John Milton Milton, John (Literary Criticism (1400-1800)) - Essay


(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 defense of personal liberty. The Restoration of the crown and the ascendance of Charles II in 1660 left Milton disillusioned and hastened his departure from public life. As a noted defender of the regicides, he was under arrest for a brief period, but the intercession of friends in better standing with the Crown, notably the poet Andrew Marvell, spared him serious peril. His first wife died in 1652. He remarried twice. His second wife, Katherine Woodcock, whom he wed in 1656, died sixteen months after their marriage. Milton married Elizabeth Minshull in 1663. He began to lose his eyesight in the 1640s, which he attributed to his reading at night since he was young. He was totally blind by 1652 and composed all his later works, including some of his poetic masterpieces, by dictation. Milton died a month before his sixty-sixth birthday.

Major Works

A number of Milton's writings were not published until years after they were written, and in some cases did not appear until after his death. Milton began writing as a poet, but with the coming of the English Civil War and Commonwealth, he shifted from private to public concerns. Abruptly he left off writing poetry for prose, producing pamphlets during the early 1640s in which he opposed what he considered rampant Episcopal tyranny. Having, as he related, embarked from a sense of duty upon "a trouble sea of noises and hoarse disputes," he declared his Puritan allegiance in such antiprelactical tracts as Of Reformation Touching Church Discipline in England (1641) in which he criticized the Anglican Church, and The Reason of Church-Government (1642). The theme of these works was always the same: the need to purge the Church of England of all vestiges of Roman Catholicism, especially its practices of idolatry, and to restore the simplicity of the apostolic church. Milton believed that Scripture, not the Church hierarchy, was the true source of authority. Around this time Milton also published

The Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce (1643) in which he argued that incompatibility was a valid reason for divorce. His views were not popular and were opposed in print, leading him publish a much-enlarged version of his essay in 1644 and to write three further pamphlets on the subject: The Judgment of Martin Bucer Concerning Divorce (1644), Colasterion (1645), and Tetrachordon (1645, primarily sharp rebuttals to the denunciations his original essay received. In addition to antiprelactical tracts and other topical treatises on religion, Milton wrote on more general theological issues. His most important work in this field is A Treatise of Christian Doctrine (1825), mostly completed by 1660, in which he surveys the emergence of institutionalized Christianity and comments on major tenets of Christian belief. This work outlines his Puritan faith that Scripture, guided by human reason, was the key to salvation. Milton became increasingly preoccupied with civic thought, writing numerous political essays and pamphlets. In 1644 Milton published Areopagitica (1644), a plea for unlicensed printing in England. During the next few years Milton worked on his History of Britain (1670) and A Defence of the People of England (1692). With the execution of Charles I in 1649, Milton published The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates (1649), an assertion of the right of the people to depose or execute a ruling tyrant. This view constituted a complete about-face for Milton, who had written as a good monarchist in his early antiprelactical tracts. Milton also published in the same year his controversial Eikonklastes (1649), a harsh indictment of Charles I in response to the publication of the Eikon Basilike, the emotionally charged posthumously published ghost-written prison memoirs of Charles I which portrayed the executed king as a saint and martyr. As Cromwell's Latin secretary for foreign affairs, he issued a number of tracts on church and state issues, including Pro Populo anglicano defensio (A Defence of the people of England) (1651) and Defensio secunda (Second Defense of the People of England) (1654), two highly laudatory reviews of the achievements of the Commonwealth. But Cromwell's tenure and the Commonwealth were short-lived and in one of his final political essays, The Readie & Easie Way to Establish a Free Commonwealth (1660), Milton lamented the looming restoration of Charles II to the throne. Milton also wrote studies not prompted by strictly political or religious concerns. The short works A Brief History of Moscovia (1682) and Accedence Commenc't Grammar (1669) treat Russian history and Latin grammar respectively. Of Education (1645), written in the form of a letter, is the most frequently quoted example of Milton minor prose. Here, drawing no doubt on his own experience as a student and teacher, Milton petitioned for the creation of an elite class through the careful instruction of boys in small regional academies. Milton's objective for the students, "to repair the ruins of our first parents by regaining to know God aright," had a practical end: "I call therefore a complete and generous education that which fits a man to perform justly, skillfully, and magnanimously all the offices, both private and public, of peace and war." Milton was especially proud of this work, and its reputation as a major contribution to educational theory endures to this day. The lyric masterpieces of his last years—Paradise Lost, Paradise Regain 'd, and the metrical tragedy Samson Agonistes—have profound political messages. Critics regard Satan as a representing Charles I in Milton's poetry. Samson Agonistes examines the dilemma posed by the choices individuals have to make when political and ethical demands are at odds.

