Milton, John (1608–1674)

views updated Jun 08 2018

MILTON, JOHN (16081674)

MILTON, JOHN (16081674), 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 1:816817). In 16381639 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 16411642. 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 (16431645) 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 questionsfor 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 storyto what extent is a matter of debatetoward 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 4:113 and Matthew 4:111) 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 polyphonicallyas 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 .


Primary Sources

Milton, John. Complete Prose Works of John Milton, gen. ed. Don M. Wolfe. 8 vols. New Haven, 19531983. [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, 19311938.

Secondary Sources

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 (19671991) 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 [16241731]. London and New York, 1970.

. Milton 17321801: The Critical Heritage. London and Boston, 1972.

Diane Kelsey Mccolley

Milton, John

views updated May 17 2018


Poet, scholar, pamphleteer; b. London, Dec. 9, 1608;d. there, Nov. 8, 1674. He was a product of the classical Renaissance and of the Protestant Reformation in its most extreme English development, Puritanism. His father, John, who had defected from Roman Catholicism and was disinherited by his yeoman family, had prospered as a London scrivener by the time his son was born. The home, strongly Protestant and moderately Puritan (conforming still to the Established Church), was not notably literary or artistic but contained some books (e.g., Sylvester's translation of the French Protestant poet Du Bartas and Spenser's Faerie Queene ) and the family was fond of music (the father was an amateur musician and composer); the home was marked by "cheerful godliness," and certainly by respect for learning. The gifted and studious boy had every educational advantage: private tutoring, St. Paul's School (colet's foundation, which under Alexander Gill largely retained a tradition of Christian humanism), and Christ's College, Cambridge (162532). The last, to Milton's disgust (see Proclusion 3), was still dominated by the old scholastic discipline but afforded him an opportunity to continue his classical studies and commence his practice in poetry (Latin, English, and even Italian).

If this background was designed to prepare Milton for holy orders and a place among the Puritan preachers within the Established Church, laud's policy of repression thwarted it, and Milton found himself "churchouted by the prelates"; but, as his religious experience deepened and confidence in his poetic gift grew, he determined to devote his life to the service of God in poetry.

A period of intense study and moral discipline (163238) followed, during which he wrote Comus (1634) and Lycidas (1638). A tour through France and Switzerland to Italy (163839) led to meetings with Grotius, Galileo, and Manso (the friend and patron of Tasso), and to his welcome in the Platonic Academy (Florence). Though he did not conceal his Puritan principles, this was a humanist's pilgrimage to classic ground, which would have continued to Sicily and Greece had not the Bishops' War, the prelude to the Puritan Revolution, called him home to be of service in the struggle for reformation and liberty (see his account in Defensio secunda ).

Prose in the Puritan Cause. Save for the Epitaphium Damonis (1639), a moving elegy on Charles Diodati, his friend and confidant since boyhood days, his Sonnets (Nos. 823), and one or two other occasional pieces, he wrote no more poetry until Paradise Lost (though he published his earlier Poems in 1645). All his effort was channeled into prose in defense of the Puritan cause or to expositions of his concepts of religious, civil, and domestic liberty. First he joined the attack on Episcopacy and the demand for a Presbyterian church in such works as Of Reformation (1641) and The Reason of Church Government (1642). Then he made his plea for freer divorce in The Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce (1643, 1644) and Tetrachordon (1643)a plea not unconnected with the fact that his young wife, Mary Powell, whom he had married in 1642, had returned to her Royalist family. Milton was now attacked by his Presbyterian allies, and, hampered by their censorship of the press, he wrote his most famous prose work, the Areopagitica (1644). It was a plea for uncensored publication but also in effect for liberty of conscience, appearing in the same year as Roger williams's Bloudy Tenent of Persecution. In Of Education (1644), Milton described (in the spirit of Christian humanism, not, as is sometimes asserted, in that of Baconian empiricism) the intellectual, religious, and moral training necessary for those who would be truly free and competent to serve Church and State.

Not until 1649 did he turn to political issues, when, in The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates, he defended the desperate action of the Puritan Army in bringing Charles I to trial and execution. Eikonoklastes (1649) was an effort to counteract the immense effect of the Eikon Basilike, the supposed meditations of Charles in captivity; and, now Latin secretary to the new republican government, Milton was commissioned to reply to the royalist champion salmasius. This he did in Pro populo anglicano defensio (1651), of which (as he proudly said) "all Europe talks from side to side," and to which he consciously and heroically sacrificed the remnant of his failing eyesight. Though a republican at heart, he supported Oliver cromwell as Lord Protector, praising and admonishing him in the Defensio secunda (1654). When he was relieved of some of his duties in 1655, and of more in 1658, he had leisure to give to his theological treatise, De Doctrina Christiana (unpublished until 1825), and perhaps to Paradise Lost (whose subject he had had in mind as early as 1642, but for dramatic, not epic, treatment). Meanwhile he had written such sonnets as No. 16, to Cromwell (a plea against a state church); No. 18, on the late massacre in Piedmont; No. 19, on his blindness; and No. 23, on the death of his beloved second wife. With the death of Cromwell in November 1658, and the ensuing chaos that was to result in the Restoration, Milton struck his last blows for the extreme Puritan cause: in Of Civil Power in Ecclesiastical Causes (1659) he pleaded for religious toleration and in A Ready and Easy Way to Establish a Free Commonwealth (2d ed. April 1660) he opposed the Restoration up to its very eve.

At the Restoration Milton was imprisoned for a short time but unmolested after his release, an act of singular clemency by the restored monarchy. Though aging, blind, with all his hopes for England shattered, and conscious of living in an alien world, he was yet able to complete the work he was born to do. Paradise Lost appeared in 1667 (the 1st ed. in ten books, later redivided into 12), and Paradise Regained, with Samson Agonistes, in 1671. There is no greater example of genius coupled with indomitable will. He was buried in the Church of St. Giles, Cripplegate, with Anglican rites.

Early Poetry (162639). At Cambridge Milton seized every opportunity to practice the art to which he had devoted himself. In Latin he wrote Elegy 3 (on the death of Lancelot Andrewes), Elegy 7 (Cupid's Revenge), and Elegy 5 (On the Coming of Spring)the last two were pagan erotic poems in the tradition of the Roman elegists but marked by a characteristic beauty of innocence. Religion and the English language, however, were soon to assert their claim in the Ode on the Morning of Christ's Nativity (1629), in which we may trace the beginnings of an experience, at once religious and poetic, that was to crystallize three years later in the resolve to live and write thereafter "As ever in my great Taskmaster's eye" (Sonnet 7, December 1632). Between 1629 and 1632 there had been some hesitation, perhaps retreat, but certainly a return to secular subjects in the Italian sonnets, in Arcades, and in the famous companion pieces, L'Allegro and Il Penseroso, though with religious overtones in the last. After Sonnet 7, however, there was to be no return to secular themes.

Four characteristics of Milton's poetry were already present in the early poems: (1) the starting point in traditional forms (the Ovidian elegy; the Petrarchan sonnet; in the Nativity Ode, the Messianic eclogue; in Arcades and Comus, the court masque; in L'Allegro and Il Penseroso, a compendium of motifs from the English lyric; in Lycidas, the pastoral elegy as it had come down from Theocritus and Virgil); (2) the freedom and originality with which Milton shapes these traditional vehicles to his ends; (3) the clearly marked structure of each, the groundwork for a variety of patterned effects in idea, image, and sentimenta principal source of their artistic appeal; and (4) the unobtrusive but patent reference in most of them to Milton's own experience and deepest concernsa source of their emotional power. These characteristics may be illustrated briefly from Comus and Lycidas.

Comus, written for the installation of the Earl of Bridgewater as Lord President of Wales, develops into something more dramatic and more fraught with doctrine than the common masque, as it presents the imagined adventures of the Earl's three children on their journey to Ludlow to greet their parents. In the wild wood the brothers lose their sister, who is decoyed by the evil enchanter Comus (the son of Circe) to his palace and there tempted to share his life of luxury and license. She scornfully rejects his advances; her brothers, led by the Attendant Spirit, find her, firm indeed in virtue, but immobilized by the enchanter's spell, from which she can be freed only by the superior power of Sabrina, virgin nymph of the River Severn, who, sprinkling on her "drops of precious cure," releases her to pursue her journey. The children reach Ludlow and are presented by the Attendant Spirit to their parents. On its literal level the action is pure folktale, but "more is meant than meets the ear"; the wild wood is the world; the palace of Comus is a concentration of evil therein; and Ludlow, the goal of the journey, is home and a symbol of heaven. The theme is chastity and the resistance to temptation, but more than that, heaven's providential care of the innocent (symbolized by the Attendant Spirit) and the necessity of divine grace for progress in the Christian's pilgrimage (symbolized by the intervention of Sabrina). This is Milton's concern and his message, summed up by the epilogue spoken by the Attendant Spirit. Structural pattern and symbolic image are of the essence of Comus.

Pattern and symbol play the same role in Lycidas, Milton's elegy on the death by drowning of young Edward King. The Christian pastoral elegy, unlike its pagan counterpart, moves (as can be seen in the Epitaphium Damonis ) from despair to the hope of immortality and so to a note of consolation and triumph. In Lycidas, while drawing on the accumulated imagery of the whole tradition, Milton extends this hope to a principle of healing and restoration that operates, under Providence, throughout life and culminates in the joys of heaven. Thus to view the tragedy, by an alliance of religion and poetry, is to clear one's vision and fortify one's faith; and the poet is able at the end to resume his task: "Tomorrow to fresh woods and pastures new."

