Milton, John 1608–1674 English Poet

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Milton, John
English poet

John Milton stands alongside playwright William Shakespeare as one of the most celebrated English poets of all time. Milton wrote of his desire to use all his skill to enrich the English language. He viewed poetic talent as a "gift of God" with the power to plant "seeds of virtue" in the English people. He also promoted political and religious reforms and sought to advance the cause of liberty. For Milton, there was no separation between his political, religious, and poetic callings.

A Scholarly Life. Born to a Protestant family in London in 1608, Milton earned a reputation as a scholar in childhood. He began his studies at home and then attended St. Paul's School for five years. In 1625 he entered Christ's College at Cambridge University, and he received his master's degree in 1632. That same year Milton published his first poem, "On Shakespeare," which appeared in a collection of Shakespeare's works.

Milton soon became an accomplished poet in three languages: English, Latin, and Italian. In 1638 he left London for a two-year tour of Europe, including visits to Paris and Italy. During his travels he met with many noted scholars, including the Italian scientist Galileo Galilei. While in Catholic Rome, Milton defended his Protestant faith whenever he heard it attacked. He returned to England upon receiving the news that a civil war had broken out there. He became a teacher and began writing works in support of political and religious reforms in England.

Early Poems. In 1645 Milton published a collection of his English, Italian, and Latin poetry. The volume contained odes*, hymns, sonnets* in both English and Italian, and masques (a form of court entertainment that combined drama, dance, and music). Some of the best-known pieces in the volume are the ode "On the Morning of Christ's Nativity [birth]" and the two companion poems, "L'Allegro" and "Il Penseroso," which discuss, in turn, the life of activity and the life of quiet reflection.

Another famous poem in this book was "Lycidas," a lament for the early death of Milton's college classmate Edward King. This piece fell into the pastoral* tradition in two ways, presenting King both as a shepherd-poet and as a talented pastor (who tended his flock) in the English church. "Lycidas" poses troubling questions about the ways of God, wondering what point there is in sacrificing pleasure to pursue a high calling if the virtuous person's life can be cut short so suddenly.

Milton wrote two masques (also spelled "masks") for the noble Egerton family, whose members acted out several of the parts in the entertainment. In A Mask Presented at Ludlow Castle (sometimes called Comus, after one of its characters), three of the Egerton children played roles, as did Henry Lawes, the composer of the masque's music. In this play the virtuous Lady—played by 15-year-old Alice Egerton—tries to defend her honor from Comus, who seeks to tempt her with wasteful luxury.

Major Prose Works. Most of Milton's prose works deal with issues of freedom in the home, church, and state. Several of them, such as Of Reformation Touching Church-Discipline in England, call for religious reforms. Milton's most famous argument for liberty—and one that may have inspired the founders of the United States—appeared in his essay Areopagitica (1644). The title refers to the Areopagus, the location of the law court in the ancient Greek city of Athens. Milton wrote Areopagitica in response to the English Parliament's decision to require books to be licensed before publication. Although Milton did not oppose all forms of government control, he argued that suppressing a book before it had appeared in print was a form of murder. He claimed that laws could not remove sin and that in trying to drive out sin, the law would also block virtuous works.

Milton also wrote on the importance of learning in Of Education (1644). This essay claimed that the purpose of education was to "repair the ruins of our first parents" (a reference to Adam and Eve) by regaining a true knowledge of God. Milton urged teachers to introduce their students to "easy and delightful" books that would inspire a love of classical* learning. He also recommended a broad program of study, including ancient and modern languages, literature, mathematics, science, law, music, and a variety of other subjects. Milton also wrote important prose works defending divorce and attacking absolutist* monarchs.

Epic Works. Milton's most famous literary achievement is his epic* Paradise Lost (1667). This work retells the biblical story of Adam and Eve and their fall from paradise. Milton declared that his purpose in writing this work was to prove the justice of God's ways to human beings. The epic explores the nature of sin and human freedom. Unlike early church leaders who taught that Eve had sinned out of pride and vanity, Milton made his Eve a responsible woman capable of making her own choices.

Milton also breathed life into the character of Satan, creating a fascinating figure who has attracted readers for centuries. Scholars have viewed Milton's Satan in conflicting ways, either as an evil destroyer or as a hero who refuses to submit to another's will. In either case, Satan combines incredible energy with such human traits as pride, courage, ambition, suffering, and confusion. Although he opposes what he considers the unjust power of heaven, he does not offer anything better to take its place. Satan's rebel government illustrates the damage that earthly rulers can cause when they seek only to serve their own interests.

In 1671 Milton published Paradise Regained, a retelling of the biblical story of Satan's temptation of Christ. Like his Satan, Milton's Christ combines human and superhuman qualities. Satan tempts him by presenting him with moral dilemmas, arguing that he should use his powers to feed the hungry and to overthrow cruel and unjust rulers. Paradise Regained appeared in print along with another poem, Samson Agonistes, a dramatic version of the biblical story of Samson and Delilah. Like Milton's other characters, Samson is complex and morally unclear. Scholars disagree as to whether Milton intended this work—which is structured not as an epic but in a form similar to a Greek tragedy—as a companion piece to Paradise Regained.

(See alsoCensorship; English Language and Literature; Poetry; Poetry, English. )

* ode

poem with a lofty style and complex structure

* sonnet

poem of 14 lines with a fixed pattern of meter and rhyme

* pastoral

relating to the countryside; often used to draw a contrast between the innocence and serenity of rural life and the corruption and extravagance of court life

* classical

in the tradition of ancient Greece and Rome

* absolutist

refers to complete control by a single ruler

* epic

long poem about the adventures of a hero

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Milton, John 1608–1674 English Poet

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