Although John Milton’s poetry represents only about one-fifth of his total literary production, the prose works are more obscure, largely because he wrote in genres that no longer appeal to a large audience. Milton’s prose is usually valued mostly for what it reveals about his biography and his thought. His most prominent theme was liberty—religious, domestic, and civil. The following examples are notable: five antiprelatical tracts (1641-1642); four tracts justifying divorce (1643-1645); and five pamphlets defending the English Puritan cause against the monarchists (1649-1654). The tract Of Education (1644) and the classical oration upholding freedom of the press, Areopagitica (1644), are the most familiar titles among the prose works. The remaining titles consist largely of academic exercises, letters, additional pamphlets, works of history, and treatises. Milton left in manuscript at his death a Latin treatise on religion, De doctrina Christiana libri duo Posthumi (1825), a work that provides valuable clarification of his religious beliefs.
By common agreement, literary historians have ranked John Milton second among English poets. He wrote during the English Renaissance, when authors were attempting to develop a national literature in the vernacular. In this endeavor, they had exceedingly rich sources on which to draw: the classics, many recently translated, which provided both genres and themes; the Judeo-Christian tradition, an area of broad interest and intensive study following the Reformation; and national sources—historical, folk, mythical; and literature from the Continent, particularly Italy and France. By the time Milton began writing, William Shakespeare and his contemporaries had created a national drama that surpassed that of other nations, and Ben Jonson had adapted such classical lyric genres as the ode and the epigram to English verse. As yet no poet had succeeded in creating an epic poem based on a classical model, a task that the age considered the highest achievement of the creative mind.
It remained for Milton to undertake this formidable task, one for which he was well prepared. Among English poets of the first rank, he was the most deeply and broadly learned—in classical languages and literature and in works of the Judeo-Christian tradition. From early life, he considered poetry to be a true vocation, and his development as a poet suggests that he emulated Vergil and Edmund Spenser, beginning with lyric genres and progressing by degrees to the epic. Milton’s strongest inclination as a poet was to produce a synthesis of classical and Christian elements, a blend that critics have labeled his Christian humanism.
Milton contributed poems of lasting value and interest to English literature in both major and minor genres. He stressed the importance of the individual will by making his most common theme that of the soul in ethical conflict—the wayfaring, warfaring Christian. He developed a style peculiarly “Miltonic.” In the verses that Milton would have seen as fitting his ideal of“simple, sensuous, passionate,”Matthew Arnold discovered“touchstones,” or examples of the sublime in poetry. Finally, he adopted the blank verse of English drama as a vehicle for the long poem on a serious theme.
What literary tradition encouraged John Milton to write a pastoral elegy early in his developing poetic career?
Investigate the relationship between Milton’s Areopagitica and the American Bill of Rights.
Is it possible to detect whether Milton favors the mood of “L’Allegro” or “Il Penseroso”?
Given the history of sonnets written in English before his time, which topics in Milton’s sonnets seem most unusual?
Paradise Lost begins in the traditional manner of an epic. How does the syntax of the first sentence obscure this fact?
Explain whether Milton’s depiction of God is more or less convincing than Dante’s in La divina commedia (c. 1320; The Divine Comedy, 1802).
Was Paradise Regained a relative failure?
Bloom, Harold, ed. John Milton. New York: Chelsea House, 1986. Contains a selection of some of the best Milton criticism from the previous thirty years. Includes a bibliography and an index.
Bradford, Richard. The Complete Critical Guide to John Milton. New York: Routledge, 2001. An accessible, comprehensive guide to Milton for students. Bradford brings Milton to life in an overview of his life and work and provides a summation of the main critical issues surrounding his work. Includes bibliographical references and an index.
Cummins, Juliet, ed. Milton and the Ends of Time. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003. A collection of essays that examine Milton’s focus on the millennium, eternity, and the apocalypse in his works.
Fish, Stanley. How Milton Works. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2001. Argues that all of Milton’s work can be seen from the poet’s firm belief that the value of his (or any) work lay in its author’s commitment to divine truth, not in the tools and devices—plot, narrative, representation—of his aesthetic craft.
Hunter, G. K. Paradise Lost. Boston: Allen & Unwin, 1980. The great advantage of this short study is its ability to make the poem enjoyable. It suggests ways of reading the text that still take full account of Milton’s art, complexities, and contradictions. Contains a bibliography and an index.
Jordan, Matthew. Milton and Modernity: Subjectivity in Paradise Lost. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000. Sees Milton’s works as essentially revolutionary, necessarily understood in a context of the author’s belief in individual human freedom. Includes bibliographical references and an index.
Lewalski, Barbara Kiefer. The Life of John Milton: A Critical Biography. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 2000. A detailed account of Milton’s life and career. Lewalski provides a close analysis of Milton’s prose and poetry and shows his development of a revolutionary prophetic voice. Includes bibliographical references and an index.
Martz, Louis L. Poet of Exile: A Study of Milton’s Poetry. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1980. Sixteen chapters center on Paradise Lost as a poem of exile. Two separate sections cover the rest of the poetry, and a fourth section looks closely at the interaction with Ovid in Paradise Lost in terms of heroic and pastoral love. Contains appendices and an index.
Silver, Victoria. Imperfect Sense: The Predicament of Milton’s Irony. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2001. Silver engages the central question of Milton readers: Why do we hate Milton’s God? She argues that Milton deliberately presents a repugnant deity, one divided from himself, in an effort to reveal the human experience of a divided or self-contradictory universe driven by our own, ironically limited, vantage.