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The works of John Milton (1608–1674) have been the subject of more commentary than those of any other English writer except William Shakespeare (1564–1616). Scholars have placed Milton among "the small circle of great epic writers." His works reflect two major intellectual and social eras in European history: the Renaissance (the transition from medieval to modern times, c. 1350–c. 1600) and the Reformation (a religious revolution in the sixteenth century). Scholars point to Milton's use of classical (ancient Greek and Roman) references and the rich complexity of his work as being Renaissance in nature, while his "earnest and individually minded Christianity" conveys the themes of the Reformation.
Milton was the son of a wealthy scrivener (professional public copyist or writer) and was educated at Christ's College in Cambridge. Originally planning to be a minister in the Church of England, he became disenchanted with the church and turned his focus to writing instead. He traveled extensively and went to his father's comfortable English estate when he wanted to write. After he was blinded he wrote the remainder of his major works with the assistance of secretaries.
Milton's masterpiece, a blank verse (unrhymed) poem titled Paradise Lost, first appeared in 1667 and was divided into ten books. A revised edition composed of twelve books came out in 1674. Considered one of the greatest epics (long narratives) in the English language, Paradise Lost is Milton's attempt to account for evil in the world and to justify "the ways of God to man." He tells the story of the angel Satan, who rebelled against God and was thrown out of heaven (the Christian concept of life after death for forgiven sinners). He also recounts the biblical story of Adam and Eve (the first man and woman on earth), who were cast out of the Garden of Eden (paradise), and he depicts humanity's experiences with love, war, and religion. Milton's portrayal of Satan is so dramatic and complex that many have argued that Satan, not Adam, is the real hero of the poem.
Milton's other works include sonnets, short poems, and political essays such as the Areopagitica (1644). Among the ideas he championed were limiting the power of monarchs and bishops (church officials), increasing freedom of speech, and legalizing divorce.
Further Information: Bloom, Harold. John Milton. New York: Chelsea House, 1986; Broadbent, John. John Milton: Introductions. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1973; Hartford, H., and V. G. Taffe. A Milton Handbook. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1970; John Milton. [Online] Available http://www.luminarium.org/sevenlit/milton/index.html, October 23, 2000; Mitchell, Ruth. John Milton's Paradise Lost. Woodbury, N.Y.: Barron's, 1984.
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