John Milton Biography

John Milton Biography

John 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 succeeded in catalyzing two centuries of English poetry.

Facts and Trivia

  • 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.


(History of the World: The 17th and 18th Centuries)
0111201565-Milton.jpg John Milton (Library of Congress) Published by Salem Press, Inc.

Article abstract: An important writer of revolutionary prose during the English Commonwealth, Milton is also England’s greatest heroic poet.

Early Life

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.

Life’s Work

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.

John Milton Biography

(Critical Guide to Censorship and Literature)

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 legitimizing divorce on grounds of incompatibility. These pamphlets, which earned him notoriety from his Presbyterian allies and gained him a reputation as a radical, seem to have originated from difficulties in his own marriage. Further, feeling hampered by censorship of the press, he wrote his most famous prose work, Areopagitica (1644), a powerful plea for unlicensed printing, occasioned by a severe parliamentary ordinance for the control of printing.

After the execution of King Charles I in 1649, Milton’s public role in helping to create the English Commonwealth was reinforced by his pamphlets against continental critics of Oliver Cromwell’s regime and in support of the execution of the king. Despite failing eyesight, Milton continued to write political pamphlets during the 1650’s. After the restoration of Charles II to the throne in 1660, Milton was in danger of execution, so he went into hiding; he was arrested, but was soon released. His works, Eikonoklastes (1649) and Defensio Populi Anglicani (1650), were both called in by royal proclamation and burned in 1660, and Eikonoklastes was listed in the Roman Catholic church’s Index Librorum Prohibitorum.

In the last fourteen years of his life, Milton returned to writing poetry, publishing his three major poems Paradise Lost (1667), Paradise Regained (1671), and Samson Agonistes (1671).

John Milton Biography

(British and Irish Poetry, Revised Edition)

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 of lyric poetry, and he altered his original intention of being ordained. Leaving Cambridge in 1632, he returned to his father’s estates at Horton and, later, Hammersmith, remaining there until 1638. Although he continued to write poetry, his essential purpose appears to have been further systematic study of classical and Renaissance literature, history, and philosophy.

Approaching the age of thirty, he set out in 1638 to tour France, Switzerland, and Italy, a journey that lasted fifteen months and enabled him to glean impressions of European nature, art, and architecture that later enriched his poetry. During the tour, he also visited such learned men as Hugo Grotius and Giovanni Diodati and attended the meetings of learned societies.

Returning to England on the outbreak of civil war in 1639, he became engaged in the pamphlet war against the bishops. For a period of about fifteen years, Milton turned his primary attention to the writing of polemic prose, which he regarded as promoting the cause of liberty. His poetic output was small, consisting of a few sonnets and lyrics and translations from the Psalms. For a brief time, he became a schoolmaster, though his school enrolled only a handful of students, two of whom were Milton’s nephews. His marriage to Mary Powell in 1642 lasted until her death following childbirth in 1652; a second marriage ended with the poignant death of Katharine Woodcock in 1658. His work as a controversialist brought his merit to the attention of the government of Oliver Cromwell, and he was appointed secretary of foreign tongues to the Council of State in 1649. He was totally blind by 1652 and had to dictate his correspondence and creative work.

By the late 1650’s, he began composing Paradise Lost; his three major poetic works occupied the remaining years of his life. As the Restoration approached, he tried in vain to stem the tide by writing more antimonarchial and anticlerical pamphlets. During the years following the Restoration, he lived quietly in London with his third wife, Elizabeth Minshull, receiving friends and composing and revising his poems. He was much troubled by gout and died of its complications in 1674.

John Milton Biography

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical 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 age of nine to twelve, Milton was tutored at home, and from the age of twelve to sixteen he walked about three blocks to attend St. Paul’s School at the famous London cathedral.

Milton started college in 1625, a few months after turning sixteen, attending Christ’s College, Cambridge, where he earned the nickname “the lady of Christ’s” because he took meticulous care of his appearance, had delicate features, and disdained many of the masculine activities, such as drinking and visiting brothels, that occupied many of his schoolmates. He may have been “rusticated,” or suspended from school, briefly, in 1626, because of a conflict with one of his teachers, but he returned to earn his B.A. in 1629 and his M.A. in 1632. Initially, Milton had planned to be a minister, but as a Puritan, or radical Protestant, he came to believe that the Anglican Church was too much like the Catholic church and decided to dedicate his life to poetry instead. While in school, Milton began writing poetry, mostly in Latin, and in December, 1629, just after his twenty-first birthday, he wrote, in English, “On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity,” which in effect signaled his great promise as a poet.