Developing Thought (164060). Milton's Puritanism became increasingly emphatic and extreme. When allied with the Presbyterians (164043), he grew disillusioned, deciding that "New Presbyter is but old Priest writ large" (New Forcers of Conscience, 1646), and supported the Independents, until they in turn sought to set up a state church. Thereupon he appealed to Cromwell, "Help us to save free conscience from the paw/Of hireling wolves whose gospel is their maw" (Sonnet 16, 1652); he was by this time clearly a Separatist, who would presently champion religious toleration for all who grounded their beliefs solely on Scripture (Civil Power in Ecclesiastical Causes, 1659). His Puritanism explains his politics: others might fall away, but he would champion "the good old cause" to the bitter end, convinced that it alone would guarantee the liberty of the regenerate. This was his sole concern, and he was to countenance violence and dictatorship to achieve this end. After the Areopagitica he became increasingly disillusioned with his fellow countrymen: he was a radical but no democrat. In The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates (1649) he asserted that all power resides in the people and is merely delegated to the monarch, who, if he violates his trust, may be brought to account. This, however, does not mean that the people's will must prevail: the Puritan army, called and owned by God, must, under its leaders, act for the people's good and, if need be, against their will. His defiance of the majority was more open in The Ready and Easy Way (1660): all who have opposed or abandoned the Puritan cause have lost their right of choice, and the remnant, who desire only their freedom, have the right to keep it by force if they can. To encourage them and give them something to fight for, Milton proposed a new constitution with neither monarch nor protector but a perpetual senate of able and regenerate men, dedicated to the principle of religious freedom.

For Milton, the extreme Puritan, the Church and tradition count for nothing: there is but one authority, the Bible, as it is studied and interpreted by the individual believer. Between his Puritanism and his humanism some tension inevitably developed, but their relation is not simple. In politics there was a radical tradition in Renaissance humanism, and Milton responded to this in his political writings. In ethics, he combined an appeal to Scripture, to the law of nature, and to the good of man (as in the divorce tracts); and, much more than most of his fellow Puritans, he reacted strongly against asceticism. Moreover, his scripturism was accompanied by an increasingly militant rationalism: where the Bible speaks, he would accept its pronouncements (but he would first submit them to a searching analysis); where it is silent, he would rely on reason alone. To this combination of Scripture and reason may be traced some of the more extreme opinions of the De Doctrina Christiana.

In isolating these principal examples, we should remember that Milton always regarded himself as a Christian, retaining a firm conviction of God's creation and government of the world, man's fall and Christ's Redemption, and the clear revelation of all this in Scripture. But his views on the Trinity approximated arianism: the Son, "the first born of every creature," but raised to divine honors, was the "True Image of the Father" and the manifestation of the otherwise inapprehensible God. He rejected creation ex nihilo and substituted, in effect, de Deo: since God was infinite, He embraced all that was, and since He was omnipotent, all causes, including the material cause. Creation was thus the imposition of form and order on a single substance, essentially good (because of God), and including both matter and spirit (which differed not in kind, but in degree). This position is often called materialism, but is more correctly monism.

Further, Milton rejected the extremes of Calvinism; he held that the fall of man was not predestined but the result of man's free choice; that it resulted, in turn, not in total depravity but in deprivation. Grace sufficient for repentance, however, was offered to all men, and, if freely accepted, was enhanced to salvation; the law of nature, given to Adam and obscured but not obliterated by the fall, was, in the regenerate, by the operation of the Holy Spirit, progressively restored to its original brightness. Finally Milton placed a heavy and repeated emphasis on Christian liberty, which depends on the voluntary acceptance of the Gospel, whereby the regenerate were made sons of God and joint heirs with Christ. On the negative side it meant the abrogation of the Law, and on the positive, the identification of liberty with virtue, the recognition that God's service was indeed perfect freedom. It is necessary to know this much of Milton's theology if one is to understand his writings, and especially Paradise Lost; for the positions argued in the De Doctrina, orthodox and unorthodox alike, are assumed in the epic.

Paradise Lost. Milton's magnum opus is a classical epic with a Christian subject and theme: its form links it with Homer, and more particularly with Vergil; but its subject, derived from the Bible, turns on man's fall, his repentance, and the promise of salvationmatters wholly alien to the pagan models. It is a religious, even a theological, poem whose purpose is to "justify the ways of God to men" by placing the responsibility for the fall squarely on man himself (God's foreknowledge did not predestinate), and to "assert eternal Providence" in the provision for redemption by the Son. It is thus a kind of theodicy and it further includes a hexameron (an account of the six days of creation). It is a work of immense learning and of conscious and constant artistry. Milton fearlessly claimed that it was divinely inspired.

In Paradise Lost we recognize in their full development the qualities already adumbrated in the early poems. It is a masterpiece of construction. Like the Aeneid, it plunges in medias res, with Satan and the rebel angels already in Hell and planning to avenge themselves on God through his new creature, man; we get our first picture of Adam and Eve in their happy state of innocence as Satan spies upon them. Then in Raphael's narrative to them (cf. that of Aeneas to Dido) we learn of the antecedent action: the war in heaven and the defeat and eviction of the rebels by the Sonan epic within the epic. Now the crisis approaches: Eve, willfully tending her flowers alone, is easily deceived by Satan in the form of the Serpent, and Adam, undeceived, deliberately chooses to share her sin and her fate ("So forcible within my heart I feel/ The bond of nature draw me to my own"). The holiness and peace of Eden are shattered: they fall first to lust, then to recrimination. The Son passes judgment upon themthey fear, but they do not yet repent. Repentance follows, not without prevenient grace, but still by means of the very "bond of nature" gradually restored: together they pray for forgiveness (this has been called the second crisis of the poem). There remains the prophetic view of the future (placed by Vergil at the midpoint of the epic, by Milton at the end) effected by Michael, who reveals to Adam the results of the fall in future history, but also the promise of redemption and a "Paradise within thee, happier far"; for Adam has learned his lesson: "Henceforth I learn that to obey is best/ Taught this by his example whom I now/Acknowledge my Redeemer ever blest." On this note, Adam and Eve go out into the world together, hand in hand.

The structural pattern gives to Paradise Lost its classic purity of outline and a firm foundation for all the enrichment that Milton adds. There are innumerable other patterned effects. The revolt of the angels (besides supplying the martial action necessary for an epic) stands in a twofold relation to the fall, of cause, but also of parallel (with difference). Michael's prophecy of the future balances Raphael's narrative of the past. The four settings are related, and each is not only a locality but the symbol of a state of mind: Heaven is Godcentered, and therefore perfect order (and perfect freedom); unfallen Earth reflects that order; Hell is not (as might be thoughtlessly assumed) disorder but perverted order (and utter slavery) as if heaven were reflected in a distorting mirror; and Chaos is unorder, destitute of form, but capable of receiving it at the hand of God. Creation, too, is a symbol: goodness is constructive, and in the Redemption, reconstructive, while Satan can only destroy. Satan, Sin, and Death are a sort of infernal trinity.

Basic in both pattern and meaning is the Pauline conception of Christ as the second Adam. He is the hero of the epic, the exemplar of its standard of heroism (as Achilles is in the Iliad, and Aeneas in the Aeneid ), and it is Christian heroism that Adam must learn. Satan is not (as is so often assumed) the hero of the poem: his is a pagan heroism (repeatedly he reminds us of Achilles), and in him pagan heroism is presented, judged, and condemned. Milton's Satan is a triumph of characterization (as even those who misunderstand the poet's meaning agree). It is achieved by treating the character in human terms, so that he becomes a tragic figureof the order, one might say, of Macbeth. But successful characterization is not confined to Satan; presented at first as ideal and somewhat remote figures in a pastoral setting, Adam and Eve are gradually brought nearer to us, and the Fall and their movement toward repentance become poignant domestic drama. Given the nature of Milton's "fable," this is a triumph indeed. Other genres, then, make their subordinate contributions to Paradise Lost, but the prevailing note is epic dignity and grandeur, supported by Milton's mighty verse, his language, his imagery, and not least by his great epic similes, patterns themselves and integrated with the pattern of the whole.

Samson Agonistes and Paradise Regained. Though it has been generally assumed (but on no reliable evidence) that Samson Agonistes (1671) was the last written of Milton's poems, there is good reason to regard Paradise Regained (published the same year) as summing up his final outlook.

As in Paradise Lost Milton wrote a classical epic on a Christian theme, in Samson Agonistes he essayed the yet more difficult task of a Christian tragedy, and with at least equal success. In form it adheres even more closely to Greek tragedy than does Paradise Lost to the GrecoRoman epic. Its subject is likewise scriptural, derived from the Book of Judges; its theme is similar (sin, repentance, and restoration) and the treatment involves the same combination of religious reference and human motivation, of theology and psychology. Again it is a masterpiece of construction, the most perfect perhaps of all Milton's poems, and the most moving. From the depth of despair ("Eyeless in Gaza at the mill with slaves") brought on by his own sin and folly, and feeling as yet only selfcentered remorse and the sense of "Heaven's desertion," Samson comes first to true repentance, then to the dawning hope of God's forgiveness ("Whose ear is ever open, and his eye/Gracious to readmit the suppliant"), and finally, at the very end, to the conviction that there is yet one more task for God, the seal of his forgiveness and reacceptance, to be achieved at the cost of his own death. As in Sophocles' Oedipus at Colonus, the action is all inward; the change is effected through a series of encounters (with the Chorus, Manoa, Dalila, Harapha, the Officer). We recognize the operation of God's providence and prevenient grace, but the motivation is all intelligible on the human level. Samson goes to his death doubly armed, with "celestial vigor" and "plain heroic magnitude of mind." Thus is attained the full tragic effect and the Aristotelian catharsis: "calm of mind, all passion spent."

Paradise Regained finds its subject in the temptation of the wilderness (chosen as paralleling the temptation in Eden and in pursuit of the theme of Christ as the second Adam) and its structural starting point in the Book of Job (thought of by Milton, following St. Jerome, as epic in genre). The order of the temptations is taken from St. Luke and is adopted for the sake of a structural pattern that treats briefly the first and third temptations (respectively to distrust and presumption), but elaborates the second (that of the kingdoms, conceived as involving both distrust and presumption) in a series of temptations to glorythe glory of beauty, of fame, of wealth, of power (represented by imperial Rome), and of knowledge (represented by Athens, "The eye of Greece, mother of arts"). The superb culmination comes when Christ stands on the pinnacle of the Temple, and as Christ rebukes him ("Tempt not the Lord thy God") Satan falls. For, as the angels sing, Christ is indeed the "True Image of the Father."

