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).