan as a romantic rebel. Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772–1834) praised Milton's artistry and depth. In the 1920s, T. S. Eliot (1888–1965) criticized Milton's verse chiefly because of its influence. However, since about 1930, Milton has again been highly respected for his work.
John Milton died in London on November 8, 1674.
For More Information
Lewalski, Barbara Kiefer. John Milton: A Critical Biography. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers, 2001.
Parker, William Riley. Milton: A Biography. 2 vols. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1968.
Shawcross, John T. John Milton: The Self and the World. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1993.
Wilson, A. N. The Life of John Milton. New York: Oxford University Press, 1983.
"Milton, John." UXL Encyclopedia of World Biography. 2003. Encyclopedia.com. (August 23, 2016). http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1G2-3437500544.html
"Milton, John." UXL Encyclopedia of World Biography. 2003. Retrieved August 23, 2016 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1G2-3437500544.html
John Milton, 1608–74, English poet, b. London, one of the greatest poets of the English language.
Early Life and Works
The son of a wealthy scrivener, Milton was educated at St. Paul's School and Christ's College, Cambridge. While Milton was at Cambridge he wrote poetry in both Latin and English, including the ode "On the Morning of Christ's Nativity" (1629). Although the exact dates are unknown, "L'Allegro" and "Il Penseroso" were probably written not long after this. His dislike of the increasing ritualism in the Church of England was the reason he later gave for not fulfilling his plans to become a minister. Resolved to be a poet, Milton retired to his father's estate at Horton after leaving Cambridge and devoted himself to his studies. There he wrote the masque Comus (1634) and "Lycidas" (1638), one of his greatest poems, an elegy on the death of his friend Edward King.
Political and Moral Tracts
In 1638 Milton went to Italy, where he traveled, studied, and met many notable figures, including Galileo. Returning to England in 1639, he supported the Presbyterians in their attempt to reform the Church of England. His pamphlets, which attacked the episcopal form of church government, include Of Reformation in England (1641) and The Reason of Church Government Urged against Prelaty (1642).
In 1643 Milton married Mary Powell, a young woman half his age, who left him the same year. Disillusioned by the failure of his marriage, he started work on four controversial pamphlets (1643–45) upholding the morality of divorce for incompatibility. His Areopagitica (1644), one of the great arguments in favor of the freedom of the press, grew out of his dissatisfaction with the strict censorship of the press exercised by Parliament.
Milton gradually broke away from the Presbyterians, and in 1649 he wrote The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates, which supported the Independents who had imprisoned King Charles in the Puritan Revolution. In it he declared that subjects may depose and put to death an unworthy king. This pamphlet secured Milton a position in Oliver Cromwell's government as Latin secretary for foreign affairs, and he continued to defend Cromwell and the Commonwealth government in his Eikonoklastes [the image breaker] (1649)—an answer to Eikon Basilike—and in the Latin pamphlets First Defense of the English People (1651), Second Defense of the English People (1654), and Defense of Himself (1655).
In the midst of his heavy official business and pamphleteering, Milton, whose sight had been weak from childhood, became totally blind. From then on, he had to carry on his work through secretaries, one of whom was Andrew Marvell. Mary Powell returned to Milton in 1645 but died in 1652 after she had borne him three daughters. He married Catharine Woodcock in 1656, and she died two years later. She is the subject of one of his most famous sonnets, beginning, "Methought I saw my late espoused saint." In 1663 he married Elizabeth Minshull, who survived him. Milton supported the Commonwealth to the very end. After the Restoration (1660) he was forced into hiding for a time, and some of his books were burned. He was included in the general amnesty, however, and lived quietly thereafter.
Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained
For many years Milton had planned to write an epic poem, and he probably started his work on Paradise Lost before the Restoration. The blank-verse poem in ten books appeared in 1667; a second edition, in which Milton reorganized the original ten books into twelve, appeared in 1674. It was greatly admired by Milton's contemporaries and has since then been considered the greatest epic poem in the English language. In telling the story of Satan's rebellion against God and the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, Milton attempted to account for the evil in this world and, in his own words, to "justify the ways of God to man."
Paradise Regained, a second blank-verse poem in four books, describes how Jesus, a greater individual than Adam, overcame the temptations of Satan. In both works, Milton's characterizations of Satan, Adam, Eve, and Jesus are penetrating and moving. Indeed, his portrayal of Satan is so compelling that many 19th-century critics maintained that he rather than Adam was the hero of Paradise Lost. In these two great works Milton's language is dignified and ornate, replete with biblical and classical allusions, allegorical representations, metaphors, puns, and rhetorical flourishes. Samson Agonistes, a poetic drama modeled on classical Greek tragedy but with biblical subject matter, appeared together with Paradise Regained in 1671.
Milton's theology, although in the Protestant tradition, is extremely unorthodox and individual on many points; it is set forth in the Latin pamphlet De doctrina Christiana [on Christian doctrine]. Unpublished during Milton's lifetime, this work was discovered and published in 1825. Milton also wrote 18 sonnets in English and 5 in Italian, which generally follow the Petrarchan style and are accepted as among the greatest ever written.