Like all great religious poems, Milton's spring from a coalescence of religious and aesthetic experience. He does not shift his ground in doctrine, but all the positive elements of his belief come into play. It is as though, when he writes poetry, a new dimension were added to his sensibility and his thought.

Bibliography: d. masson, The Life of Milton, 7 v. (London 185994; repr. Gloucester, Mass., 1962). e. m. w. tillyard, Milton (New York 1930). j. h. hanford, A Milton Handbook (4th ed. New York 1946). d. bush, English Literature in the Earlier Seventeenth Century (2d ed. rev. Oxford 1962), esp. ch. 12; John Milton (New York 1964); Paradise Lost in Our Time (New York 1948). c. s. lewis, A Preface to Paradise Lost (rev. and enl. New York 1959). j. milton, Works, ed. f. a. patterson, 18 v. (New York 193138), Index, 2 v. (1940), Columbia edition; Complete Prose Works, ed. d. m. wolfe (New Haven 1953); Poetical Works, ed. h. darbishire, 2 v. (Oxford 195255). f. w. bateson, ed. The Cambridge Bibliographies of English Literature v.1:463473, v.23 (Cambridge, Eng. 194057), passim. english association, london, The Year's Work in English Studies (London 1919/20). c. huckabay, John Milton: A Bibliographical Supplement, 19271957 (Pittsburgh 1960). j. e. thorpe, ed., Milton Criticism (New York 1950). a. s. p. woodhouse, Puritanism and Liberty (Chicago 1951); "Theme and Pattern in Paradise Regained," University of Toronto Quarterly 25 (1956) 167182. a. sewell, A Study in Milton's Christian Doctrine (New York 1939). a. j. eisenring, Milton's 'De doctrina christiana': An Historical Introduction and Critical Analysis (Fribourg 1946). c. b. ricks, Milton's Grand Style (Oxford 1963). r. d. havens, The Influence of Milton on English Poetry (New York 1961). r. tuve, Images and Themes in Five Poems by Milton (Cambridge, Mass. 1957). b. rajan, Paradise Lost and the Seventeenth Century Reader (London 1947). a. j. a. waldock, Paradise Lost and Its Critics (Cambridge, Eng. 1947). m. f. krouse, Milton's Sampson and the Christian Tradition (Princeton 1949). w. r. parker, Milton's Debt to Greek Tragedy in Samson Agonistes (Baltimore 1937).

[a. s. p. woodhouse]

Milton, John

views updated May 29 2018

John Milton


Born December 9, 1608, in London, England; died from complications arising from gout, November 8, 1674, in London, England; son of John (a scrivener and composer) and Sara Jeffrey Milton; married May Powell, June, 1642 (separated, 1642; reconciled, 1645; died, 1652); married Katherine Woodcock, 1656 (died, 1658); married Elizabeth Minshull, 1663; children: (first marriage) Anne, Mary, Deborah, John; (second marriage) one daughter. Education: Christ's College, Cambridge, B.A., 1629, A.M., 1632.


Writer. Tutor to nephews, London, England, 1639; foreign secretary, Oliver Cromwell's cabinet, 1649-60.



Epitaphium Damonis. Argumentum, (London, England), 1640.

Poems of Mr. John Milton, Both English and Latin, music by Henry Lawes, Ruth Raworth/Humphrey Moseley (London, England), 1645.

Paradise Lost. A Poem Written in Ten Books, Peter Parker, Robert Boulter, and Matthias Walker (London, England), 1667, revised by Milton as Paradise Lost. A Poem in Twelve Books, S. Simmons (London, England), 1674.

Paradise Regain'd. A Poem in IV Books, To Which Is Added Samson Agonistes, John Starkey (London, England), 1671.

The Poetical Works of Mr. John Milton. Containing Paradise Lose, Paradise Regained, Samson Agonistes, and His Poems on Several Occasions. Together with Explanatory Notes on Each Book of the Paradise Lost and a Table Never before Printed, with notes to Paradise Lost by David Hume, Jacob Tonson (London, England), 1695.

The Poetical Works of Mr. John Milton, two volumes, Jacob Tonson (London, England), 1705.

The Poetical Works of John Milton. With a Life of the Author, by William Hayley, three volumes, J. Johnson and R. H. Evans (London, England), 1808.

The Poems of John Milton, two volumes, edited by R. C. Browne, Clarendon Press (Oxford, England), 1870.

The Poetical Works of John Milton, three volumes, edited by David Masson, Macmillan (London, England), 1874.

The Complete Poetical Works of John Milton, edited by Harris Francis Fletcher, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 1941.

The Poems of John Milton, edited by John Carey and Alastair Fowler, Longmans, Green (London, England), 1968.

The Complete Poetry of John Milton, edited by John T. Shawcross, Anchor (New York, NY), 1971.

John Milton, edited by Stephen Orgel and Jonathan Goldberg, Oxford University Press (New York, NY), 1991.

Numerous other modern editions of Milton's verse work have been published.


The Reason of Church-government Urg'd against Prelaty, John Rothwell (London, England), 1641.

The Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce: Restor'd to the Good of Both Sexes, from the Bondage of Canon Law, and Other Mistakes, to Christian Freedom, Guided by the Rule of Charity, Thomas Payne and Matthew Simmons (London England), 1643, second revised edition, 1644.

Areopagitica: A Speech of Mr. John Milton for the Liberty of Unlicenc'd Printing, to the Parlament of England, [London, England], 1644.

The Judgment of Martin Bucer, Concerning Divorce Writt'n to Edward the Sixth, in His Second Book of the Kingdom of Christ. And Now Englisht, Wherein a Late Book Restoring the Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce Is Heer Confirm'd and Justify'd by the Authorite of Martin Bucer, Matthew Simmons (London, England), 1644.

Tetrachordon: Expositions upon the Foure Chief Places in Scripture, Which Treat of Mariage, or Nullities of Mariage, Thomas Payne and Matthew Simmons (London, England), 1645.

The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates, Proving That It Is Lawfull, and Hath Been Held so through All Ages, for Nay Who Have the Power, to Call to Account a Tyrant, or Wicked King, 1649, second enlarged edition, 1649.

Easie Way to Establish a Free Commonwealth, and the Excellence thereof Compar'd with The Inconveniences and Dangers of Readmitting Kingship in This Nation, Livewell Chapman (London, England), 1660.

Of Truye Religion, Haerisie, Schism, Toleration, and What Best Means May Be Us'd against the Growth of Popery, (London, England), 1673.

The Works of Mr. John Milton, (London, England), 1697.


A Maske Presented at Ludlow Castle, 1634, on Michaelmas Night, before the Right Honorable John Earle of Bridgewater, Viscount Brackly (drama; often referred to as Comus), Humphrey Robinson (London, England), 1637.

Of Reformation Touching Church-Discipline in England: And the Causes That Hitherto Have Hindered It, Thomas Underhill (London, England), 1641.

Of Prelatical Episcopacy, and Whether It May Be Deduc'd from the Apostolical Times by Vertue of Those Testimonies Which Are Alledg'd to That Purpose in Some Late Treatises, [London, England], 1641.

Animadversions upon the Remonstrats Defence against Smectmnuus, Thomas Underhill (London, England), 1641.

An Apology against a Pamphlet Call'd A Modest Confutation of the Animadversions upon the Remonstrant against Smectmnuus, John Rothwell (London, England), 1644.

Of Education: To Master Samuel Hartlib, Thomas Johnson (London, England), 1644.

Colasterion: A Reply to a Nameless Answer against the Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce, Matthew Simmons (London, England), 1645.

'Eikonokla'stes. In Answer to a Book Intitl'd 'Eiko'n Basiaike, the Portraiture of His Sacred Majesty in His Solitudes and Sufferings, Matthew Simmons, 1649, second enlarged edition, Thomas Brewster and G. Moule (London, England), 1650.

Considerations Touching the Likeliest Means to Remove Hirelings out of the Church, L. Chapman (London, England), 1659.

Accedence Commenc't Grammar, Supply'd with Sufficient Rules, for the Use of Such as, Younger or Elder, Are Desirous, without More Trouble then Needs, to Attain the Latin Tongue (handbook), S. Simmons (London, England), 1669.

The History of Britain, That Part Especially Now Call'd England. From the First Traditional Beginning, Continu'd to the Norman Conquest, James Allestry (London, England), 1670.

A Brief History of Moscovia: and of Other Less-known Countries Lying Eastward of Russia as Far as Cathay, M. Flesher (London, England), 1682.

Letters of State (includes poetry), [London, England], 1694.

A Complete Collection of the Historical, Political, and Miscellaneous Works of John Milton, Both English and Latin, with Some Papers Never Before Publish'd, three volumes, [London, England] 1698.

Common-place Book of John Milton, and a Latin Essay and Latin Verses Presumed to Be by Milton, edited by A. J. Horwood, Camden Society Publications, new series 16, Camden Society (London, England), 1876, revised, 1877.

The Works of John Milton, eighteen volumes, Columbia University Press, 1931-38.

The Complete Prose Works of John Milton, eight volumes in ten, edited by Don M. Wolfe and others, Yale University Press (New Haven CT), 1953-82.

Author of other pamphlets.


John Milton was "England's preeminent epic poet," according to Elizabeth Skerpan-Wheeler, writing in the Dictionary of Literary Biography. His Paradise Lost is one of the most famous long poems in the English language, a free-verse rendering of the Fall encompassing almost eleven thousand lines. Milton was also a renowned essayist and pamphleteer. Born in the first years of the seventeenth century, he was surprisingly modern in his beliefs, championing causes such as incompatibility as grounds for divorce, as espoused in The Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce and elsewhere, and freedom of the press in his best-known tract, Areopagitica. Writing in the Spectator Harry Eyres called Areopagitica "probably the greatest English oration," and one whose arguments "have not lost their force."

