John Milton

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Introduction

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

John Milton 1608–1674

English poet, essayist, dramatist, and historian

See also, Paradise Lost Criticism.

Milton is regarded as one of the preeminent writers in the English language and as a thinker of world importance. Noted principally for his great epic poems Paradise Lost (1667), Paradise Regain'd (1671), and Samson Agonistes (1671) which scholars increasingly study for their political content, Milton also wrote seminal political and religious essays and pamphlets that were not only highly influential in their time, but remain significant contributions to the canon of libertarian thought. Contentious in his day, during which he was principal propagandist of the ruling Protectorate exablished by Oliver Cromwell, Milton also became known as the supreme champion in England of the then-embryonic concept of political self-determination. An early proponent of individual rights, Milton promoted such causes as freedom of the press against government censorship, the right of the people to overthrow tyrannical rulers, and the right to seek marital divorce on the grounds of incompatibility. A staunch Puritan who feared the tyranny of episcopacy, Milton sought to insure definite boundaries between church and state. Milton's views were often so extreme as to alienate even his fellow Puritans. Ranked in the same echelons as Shakespeare and Chaucer, Milton today is considered a master of his art and a literary craftsman of the highest order.

Biographical Information

Milton was born in Cheapside, London in 1608, the second of three children of John Milton, Sr., a prosperous scrivener and notary who had been disowned by his own father, a staunch Roman Catholic, when he left the Church and became a Protestant. Sarah Jeffrey, Milton's mother, was a gentlewoman known for her charitable works. Milton had a superior education that stressed the classics, music, and foreign languages. A highly gifted student, Milton quickly demonstrated a facility for language, learning Greek, Latin, Hebrew, French and Italian at an early age. Milton's father also hired a private tutor, Thomas Young, a Puritan minister to further nurture his son's intellectual abilities. Milton completed his studies at St. Paul's school and at Christ Church College, Cambridge where he took his master's degree in 1632. Although he was a good student, Milton was impatient with medieval scholastic tradition. After completing his education,

Milton lived in his father's house in Hammersmith and then his family's country estate at Horton, Brookinghamshire, studying, writing, and pondering his vocation. In 1638 Milton began fifteen months of travel, going first to Paris where he was introduced to Hugo Grotius, the famed Dutch jurist, and then to Florence where he met Galileo, under house arrest for his scientific writings which were at odds with Roman Catholic Church doctrine. He then traveled briefly to Naples and Rome, but cancelled further travel plans to Greece and Crete, and returned home to England when he learned of escalating political strife. The Crown was attempting to reign in Puritan dissidents. While beginning his career as a poet, Milton set up a private school for tutoring his nephews and several other pupils. In 1643 at the age of 33 Milton married Mary Powell, the 17-year-old daughter of family friend indebted to his father. The marriage was unhappy, and she left her husband shortly after their wedding, retreating to her father's estate. She did not return to live with her husband for two years. When Charles I was executed in 1649 and Cromwell assumed power, Milton actively entered the political fray, enlisting in the service of the new government as the Latin secretary for foreign affairs. He carried out Parliament's official correspondence and became a key pamphleteer defending Cromwell's policies to foreign governments. For the next twenty years Milton remained a political activist, but often shifted his political alliances to remain true to his first principle—an unwavering...

(The entire section is 86,041 words.)