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 Powell) and Areopagitica, a now-classic plea for unlicensed printing in England. Over the next few years Milton worked on other prose works, including his History of Britain (1670) and De doctrina Christiana (A Treatise of Christian Doctrine, unpublished until 1825). The execution of Charles I in 1649 prompted The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates, a radical assertion of the right of a people to depose or execute a ruling tyrant, which confirmed Milton's leftwing politics. The Restoration of Charles Il in 1660 left Milton disillusioned and hastened his departure from public life; he lived for a time in peril of his life, but for reasons not entirely clear he was spared harsh punishment.
The remaining fourteen years of Milton's life were spent in relatively peaceful retirement in and around London. Now completely blind—he had been since 1652—Milton increasingly devoted his time to poetry. Secretaries, assisted sometimes by Milton's two nephews and his daughter Deborah, were employed to take dictation, correct copy, and read aloud, and Milton made rapid progress on projects he had put off many years before. During the making of Paradise Lost, Milton spent mornings dictating passages he had composed in his head at night. Paradise Lost was published in 1667, followed in 1671 by Paradise Regained. Samson Agonistes, a metrical tragedy, appeared in the same volume as Paradise Regained. Milton died in November 1674, apparently of heart failure. His funeral, wrote John Toland in 1698, was attended by "All his learned and great friends in London, not without a friendly concourse of the Vulgar…."
Most of Milton's works (with the exception of the verse dramas Comus and Samson Agonistes) fall neatly into two categories, poetry and prose, and there is very little crossover of theme or purpose from one category to the other; poetry was chiefly an artistic medium for Milton, prose being reserved for exposition only. In his first poetic successes, the twin lyrics "L'Allegro" and "Il Penseroso," Milton contrasted the active and contemplative lives. The imagery, drawn from classical mythology and English folklore, is cultivated and stylized, and both works are tightly argued. Critics agree that with "Lycidas," his next major work, Milton came into his own as a poet. In editing his poems in 1645, he called this pastoral a "Monody" in which "the Author bewails a learned Friend, unfortunately drown'd … on the Irish Seas, 1637. And by occasion foretells the ruin of our corrupted Clergy then in their height." The purpose of the poem was twofold: to honor the late Edward King, a former schoolmate of Christ's College, and to denounce hireling, incompetent clergy—a perennial concern of Milton's. Incidentally, the poem reveals Milton's own philosophical ambitions, later undertaken in Paradise Lost: to justify God's ways to men. Many critics consider "Lycidas" the finest short poem in the English language.
Milton's best-known works are also his longest ones: Paradise Lost, Paradise Regained and Samson Agonistes. Of these, Paradise Lost is deemed the supreme achievement by far. Milton had long planned an epic which was to be to England what Homer's works were to Greece and the Aeneid was to Rome. Originally, he contemplated an Arthurian subject for his national poem, but later adopted a Biblical subject: the Fall of Man as described in the Book of Genesis. As a classicist, Milton was powerfully aware of his antique precedents; he therefore began the poem in medias res, invoking his muse and plunging into the action with a description of Satan in Hell—actually the poem's third crisis, which chronologically follows Satan's revolt in Heaven and descent with his followers through Chaos to Hell. The remainder of the poem treats Satan's deception of Eve in Eden, her deception of Adam, their fall from perfect fellowship with god and with each other, and their banishment from Paradise. Everywhere the poem is strong in its appeal to the ear, the intellect, and the visual imagination. While the iambic pentameter is the norm, Milton played with the model, contriving syllable and stresses to complement the sense. (Commentators attribute many of Milton's superb metrical effects to his deep knowledge of music and his acutely sensitive ear.) Descriptive passages evoke images at once vague and minute, exposing in precise detail the character (but usually not the exact composition) of Heaven, Pandemonium, Chaos, and the universe. Eden is revealed as a sensuous feast. Milton's high purpose in the poem, to "justify the ways of God to men," is ever in the forefront of the action. Critics agree that this challenging objective, made all the more difficult by the complicated issue of divine foreknowledge of the Fall, is effected chiefly by imbuing Adam with a will as well as a mind of his own, enabling him to disobey God and thus mar an omnipotent Creator's perfect creation. Paradise Regained—more a dramatic poem than an epic—completes the action of Paradise Lost. Shorter and conceptually much simpler that the earlier work, it depicts Christ in the wilderness overcoming Satan the tempter. By this action, Christ proves his fitness as the Son of God, thereby preparing himself for his human, substitutionary role in the Crucifixion. Written in the tradition of dramatic tragedy, Samson Agonistes departs from the form and theme of Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained, but it is clear that Milton recognized affinities among the three works. Like Christ in Paradise Regained, Samson is terribly isolated, "Eyeless in Gaza at the mill with slaves," and undergoes a severe testing of his spiritual strength. He triumphs, gaining renewed faith in God and an improved understanding of his soul.
More criticism has been devoted to Milton than to any English author save Shakespeare and perhaps Chaucer. While celebrated as a poet in his lifetime, Milton was scorned by many contemporaries for his anti-clerical and anti-moralist stances, although some noted persons, such as Andrew Marvell, rose to his defense. Soon after Milton's death, Paradise Lost began to draw increased attention and praise from such critics as John Dryden, who considered Milton as an epic poet comparable in stature to Homer and Virgil. With the notable exception of Samuel Johnson, who dismissed "Lycidas" as cold and mechanical and Paradise Lost as stylistically flawed, critics throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries upheld Milton's achievement unabated, for various reasons: William Blake and Percy Bysshe Shelley considered Paradise Lost a precursor of Romanticism, ennobling Satan as a tragic rebel; William Wordsworth hailed Milton's libertarian ideals; Matthew Arnold viewed Milton as exemplifying English genius. In the 1920, a group of critics, led by T. S. Eliot, began to attack what they perceived as the wooden style and structure of Milton's epics; Eliot, while conceding Milton's talent, lamented his influence on later poets, who, he argued, often created torturously boring, rhetorical verse in imitation of the earlier poet. In the 1940s and 50s, Milton's puritan ideology and grand style drew fire from some of the New Critics, most notably the English academic F. R. Leavis. For Leavis, as for Robert Graves, aesthetic judgement was curiously close to a visceral, strangely personal dislike of Milton himself. Milton's star, however, was on the ascendent. Critics including Cleanth Brooks, C. S. Lewis, William Empson, and Frank Kermode sympathetically defended the poet's brilliance and integrity, drawing a fresh generation of readers to the epic splendors of Milton's poetry. While the rise of the women's movement in the 1970s provoked controversy over sexism in Paradise Lost, Harold Bloom made Milton's poetry central to his theory of literary influence, reinstating the poet's dominant role in English literature. It would be difficult to overestimate Milton's importance in English letters. In Paradise Lost he gave his country its greatest epic, surpassing, most commentators believe, even Spenser in the magnitude of his achievement in this form. And as the author of "Lycidas," "L'Allegro" and "Il Penseroso" he established himself as a master of the shorter poem. His scope was wide, his sweep broad, and his capacity for thought deep—the touchstone of intellectual achievement. For, in the words of James Russell Lowell, "If [Milton] is blind, it is with excess of light, it is a divine partiality, an overshadowing with angels' wings."