Milton's life spans the turbulent seventeenth century, during which the English threw off Stuart rule in the Civil War of 1642 to 1648, established a Protestant protectorate under Oliver Cromwell, and then witnessed the return of the Stuarts in the Restoration. In ways, Milton's own life mirrored the age he lived in. His early years were passed in contemplation and poetry. However, during the middle period of his life, he was a political animal, a republican who favored the right of the people to rid themselves of an unjust king. He worked in Cromwell's government, but when the monarchy was restored and the new king hunted down his enemies, Milton managed to escape with his life but little else. His last years, during which he was totally blind and living in tight economic circumstances, were given over to poetry. The great epics are from this third act of Milton's life: Paradise Lost, Paradise Regained, and Samson Agonistes. Such poetry is, according to Eyres, Milton's "most splendid achievement."

Early Years

Milton was born in 1608 in London, the son of John Milton, Sr., and Sara Jeffrey Milton. His father was a composer of church music as well as a scrivener, a sort of attorney's assistant and notary in one. Milton Sr., had come from Oxfordshire and was disinherited by his own father, a devout Catholic, for expressing Protestant sympathies. The elder Milton managed to make his own way in the world; acting also as a moneylender, he built up a large enough estate to make life comfortable for his children. Milton the poet inherited not only an income from his father, but also a sense of musical rhythm that is noticeable in his verse.

At an early age, Milton displayed a love of learning and literature. Tutored at home, the young Milton by his own recollections seldom was in bed before midnight, studying and reading late into the night. Languages were a particular favorite for Milton: he eventually studied Latin, Greek, Hebrew, French, and Italian. When he was twelve, Milton began attending St. Paul's School, near his family home in London, and at age sixteen, in 1625, he entered Christ's College, Cambridge, in preparation for the ministry. His studies suffered a setback in 1626 when, after a dispute with one of his tutors, he was temporarily expelled. Once back in college, he continued with his studies in ethics, logic, and languages. It was during this period that he composed some of his earliest poems, in Latin, though he had no ambitions at the time of becoming a poet. Dubbed "The Lady of Christ's;" by his fellow students, Milton had a dandified, almost feminine appearance as a young man. Neither did he join in the usual male activities such as sports and drinking clubs; he concentrated on his studies during his Cambridge years, receiving a master of arts degree in 1632.

By this time he had already written "a sizeable body of poetry," according to a contributor for Concise Dictionary of British Literary Biography. This included numerous Latin poems and sonnets, as well as poems in English, such as "On the Morning of Christ's Nativity," "The Passion," "On Shakespeare," "L'Allegro," and "Il Penseroso." By graduation, Milton had also given up his early goal of going into the Church. He had proven himself an able orator at Cambridge, but was still at loose ends. Writing was becoming increasingly important to him.

For the next six years he lived at his family home, first in the suburbs of London, and then in Buckinghamshire, where he studied and wrote. From this period come verses such as the sonnet "How Soon Hath Time" and its mild lament of Milton's lack of achievement, as well as the famous "Lycidas," an elegy on the death of one of his friends. As the contributor to Concise Dictionary of British Literary Biography noted, this brief poem "anticipates a recurrent theme in Milton's major poems: the justification of God's ways to humankind." The other major writing from these years is his first extended work, A Maske Presented at Ludlow Castle, 1634. Also known by its more common title, Comus, this is a lyrical celebration of chastity and seduction, mixing song, dance, and poetry. The theme of temptation, so important to Milton's later work, is here first introduced.

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Milton left his family home in 1638 for an extended tour of France and Italy, meeting with some of the major thinkers of the age during his travels. These months away from England were seminal in their influence on the young writer; it was during his Italian sojourn that he first decided to write a great verse epic. Such travels were cut short, however, by news of increasing political turmoil in England. Returning to London, he tutored his nephews and other students for a time, but readied his pen for the support of liberty if it came to that.

The Middle Years

It came to that sooner than Milton expected. With the coming of Cromwell's Civil War, his attention was turned from verse to essays and pamphleteering. He wrote tracts opposing episcopacy, or the control of religion by bishops. With a reformist's zeal, he criticized, dissected, and cajoled. Married in 1642 to a girl half his age, Milton soon was separated from his wife, whose family were royalists. During this separation, he wrote in favor of divorce for reasons of incompatibility. When his wife returned to him in 1645, the couple reconciled, and lived together until her death. In 1644 he published his plea for unlicensed printing in England, Areopagitica. His one verse contribution during these years was the publication, in 1645, of his collected poems thus far, Poems of Mr. John Milton. Having gained a reputation as a liberal firebrand, Milton surprised readers with his solemn and often lyrical poems in both English and Latin.

Milton was drawn more closely into political events with the execution of Charles I in 1649. He wrote The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates as a defense of the right of the people to depose a tyrant. Thereafter, he accepted a post in Cromwell's government as secretary for foreign tongues. His job entailed communicating in Latin with other governments, as well as pamphleteering in the service of the state. As such he became the chief apologist and propagandist of the Cromwell regime.

In 1652 Milton's first wife died, and he also became totally blind. His eyesight had been failing for years, the result, he thought, of late nights studying by candlelight. Four years later he married again, but this wife also died, in 1658 in childbirth. Despite such setbacks, Milton continued writing, his words transcribed by family members and secretaries. He argued for the separation of church and state and for religious tolerance. In the 1660 work The Readie & Easy Way to Establish a Free Commonwealth, he pleaded for the preservation of a republic in England. However, his pleas went unanswered. That same year, Charles II, son of the executed king, regained the throne. Although Milton was imprisoned for his services to Cromwell, he gained a pardon and returned to private life, eager to spend his remaining years with his first love, poetry.

The Final Years

Milton married for the third and final time in 1663, and settled into a life of poetry, using nephews and sometimes his daughter, Deborah, to write out his words. Each morning he would dictate the verses he had mentally written and memorized the night before. Milton's long-planned verse epic, Paradise Lost, was published in 1667 in ten books and revised for 1674 publication in twelve books. This long blank-verse epic is an attempt to justify the ways of God to man, and takes as its theme the fall from grace of Adam and Eve. Milton traces this biblical tale, beginning in the middle of things, with Satan already in Hell, having led an unsuccessful revolt in Heaven. The poem traces the action of the Fall from there: Satan's deception of Eve in the Garden of Eden, her subsequent deception of Adam, and their banishment from Paradise as a result of the loss of a perfect understanding and connection with God and with one another. Though in blank verse, the poem employs mostly iambic pentameter in the lines, and builds rhythm by clever use of word juxtaposition. The language is highly descriptive and at times lyrical. For Eyres, Paradise Lost is a "profoundly moving human poem about blindness, love, marriage, nature and wrong-headed revolt." As such, it can be read almost as a parable of Milton's own life. The poem has influenced writers from William Blake and Percy Bysshe Shelley to William Wordsworth and Alfred Lord Tennyson. Modern critics continue to mine the epic for new meaning. According to the contributor for Concise Dictionary of British Literary Biography, "The theology of the epic, its indebtedness to works of classical antiquity, its adaptation of Scripture and the Genesis tradition, its Christian humanism, its political overtones, and its varied perspectives on gender relations—these and other topics are explored and debated." For this same contributor, the wealth of such contemporary criticism proves that Milton's best-loved work is "not simply for an age but for all time." And writing in the Dictionary of Literary Biography, Albert C. Labriola noted, "Because of its length, complexity, and consummate artistry, Paradise Lost is deemed Milton's magnum opus, the great work for which he had prepared himself since youth and toward which, in his view, the godhead guided him."

Milton's Paradise Regained and Samson Agonistes were published together in 1671. The former poem is more dramatic than epic, and deals with Christ having to overcome the temptations of Satan and prepare himself for his sacrifice on the Cross. Samson Agonistes is a retelling of the story of Samson from the Book of Judges. The blind Samson resonated with the blind Milton. The resulting poem is in the tradition of Greek tragedy. Neither of these later works are deemed on a par with the complexity found in Paradise Lost.

If you enjoy the works of John Milton

If you enjoy the works of John Milton, you may also want to check out the following epics:

Dante Alighieri, The Divine Comedy, 1306-1321.

Geoffrey Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales, 1386-1394.

Edmund Spenser, The Faerie Queene, 1590.

Shortly before his death in 1674, Milton joined the public fray again with his defense of Protestantism, Of Truye Religion, Haerisie, Schism, Toleration. Despite such prose works as Areopagitica, however, it is as a poet that Milton is largely remembered. A short period of eclipse immediately following Milton's death has been followed by several centuries of continued admiration. The first dent in his artistic reputation came in the early twentieth century, when T. S. Eliot and other poets and critics chided Milton's work as wooden and too intellectual. But by the 1940s, Milton was once again in favor critically, and his epic poetry is now considered among the finest in any language.

Biographical and Critical Sources


Belsey, Catherine, John Milton: Language, Gender, Power, Blackwell (New York, NY), 1988.

Bennett, Joan S., Reviewing Liberty: Radical Christian Humanism in Milton's Great Poems, Harvard University Press (Cambridge, MA), 1989.

Brown, Cedric C., John Milton: A Literary Life, St. Martin's Press (New York, NY), 1995.

Burnett, Archie, Milton's Style, Longman (London, England), 1981.

Concise Dictionary of British Literary Biography, Volume 2: Writers of the Restoration an Eighteenth Century, 1660-1789, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1992.

Daiches, David, Milton, revised edition, Hutchinson University Library (London, England), 1959.

Danielson, Dennis, editor, The Cambridge Companion to Milton, Cambridge University Press (Cambridge, England), 1989.

Darbishire, Helen, editor, The Early Lives of Milton, Constable (London, England), 1932.

Davies, Stevie, Images of Kingship in Paradise Lost, University of Missouri Press (Columbia, MO), 1983.

Demaray, John G., Milton's Theatrical Epic: The Invention and Design of Paradise Lost, Harvard University Press (Cambridge, MA), 1980.

