- Born: December 9, 1608, London, England
- Died: November 8, 1674 (aged 65), London, England
- Notable Works: Paradise Lost (1667), Areopagitica (1644)
John Milton (9 December 1608 – 8 November 1674) was an English poet and intellectual. He served as a civil servant for the Commonwealth of England under its Council of State and later under Oliver Cromwell, and was also known for his poetry and writings that often tackled political issues in a time of religious and political instability.
The phases of Milton’s life parallel the major historical and political divisions in Stuart Britain. He had radical views which gave him a public platform, developed from his very extensive reading, as well as travel and experience, from his student days of the 1620s to the English Civil War.
While his poetry was written mostly for private circulation, he launched a career as pamphleteer and publicist under the increasingly personal rule of Charles I, and even was appointed Secretary for Foreign Tongues by the Council of State.
His poetry was slow to see the light of day, at least under his name, with his first poem “On Shakespeare” (1630), anonymously included in the Second Folio edition of William Shakespeare’s plays in 1632. However, his epic poem Paradise Lost (1667), has remained popular and helped to solidify his reputation as one of the greatest English poets of his time.
Milton later became blind and by 1660 was deprived of his public platform, although this allowed him time to write his poems. He died from consumption at the age of 65.
John Milton – Early Life
John Milton was born in Bread Street, London on 9 December 1608, to composer John Milton and his wife Sarah Jeffrey. The senior John Milton had moved to London around 1583 after being disinherited by his devout Catholic father Richard “the Ranger” Milton for embracing Protestantism. There, he married Sarah Jeffrey, and was noted for his skill as a musical composer, which had a big impact on his son.
Other children of John and Sara who survived infancy included Anne, their oldest child, and Christopher, seven years younger than John. At least three others died shortly after birth, in infancy or in early childhood.
From 1618 to 1620, Milton was tutored in the family home. One of his tutors was Thomas Young, who became chaplain to the English merchants in Hamburg during the 1620s. Although he departed England when Milton was approximately eleven years old, Young’s impression on the young pupil was long standing.
Following his tutoring by young, Milton attended St. Paul’s School from 1620 until 1625. There he began the study of Latin and Greek, both classical languages than heavily influenced Milton in his writing. During his years at St. Paul’s, Milton befriended Charles Diodati, who became his closest companion in boyhood and to whom he wrote “Elegia prima” (Elegy I) and “Elegia sexta” (Elegy VI).
In 1625, Milton began attending Christ’s College, Cambridge. He graduated with a B.A. in 1629, ranking fourth of 24 honours graduates that year in the University of Cambridge. Preparing to become an Anglican priest, Milton stayed on and obtained his Master of Arts degree on 3 July 1632. Milton experienced alienation from his peers and university life as a whole, despite the fact he was a good poet and an eager learner.
With his first tutor at Cambridge, the logician William Chappell, Milton had some sort of disagreement, after which he may have been whipped. Thereafter, in the Lent term of 1626, Milton was rusticated or suspended, a circumstance to which he refers in “Elegia prima.” After his return to Cambridge later that year and for the remainder of his years there, he was tutored by Nathaniel Tovey.
By the time he had obtained his Masters degree, Milton had already written a substantial amount of poetry. These included a number of his well-known shorter English poems, among them “On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity”, his “Epitaph on the admirable Dramaticke Poet, W. Shakespeare” (his first poem to appear in print), L’Allegro, and Il Penseroso.
Having received his M.A., Milton retired to Hammersmith, which was his father’s new home, where he spent the years of 1632 to 1635, before moving to Horton, Berkshire, in 1635 until 1638. He dedicated these six years to self-directed private study. He read both ancient and modern works of theology, philosophy, history, politics, literature and science in preparation for a prospective poetical career.
Thanks to all this reading, Milton is considered to be among the most learned of all English poets. What’s more, he was also able to read in multiple languages, including Latin, Greek, Hebrew, French, Spanish and Italian.
It is thought Milton may have returned home during this time because he was caring for his parents in their old age because his sister and brother were unable to do so. Anne had become a widow in 1631 and had two young children. Around 1632, she married Thomas Agar, a widower who had one young child. Milton’s younger brother, Christopher, was a student at Christ’s College. The situation with his parents may explain why Milton, after Cambridge, did not accept or seek a preferment in the church.
During this time of private study, Milton continued to write poetry. His Arcades and Comus were both commissioned for masques composed for noble patrons, connections of the Egerton family, and performed in 1632 and 1634 respectively. He contributed his pastoral elegy Lycidas to a memorial collection for one of his fellow-students at Cambridge.
In May 1638, Milton embarked upon a tour of France and Italy that lasted until July or August 1639. This travel supplemented his study with new and direct experience of artistic and religious traditions, especially Roman Catholicism, and he also met famous theorists and intellectuals of the time, and was able to display his poetic skills.
