Biography (Dictionary of World Biography: The 17th and 18th Centuries)
Article abstract: An important writer of revolutionary prose during the English Commonwealth, Milton is also England’s greatest heroic poet.
John Milton was born on December 9, 1608, on Bread Street near St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. His father, also named John Milton, had come to London a decade earlier following a conflict over religion with his staunchly Catholic father, Richard Milton. The elder John Milton achieved sufficient success as a scrivener—a combination of legal adviser, notary, and financial broker—to provide well for his wife Sara Jeffrey Milton, and their children, John, Anne, and Christopher. Their first child had died at birth. The younger John was provided with a tutor, Thomas Young, a Scottish Presbyterian cleric with whom Milton would correspond for many years and with whom he would find himself allied against the bishops during the early years of the Commonwealth. When Young left London, Milton was enrolled in St. Paul’s School in 1620, and later in Christ’s College, Cambridge, in 1625. He placed fourth out of 259 candidates for the bachelor’s degree in 1625 and was awarded his M.A. cum laude in 1632. He declined to join the clergy, a career for which his education had prepared him, in part because he was increasingly opposed to the governance and ceremonies of the Anglican Church, as they constrained the liberty of the individual conscience, and in part because he was increasingly committed to the vocation of poetry.
Milton is regarded as the greatest English epic poet and as second only to the greatest dramatic poet, William Shakespeare. England’s foremost poets both transformed the literary conventions of the age, and though their lives overlap in time, they differ in many crucial ways. Of Shakespeare little is known, but of Milton little is unknown. Details of his appearance and personality—medium height, auburn hair, delicate, almost feminine features, a cheerful egotist, a ladies’ man by the age of seventeen, popular with his schoolmates, and a scathing wit—and his daily work habits, education, religious and political thought, employment, health, family fortunes, travels, and friendships, are all voluminously recorded in his own writing and in letters and biographies written by those who knew him.
Shakespeare’s genius seems romantically untutored, while Milton’s talents were certainly developed through exhaustive study. As a boy, he read by candlelight past midnight and continued his devotion to study throughout his life, even after he was totally blind. He had learned Latin and Greek from Young by the age of twelve and added several other languages, including Hebrew and Italian, soon after. He read the Church Fathers and the Testaments in Latin, Greek, and Hebrew. He read the classical philosophers, historians, and poets. He mastered the trivium of grammar, rhetoric, and logic, and found that analysis, paraphrase, and imitation of classic authors came easily. His academic exercises at Christ’s College, delivered in Latin, are models of rhetorical invention. His early education equipped his capacious mind with the best that the classical and the Judeo-Christian traditions could offer.
He continued preparing for his vocation as a poet following his attendance at Christ’s College by a period of retirement at his parents’ house near London (1632-1638). He wrote few poems, but important ones, including Comus (1634), which was printed as A Masque Presented at Ludlow Castle 1634 on Michaelmas Night (1637), the pastoral elegy “Lycidas” (1637), and his first eight sonnets, including his apology for his long preparation, “How Soon Hath Time” (1632).
Following his mother’s death in 1637, Milton visited the Continent, spending most of his time in Italy, a country that was anathema to English Puritans for its Catholicism but which Milton valued as the seat of learning and civilization. There, he was received by many distinguished artists and patrons and met with a number of famous academies, democratic societies that met regularly to hear and critique scholarly papers and literary works in progress. He met Giovanni Battista Manso, patron of Torquato Tasso, who praised the native fluency of Milton’s Italian verses. He also met the aging Galileo, a captive of the Inquisition, who became a symbol in Milton’s prose writing of how religious dogmatism could restrain the progress of human knowledge. Milton also encountered the power and monumental vastness of the Baroque, a style of art fostered by Catholicism, which Milton used particularly in Paradise Lost (1667, 1674) to portray the realms of the infernal and divine. Milton also heard Italian music and opera. Milton’s father, an amateur composer, had taught him to play the organ and to sing. Music—the music of the spheres, of angels, of humankind, and of all living things—was his preoccupation from first to last. His blindness must have heightened his love of music, which so tuned his ear that auditory images supersede the visual in his poems, and the sound and cadence of his language, so often compared to the grandeur of organ peals and vast choirs, would epitomize the grand heroic style that later writers have imitated and parodied, but not surpassed. The greatest benefit of his Italian journey was his being accepted and praised as an accomplished poet in Italy, a country proud of its vernacular poets, which helped him decide to write his masterpiece in his native tongue, rather than in the international language of Latin.
Milton returned to England earlier than planned, in 1639. King Charles I and Parliament were moving toward civil war, and it seemed to Milton that England was preparing itself to become God’s own kingdom on earth and that the new nation would need his as yet unwritten historical epic, which he initially conceived as based in English history. First, however, he would contribute to the cause in the way he best could, with his pen. The effort cost him his eyesight, briefly his liberty, and very nearly his life.