Dictionary of Literary Biography, Gale (Detroit, MI), Volume 131: Seventeenth-Century British Nondramatic Poets, Third Series, 1993, pp. 153-189, Volume 151: British Prose Writers of the Early Seventeenth Century, 1995, pp. 232-252, Volume 281: British Rhetoricians and Logicians, 1500-1660, Second Series, 2003, pp. 188-200.

Empson, William, Milton's God, revised edition, Chatto & Windus (London, England), 1965.

Fish, Stanley, How Milton Works, Harvard University Press (Cambridge, MA), 2001.

Flannagan, Roy, John Milton: A Short Introduction, Blackwell (Oxford, England), 2002.

Huckabay, Calvin, John Milton: An Annotated Bibliography, 1968-1988, Duquesne University Press (Pittsburgh, PA), 1996.

Kelley, Mark R., Michael Lieb, and John T. Shawcross, editors, Milton and the Grounds of Contention, Duquesne University Press (Pittsburgh, PA), 2003.

Levi, Peter, Eden Renewed: The Public and Private Life of John Milton, St. Martin's Press (New York, NY), 1997.

Lewalski, Barbara, The Life of John Milton: A Critical Biography, Blackwell (Oxford, England), 2000.

Lewis, C. S., Preface to "Paradise Lost," Oxford University Press (New York, NY), 1941.

Lieb, Michael, Poetics of the Holy: A Reading of Paradise Lost, University of North Carolina Press (Chapel Hill, NC), 1981.

Lieb, Michael, The Sinews of Ulysses: Form and Convention in Milton's Works, Duquesne University Press (Pittsburgh, PA), 1989.

Martz, Louis L., editor, Milton: A Collection of Critical Essays, Prentice-Hall (Englewood Cliff, NJ), 1966.

Martz, Louis L., Poet of Exile: A Study of Milton's Poetry, Yale University Press (New Haven, CT), 1980.

McColley, Diane, Milton's Eve, University of Illinois Press (Champaign, IL), 1983.

Nicolson, Marjorie Hope, A Reader's Guide to John Milton, Syracuse University Press (Syracuse, NY), 1998.

Parker, William R., Milton: A Biography, two volumes, Oxford University Press (Oxford, England), 1968.

Patriades, C. A., editor, Milton's Lycidas: The Tradition and the Poem, 2nd edition, University of Missouri Press (Columbia, MO), 1983.

Poetry Criticism, Gale (Detroit, MI), Volume 19, 1997, Volume 29, 2000.

Potter, Lois, A Preface to Milton, Longman, 2000.

Reference Guide to English Literature, 2nd edition, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1991.

Revard, Stella P., The War in Heaven: Paradise Lost and the Tradition of Satan's Rebellion, Cornell University Press (Ithaca, NY), 1980.

Roston, Murray, Milton and the Baroque, University of Pittsburgh Press (Pittsburgh, PA), 1980.

Shawcross, John T., With Mortal Voice: The Creation of Paradise Lost, University of Kentucky Press (Lexington, KY), 1982.

Shawcross, John T., Paradise Regain'd: Worthy T'Have Not Remained so Long Unsung, Duquesne University Press (Pittsburgh, PA), 1988.

Shawcross John T., John Milton: The Self and the World, University of Kentucky Press (Lexington, KY), 1993.

Tayler, Edward, Milton's Poetry: Its Development in Time, Duquesne University Press (Pittsburgh, PA), 1980.

Thorpe, James, John Milton: The Inner Life, Huntington Library (San Marino, CA), 1983.

Turner, James Grantham, One Flesh: Paradisal Marriage and Sexual Relations in the Age of Milton, Clarendon Press (Oxford, England), 1987.

Wagenknecht, Edward, The Personality of Milton, University of Oklahoma Press (Norman, OK), 1970.

Webber, John Malory, Milton and His Epic Tradition, University of Washington Press (Seattle, WA), 1979.

Wilson, A. N., The Life of John Milton, Oxford University Press (New York, NY), 1983.

Wittreich, Joseph A., Jr., Feminist Milton, Cornell University Press (Ithaca, NY), 1987.


ANQ: A Quarterly Journal of Short Articles, Notes, and Reviews, winter, 2000, William B. Hunter, "John Milton, Cryptographer," pp. 16-18.

Church History, March, 2003, Willam M. Abbott, review of The Life of John Milton: A Critical Biography, p. 206.

College Literature, fall, 2001, Nick Pici, "Milton's 'Eco-Eden,'" p. 33.

Criticism, winter, 1997, Mary Jo Kietzman, "The Fall into Conversation with Eve: Discursive Difference in Paradise Lost," pp. 55-88; fall, 2002, Kevin Pask, "Prospero's Counter Pastoral," p. 389, Gerald J. Schiffhorst, review of How Milton Works, p. 428.

Early Modern Literary Studies, May, 2004, William Walker, "Human Nature in Republican Tradition and Paradise Lost."

Explicator, fall, 1997, Timothy C. Miller, "Milton's Paradise Regained," pp. 14-17.

Leviathan, March-October, 2002, John Mitford, "The Poetical Works of John Milton," pp. 40, 47.

Modern Philology: A Journal Devoted to Research in Medieval and Modern Literature, August, 1997, Theresa M. DiPasquale, "'Heav'n's Last Best Gift': Eve and Wisdom in Paradise Lost," pp. 44-67; November, 2001, Gregory Chaplin, "'One Flesh, One Heart, One Soul': Renaissance Friendship and Miltonic Marriage," pp. 266-292.

New Statesman, August 23, 2004, Matthew Sturgis, "Poetic Works," p. 29.

Philological Quarterly, spring, 2001, Theresa M. DePasquale, "Milton's Purgatorio," p. 169; spring, 2002, Neil D. Graves, "Infelix Culpa," p. 159.

Renascence: Essays on Values in Literature, winter, 2005, James Rovira, "Gathering the Scattered Body of Milton's Areopagitica, pp. 87-102.

Spectator, April 21, 2001, Harry Eyres, "Milton: National Saviour," p. 46.

Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900, summer, 2002, Gregory M. Colon Semenza, "Samson Agonistes and the Politics of Restoration Sport," p. 459; winter, 2003, Peter C. Herman, "Paradise Lost, the Miltonic 'Or' and the Poetics of Incertitude," p. 181, Barbara K. Lewalski, "Milton and Idolatry," p. 213; summer, 2004, Stephen A. Raynie, "Francis Rayman Reading Paradise Lost in the 1740s," p. 545; winter, 2005, Henry Weinfeld, "Skepticism and Poetry in Milton's Infernal Conclave," pp. 191-212.


John Milton Reading Room, (April 17, 2005)., (April 17, 2005), "John Milton (1608-1674)."

Online Literature Library, (April 17, 2005), "John Milton."

Milton, John (1608–1674)

views updated Jun 11 2018


John Milton, the English poet, author, and political writer, was born in London, the son of a prosperous scrivener. He was educated at St. Paul's School in London and Christ's College, Cambridge. After receiving an M.A. in 1632, he spent six years in study at his father's estate in Horton. In 1638 and 1639 he traveled to Italy, where he met Galileo Galilei, and on his return to London he found employment as a tutor. He wrote five pamphlets (16411642) attacking episcopacy, and his unhappy marriage in 1642 lent intensity to his subsequent tracts on divorce. In 1644 he published the tract Of Education, as well as Areopagitica, his famous attack on censorship of the press. His pamphlet justifying regicide, Tenure of Kings and Magistrates (1649), probably brought him the post of secretary for foreign tongues to the Council of State. He wrote several defenses of the revolutionary government, but after 1652 total blindness forced him to withdraw gradually from public life. He turned to the completion of his theological treatise, De Doctrina Christiana, and his History of Britain and to the fulfillment of his poetic ambitions. Despite a brief return to public controversy in 1659 and 1660, Milton was treated leniently by the Restoration government. His epic, Paradise Lost, was published in 1667; Samson Agonistes and Paradise Regained appeared together, in one volume, in 1671. He died in 1674, survived by his third wife.

Approach and Method

Milton was essentially a religious and ethical thinker, and his views are a striking blend of Christian humanism and Puritanism. The fullest statement of his position is De Doctrina Christiana, which was complete in all but certain details by 1660.

Milton believed that the Bible is divine revelation, plain and perspicuous in all things necessary to salvation. In matters of religion Scripture is the only outward rule or authority, and conscience, illuminated by the spirit of God, the only guide within. This scrupulous biblicism, however, is linked (as in Socinianism) with a strong emphasis on reason. Conscience, even when illuminated by the spirit, operates in rational terms rather than through mystical insight, so that "right reason" becomes the guide to Scripture. At the heart of this view, authorizing yet limiting the role of reason, is the doctrine that Scripture is an accommodation of God's will to the limited understanding of man. God has made in the Bible as full a revelation of himself as man is capable of receiving, and the safest approach is thus to form in the mind "such a conception of God, as shall correspond with his own delineation and representation of himself." This view eliminates speculations of a transcendental kind, reserving an area of mystery into which reason may not trespass; at the same time it encourages reason to assimilate biblical revelation to the categories of ethics. Thus, the theological treatise, like Paradise Lost, is a theodicy; its aim is to discover a view of God that is both worthy of him and consistent with revelation.


Milton's aim led him to some unorthodox conclusions, the most striking of which is his rejection of the doctrine of the Trinity. Embracing a loosely Arian position, he insisted on the unity of God and the consequent subordination of the Son and the Holy Spirit to the Father. The Son is the first of the creatures, and although he is the perfect image of the Father and even made of the same substance, he is not of one essence with the Father. The Spirit, a rather supernumerary figure, was created at a later date than the Son. Milton maintained that the doctrine of the Trinity is a purely manmade mystery, with no scriptural foundation; it defies logic and degrades our conception of deity.