Milton started his travels in Calais before moving to Paris. He travelled on horseback, delivering a letter from diplomat Henry Wotton to ambassador John Scudamore. Through Scudamore, Milton met Hugo Grotius, a Dutch law philosopher, playwright and poet.
Milton left France soon after this meeting and travelled south from Nice to Genoa, and then to Livorno and Pisa. He reached Florence in July 1638 and met the astronomer Galileo who was under house arrest at Arcetri.
In September, he moved on to Rome, where he was able to impress Giovanni Salzilli with his poetic skills. In late October, Milton attended a dinner given by the English College, Rome, despite his dislike for the Society of Jesus, meeting English Catholics who were also guests, such as the theologian Henry Holden and the poet Patrick Cary. He also attended musical events, including oratorios, operas and melodramas.
Milton left for Naples toward the end of November, where he stayed only for a month because of the Spanish control. He travelled to Geneva, then again to Florence and then to Venice, before travelling back to Geneva. Either in Venice or Geneva, Milton received word that his sister, Anne, and his childhood friend Diodati had died. Because of what he called “sad tidings of civil war in England” in Defensio Secunda, he returned to England during the summer of 1639.
Upon returning to England, Milton assisted in the education and upbringing of Anne’s children, John and Edward Phillips. The Bishops’ Wars were happening during this time, and he also became embroiled in the controversies against the Church of England and the growing absolutism of Charles I. He began writing prose tracts against episcopacy and vigorously attacked the High-church party of the Church of England and their leader William Laud, Archbishop of Canterbury, with frequent passages of real eloquence lighting up the rough controversial style of the period, and deploying a wide knowledge of church history.
In June 1642, Milton married Mary Powell from Forest Hill, Oxfordshire. She was only 16 at the time, and found it difficult to live with Milton while he was a schoolmaster and writer, who was also almost twenty years her senior. Therefore, she returned home to her family and this separation evidently motivated the composition of The Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce (1643).
Milton wrote this during a period when thoughts about divorce were anything but simplistic, and argued that divorce was a private matter, not a legal or ecclesiastical one. Milton’s basic approval of divorce within strict parameters set by the biblical witness was typical of many influential Christian intellectuals, particularly the Westminster divines. Milton addressed the Assembly on the matter of divorce in August 1643, at a moment when the Assembly was beginning to form its opinion on the matter.
The Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce was accompanied by The Judgment of Martin Bucer, Tetrachordon and Colasterion, all who were written by Milton in the period during which Mary left him. These pamphlets all caused some controversy, which led Milton to write Areopagitica; A speech of Mr. John Milton for the Liberty of Unlicenc’d Printing, to the Parlament of England, which was his celebrated attack on pre-printing censorship. In Areopagitica, Milton aligns himself with the parliamentary cause, and he also begins to synthesise the ideal of neo-Roman liberty with that of Christian liberty.
Mary did not return to live with Milton until 1645, partly because of the outbreak of the Civil War.
Secretary for Foreign Tongues
After the parliamentary victory in the Civil War, Milton wrote The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates (1649) in defence of the republican principles represented by the Commonwealth. It defended the right of the people to hold their rulers to account and implicitly sanctioned the regicide.
In March 1649, Milton’s political reputation got him appointed Secretary for Foreign Tongues by the Council of State. His main job description was to compose the English Republic’s foreign correspondence in Latin and other languages, but he also was called upon to produce propaganda for the regime and to serve as a censor.
In October 1649, he published Eikonoklastes in response to the Eikon Basilike that portrayed the King as an innocent Christian martyr. Milton tried to break this powerful image of Charles I, however, a month later, the exiled Charles II and his party published the defence of monarchy Defensio Regia pro Carolo Primo, written by leading humanist Claudius Salmasius. By January of the following year, Milton was ordered to write a defence of the English people by the Council of State.
This was published in February 1652 and was entitled Defensio pro Populo Anglicano, also known as the First Defence. It gave Milton a European reputation and numerous editions were released.
In 1654, Milton completed the second defence of the English nation Defensio secunda in response to an anonymous Royalist tract “Regii Sanguinis Clamor ad Coelum Adversus Parricidas Anglicanos”, which was a work that made many personal attacks on Milton. Milton’s second defence praised Oliver Cromwell, who was now Lord Protector, while exhorting him to remain true to the principles of the Revolution.
Milton remained as the Secretary for Foreign Tongues until 1660, by which time he was completely blind. This was likely due to retinal detachment or glaucoma, and forced him to dictate his verse and prose to amanuenses who copied them out for him.
The Restoration and Final Years
When Oliver Cromwell died in 1658, the English Republic collapsed into feuding military and political factions, yet Milton clung to the beliefs that had originally inspired him to write for the Commonwealth. He continued to write, attacking the concept of a state-dominated church, and published several proposals to retain a non-monarchical government against the wishes of parliament, soldiers, and the people.