In the early 1630’s, Milton’s family moved to Horton, Buckinghamshire, seventeen miles west of London, where Milton’s father retired to a country estate. After leaving Cambridge in 1632, Milton lived with his family for six years (usually called the Horton period). During this time, he read voraciously, attempting to complete his education by reading everything that was written in the languages that he had mastered. While at Cambridge and during the years of the Horton period, Milton wrote many of the early works that helped to make him famous during his lifetime—the twin “mood” poems “L’Allegro” and “II Penseroso,” the masque, or play, Comus (pr. 1634, pb. 1637), the pastoral elegy “Lycidas,” and several of his familiar sonnets, such as “How Soon Hath Time.” Some poems, such as “Lycidas,” were published under very particular circumstances and can be easily dated, but most of Milton’s early poems circulated in manuscript well before they were formally published for the first time in his collected poems of 1645.

In August, 1638, Milton set out on his Grand Tour, a trip on the European continent that most educated men undertook in Milton’s day to complete their studies and to polish them as gentlemen. Milton traveled mostly in Italy, where he met many important people, including the great astronomer Galileo. He returned home somewhat prematurely in August,1639, because England was nearing its momentous civil war.

The English Civil War, which began in 1642, was caused by a power struggle between the monarchy and Parliament. In 1625, Charles I had taken over the throne from his father, James I, and by 1629 had dissolved Parliament in an attempt to govern autocratically. Parliament, however, insisted on a more representative form of government, and years of political infighting culminated in armed conflict in August, 1642. In 1647, the king’s forces were defeated, and the king was taken prisoner. Then, in an act unprecedented in English history, Charles was executed on January 30, 1649. This began the period of the Puritan commonwealth, ultimately headed by Oliver Cromwell. These historical events are important in Milton’s life because after his return from Italy he published relatively little poetry between “Lycidas” in 1638 and Paradise Lost (1667, 1674). Milton spent twenty years writing prose in support of various personal and political causes; most of this prose is only read now by highly specialized scholars.

Of the approximately twenty prose works that Milton published between 1641 and 1660, the most widely known are Of Education and Areopagitica, both published in 1644. The first outlined an ideal system of education, and the second argued against censorship, with the latter now considered one of the world’s most important defenses of freedom of the press. In fact, Milton’s Areopagitica helped inspire the writing of the U.S. Constitution’s Bill of Rights.

Between 1643 and 1645, four of Milton’s prose works argued for more liberal divorce laws, presumably because of the crisis of his first marriage. In June, 1642, Milton had married the first of his three wives, seventeen-year-old Mary Powell. Within six weeks of the marriage, she left him, returned to her father’s home in Oxford, England, and did not rejoin Milton until 1645. Her motives are still not entirely clear—she may have been responding to family or political pressures, but the passion of Milton’s divorce tracts indicated considerable marital discord. In 1643, The Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce, the first of Milton’s four divorce tracts, made him quite infamous, and he was often portrayed throughout his life as “Milton the Divorcer,” a sexual libertine, because of his liberal opinions on divorce. After returning to her husband, Mary Powell gave birth to four children and died in 1652 after giving birth to their last. In 1656, Milton married his second wife, twenty-eight-year-old Katherine Woodcock, who also died giving birth two years later. This death probably inspired one of Milton’s greatest sonnets, “Methought I Saw My Late Espousèd Saint,” though some contend that the poem refers to Mary Powell. In 1663, he married Elizabeth Minshull, who outlived him. The divorce pamphlets made Milton infamous, but the prose works that caused Milton the most controversy in his lifetime were the four that he wrote between 1649 and 1654 to justify the execution of Charles I. Almost as soon as Charles was executed, there was a backlash of negative sentiment all over Europe, as well as England, and Milton came to be known as the defender of regicide as well as of divorce.

