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 frequently confused with his poetry), but his efforts always bespoke great moral courage. Though disillusioned with the failed promise of the Commonwealth, Milton almost single-handedly tried to prevent the reestablishment of the monarchy by publishing his final book of controversial prose, The Ready and Easy Way to Establish a Free Commonwealth (1660), barely a month before King Charles II assumed the throne, when most former Republicans were already in exile or hiding for their lives.
He began this period writing against the ecclesiastical government of the Anglican bishops; five books resulted, of which the most important are Of Reformation Touching Church Discipline in England (1641) and The Reason of Church-Government Urg’d Against Prelaty (1642). In The Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce (1643) and two other tracts, he argued for divorce as a right of incompatible couples to separate and avoid wasting their domestic lives. His finest prose work is Areopagitica (1644), an argument addressed to Parliament against the reestablishment of censorship and in favor of free intellectual inquiry and expression. Milton advocated the people’s right to call a tyrant to account in The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates (1649), contending that the governor rules on behalf of, and with the consent of, the people. He also defended the unpopular execution of King Charles I in Eikonoklastes (1649) and Pro Populo Anglicano Defensio (1651; the first defense of the English people).
The gifted, supremely articulate Milton accepted an appointment in the new government as secretary of foreign tongues (later Latin secretary) in March, 1649. This, his first real job, entailed handling correspondence with the rulers and diplomats of Europe, an important task in a democratic island near a monarchic continent. He had been tutoring his sister’s sons John and Edward Phillips—Edward was his most vivid early biographer—since returning from Italy, and his little academy had grown steadily.
The conflict that split the nation also severed his marriage in 1642 to Mary Powell, the seventeen-year-old daughter of a Royalist family in Oxford, where the king would encamp up the road from Republican London. Mary went to visit her family after two months of marriage and did not return for three years. Hazards of travel during the war, their families’ differing politics, and the hostility of Mary’s mother toward Milton (to whom her husband was in debt), contributed to her absence. She returned unannounced one evening, Milton forgave her, and the couple lived together until Mary’s death on May 5, 1652, three days after the birth of their third daughter, Deborah. The couple had two other daughters, Anne and Mary, and a son, John, who died a month after his mother.
Milton by that year was totally blind, though his eyes appeared unclouded. For ten years he had been troubled by severe headaches and bodily discomfort associated with his failing vision that certainly sharpened his temper and shortened his patience. His work load as Latin secretary was enormous, as was that which he imposed on himself: conducting compendious research for his massive De doctrina Christiana (1825), which is the fullest, most systematic statement of his beliefs. He apparently had little time for his daughters. Their recorded disaffection for him has been a chief support for his critics’ accusations of misogyny, a charge that has been repeatedly refuted by those who have studied his friendships with women and his loving, admiring portrait of Eve in Paradise Lost. He continued to seek domestic happiness. In 1656, he married Katherine Woodcock, who gave birth to their daughter Katherine the next year. The mother never recovered from childbirth and died on February 3, 1658. The child lived only six months. Milton married Elizabeth Minshall in 1663, and for twelve years she provided him with the companionship and tranquillity he needed to write his masterpieces.
The collapse of the Commonwealth and the restoration of monarchy in 1660—the ruin of Milton’s hopes, in other words—brought threats against the life of this most vocal Republican, advocate of divorce, and defender of regicide. Milton’s stature among the intellectuals of Europe saved his life, and though he was imprisoned briefly and lost most of his estate, Milton was invited by Charles II in 1664, according to Elizabeth Milton, to write for his court. Milton declined out of conscience but also because he was midway through the seven years of composing his epic, which he had postponed for twenty years while preparing his country, without success, to receive it.
Paradise Lost is his great study of the first failure to establish the sovereignty of human reason that explains all subsequent failures. Reason for Milton was the image of God that remains in mankind, and its exercise requires the harmonious operation of all human faculties. Why, Milton asks, with all circumstances apparently favorable, did God allow His Englishmen to fail in their attempt to establish His kingdom in England’s green and pleasant land? Furthermore, where might there be found the model of Christian heroism that might yet teach the human race the virtue that eludes it at the very moment it is most needed?