When the Restoration took place in May 1660 and King Charles II returned from exile in Europe, Milton went into hiding for fear of his life. A warrant was issued for his arrest and his writings were burnt. He re-emerged after a general pardon was issued, but was nevertheless arrested and briefly imprisoned.
He spent the last decade of his life living quietly in London. Milton retired to a cottage in Chalfont St. Giles during the Great Plague of London and, during this period, published several minor prose works, such as the grammar textbook Art of Logic and a History of Britain.
Milton died on 8 November 1674 of consumption and was buried in the church of St Giles-without-Cripplegate, Fore Street, London. A monument was added in 1793, sculpted by John Bacon the Elder.
Paradise Lost is arguably Milton’s most famous work. He composed it from 1658 to 1664 (first edition), with small but significant revisions published in 1674 (second edition). He was blind and impoverished when he created it, dictating it to series of aides.
The epic poem in blank verse consists of ten books with over ten thousand lines of verse. The poem concerns the biblical story of the Fall of Man: the temptation of Adam and Eve by the fallen angel Satan and their expulsion from the Garden of Eden.
On 27 April 1667, Milton sold the publication rights for Paradise Lost to publisher Samuel Simmons for £5 (equivalent to approximately £1000 in today’s purchasing power), with a further £5 to be paid if and when each print run sold out of between 1,300 and 1,500 copies. The first run was a quarto edition priced at three shillings per copy (about £30 today), published in August 1667, and it sold out in eighteen months.
The sequel to Paradise Lost, Paradise Regained, was published alongside the tragedy Samson Agonistes in 1671. Both of these works also reflect Milton’s post-Restoration political situation.
Marriages and Family
Milton and his first wife Mary had four children, Anne (born 29 July 1646), Mary (born 25 October 1648), John (16 March 1651 – June 1652) and Deborah (2 May 1652 – 10 August 1727). Mary died on 5 May 1652 from complications following Deborah’s birth. Milton’s daughters survived to adulthood, but he always had a strained relationship with them because they did not inherit their father’s interest in and aptitude for learning.
Milton remarried and his second wife, Katherine Woodcock, whom he married on 12 November 1656, died in 1658. She died less than four months after giving birth to her daughter Katherine, who also died.
Milton married for a third time. He married Elizabeth Minshull on 24 February 1663, who was 30 years younger than him. She survived him and lived until 1728. Their marriage was happy and lasted until his death in 1674.
Following the publication of Paradise Lost, Milton immediately became an epic poet and was praised by many. He was celebrated by John Dryden, Alexander Pope, Joseph Addison, Thomas Newton and Samuel Johnson, as well as William Blake, who considered him to be the major English poet.
Romantic poets such as William Wordsworth and John Keats found inspiration in Milton, as well as George Eliot and Thomas Hardy from the Victorian Era. Milton’s use of blank verse, in addition to his stylistic innovations, influenced later poets. At the time, poetic blank verse was considered distinct from its use in verse drama, and Paradise Lost was taken as a unique examplar.
Milton is also remembered for his lack of rhyme and unconventional rhythm that really made him stand out from the crowd, and has been studied and admired by generations of poets that followed.
Poetry and drama
- 1629: On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity
- 1630: On Shakespeare
- 1631: On Arriving at the Age of Twenty-Three
- 1632: L’Allegro
- 1632: Il Penseroso
- 1634: A Mask Presented at Ludlow Castle, 1634, commonly known as Comus (a masque)
- 1637: Lycidas
- 1645: Poems of Mr John Milton, Both English and Latin
- 1652: When I Consider How My Light is Spent
- 1655: On the Late Massacre in Piedmont
- 1667: Paradise Lost
- 1671: Paradise Regained
- 1671: Samson Agonistes
- 1673: Poems, &c, Upon Several Occasions
- Arcades: a masque (date is unknown)
- Of Reformation (1641)
- Of Prelatical Episcopacy (1641)
- Animadversions (1641)
- The Reason of Church-Government Urged against Prelaty (1642)
- Apology for Smectymnuus (1642)
- Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce (1643)
- Judgement of Martin Bucer Concerning Divorce (1644)
- Of Education (1644)
- Areopagitica (1644)
- Tetrachordon (1645)
- Colasterion (1645)
- The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates (1649)
- Eikonoklastes (1649)
- Defensio pro Populo Anglicano [First Defence] (1651)
- Defensio Secunda [Second Defence] (1654)
- A Treatise of Civil Power (1659)
- The Likeliest Means to Remove Hirelings from the Church (1659)
- The Ready and Easy Way to Establish a Free Commonwealth (1660)
- Brief Notes Upon a Late Sermon (1660)
- Accedence Commenced Grammar (1669)
- The History of Britain (1670)
- Artis logicae plenior institutio [Art of Logic] (1672)
- Of True Religion (1673)
- Epistolae Familiaries (1674)
- Prolusiones (1674)
- De Doctrina Christiana (1823)
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Link will appear as Hanson, Marilee. "John Milton" https://englishhistory.net/poets/john-milton/, November 18, 2021