Critical Reception

Milton is the subject of more scholarship and criticism than any other English author save Shakespeare and possibly Chaucer. In life Milton was both praised and scorned; praised for his achievements in poetry and scorned for his writings on church and state. Political opponents lashed out at him mercilessly in print, damning him as a rebel and traitor, but he was not without advocates. Andrew Marvell, for example, allied himself closely with Milton, defending him against detractors at the Restoration. The first few decades after Milton's death saw the writing the publication of a number of biographies—strong testimony to Milton's growing eminence. Milton's reputation remained high until the 1920s, when his poetical works suffered their fiercest denunciation ever. T. S. Eliot, for one, attacked the Milton canon, ranking Milton far below John Donne. By the 1940s, however, following a systematic revaluation, scholars have been examining Milton's work from a wide variety of critical approaches. His previously disregarded topical prose works have been the subject of much fresh critical examination. Commentators now consider Milton a shaping influence during the Commonwealth period in matters concerning religious appointment, education, and the limits of government. Milton is also recognized as a major figure in the history of ideas, one whose thoughts on self-determination and unlicensed printing touched later generations and helped form opinion in Britain and abroad. Much recent Milton scholarship continues to focus on the political content of his poetry as well as his prose.

Principal Works

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

A Maske Presented at Ludlow Castle, 1634, on Michaelmas Night, before the Right Honorable John Earle of Bridgewater, Viscount Brackly (drama) 1637

"Lycidas" (poetry) 1638; published in Obsequies to the Memorie of Mr. Edward King, Anno. Dom. 1638

Epitaphium Damonis (poetry) 1640

"On Hobson the Carrier" (poetry) 1640; published in Witts Recreations, Selected from the Finest Fancies of Moderne Muses

Animadversions upon the Remonstrants Defence, against Smectymnuus (essay) 1641

An Answer to a Book Entitled "An Humble Remonstrance, " in Which the Originall of Liturgy Episcopacy Is Discussed...

(The entire section is 766 words.)

Z. S. Fink (essay date 1941)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: "The Political Implications of Paradise Regained," in The Journal of English and Germanic Philology, Vol. XL, No. 4, October, 1941, pp. 482-88.

[In the essay below, Fink explores seventeenth-century political understandings of the notion of dictatorship. He maintains that the depiction of Satan as a dictator in Paradise Regained underscores Milton's rejection of the need for a dictator in a healthy commonwealth.]

When Satan lays before his followers in Paradise Regained the situation which has arisen from the appearance of Christ, they are appalled at the danger which confronts them and turn over to him all authority in the matter:


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Barbara Kiefer Lewalski (essay date 1959)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: "Milton: Political Beliefs and Polemical Methods, 1659-60," in PMLA, Vol. LXXIV, No. 3, June, 1959, pp. 191-207.

[In the following essay Lewalski examines Milton's political pamphlets in the tumultuous years of 1659-60. She argues that his seeming inconsistencies and reversals are not evidence of fickleness or hypocrisy, but rather reveal a practical flexibility that allowed him to remain constant to his principles.]

Milton's polemical tracts of the Puritan Revolution have long offered difficulty to scholars, and these difficulties are intensified in the eight pamphlets which he wrote during the chaotic closing years of the interregnum.1 One problem...

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Keith W. Stavely (essay date 1975)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: "Sytax and Persuasion," in The Politics of Milton's Prose Style, Yale University Press, 1975, pp. 3-26.

[Below, Stavely compares Milton's syntax and style with those of several contemporaneous political polemicists and demonstrates that his selective use of the Ciceronian model of rhetoricunfashionable at the time—aptly facilitated his millennial message.]

In the studies of seventeenth-century prose style that have appeared since Morris W. Croll's pioneering work on the subject, Milton has usually either been ignored or classified as a Ciceronian.1 Milton indeed expressed his distaste for both the "loose" and "curt" varieties of the...

(The entire section is 11751 words.)

Richard Helgerson (essay date 1983)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: "Milton and the Sons of Orpheus," in Self-Crowned Laureates: Spenser, Johnson, Milton and the Literary System, University of California Press, 1983, pp. 185-88.

[In the essay below, Helgerson discusses Milton's role as laureate, a position which traditionally inhibited poetic creativity. Helgerson posits that Milton escaped this pitfall once he became less heedful of any obligations to the state, found his own voice, and fashioned a new self-presentation, as evidenced in Samson Agonites, Paradise Lost, and Paradise Regained.]