Milton never intended his studies to make him a reclusive scholar. In his tractate Of Education (1644), he defines education as “that which fits a man to perform justly, skillfully, and magnanimously all the offices, both private and public, of peace and war.” Milton brought his vast learning, his passionate convictions, and often his barbed satire to bear on the most pressing controversies of the Commonwealth, including matters of religious, domestic, political, and individual liberty. He made numerous enemies with his antimonarchic, often heretical stances (which partisan readers have...
(The entire section is 2808 words.)
Want to Read More?
Subscribe now to read the rest of this article. Plus get complete access to 30,000+ study guides!
Milton grew up in a prosperous home that was strongly Protestant and moderately Puritan. A studious and gifted young man, he was given every educational advantage, including private tutoring and enrollment in St. Paul’s School and Christ’s College, Cambridge. At Cambridge, Milton pursued classical studies and wrote poems in Latin, English, and Italian. His schooling was expected to lead him to a career as a clergyman, but he disliked the direction of religious and civil affairs in England, so he did not take holy orders. From 1632 to 1638, he lived with his family as he continued his private study of European and classical literature and writings about church leaders. During this period he wrote the masque Comus (1634) and the elegy Lycidas (1637).
From about 1640 to 1660 Milton was preoccupied with public controversies and wrote prose treatises defending the Puritan cause that expressed his concerns about religious, civil, and domestic liberties. In works such as Of Reformation Touching Church Discipline in England (1641) and The Reason of Church- Government Urg’d Against Prealty (1642), Milton attacked the Episcopacy and the demand for a Presbyterian church. In 1643 and 1644, he published The Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce, four pamphlets arguing for...
(The entire section is 403 words.)
Biography (Critical Survey of Poetry: British, Irish, & Commonwealth Poets)
John Milton was born into an upper-middle-class family in London, his father being a scrivener with real estate interests, sufficiently affluent to assure Milton that he did not have to follow a profession to live. John Milton the elder, who achieved recognition in his own right as a composer and musician, encouraged his son in his studies and enrolled him in St. Paul’s School, then a quality day school in London. When he entered Christ’s College, Cambridge, at sixteen, Milton had an excellent grounding in Latin and Greek.
Even though he was once suspended from Cambridge, he was a serious and successful student, taking two degrees (B.A., 1629; M.A., 1632). While at Christ’s College, he wrote a significant amount...
(The entire section is 471 words.)
Biography (Magill's Survey of World Literature, Revised Edition)
John Milton was born in Bread Street, Cheapside, London, England, on December 9, 1608. His father, John Milton, was a very successful scrivener, one who copied legal documents and performed some of the services associated with banking and finance. His mother’s name was Sara Jeffrey Milton. Though the younger Milton was never rich, his father made enough money to guarantee his son’s financial independence throughout the great poet’s lifetime. Milton was a precocious child, demonstrating a particular facility with ancient and modern languages. By the time he was graduated from college, Milton read, spoke, and wrote Latin nearly as well as he did English and was competent in Greek, Hebrew, French, and Italian. From approximately...
(The entire section is 1551 words.)
Biography (Magill's Survey of World Literature, Revised Edition)
If John Milton had written only Paradise Lost, he would still be considered one of the world’s greatest poets; but, like Shakespeare, Milton graced nearly everything he touched, from delicate Italian sonnets, such as “Methought I Saw My Late Espousèd Saint,” to the sonorous majesty of his great verse tragedy, Samson Agonistes. Milton wrote the greatest pastoral elegy ever written, “Lycidas,” and one of the greatest defenses of a free press, Areopagitica. Shakespeare is almost universally appealing to the twenty-first century because his work seems less learned and doctrinaire than Milton’s, but after becoming well acquainted with Milton, the modern reader will find universal meaning, poetic...
(The entire section is 120 words.)
Biography (Cyclopedia of World Authors, Fourth Revised Edition)
John Milton was born in 1608 above his father’s scrivener’s shop on Bread Street, Cheapside, London. He was born to troubled times, living through the late Elizabethan period, the Jacobean upheavals and the Commonwealth corrections, and the fluctuating Restoration ascendancy.
The future poet’s grandfather, Richard Milton, a yeoman and under-ranger, lived near Oxford. Unswervingly Roman Catholic, he disinherited his son John for joining the Church of England. The latter moved to London, where he earned a satisfactory fortune to provide comforts for himself, his wife, and their three children, John, Christopher, and...
(The entire section is 1197 words.)