In the 1650’s, then, Milton’s life was anything but happy. Scorned in many quarters for his views on divorce and the regicide, embroiled in politics rather than fulfilling his calling as a great national poet, suffering from the death of two wives, Milton also went totally blind early in 1652. Modern ophthalmic research generally agrees that Milton’s blindness was caused by glaucoma, but the more romantic theory is that it was caused by years of reading and writing by low candlelight. Whatever the cause, Milton’s blindness was a great burden for one who by then was planning to write the next verse epic to rival the great epics of Homer, Vergil, and Dante. In Milton’s most widely known sonnet, “When I Consider How My Light Is Spent,” Milton describes this anxiety but ends the poem with an assertion of calm faith that God will use his talents as He sees fit.

Ironically, Milton’s blindness probably helped save his life when the commonwealth collapsed and the monarchy was restored. When Cromwell died in 1658, his son Richard was not able to maintain power. Parliament invited Charles II, the son of Charles I, to return from exile in France, and the restoration of the monarchy took place in May, 1660. Many of those involved in the execution of Charles I were then executed themselves, but Milton was spared in spite of his active and public role in the justification of the regicide. Yet he was severely punished, despite being relatively old at fifty-one, being totally blind, and possessing a considerable literary reputation. Besides a short period of imprisonment, he lost his government position as secretary for foreign tongues (Latin secretary), paid a fine, and suffered the confiscation of most of his property. The playwright Sir William D’Avenant and the poet Andrew Marvell, who had been his assistant as Latin secretary, may have helped Milton earn clemency by speaking in his behalf.

After 1660, Milton returned to writing poetry and later published his three major poems, Paradise Lost (1667, 1674), Paradise Regained (1671), and the classical tragedy Samson Agonistes (1671), the last two printed in one volume in 1671. The precise dating and even the sequence in which Milton wrote these works is still a matter of scholarly conjecture, but after his blindness he wrote with the help of an amanuensis, someone who served as a secretary to record, usually every morning, what Milton dictated while composing the verses in his head. Sometimes Milton’s daughters served in this capacity, sometimes paid assistants. Milton published additional prose works in these last years of his life, most notably The History of Britain (1670). He also completed the monumental Latin work De doctrina Christiana libri duo Posthumi (1825), a systematic exposition of Christian doctrine, which attempted to bring the Old and New Testaments into harmony. Although willed to one of his secretaries, the manuscript disappeared and remained unpublished until 1825. Milton died on November 8, 1674, in London, one month short of his sixty-sixth birthday, from complications arising from gout.

John Milton Biography

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical 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 grace, and emotional intensity second only to that found in Shakespeare.

John Milton Biography

(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical 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 Anne. The home above the Bread Street shop must have possessed a cultural, artistic air, for John senior was a musician and composer. When the firstborn child showed eagerness for reading and study, there was ample parental encouragement. Young John enrolled as a day student at St. Paul’s School and was tutored privately by a Scottish curate, Thomas Young. At St. Paul’s the lad formed an abiding friendship with Charles Diodati.

In 1625, when he was sixteen, Milton entered Christ’s College, Cambridge. Fellow students dubbed him the “Lady of Christ’s”—referring derisively to his meticulous conduct or more complimentarily to his benignly handsome face. The one visible rift in his Cambridge career occurred in 1626, when, because of a disagreement with his tutor, William Chappell, he was briefly suspended. His period of rustication proved enjoyable, however, for he went to London, attended theaters, visited parks, and eyed city girls. Returning to Cambridge, he was allowed a new tutor. Besides studying consistently, he wrote Latin verse and several English poems, the best being “On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity.” He took the B.A. and M.A. degrees on schedule and departed from the university in 1632.

John Milton’s father had wanted his son to take holy orders in the Established Church, but when the young man proved averse to the ministry and to the Church of England itself, the parent attempted no coercion. Undoubtedly he remembered the bitterness of his own father’s attitude.

The university graduate showed no interest in a business or profession. His father, with means sufficient, had retired to Hammersmith, then to Horton, a village in Buckinghamshire, seventeen miles west of London. From 1632 to 1638 John lived quietly and pleasantly under the parental roof, where, according to his own statement, he “spent a long holiday turning over the Latin and Greek authors.” At Horton his poetic genius flowered in “L’Allegro,” a glorification of the mirthful man; “Il Penseroso,” an extolling of the pensive soul; Comus, a masque; and “Lycidas,” a combination elegy and satire, which berated corrupt members of the clergy—“blind mouths,” whom he was finding increasingly offensive.