Milton’s answer is the motive behind his epic, his Old Testament tragedy Samson Agonistes (1671), and his New Testament brief epic Paradise Regained (1671). In all three, the argument lies between the bondage of the Law and the liberty of the Gospel—the dilemma of human will suspended between the letter and spirit of God’s Word, between conformity and the exercise of divinely creative will—as it was in the controversial prose and in the De doctrina Christiana. The ideas that he formulated in the prose he represented in the drama of the poetry. His central artistic problem was to animate Christian virtue in response to the temptations of evil. To portray virtue as a refusal is to make it a merely paralyzing reaction, as indeed the chaste Lady of Comus is fixed in her chair after resisting Comus’ seduction. In Paradise Lost, he portrays more active virtues in Adam and Eve, the angel Abdiel, and the Son. Samson in Samson Agonistes breaks the letter of the Hebrew Law but fulfills its spirit in destroying the temple. By outwitting Satan, the young Jesus in Paradise Regained—Milton’s favorite among his works—is the most successful exemplar of reason that Milton created.
Milton spent his post-Restoration years composing his final works and receiving numerous admiring visitors from abroad, even as he had once visited Galileo. He died quietly on November 8, 1674, the year he reissued Paradise Lost in twelve books. He was buried in the cemetery of the Church of St. Giles, Cripplegate. In 1790, some young men, drunk after a party, dug up the coffin, and relic-mongers sold bits of his hair, teeth, fingers, ribs, and other bones. Milton believed that poetry still served to tame the wild beast in mankind, as it did in the myth of Orpheus, the first poet, whose body was also torn into pieces and distributed throughout the world. Milton would not have been surprised at the human perversity that desecrated his grave, or that his end, like his artistic life, would so resemble that of Orpheus, or of a saint, which he believed everyone was capable of being.
John Milton lost nearly every battle he entered with his prose from 1640 to 1660, though the ideas he advanced later prevailed. The limitation of the monarchy, the dethroning of the bishops, the freedom of printing and expression, and the institution of divorce have all come to pass in Great Britain. The guarantees of freedom in the United States Constitution owe more to Milton’s Areopagitica than to John Locke. Yet Milton is primarily valued not as a political thinker but as a poet. His works have gone through hundreds of editions and been the subject of more commentary than those of anyone else, save Shakespeare. His achievements are monumental; his greatest works mark the culmination of ancient traditions, and it has been claimed that much later literature is a series of footnotes to Milton. His Paradise Lost ended the tradition of the classical epic by incarnating the epic virtues in Satan, whose business is death and whose essential form is the serpent. Satan’s posturing is ultimately irrelevant except as a parody of the true heroism of human life that is lived by the Adams and Eves of this garden called Earth.
Barker, Arthur E. Milton and the Puritan Dilemma. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1942. A brilliant intellectual biography, offering analysis of Milton’s circumstances and position in the controversies of the prose and of the development of his ideas that transformed his life and poetry.
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.
Darbishire, Helen. The Early Lives of Milton. New York: Barnes and Noble Books, 1932. Contains early biographies by John Aubrey, John Phillips, Anthony Wood, Edward Phillips, John Toland, and Jonathan Richardson.
Hanford, James H. John Milton, Englishman. New York: Crown Publishers, 1949. An engaging introduction to Milton’s life and work. Extensive commentary is given on the major poems, although Hanford overly insists on the centrality of the conflict between passion and discipline in Milton’s personality and work.
Hill, Christopher. Milton and the English Revolution. London: Faber and Faber, 1977. An astute reading of Milton’s political thought as it anticipates problems in later revolutionary movements toward republicanism and freedom in Europe. Hill, a noted historian, stresses the modernity of Milton’s ideas at the expense of his fundamentally religious grounding.
Masson, David. The Life of John Milton. 7 vols. London: Macmillan, 1859-1894. Reprint. Gloucester, Mass.: Peter Smith, 1981. An exhaustive, encyclopedic compendium of records, notes, testimony, and minute detail of Milton’s life and concurrent British history. Endlessly interesting to browse through, it can supply copious material on facets of Milton’s life and circumstances.
Milton, John. Selected Prose. Edited by C. A. Patrides. London: Penguin Books, 1974. Contains most of the autobiographical passages from Milton’s prose.
Parker, William R. Milton: A Biography. 2 vols. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1968. Essentially a superb distillate of Masson’s massive but unwieldy work. Portrays Milton the man in the midst of his labors and difficulties, taking into account his almost miraculous intellect and achievement.
Wilson, A. N. The Life of John Milton. New York: Oxford University Press, 1983. A highly readable work by a novelist who brings his wit and affection to the task of representing Milton as an attractive yet most formidable figure.