by Meagan Oropeza and Brenda Montemayor
John Milton (1608 – 1674) was an English poet and intellectual who served as a civil servant for the Commonwealth of England under its Council of State and later under Oliver Cromwell. He wrote at a time of religious flux and political upheaval, and is best known for his epic poem Paradise Lost (1667), written in blank verse, and widely considered to be one of the greatest works of literature ever written.
Early Life and Schooling
John Milton was born in London to a middle-class family. His father, also called John Milton, was disowned by his father, a devout Roman Catholic, for converting to Protestantism (Labriola). Milton Sr. then moved to London, and became a wealthy musician who was able to provide a private tutor for his young son: Thomas Young, a Scottish Presbyterian (“John Milton”). Milton’s interest in religion and politics began with Young with whom he kept in contact long after enrolling in formal schooling at St. Paul’s.
While at St. Paul’s, Milton began studying Latin, Greek, Hebrew, French, Spanish, Italian, Old English and Dutch (“To the Same”). From St. Paul’s School, he made his way to Christ’s College in Cambridge where he was to prepare to enter the clergy. After spending seven years at Cambridge, John got his Bachelor’s of Arts in 1629 and a Masters of Arts in 1632. However, instead of joining the clergy, and due to an outbreak of plague, Milton spent six years of self-study diving into theology, philosophy, history, politics, literature, and science (Labriola).
While on this sabbatical, Milton traveled to Florence, Italy where he met and studied with Galileo. Both men were revolutionary thinkers who questioned the “natural order” of things. Galileo in the way the universe worked and Milton, the book of Genesis; that is, the origin myth of sin and morality. Galileo was such an influence in young Milton’s life that he mentions him in Paradise Lost (Rosen). Eventually, Milton returns to London with a young bride by the name of Mary Powell. Though they were estranged for most of their marriage, they had three daughters and one son before she died in 1652. John remarried in 1656, Katherine Woodcock, who died during childbirth in 1658 and once more Elizabeth Minshull in 1662 (“To the Same”).
Early Career and Travel
During England’s Civil War, Milton became an advocate for the Commonwealth along with Oliver Cromwell but with the Restoration, Milton found himself imprisoned, fined and threatened. It was at this time that Milton was becoming steadily blind and completely lost his sight by 1651 (“To the Same”).
Milton moved to the country and lived the rest of his life in isolation. It was in this privacy that John Milton completed his epic, Paradise Lost, in 1667 along with its sequel Paradise Regained. Milton supervised the second printing of these works by Andrew Marvell in early 1674 before his death on November 8, 1674 (“To the Same”). These particular works were considered controversial at the time. Milton depicts Satan as a protagonist and many considered him a leader in revolutionary liberty (British Library). Milton was considered to be Shakespeare’s nearest rival at the time and his reputation as one of the greatest authors in English Literature has only grown over the centuries (British Library).
Influence and Major Works
John Milton established his career as a writer of prose and poetry throughout the span of three distinct eras: Stuart England; the Civil War (1642-1648) and Interregnum, including the Commonwealth (1649-1653) and Protectorate (1654-1660); and the Restoration. His nonfiction championed for “a freedom of conscience and a high degree of civil liberty for humankind against the various forms of tyranny and oppression, both ecclesiastical and governmental” (“John, Poetry Foundation”).
As for his fiction, he is best remembered for Paradise Lost, Paradise Regained and Samson Agonistes which were written toward the end of his life and marked a new phase in his work. With the Restoration of the Stuart monarchy in 1660, Milton mourns the end of the godly Commonwealth. It wasn’t until the publication of Paradise Lost that Milton gained immediate recognition as an epic poet. (“John Milton”). It was first published in ten books in 1667, then slightly revised and restructured as twelve books for the second edition in 1674, which also includes prose arguments or summaries at the outset of each book. Paradise Lost, almost eleven thousand lines long, was initially conceived as a drama to have been titled “Adam Unparadised,” but after further deliberation, Milton wrote a biblical epic that strives to “assert Eternal Providence, / And justify the ways of God to men.”