There was a second deviation from orthodoxy in the direction of monism. Milton rejected the Augustinian doctrine of the creation of the world ex nihilo and presented a theory of creation de Deo. Drawing support from both Scripture and reason, he argued that the universe was made out of the substance of God. This view, he claimed, is not only more logical than the alternative position, but in its assertion of the goodness of matter it underlines more emphatically the benevolence of the creator. The same antiascetic impulse is present in Milton's theory of body and soul; he argued that the higher comprehends the lower, that spirit contains matter, and that the body should thus be seen not as the prison house of the soul but as integral to it: "The whole man is soul, and the soul man." From this conclusion two corollaries proceed: first, the human soul is not created immediately by God but is propagated from father to son in a natural order; second, the whole man dies, body and soul, and does not live again until the end of time. Milton's view of spirit and matter probably encouraged both his rejection of traditional Eucharistic theory and his radical endorsement of divorce and polygamy.

free will

The doctrines we have examined, which are departures from the main traditions of Christianity, were designed to avoid dualism and to make theology conform to the canons of logical thought. A second group of doctrines emerged as a defense of free will against Calvinism. Milton rejected the orthodox Calvinist view of predestination and reduced the decree of predestination to a general offer of salvation to all men who are willing to believe. Other Arminian views reinforced his conviction that man is free to pursue or refuse salvation. Milton wished to show that regeneration is a matter neither of faith nor of works but of works of faith. Faith, it is true, is a gift of God, but every man is given sufficient grace to put a saving faith within his reach. Finally, the object of a saving faith is God the Father rather than Christ, so that such a faith is possible beyond the bounds of the Christian religion.


The relation of the individual to the community absorbed Milton's attention during two decades of public controversy (16401660). His tracts, written in response to the disturbing events of the period, received force and direction from his lasting concern with liberty. Reason is "but choosing"; it is the power of ethical action, and man must therefore be free to choose between good and evil. Only by knowing evil and rejecting it can one become virtuous, for, as Milton remarked in Areopagitica, "That which purifies us is trial, and trial is by what is contrary." Prescriptive morality, enforced by church or state, prevents both the real understanding of truths already known and the discovery of new truths.

Milton defended the autonomy of reason by appealing from manmade authoritiespositive law, canon law, custom, or traditionto the law of nature. The work of John Selden probably encouraged him to develop a distinction between the primary law of nature, given to Adam at the creation, and the secondary law, the imperfect remnants of the primary law in fallen man. Secondary law allows for the "hardness of heart" that was introduced by the Fall and thus prescribes for such aspects of man's fallen state as war, servitude, divorce, and private property. In De Doctrina Christiana, however, Milton stressed the importance of the primary or unwritten law of nature that was "given originally to Adam, and of which a certain remnant, or imperfect illumination, still dwells in the hearts of all mankind; which, in the regenerate, under the influence of the Holy Spirit, is daily tending towards a renewal of its primitive brightness." This law teaches whatever is intrinsically good and agreeable to right reason, and in making it the final authority, Milton gave his ethic a religious orientation.

Thus, Milton's ethical position was that of the Christian humanist. Grace, he believed, comes to perfect nature, not to destroy it; by means of grace reason is illuminated and natural virtue sanctified. In this emphasis he resembled the Cambridge Platonists, writers like Benjamin Whichcote, John Smith, and Nathanael Culverwel, who sought to unify man's natural and religious experience by insisting that reason is "the candle of the Lord." Milton also resembled these philosophers in his habit of drawing upon Platonic writings, particularly on Plato's myths, in order to enrich his treatment of reason and the passions. Although his stress on the Bible prevented classical philosophy from making a direct contribution to his theology, Platonism nonetheless played a major and continuous part in shaping his ethical idealism.

The influence of Puritanism, as well as of humanism, led Milton to stress the importance of liberty. Believers are a "royal priesthood," and those who force the conscience of the individual are guilty of forcing the spirit of God. Central to Milton's conception of Christian liberty is the distinction between the Mosaic law, a law of bondage that extorts servile obedience through fear, and the Gospel, which offers a free, elective, and spiritual service based on man's filial relation to God. Spiritual regeneration, moreover, brings about a renewal of man's natural powers; the understanding is restored in large measure to its primitive clearness, the will to its primitive liberty. This strong emphasis on inner law led Milton to the antinomian view that Christ, by his life and death, abrogated the whole Mosaic law, the moral parts as well as the judicial and ceremonial parts. The sum of the lawlove God and love your neighborremains and must be fulfilled by following the spirit, or the "internal scripture" (De Doctrina Christiana, I, xxvii). At this point, in spite of a continuing emphasis on reason, Milton had moved toward a position similar to the Quaker doctrine of inner light.

Church and State

Despite his early support of Presbyterianism, Milton soon came to believe that "New Presbyter is but Old Priest writ large." He defended the growth of religious sects on the ground that God requires unity of spirit rather than unity of doctrine, and he denied both the claim of the church to exercise secular power and that of the state to wield ecclesiastical power. His final view was that a particular church is a purely voluntary association of believers. Ministers should be elected by their congregations and supported by free offerings, and no ceremonial observances, such as the Sabbath, should be made obligatory. Despite his separation of the powers of church and state, however, Milton could not follow his more radical contemporaries in divorcing civil good from the good of religion. Although he denied the magistrate "compulsive" powers in matters of religion, he left him the "defensive" function of protecting Protestant Christianity from the threat of open "popery and idolatry."

Milton's view of the state varied in accordance with the changing conditions in which he was called upon to defend the revolutionary party. A basic line of his argument founds the state upon a social contract. Men are born free, but the effects of the Fall cause them to agree to a common league to bind one another from mutual injury. The people are thus the sovereign power in the state and have the right to revoke the power that they have delegated. When it became apparent that the Puritan party represented a small part of the nation, Milton resorted to a further argument that was not entirely consistent with the social contract theory. The revolutionary party, he maintained, was guided by providence and consisted of those most worthy to rule and to interpret the good of the people. The minority must force the majority to be free.


The themes and preoccupations of Milton's prose gain in power when expressed in the "more simple, sensuous, and passionate" language of poetry. All the major poems center on the theme of temptation and move toward a clarification of true heroism. Temptation works through passion, in its simplest form through sensuality and anger but more subtly through specious reasoning and the lure of evil means to good ends. The definition of true heroism involves the exposure of such false forms as the romantic sensuality of Comus in the early "Masque" (1634) or Satan's courage of despair in the late epics. Paradise Lost, which was written to justify God's ways to man by dramatizing man's freedom and responsibility, ends with Adam setting out to imitate the spiritual heroism of the Son of Godrevealed to him in a visionand thus to achieve a "paradise within" that will be "happier far" than the outward paradise he has lost. Samson, in Samson Agonistes, also achieves a victory over himself through suffering and discovers that freedom is enjoyed only in the service of God. Paradise Regained, which has as its subject the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness, presents Milton's final and most complete study of heroism. Avoiding the temptations to distrust and presumption, the Son rejects Satan's offers of worldly power and authority and realizes the spiritual sense in which he is Messiah.

Arts and Sciences

In his literary theory Milton emphasized the importance of genres and of decorum and urged the power of literature to create moral order in the individual and the society. (See his preface to Book II of The Reason of Church Government, the preface to Samson Agonistes, and the invocations to Books I, III, and IX of Paradise Lost. ) His view of education (Of Education ) was humanistic in its stress on languages and classical texts, its dislike of scholasticism, and its ethical aim. He showed no deep interest in the new science, and he used the traditional science in his poetry because it was for him a better source of metaphor. As a historian he had a critical sense of the value of evidence, but his view of history moved from millenarian optimism to the pessimism that informs the survey of history in the last two books of Paradise Lost.

See also Arius and Arianism; Culverwel, Nathanael; Determinism and Freedom; Galileo Galilei; Humanism; Liberty; Plato; Platonism and the Platonic Tradition; Smith, John; Socinianism; Whichcote, Benjamin.


works by milton

The definitive edition of the text is The Works of John Milton, edited by Frank Allen Patterson et al., 18 vols. (New York: Columbia University Press, 19311938), with an index, 2 vols. (New York, 1940). A supplement to the Patterson edition, A Variorum Commentary on the Poems of John Milton, with Merritt Y. Hughes as the general editor, was also published by Columbia University Press (New York, 1970).

There are editions of the poetry and selected prose by Frank Allen Patterson, The Student's Milton (New York: F. S. Crofts, 1930; rev. ed., 1933); Merritt Y. Hughes, Complete Poems and Major Prose (New York: Odyssey Press, 1957); and others. Editions of the poetry include those by James Holly Hanford, Poems (New York, 1937; 2nd ed., 1953); Harris Francis Fletcher, Complete Poetical Works (Boston, 1941); and Helen Darbishire, Poetical Works, 2 vols. (Oxford, 19521955).

Scholarly introductions provide continuous commentary on the prose in the closely annotated Complete Prose Works, edited by Donald M. Wolfe et al. (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 19531982), 8 volumes.

works on milton

General Criticism

Douglas Bush provides a penetrating review of Milton's life and works in English Literature in the Earlier Seventeenth Century (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1945; rev. ed., 1962); a survey of the scholarship is found in James Holly Hanford, A Milton Handbook, 4th ed. (New York: F. S. Crofts, 1946). The standard biography is still David Masson's The Life of John Milton, 6 vols. (London: Macmillan, 18591880; rev. ed., with index, 18811896).

Milton's Thought

Pioneer work is found in Denis Saurat's stimulating if erratic Milton: Man and Thinker (London: Dent, 1925; rev. ed., 1944) and in the more literary Milton (London, 1930) by E. M. W. Tillyard. G. N. Conklin considers theological method in Biblical Criticism and Heresy in Milton (New York: King's Crown Press, 1949), and the growth and significance of Milton's theology are examined authoritatively by Maurice W. Kelley in This Great Argument (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1941). On Milton's political and ethical views, see A. S. P. Woodhouse, "Milton, Puritanism and Liberty," in University of Toronto Quarterly 4 (19341935): 483513; William Haller, The Rise of Puritanism (New York: Columbia University Press, 1938) and Liberty and Reformation in the Puritan Revolution (New York: Columbia University Press, 1955); Arthur Barker, Milton and the Puritan Dilemma, 16411660 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1942; reprinted, 1955); Michael Fixler, Milton and the Kingdoms of God (London: Faber and Faber, 1964); Ernest Sirluck, "Milton's Political Thought: The First Cycle," in Modern Philology 61 (1964): 209224.