See his complete works (ed. by F. A. Patterson, 20 vol., 1931–40); collections by F. A. Patterson (rev. ed. 1933), D. Bush (1965), and J. T. Shawcross (1971); variorum commentary on the poems (M. Y. Hughes, general editor; Vol. I, 1970; Vol. II, in 3 parts, 1972); Yale edition of his prose works (Vol. I-VI, 1953–73); biographies by W. A. Raleigh (1900, repr. 1967), J. H. Hanford (1949), W. R. Parker (2 vol., 1968, rev. ed. 1996), E. Wagenknecht (1971), B. K. Lewalski (2001), and G. Campbell and T. N. Corns (2008); studies by M. Nicolson (1963), D. Bush (1964), E. M. W. Tillyard (3 studies: 1938, repr. 1963; 1951, repr. 1960; and rev. ed. 1965), D. Daiches (1957, repr. 1966), J. M. Steadman (1967 and 1968), A. D. Ferry (1963 and 1969), J. T. Shawcross (1966, 1967, and 1970), F. Kermode (1960, repr. 1971), C. A. Patrides (1971), J. D. Simmonds, ed. (1969 and 1971), and A. Beer (2008).
See also J. H. Hanford and V. G. Taffe, A Milton Handbook (1970); L. Potter, A Preface to Milton (1972); J. Broadbent, ed., John Milton: Introductions (1973); M. Lieb and J. T. Shawcross, ed., Achievements of the Left Hand (1974).
"Milton, John." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. 2016. Encyclopedia.com. (August 23, 2016). http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1E1-Milton-J.html
"Milton, John." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. 2016. Retrieved August 23, 2016 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1E1-Milton-J.html
Milton, John (1608–1674)
Milton, John (1608–1674)
Essayist and poet whose Paradise Lost is widely considered the greatest epic of the English language. The son of a prosperous scrivener, he was born in London and educated in the classics at Saint Paul's, one of the city's finest private schools. He was educated at Christ's College, Cambridge, where he began studies at the age of fifteen and prepared for a career as a minister in the Church of England. He wrote epigrams, eulogies, and poems in Latin, as well as short epics on English history. He first gained notice with his poem On the Morning of Christ's Nativity. He turned away from Latin and Italian and began writing English verse, which he used for his essay “On Shakespeare,” written in 1632 for a book about the playwright, whose reputation was gaining in the generation after his death. In 1634 one of his masques—a combination of music, dance, and poetry—was performed on a stage at the castle of Ludlow. This work, Comus, deals with the themes of purity and temptation, and was a precursor to subjects Milton would take up in his most famous work.
Milton lived on his family's country estate after leaving Cambridge. He spent a year in Italy and, in 1639, returned to England, where he wrote in support of reform of the Church of England. He became an ardent supporter of Oliver Cromwell during the English Civil War, which pitted Cromwell's anti-royalist forces against defenders of the monarchy. Milton wrote in support of the new English commonwealth that Cromwell established and in favor of the execution of King Charles I. His essay “Areopagitica” stoutly defended the principle of freedom of speech and debate, and the right to publish without censorship by the church or government. Historians believe this stance had a lasting effect in the American colonies, where its principle was officially adopted in the U.S. Constitution. “The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates,” published in 1649, was a defense of controls on the power of kings, arguing that the people have a right to rise up and end the service of incompetent or corrupt monarchs. He was rewarded for his anti-royalist stance with an appointment in 1649 as a foreign secretary in Cromwell's government, a position in which he wrote in support of the government and translated its official documents into Latin. Although he was imprisoned at the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, and his books were publicly burned, he was eventually granted a pardon.
By this time he was blind, and forced to dictate his letters and poetry to a secretary. In this way he completed Paradise Lost, which describes the revolt of Satan and the story of Adam and Eve and their expulsion from the Garden of Eden. Milton wrote the epic in ten books of blank verse, describing Satan's war against God, the biblical stories of the creation of the world and the fall of man. Milton's vivid and powerful imagination was a strong match to the ancient, familiar themes of his subject; his poetry inspired generations of later English writers, who most admired his Satan as a complex, fascinating, and dramatic rebel—an icon for the age of Romantic poetry in the nineteenth century. Milton later published a sequel, Paradise Regained, about the temptation of Christ by Satan, and the way to ultimately triumph through humility and faith. Along with this work Milton published a drama entitled Samson Agonistes, telling a biblical story in the form of an ancient Greek tragedy.
"Milton, John (1608–1674)." The Renaissance. 2008. Encyclopedia.com. (August 23, 2016). http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1G2-3205500215.html
"Milton, John (1608–1674)." The Renaissance. 2008. Retrieved August 23, 2016 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1G2-3205500215.html
JOHN CANNON. "Milton, John." The Oxford Companion to British History. 2002. Encyclopedia.com. (August 23, 2016). http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1O110-MiltonJohn.html
JOHN CANNON. "Milton, John." The Oxford Companion to British History. 2002. Retrieved August 23, 2016 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1O110-MiltonJohn.html
"Milton, John." World Encyclopedia. 2005. Encyclopedia.com. (August 23, 2016). http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1O142-MiltonJohn.html
"Milton, John." World Encyclopedia. 2005. Retrieved August 23, 2016 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1O142-MiltonJohn.html
JOHN BOWKER. "Milton, John." The Concise Oxford Dictionary of World Religions. 1997. Encyclopedia.com. (August 23, 2016). http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1O101-MiltonJohn.html
JOHN BOWKER. "Milton, John." The Concise Oxford Dictionary of World Religions. 1997. Retrieved August 23, 2016 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1O101-MiltonJohn.html
MICHAEL KENNEDY and JOYCE BOURNE. "Milton, John." The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Music. 1996. Encyclopedia.com. (August 23, 2016). http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1O76-MiltonJohn.html
MICHAEL KENNEDY and JOYCE BOURNE. "Milton, John." The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Music. 1996. Retrieved August 23, 2016 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1O76-MiltonJohn.html