Almost ten years after his death, in late 1683, John Milton’s books were burned at Oxford University: “He achieved what no writer after him, in the English tradition, has achieved: effective engagement with political events, a marked effect on the course of history” (Jarman 322).
Fish, Stanley. “To The Pure All Things Are Pure: Law, Faith, and Interpretation in the Prose and Poetry of John Milton.” Law and Literature, vol. 21, no. 1, 2009, pp. 78–92. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/10.1525/lal.2009.21.1.78.
Jarman, Mark. “Citizen Milton.” Hudson Review, vol. 62, no. 2, Summer 2009, pp. 319–325. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=a9h&AN=43659690&site=ehost-live&scope=site.
“John Milton.” The British Library, 28 Nov. 2017, www.bl.uk/people/john-milton. Accessed 24 Oct. 2020.
“John Milton.” Wikipedia, 8 Apr. 2019, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Milton. Accessed 24 Oct. 2020.
“To the Same.” Poets.org, 24 July 2015, www.poets.org/poetsorg/poet/john-milton. Accessed 24 Oct. 2020.
Kahn, Davis. “Milton’s Monastic Faith: Tradition and Translation in the Minor Poetry.” St. John’s College, 1995. ora.ox.ac.uk/objects/uuid:f6e2a08d-413f-4107-9eb6-290c5a83e879/datastreams/ATTACHMENT1. Accessed 15 Apr. 2019.
Labriola, Albert C. “John Milton.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 5 Apr. 2019, www.britannica.com/biography/John-Milton. Accessed 23 Oct. 2020.
Rosen, Jonathan. “Return To Paradise.” The New Yorker, 19 June 2017, www.newyorker.com/magazine/2008/06/02/return-to-paradise. Accessed 23 Oct. 2020.
- Did the religious split in his own family inspire Milton’s own religious views? His Scottish Presbyterian tutor?
- Why do you think Milton learned, spoke, and wrote in so many languages? How may this knowledge have informed his works?
- What Makes John Milton stand out amongst other English poets?
- Do you see his belief of monism expressed in his poetry or prose?
- With the use of allegories and metaphors, do you think Milton is talking about himself and the events that he has lived through in Paradise Lost?
Reading: Selected Poems
On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity
On Shakespeare. 1630
To-morrow to fresh woods, and pastures new.
How soon hath Time, the subtle thief of youth
On The New Forcers Of Conscience Under The Long Parliament
To seise the widow’d whore Plurality
From them whose sin ye envi’d, not abhorr’d,
Dare ye for this adjure the civill sword
To force our consciences that Christ set free,
And ride us with a classic hierarchy
Taught ye by meer A. S. and Rotherford?
Men whose Life, Learning, Faith and pure intent
Would have been held in high esteem with Paul,
Must now he nam’d and printed Hereticks
By shallow Edwards and Scotch what d’ye call:
But we do hope to find out all your tricks,
Your plots and packing worse then those of Trent,
That so the Parlament
May with their wholesome and preventive shears
Clip your phylacteries, though bauk your ears,
And succour our just fears,
When they shall read this clearly in your charge,
New Presbyter is but Old Priest writ large.
To the Lord General Cromwell, May 1652
Guided by faith and matchless Fortitude
To peace and truth thy glorious way hast plough’d,
And on the neck 2 of crowned Fortune proud 5
Hast reard Gods Trophies, and his work pursu’d,
While Darwen stream 3 with blood of Scotts imbru’d,
And Dunbarr feild 4 resounds thy praises loud,
And Worsters 5 laureat wreath; yet much remaines
To conquer still; peace hath her victories 10
No less renownd then warr, new foes aries
Threatning to bind our soules with secular chaines:
Helpe us to save free Conscience from the paw
Of hireling wolves whose Gospell is their maw.
On the Late Massacre in Piedmont
Methought I saw my late espoused saint
Milton, John. The Poetical Works of John Milton, Project Gutenberg, 2014, is licensed under no known copyright.