Other aspects of Milton's thought are covered in Kester Svendsen, Milton and Science (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1956); Howard Schultz, Milton and Forbidden Knowledge (New York: Modern Language Association of America, 1955); Walter C. Curry, Milton's Ontology, Cosmogony and Physics (Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1957); and Irene Samuel, Plato and Milton (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1947). Further criticism is listed in a selective bibliography by Douglas Bush, op. cit.; in the bibliographies by David H. Stevens, A Reference Guide to Milton, from 1800 to the Present Day (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1930); Harris Francis Fletcher, Contributions to a Milton Bibliography, 18001930 (Urbana: University of Illinois, 1931); and Calvin Huckabay, John Milton: A Bibliographical Supplement, 19291957 (Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 1960); and the annual bibliographies of Studies in Philology and PMLA.

H. R. MacCallum (1967)

Milton, John

views updated May 14 2018

John Milton

BORN: 1608, London, England

DIED: 1674, London, England


GENRE: Nonfiction, poetry

“Lycidas” (1638)
Areopagitica (1644)
Paradise Lost (1667)
Paradise Regained (1671)


English writer John Milton used both his poetry and prose to address issues of religion and politics. Placing himself in a line of poets whose art was an outlet for their public voice and using the pastoral poem to present an outlook on politics, Milton aimed to promote an enlightened commonwealth, not unlike the polis of Greek antiquity or the cultured city-states in Renaissance Italy. Because of its length, complexity, and consummate artistry, his epic poem Paradise Lost (1667) is considered Milton's masterpiece.

Works in Biographical and Historical Context

Gifted Young Student Milton was born in London on December 9, 1608, to John Milton Sr. and Sara Jeffrey Milton. Milton's father was a prosperous scrivener (scribe), while his mother was a gentlewoman known for her charitable works. From an early age he was immersed in literary and intellectual activity. Milton had a superior education that stressed the classics, music, and foreign languages. A highly gifted student, Milton demonstrated a faculty for language, learning Greek, Latin, Hebrew, French, and Italian while still quite young. Milton's young intellect was also nurtured by a private tutor, Thomas Young. Milton entered Christ's College at Cambridge University in 1625.

Though Milton's father had been raised in a staunchly Catholic family, he renounced the Catholic faith and became a Protestant. Milton was raised in a Protestant environment. In England at this time, religious tensions were high. King Charles I took the throne in 1625 and was widely believed to have Catholic leanings—even marrying a Catholic woman, Henrietta Maria of France—though the British monarchy was entrenched in Protestant beliefs. Charles I also faced conflict with the rising middle class, which was primarily Puritan (a Protestant sect), and which sought to make parliament superior to the king. Charles I believed firmly in the divine right of kings (that is, a monarch has a right to rule from the will of God, not from a temporal authority). This tension grew heated over the next two decades.

First Important Poems At first unpopular, Milton eventually made a name for himself as a rhetorician and public speaker. While at Cambridge he probably wrote “L'Allegro,” “Il Penseroso,” and “On the Morning of Christ's Nativity,” three of his earliest great poems in English. Upon graduating in 1632, Milton devoted himself to intense study and writing. To this period scholars assign the composition of some of Milton's finest nonepic poems, including “Lycidas” (1638).

The purpose of “Lycidas” was twofold: to honor the late Edward King, a former schoolmate at Christ's College, and to denounce incompetent clergy—a perennial concern of Milton's. The poem also reveals Milton's own philosophical ambitions—later undertaken in Paradise Lost—to justify God's ways to humanity. Many critics consider “Lycidas” the finest short poem in the English language.

Created on Commission Milton also wrote his first extended work, Comus, in 1637 on commission. The play is in the Elizabethan court masque tradition. Here, in exchanges between two young brothers, a lady, and the tempter Comus, Milton explored the merits of “moral discipline” and the dangers of sexual license.

In May 1638, Milton embarked on a long journey through Italy. The experience, which he described in Second Defence of the People of England (1654), brought him into contact with the leading men of letters in Florence, Rome, and Naples. Upon his return to England, Milton wrote the Italy-inspired Damon (1640).

The English Civil War With the advent of English Civil War, Milton's life changed utterly as his attentions shifted from private to public concerns. The English Civil War was a result of the discontent between Charles I and his subjects. Beginning in 1642, armed conflict broke out between the antiroyalist Puritans and Scots and the royalists, who supported the monarchy, and who included the Welsh. Abruptly Milton left off writing poetry for prose, pouring out pamphlets during the early 1640s in which he opposed what he considered rampant episcopal tyranny. He declared his Puritan allegiance in tracts in which he argued the need to purge the Church of England of all vestiges of Roman Catholicism and restore the simplicity of the apostolic (that is, early) church.

During this period, Milton also published The Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce, Restor'd to the Good of Both Sexes from the Bondage of Canon Law (1643), in which he maintained that incompatibility is a valid reason for divorce. This work was presumably inspired by his hasty marriage in 1642 to his first wife, Mary Powell, who left him shortly after the wedding but returned to him three years later. After bearing four children, she died in 1652 from childbirth complications, and Milton married Katherine Woodcock in 1658. She died in 1658 after giving birth to their daughter, who also died. Milton married for the last time in 1663 to twenty-four-year-old Betty Minshull.

In 1644, Milton published Areopagitica, often cited as one of the most compelling arguments for the freedom of the press. During the next few years Milton worked on his History of Britain (1670). With Puritan leader Oliver Cromwell's execution of King Charles I in 1649, however, Milton entered the political fray with The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates (1649), an assertion of the right of a people to depose or execute a ruling tyrant. This view was a complete about-face for Milton, who had written as a good monarchist in his early antiprelatical, or anticlergy, works.

Continued Focus on Affairs of State After the execution of Charles I, Cromwell declared England a Commonwealth and himself ruler. Milton accepted an invitation to become Cromwell's Latin secretary for foreign affairs and soon wrote a number of tracts on church and state issues, including A Defence of the People of England (1651) and Second Defence of the People of England (1654), two reviews praising the achievements of Cromwell's government. Cromwell ruled until his death in 1658 and was briefly succeeded by his son Richard, until Charles II, the eldest son of the executed king, was crowned in 1660. After the restoration of the monarchy, Milton was dismissed from governmental service, arrested, and imprisoned. Payment of fines and the intercession of friends and family, including Andrew Marvell, Sir William Davenant, and perhaps Christopher Milton, his younger brother and a royalist lawyer, brought about his release.

Completed Paradise Lost Completely blind since 1652 (Milton acknowledged that in his youth he rarely quit his books before midnight and attributed his later blindness to excessive reading by candlelight), Milton increasingly devoted his time to poetry. Helpers, assisted sometimes by Milton's two nephews and his daughter Deborah, were employed to take dictation and read aloud and correct copy. During the writing of Paradise Lost, Milton spent mornings dictating passages he had composed in his head at night.

Paradise Lost was published in 1667, an epic poem recounting the biblical story of humanity's fall from grace. This work and its sequel, Paradise Regained (1671), are celebrated for their consummate artistry and searching consideration of God's relationship with the human race. Samson Agonistes (1671), a tragedy, appeared in the same volume as Paradise Regained. In 1673, Milton embraced controversy once again with Of True Religion, a short defense of Protestantism. He died in November 1674, apparently of complications related to gout (a disease created by a buildup of uric acid).

Works in Literary Context

As was common in his time, Milton was educated in the classics and the Bible and drew on such works for inspiration. He was also very much a product of his time, writing about issues related to the English Civil War, the rule of Cromwell, and other events and beliefs of his time. Politics was an important part of Milton's life, and his works often reflected this.


Milton's famous contemporaries include:

Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598–1680): Italian sculptor and architect in the Baroque style. He was extensively involved, among other works, with the design of St. Peter's Basilica in Vatican City in Rome.

Galileo Galilei (1564–1642): Italian scientist whom Milton met during his trip to Italy. Galileo theorized that the earth revolves around the sun, which was considered heresy by the church, and was forced to recant his belief. His books include Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems (1632).

William Laud (1573–1645): Archbishop of Canterbury, England. Laud encouraged King Charles I to believe that the monarchy was accountable only to God, not its subjects, and was beheaded during the English Civil War.

Andrew Marvell (1621–1678): English poet. One of the so-called metaphysical poets, Marvell was concerned with questions about the nature of the soul. His poems include Last Instructions to a Painter (1667).

Johannes Vermeer (1632–1675): Dutch painter, known for the quality of light in his paintings. The 2003 movie Girl with a Pearl Earring is based on Tracy Chevalier's 1999 novel about the model for Vermeer's famous portrait of the same title.

The Fall of Man As a classicist, Milton was powerfully aware of his antique antecedents. He had long planned an epic that was to be to England what Homer's works were to Greece and the Aeneid was to Rome. Although he contemplated writing about King Arthur for his national poem, he later adopted a biblical subject in Paradise Lost: the Fall of Man as described in the book of Genesis. He begins the poem in media res, in the middle of things, plunging into the action with a description of Satan in hell. The remainder of the poem treats Satan's deception of Eve in Eden, her deception of Adam, their fall from perfect fellowship with God and with each other, and their banishment from Paradise. Everywhere, the poem is strong in its appeal to the ear, the intellect, and the visual imagination. While the iambic pentameter line is the norm, Milton played with the model, contriving syllables and stresses to complement the sense.

Milton's high purpose in the poem, to “justify the ways of God to men,” is ever in the forefront of the action. Critics agree that this challenging objective, made all the more difficult by the complicated issue of divine foreknowl-edge of the Fall, is effected chiefly by imbuing Adam with a will as well as a mind of his own, enabling him to disobey God and thus mar an omnipotent Creator's perfect creation. Paradise Regained—more a dramatic poem than an epic—completes the action of Paradise Lost. Shorter and conceptually much simpler than the earlier work, Paradise Regained depicts Christ in the wilderness overcoming Satan the tempter. By this action, Christ proves his fitness as the Son of God, thereby preparing himself for his human, substitutionary role in the Crucifixion.