Literary autonomy is precisely what the works Milton produced in the 1640s and 1650s most obviously lack. By the time the 1645...

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Joan S. Bennett (essay date 1989)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: "Satan and King Charles: Milton's Royal Portraits," in Reviving Liberty: Radical Christian Humanism in Milton's Great Poems, Harvard University Press, 1989, pp. 33-58.

[Below, Bennett discusses Milton's response to the Eikon Basi like, the fraudulent prison reflections of Charles I, and Milton's use of Satan to represent Charles I in his writings.]

Milton's conception in Paradise Lost of the fall of Lucifer has always been recognized as political in nature. Because of the poet's twenty years' service to the English revolutionary cause, his readers have sought to understand what relation Milton saw between human and demonic revolution and rule....

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David Loewenstein (essay date 1990)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: "Great Acts and Great Eloquence: The Historical Imagination in the Later Revolutionary Prose," in Milton and the Drama of History: Historical Vision, Iconoclasm, and the Literary Imagination, Cambridge University Press, 1974, pp. 74-91.

[In the following essay, Lowenstein examines tension in Milton's later revolutionary writings. The critic suggests that, in serving both historiographic and mythopoeic functions, Milton understood the need for a poet to be true to historical fact while also fulfilling artistic and creative criteria.]

Milton's self-consciousness about the drama of national historic destiny remains central to his later revolutionary prose works....

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Richard F. Hardin (essay date 1992)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: "Milton and Civil Idolatry," in Civil Idolatry: Desacralizing and Monarchy in Spenser, Shakespeare and Milton, University of Delaware Press, 1992, pp. 164-201.

[Below, Hardin examines Milton's rejection of patriarchalism as a justification for kingship, discounting both the notions of fatherhood as the basis and origin for authority and the idea of the king as the father of the state.]

… Milton banished monarchy to hell in a century that published an unprecedented number of writings defending it as God's preferred method of government. He particularly undercut two myths of royalty that are not widely known today. One, the justification of monarchy by ancient...

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John T. Shawcross (essay date 1993)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: "The Religious Precept," in John Milton: The Self and the World, The University Press of Kentucky, 1993, pp. 247-259.

[In the following essay, Shawcross examines Milton's Calvinist beliefs and the role his father's and grandfather's experiences with the Church may have influenced his theological ideas. He adds that although Milton was hostile to the Roman Catholic Church and a fierce advocate of the separation of church and state, hedespite the common perceptionwas not an anti-Trinitarian.]

Ask someone what Milton's religion was and the immediate answer will be "Puritan." Just what a Puritan was is confused, of course, and has frequently...

(The entire section is 7115 words.)

Sharon Achinstein (essay date 1994)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: "Milton and the Fit Reader: Paradise Lost and the Parliment of Hell," in Milton and the Revolutionary Reader, Princeton University Press, 1994, pp. 177-223.

[Below, Achinstein examines Milton's political and ethical concerns in Paradise Lost and his belief that perceptive readers who possess self-knowledge are key to the maintaining of liberty in England.]

… Paradise Lost is no squib nor a polemical barb in some pamphlet war; it is, rather, an extraordinary epic poem, encompassing far more than simply a topical political intention. Marvell summed it up best by listing the ingredients of Paradise Lost as an almost unimaginable heap: "...

(The entire section is 6823 words.)

Victoria Kahn (essay date 1996)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: "Political Theology and Reason of State in Samson Agonistes," in The South Atlantic Quarterly, Vol. 95, No. 4, Fall, 1996, pp. 1065-97.

[In the following excerpt, Kahn discusses Milton's Samson Agonistes in the context of Renaissance ideas of state authority, focusing on the tragic nature of the choices individuals had to make when ethical and political demands were at odds.]

In his treatise on Political Theology of 1922, Carl Schmitt defined the sovereign as "he who decides on the exception."1 Schmitt, a conservative scholar of constitutional law during the Weimar Republic and later a supporter of the Third Reich, was interested in the...

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Further Reading

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

Barker, Arthur. "The End of the Good Monarchy" in his Milton and the Puritan Dilemma, 1641-1660." Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1942, pp. 123-33.

Discusses Milton's "moderate Puritanism" as the basis for his political writings, focusing on the years 1649-54, and Milton's views on the relationship between church and state.

Davies, Stevie. Images of Kingship in Paradise Lost: Milton's Politics and Christian Liberty. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1983, 248p.

Focuses on Milton's use of images of kingship as an important allegorical symbol in his epic and Milton draws on...

(The entire section is 602 words.)