What was John Milton's contribution to English literature?

John Milton's most important contribution to English literature was Paradise Lost, widely regarded as the greatest epic poem in the English language. Apart from several other major poems, Milton also wrote stirring political oratory which influenced English thought and prose for generations.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

John Milton is arguably the premier epic poet of English literature. Paradise Lost was Milton's attempt to craft an epic for the Protestant Christian world just as Homer's Iliad and Odyssey and Virgil's Aeneid were written for the Greek and Roman worlds, respectively.

Paradise Lost was a return to an earlier form of literature that few English writers had attempted since Edmund Spenser's The Faerie Queene, though Milton's unique Christian sensibility emphasized a different sort of heroism than that of other epic heroes, whether pagan or Christian. Milton presents his villain in the form of a pagan hero: physically imposing, charismatic, and clever. By contrast, the actual heroic figures of the poem are God the Son, who offers to die for fallen humanity, and Adam and Eve, who choose to repent after sinning against God the Father. Here, Milton presents a radical form of Christian heroism, distinct even from the chivalrous figures in Spenser's work.

The influence of Paradise Lost cannot be understated. It has influenced and inspired artists, storytellers, and thinkers throughout the centuries, and it continues to do so. The English Romantic poets William Blake and Percy Shelley famously identified with Milton's rebellious Satan. Mary Shelley quotes and alludes to Paradise Lost in Frankenstein, linking the outcast creature with the exiled Satan. Modern authors such as Neil Gaiman, Salman Rushdie, and Philip Pullman have also alluded to or been inspired by Milton in their own work.

Aside from Paradise Lost, Milton also produced several political writings which still remain influential, such as Areopagitica, an argument against literary censorship on moral grounds. He argues that by allowing people to read so-called dangerous materials, their minds will be better able to detect harmful ideas and heresy, unlike those who only expose themselves to safe books, thereby never exercising their critical thinking.

Last Updated by eNotes Editorial on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

John Milton is such a central writer in the canon of English literature that it is arguable that he would still be a major cultural influence if he had never written a line of poetry. Indeed, Milton is one of the few poets ever to have been a high-ranking politician, and his writings on politics, such as his stirring defense of free speech, Areopagitica, are masterpieces of English prose and oratory:

Lords and Commons of England! consider what nation it is whereof ye are, and whereof ye are the governors: a nation not slow and dull, but of a quick, ingenious and piercing spirit, acute to invent, subtle and sinewy to discourse, not beneath the reach of any point the highest that human capacity can soar to.

The balance and eloquence of such sentences as this influenced English prose for over a hundred years and political oratory around the world for even longer.

It is as a poet, however, that Milton is best known, and his greatest contribution to English poetry is certainly Paradise Lost, although his other works, such Paradise Regain'd, Samson Agonistes, and "Lycidas," are also considerable achievements. Again, Milton's rhetorical genius comes to the fore in Paradise Lost. Satan is the poem's most memorable character, and perhaps his chief trait is his soaring oratory:

What though the field be lost?
All is not lost; the unconquerable Will,
And study of revenge, immortal hate,
And courage never to submit or yield:
And what is else not to be overcome?
That Glory never shall his wrath or might
Extort from me.

It is passages such as this, borne aloft by Milton's powerful pentameter, that made William Blake declare that Milton was "of the devil's party without knowing it." Satan's words are so persuasive and compelling that the reader, like Eve, cannot resist him. Part of the power of Milton's poetry probably comes from his blindness. He composed Paradise Lost in his head and dictated it in sections, with its long sentences enjambed over many lines and piling up a vast weight of argument, allusion, and oratory.

Milton's epic achievement remains inimitable, and no other poet in English has surpassed it. It is worth noting that Milton left England without a national epic, something he had once planned to write. Instead, the greatest English epic poem is the story not of England but of heaven and earth.

Last Updated by eNotes Editorial on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Milton's contribution can be identified two ways. The first is his contribution to the corpus of English literary works, such as three of his greatest: Paradise Lost, Lycidas, Samson Agonistes. Additionally, Milton broke with his contemporaries, who were largely following what we call the metaphysical tradition, and turned back to the Renaissance and to Greek and Latin poets. Thus it is he made a contribution to poetic and tragic genre by reviving the greatest earliest traditions, for instance, Samson Agonistes is styled as a classic Greek tragedy.

This introduces the other way his contribution can be measured, that is his contribution to the English language. While acknowledging his linguistic debt to Shakespeare in "On Shakespeare," introducing his 1632 folio, Milton followed in Shakespeare's footsteps by expanding the English language for poetic and dramatic effect. Gavin Alexander of Christ's College, Oxford University, expresses this aspect of Milton's contribution like this:

... to remake words to bear new meanings, to create a word or phrase where the language offers none, to stretch imagery and syntax in the effort to represent emotion and thought. This is why Milton stands next to Shakespeare in the English poetic tradition

He too, like Shakespeare, altered syntax and grammar to most effectively express an idea, or to most dramatically express it. He too relied on extended simile and metaphor, like in epic similes. He too coined words from Latin borrowed words. Some of these dropped out of the lexicon with Milton, but many coined words are still active contributors to the English lexicon. A few examples of these are: embellishing, besotted, unadventurous, reforming, slow-motion, chastening, unintended, defensively, padlock, disregard, attacks, enjoyable, awe-struck.

A couple of examples of these points from Milton's greatest works follow.

Paradise Lost:
Word coining: bliss:
Restore us, and regain the blissful Seat,

Syntax:
Him the Almighty Power
Hurld headlong

Samson Agonistes:
Extended metaphor underlying tragedy:
... and find him
Eyeless in Gaza at the Mill with slaves,
Himself in bonds under Philistian yoke;

Lycidas:
Classical Greek allusion:
Begin then, Sisters of the sacred well,
That from beneath the seat of Jove doth spring,

Syntax:
Compels me to disturb your season due:

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team

We’ll help your grades soar

Start your 48-hour free trial and unlock all the summaries, Q&A, and analyses you need to get better grades now.

  • 30,000+ book summaries
  • 20% study tools discount
  • Ad-free content
  • PDF downloads
  • 300,000+ answers
  • 5-star customer support
Start your 48-Hour Free Trial