IntroductionJohn Milton lost paradise, but in doing so he gained worldwide fame and influenced generations of writers. Though he died more than a hundred years before its inception, John Milton is considered one of the forefathers of the Romantic period. His seminal work, the epic poem Paradise Lost, influenced Romantic and Gothic writers such as Mary Shelley, whose novel Frankenstein even features a quote from Milton’s masterpiece. Throughout his life, he had strong opinions about government, religion, education, and society, and his pamphlet campaigns on these matters led to his incarceration and nearly cost him his life. Though Paradise Lost is a reflection of the failure of the Commonwealth period that Milton supported so ardently, it succeeding in catalyzing two centuries of English poetry.
- Early in his career, Milton wrote court masques, which were short, musical, and dramatic interludes that often featured performances by royalty and members of the court.
- The famously contrary Milton was abandoned by his wife just a few months after their marriage. Shortly thereafter, he wrote a treatise in support of divorce.
- Milton was much maligned for his Republican status. He supported Oliver Cromwell during the interregnum period and defended the execution of Charles I.
- Milton went blind due to glaucoma and for the last two decades of his life had to write all of his works by dictation. In the 1920s, Helen Keller named an interfaith society for the blind after him.
- Though Paradise Lost earned Milton his reputation in posterity, it is actually a two-part work. Milton wrote a sequel, Paradise Regained, shortly before his death.
John Milton was born in London on December 9, 1608, the son of a prosperous Puritan family. His father, a musician, encouraged him to pursue an excellent education, hiring private tutors and enroling him in St. Paul's school (c. 1620).
The first stage of Milton's literary career began in 1625, when he entered Christ's College, Cambridge, where he studied until 1632. He seems not to have been very popular with his fellow students or his professors, and on one occasion he was "sent down" for a fight with a tutor, but was allowed to return. Milton seems to have spent the years between 1632 (when he completed his Master's degree) and 1637 in private study at his father's country home near Windsor. Following this, he travelled in France and Italy (1638-1639), and many of the descriptions in Paradise Lost (such as the description of Hell) reflect things which he saw on these travels. Poems from this period include "Prolusions," "On the Morning of Christ's Nativity" (1629), "Comus" (1634), and "Lycidas" (1639), a poem based on the death of a fellow student, Edward King.
The second stage of Milton's career began in 1640, when he returned to England to teach his nephews. This stage of Milton's life was marked by controversy and civil unrest in England. In 1642 civil war broke out between the Puritan Roundheads and the Royalist supporters of Charles I. Milton was involved in many of the religious and political controversies of his day, and many of his prose works (both in English and Latin) date from the years between 1641 and 1660. His devotion to the principles of Oliver Cromwell's Commonwealth (as well as many of the themes and motifs which would later dominate Paradise Lost) are evident in the many pamphlets he penned during this period.
In 1642 Milton married Mary Powell, but the marriage was a failure and she seems to have left him within months of the wedding, not to return until 1645. His two daughters, Anne and Mary, were born after their reconciliation.
In 1649 Charles I was executed and Cromwell's Commonwealth seemed secure. In March of that year, Milton was appointed Secretary in Foreign Tongues to the Council of State (a kind of foreign-affairs minister). Charles I's death was highly controversial both in England and Europe, and in October Milton published Eikonoklastes, in which he defended Cromwell's actions. In 1651, responding to further European criticism of Cromwell's regime, he published his first Defensio pro populo Anglicano (The Defence of the People of England) . The year 1651 also saw the birth of his only son, John.
The following year was one of tragedy for Milton. Within days of the birth of his third daughter, Deborah, his wife died, and a month later his son John also died. To compound the tragedy, his eyesight, weak since 1644, failed completely and he became totally blind. One can only imagine how devastating this must have been for a poet whose work is as dominated by vivid visual imagery as is Milton's.
In 1656, Milton married his second wife, Kathenne Woodcock, who died less than two years later. Over the next few years, Milton published a number of tracts which reflect his deep concern for church government and the abuses therein.
Following the Restoration in 1660, Milton was placed for a time under house arrest, but was released within six months. This begins the third and final stage of Milton's literary career. Retired from public life, in 1663 he married his third wife, Elizabeth Minshul, and in 1667, he published the first edition ofParadise Lost's ten books. Although much of the material subsequent to the fall is missing from this edition, the concern to "justify the ways of God to man" is evident, as is Milton's conviction that, despite the fall of the Commonwealth and the Restoration of the monarchy, political justice can be achieved in this world. Between 1670 and 1673 he published several of his greatest works, including Paradise Regained and Samson Agonistes. Only months before his death, he published Paradise Lost, A Poem in Twelve Books, the complete edition of his epic. He died on November 8, 1674, and was buried in St. Giles, Cripplegate, London.