Political Idealism Milton's later influence derives from both his prose and his poetry. His influence as a political writer was felt in the American, French, and Russian revolutions, when he was cited to justify the opposition to monarchs and absolutists. Among the English Romantics, Milton was extolled as a libertarian and political revolutionary. His refusal to compromise on matters of principle, his blindness, and his punishment after the Restoration caused many admirers to cite him as a model of the spokesperson of truth and of someone who pursued idealism despite adversity.

Influence Milton's influence on later literature—particularly on eighteenth-century verse—was immense, though his reputation had waned considerably by the Victorian age. By the second half of the twentieth century, however, his works had regained their place in the canon of Western literature.

Works in Critical Context

It would be difficult to overestimate Milton's importance in English letters. In Paradise Lost, he gave his country its greatest epic, surpassing, most commentators believe, even Edmund Spenser's The Faerie Queene in the greatness of his achievement in this form. And as the author of “Lycidas,” “L'Allegro,” and “Il Penseroso” Milton also established himself as a master of the shorter poem. He helped fuel governmental reform and argued eloquently for major social change. Perhaps most telling of all, he wrote, unlike his nearest English rivals for literary eminence, Geoffrey Chaucer and William Shakespeare, in numerous forms on a tremendous range of issues.

Paradise Lost Soon after Milton's death, Paradise Lost began to draw increased attention and praise from such critics as John Dryden, who considered Milton an epic poet comparable in stature to Homer and Virgil. With the notable exception of Samuel Johnson, who dismissed “Lycidas” as cold and mechanical and Paradise Lost as stylistically flawed, critics throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries upheld Milton's achievement for various reasons: William Blake and Percy Bysshe Shelley considered Paradise Lost a precursor of Romanticism, ennobling Satan as a tragic rebel; William Wordsworth hailed Milton's adoption of libertarian ideals; and Ralph Waldo Emerson praised the poet's infusion of private passion into universal themes.


Epic poems are long narrative poems in an elevated style that usually celebrate heroic achievement and treat themes of historical, national, religious, or legendary significance. They appear in every culture. Here are some other examples of epic poetry.

Nibelungenlied (c. 1200). This anonymous German epic recounts a story from the war between the east German Burgundians and the central Asian Huns in the fifth century.

Omeros (1990), by Derek Walcott. The Nobel Prize–winning poet retells the story of the Odyssey through West Indian eyes. The Caribbean island of St. Lucia reveals itself as a main character, and the poem itself is an epic of the dispossessed.

Paterson (1946–1958), by William Carlos Williams. This five-book serial poem was one of the first to redefine the epic, concerning itself with the city of Paterson, New Jersey, and examining modernization and its effects.

The Ring Cycle (1848–1874), by Richard Wagner. This cycle of four operas by the German composer is based on events from Norse sagas and the Nibelungenlied. The cycle is designed to be performed over the course of four nights, and the full performance takes about fifteen hours.

The Song of Roland (c. 1150). This anonymous French poem commemorates an eighth-century battle in the Pyrenees Mountains between Charlemagne's French army and the Muslim Saracens.

In the 1920s, a group of critics, led by American poet T. S. Eliot, began to attack what they perceived as the wooden style and structure of Milton's epic. Eliot, while conceding Milton's talent, lamented his influence on later poets, who, he argued, often created tortuously labored, rhetorical verse in imitation of the earlier poet. But Milton's reputation again rose in the 1940s as critics discovered his previously neglected prose, which in its emphasis on freedom had particular resonance in the World War II era. Furthermore, because of the influential scholarship of such essayists as Charles Williams and C. S. Lewis, Milton's epic poetry was once again regarded as masterly in its breadth and complexity, and today is considered among the finest in human history.

Responses to Literature

  1. Today, changing one's mind on an issue, as Milton did regarding the monarchy, is commonly seen as “flip-flopping,” or a sign of intellectual weakness. Do you agree? Can changing one's mind on an issue indicate the ability to learn from further experience or information, or is sticking to one's original opinion a sign of strength of character? Write an essay that outlines your opinions.
  2. Milton's portrayal of Satan in Paradise Lost is compelling and complex. Like most good literary villains, Satan is someone readers can almost sympathize with, despite themselves. After reading selections from Paradise Lost, try to think of other villains from films and movies who are similarly complex. Do you sympathize with these “bad guys” in some ways? Why? Does your reaction to them make them more effective as villains? How? Write an essay in which you define what makes a “good” bad guy.
  3. In his famous anticensorship work Areopagitica, Milton famously wrote: “I cannot praise a fugitive and cloistered virtue, unexercized and unbreathed, that never sallies out and sees her adversary, but slinks out of the race, where that immortal garland is to be run for, not without dust and heat.” Censors, in Milton's time and now, argue that they are attempting to protect people from dangerous material. Review the quote above in context. What, exactly, is Milton arguing? What is the “immortal garland” he is referring to? Do you agree with Milton's position, or do you think some written material is indeed too dangerous for public distribution?



Bennett, Joan S. Reviewing Liberty: Radical Christian Humanism in Milton's Great Poems. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1989.

Blessington, Francis C. “Paradise Lost”s and the Classical Epic. London: Routledge, 1979.

Danielson, Dennis, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Milton. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989.

Empson, William. Milton's God. London: Chatto & Windus, 1965.

Fletcher, Harris F. The Intellectual Development of John Milton. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1956, 1962.

Honigmann, E. A. J. Milton's Sonnets. New York: St. Martin's, 1966.

Thorpe, James. John Milton: The Inner Life. San Marino, Calif.: Huntington Library, 1983.

Wilson, A. N. The Life of John Milton. New York: Oxford University Press, 1983.


Boehrer, Bruce. “Elementary Structures of Kingship: Milton, Regicide, and the Family.” Milton Studies 23 (1987): 97–117.

Hatten, Charles. “The Politics of Marital Reform and the Rationalization of Romance in The Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce.” Milton Studies 27 (1991): 95–113.

Sirluck, Ernest. “Milton's Political Thought: The First Cycle.” Modern Philology 61 (1964): 209–24.

Via, John A. “Milton's Antiprelatical Tracts: The Poet Speaks in Prose.” Milton Studies 5 (1973): 87–127.

Web sites

Creamer, Kevin J. T. The Milton-L Home Page. Retrieved March 27, 2008, from Last updated on February 13, 2008.

Society of the Friends of Milton's Cottage. Milton's Cottage Museum. Retrieved March 27, 2008, from

John Milton

views updated May 23 2018

John Milton

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."

Further Reading

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). □

Milton, John

views updated May 21 2018

John Milton

Born: December 9, 1608
London, England
Died: November 8, 1674
London, England

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, 16401660

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 (16001649), 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 (16311700), admired his work and used it as the basis for their own writing. Others, including Alexander Pope (16881744), poked fun at it. Still others, such as Samuel Johnson (17091784), 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 (17571827) and Percy Bysshe Shelley (17921822) praised his Satan as a romantic rebel. Samuel Taylor Coleridge (17721834) praised Milton's artistry and depth. In the 1920s, T. S. Eliot (18881965) 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 (1608–1674)

views updated Jun 11 2018

Milton, John (16081674)

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 masquesa combination of music, dance, and poetrywas 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 rebelan 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

views updated May 21 2018

Milton, John (1608–74). Milton was intended for the ministry by his father, a well-to-do London scrivener, and was educated at St Paul's School and Christ's College, Cambridge. He became increasingly dedicated to poetry, however, and after graduating spent long years in private study, nurturing a vocation to write a great Christian epic. But he put this aside soon after the Long Parliament met, believing that England was on the brink of a great new reformation, which he must serve with his pen, in prose. His first five tracts (1641–2) were directed mainly against the bishops. Areopagitica (1644), a plea for a free press, presented a vision of England as ‘a noble and puissant Nation rousing herself like a strong man after sleep, and shaking her invincible locks’. Neither his optimism nor his faith in his fellow-countrymen were to last. A series of tracts in favour of divorce (1643–5) brought him under the lash of the presbyterian clergy, and his sonnet to Fairfax (1648) breathed disillusion. The establishment of the Commonwealth brought him fresh hope, however, and his Tenure of Kings and Magistrates eloquently justified the trial of Charles I. Gratefully, the Council of State appointed him as its secretary for foreign tongues. Besides various diplomatic duties, this entailed writing (with the last of his eyesight) lengthy defences of the Commonwealth in both English and Latin. He eulogized Cromwell's Protectorate too, but gradually turned against its ecclesiastical policies and monarchical tendencies. By 1659–60 he was a thoroughgoing republican, and risked his life by publishing a virulently anti-monarchical tract on the eve of the Restoration. He was briefly imprisoned, but was spared to complete the epic masterpieces Paradise Lost, Paradise Regained, and Samson Agonistes, whose composition he had postponed for so long. He was not an original political thinker and his polemical manners were deplorable, but he defended his ideals of Christian liberty and republican virtue with noble rhetoric and stoic courage.

Austin Woolrych

Milton, John

views updated May 09 2018

Milton, John (1608–74) English poet. Milton first major pieces are the masque Comus (1634), and the pastoral elergy Lycidas (1637). He was committed to reform of the Church of England, and his pamphlet Of Reformation in England (1641) attacked episcopacy. A champion of the revolutionary forces in the English Civil War (1642–51), his Areopagitica (1644) is a classic argument for freedom of the press. Milton's defence of regicides in The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates (1649) earned him a position in Cromwell's Commonwealth government. Blind from 1652, Milton was forced into hiding after the Restoration (1660). Paradise Lost, perhaps the greatest epic poem in English, was first published in 10 books (1667). In 1674, he produced a revised edition in 12 books. Written in blank-verse, it relates the theological stories of Satan's rebellion against God, and Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. Its sequel, Paradise Regained (1671), was published in four books, and describes Christ's temptation.