Visiting Italy in 1638, Milton met the scientist Galileo. He returned to England in August, 1639, as threats of civil conflict grew constantly darker. In the ensuing war between Charles I and Parliament, Milton espoused the latter cause as the people’s fight for freedom. He was no soldier, but he battled with his pen. In 1649 he was appointed Latin secretary to Oliver Cromwell, with the duty of translating foreign diplomatic correspondence. Moreover, he voluntarily composed propaganda pamphlets. So strong was his sense of consecration that, though his doctor warned continued writing would cost his eyesight, he completed Pro Populo Anglicano Defensio (defence of the English people), an attempted justification of the execution of King Charles. He paid the predicted price: At forty-three, he became totally blind. With Andrew Marvell as his assistant, he retained the Latin secretaryship until dismissed by General Monk in 1659.

Milton’s religion typified the man and the time. A Christian trinitarian in a broadly orthodox sense, he found little contentment with any sect. After Episcopal rearing, he turned Presbyterian, then later recanted, asserting that “New Presbyter is but old Priest writ large.” He is best characterized as a truly independent thinker. Prelatic authoritarianism of any flavor offended him. “True religion is the true worship and service of God, learned and believed from the word of God only,” he wrote. And further: “Heresy . . . is a religion taken up and believed from the traditions of men, and additions to the word of God.”

With the restoration of Charles II in 1660, Milton went into uneasy retirement in London and in the village of Chalfont St. Giles near Horton. The Royalist government, reinstated by a Puritan-sickened, Cromwell-sated citizenry, did him no harm.

Milton married three times. His first wife, Mary Powell, the seventeen-year-old daughter of a Cavalier squire, left him shortly after their wedding in 1642, for reasons unknown. Their separation might have been permanent had the king’s troops been victorious, but when in 1645 Cromwell’s triumph became apparent, Mary, spurred by relatives who needed an alliance on the winning side, rejoined her husband. She and Milton had three daughters and a son who died in infancy. Mary died in 1652. Milton’s second marriage was in 1656 to Katharine Woodcock, who survived only fifteen months. His third wife, Elizabeth Minshull, wedded the poet in 1663 and outlived him.

As early as 1639 Milton wanted to write a master poem. He long pondered whether it should be epic or dramatic, national or religious. By 1642 he had a list of subjects, but the Civil War and his prosaic tasks for the Commonwealth delayed his start. He accomplished his literary ambition when physical blindness permitted spiritual visions and when political defeat provided leisure necessary for contemplation. Debate exists concerning when he began Paradise Lost, which was complete by 1663. This blank verse religious poem is unique in the English language. Its purpose, to “assert Eternal Providence/ And . . . justify the ways of God to men,” transcends sectarianism. Originally published in ten books (1667), suggesting a hymnlike celebration of God’s love for humanity, Milton appears to have carefully altered it into a twelve-book structure for the purpose of selling it as an epic (1674). There has been much critical discussion of the poem as epic, with Satan as a potential hero—hardly a probable authorial intent. Paradise Lost’s allegory of Satan, Sin, and Death at the gates of Hell, graphic scenes of Heaven’s war, humor in the embellished account of Adam’s fall, and softly cadenced final lines all have enthralled readers through the centuries.

The sequel epic, Paradise Regained—a paraphrase of Christ’s temptations—is a shorter and more predictable poem. Milton’s other long poem, Samson Agonistes, is religious drama. Its blind protagonist, duped by Dalila, imprisoned by Philistines, dying in victory, is often questionably construed as an autobiographical figure.

Happily, in his last years Milton’s wife Elizabeth was a comfort to him. He in turn was vocally appreciative. His custom was to rise at four or five, hear a chapter of the Bible, eat and drink temperately, have someone lead him about the streets for exercise, listen to music, smoke a pipe of tobacco, and dictate to any available amanuensis. In “his house, near Bunhill Fields, without Moorgate” a visitor saw him in “black clothes, and neat enough, pale but not cadaverous, his hands and fingers gouty and with chalk-stones.” He died on Sunday, November 8, 1674. Milton was buried near his father in the chancel of St. Giles’ Church, Cripplegate.

John Milton Biography

(Poetry for Students)

Milton was born in Cheapside, London, in 1608, the son of John Milton, Sr., a prosperous scrivener, notary, and composer, and Sara Jeffrey...

(The entire section is 604 words.)

John Milton Biography

(Epics for Students)
John Milton Published by Gale Cengage

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...

(The entire section is 674 words.)