John Milton 1608–1674
English poet, essayist, dramatist, and historian.
See also, Paradise Lost Criticism.
Milton is recognized as one of the greatest writers in the English language and as a thinker of world importance. He is best known for Paradise Lost (1667), an epic poem recounting the Biblical story of humanity's fall from grace. This work and its sequel Paradise Regained (1671) are celebrated for their consummate artistry and searching consideration of God's relationship with the human race. In addition to these great works, Milton also wrote "Lycidas," "Il Penseroso" and "L'Allegro," a series of sonnets on personal and political themes, as well as a number of fine minor poems. His prose works include Areopagitica (1644) and The Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce (1643), both powerful essays in defense of individual liberty.
Born in Cheapside, London in 1608, the son of a prosperous scrivener and notary, Milton was from an early age immersed in literary and intellectual activity. His father provided his son with a private tutor, retaining him even after Milton had entered St. Paul's School. Milton was a model student: he excelled in Latin, Greek, and Hebrew; wrote poetry in Latin and English; and studied the classics, modern languages, and music voraciously. (Milton acknowledged that in his youth he rarely quit his books before midnight, and he attributed his later blindness to excessive reading by lampand candlelight.) His studies—especially music and the classics—remained lifelong interests for Milton and colored much of his literary work. Milton entered Christ's College, Cambridge in 1625. There, his handsome face, delicate appearance, and lofty but unpretentious bearing earned him the sobriquet "the Lady of Christ's." At first unpopular, Milton eventually made a name for himself as a rhetorician and public speaker. While at Cambridge he probably wrote "L'Allegro," and "II Penseroso," and "On the Morning of Christ's Nativity," three of his earliest great poems in English. Upon leaving the university in 1632 with an A.M. degree, Milton retired to Hammersmith for three years and later to Horton, Buckinghamshire, where he devoted himself to intense study and writing. To this period scholars ascribe the composition of some of Milton's finest non-epic poems, including "Lycidas," "Arcades," and the sonnet "How Soon Hath Time." While still in Hammersmith, he also wrote his first extended work, Comus (1637), a masque, on commission for the Bridgewater family. In May 1638, Milton embarked on an Italian journey which was to last
nearly fifteen months. The experience, which he described in Defensio secunda pro populo anglicano (Second Defense of the People of England, 1654), brought him into contact with the leading men of letters in Florence, Rome, and Naples, including Giovanni Battista Manso, Marquis of Villa, who had been an intimate of the epic poet Torquato Tasso. Scholars view the Italian tour as seminal in Milton's literary development; a new self-confidence emerged in the letters he wrote during his travels, and it was in Italy that Milton first proposed to write a great epic. Upon his return to England, Milton wrote the Italian-inspired Epitaphium Damonis (Damon, 1640) a Latin elegy on his longtime friend Charles Diodati. Critics have seen this work as Milton's first heralding of his ambition to be a great poet inthe Renaissance vein, the author of classically inspired works on elevated themes. With the coming of the English Civil War and Commonwealth, Milton's life changed utterly as his attentions shifted from private to public concerns. Abruptly he left off writing poetry for prose, pouring out pamphlets during the early 1640s in which he opposed what he considered rampant episcopal tyranny. Around this time, Milton also published The Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce , in which he maintained that incompatibility is a valid reason for divorce (a work presumably inspired by his own unhappy marriage to Mary...
(The entire section is 73,421 words.)