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.
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.
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.
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.