John Milton (9 December, 1608 – 8 November, 1674) was an English poet, prose polemicist and civil servant for the Commonwealth of England. Best known for his epic poem Paradise Lost, Milton is also known for his treatise condemning censorship, Areopagitica.
Very soon after his death (and continuing to the present day) Milton became the subject of partisan biographies, confirming T. S. Eliot's belief that "of no other poet is it so difficult to consider the poetry simply as poetry, without our theological and political dispositions... making unlawful entry". Milton's radical, republican politics and heretical religious views, coupled with the perceived artificiality of his complicated Latinate verse, alienated Eliot and other readers; Samuel Johnson disparaged him as "an acrimonious and surly republican."
After Milton was born on 9 December 1608, his father's prosperity provided his eldest son with private tutoring, and a place at St Paul's School in London, where he began the study of Latin and Greek that would leave such an imprint on his poetry. The fledgling poet, whose first datable compositions are two psalms done at age 15 at Long Bennington, was remarkable for his work ethic: "When he was young", recalled Christopher, his younger brother, "he studied very hard and sat up very late, commonly till twelve or one o'clock at night". Milton was born on Bread Street, the same road where The Mermaid Tavern was located, where legend has it that Ben Jonson and other poets often caroused.
Milton continued to write poetry during this period of study--his masques Arcades and Comus were composed for noble patrons, and he contributed his pastoral elegy Lycidas to a memorial collection for one of his Cambridge classmates in 1638. Drafts of these poems are preserved in Milton’s poetry notebook, known as the Trinity Manuscript because it is now kept at Trinity College, Cambridge.
After completing his course of private study in early 1638, Milton embarked upon a tour of France and Italy in May of the same year that was cut short 13 months later by what he later termed ‘sad tidings of civil war in England.’ Moving quickly through France, where he met Hugo Grotius, Milton sailed to Genoa, and quickly took in Pisa before he arrived in Florence around June, where he probably joined the Svogliati under Jacopo Gaddi. Florence, Rome, Naples, and Venice were Milton’s primary stops on his lengthy Italian visit, during which his candor of manner and erudite neo-Latin poetry made him many friends in intellectual circles. Milton met a number of famous and influential people through these connections, ranging from the astronomer Galileo to the nobleman Giovanni Battista Manso, patron of Torquato Tasso, to Cardinal Francesco Barberini, nephew of Pope Urban VIII. After some time spent in Venice and other northern Italian cities, Milton returned to England in July via Switzerland and France.
Overall, in Italy Milton rejoiced in discovering the intellectual community he had missed at Cambridge—he even altered his handwriting and pronunciation of Latin to make them more Italian. At the same time, his firsthand observation of what he viewed as the superstitious tyranny of Catholicism increased his hatred for absolutist confessional states.
Though supported by his father’s investments, at this time Milton also became a private schoolmaster, educating his nephews and other children of the well-to-do. This experience, and discussions with educational reformer Samuel Hartlib, led him to write in 1644 his short tract, Of Education, urging a reform of the national universities.
In June 1642, Milton took a mysterious trip into the countryside and returned with a 16-year-old bride, Mary Powell. A month later, finding life difficult with the severe 33-year-old schoolmaster and pamphleteer, Mary returned to her family. Because of the outbreak of the Civil War, she did not return until 1645; in the meantime her desertion prompted Milton, over the next three years, to publish a series of pamphlets arguing for the legality and morality of divorce. It was the hostile response accorded the divorce tracts that spurred Milton to write Areopagitica, his celebrated attack on censorship. In the midst of the excitement attending the possibility of establishing a new English government, Milton published his 1645 Poems—the only poetry of his to see print until Paradise Lost appeared in 1667.
A month after Milton had tried to break this powerful image of Charles I (the literal translation of Eikonklastes is 'the image breaker'), the exiled Charles II and his party published a defence of monarchy, Defensio Regia Pro Carolo Primo, written by one of Europe's most renowned orators and scholars, Claudius Salmasius. By January of the following year, Milton was ordered to write a defence of the English people by the Council of State. Given the European audience and the English Republic's desire to establish diplomatic and cultural legitimacy, Milton worked much slower than usual, as he drew upon the vast array of learning marshalled throughout his years of study to compose a suitably withering riposte. On 24 February 1652 Milton published his Latin defence of the English People, Pro Populo Anglicano Defensio, also known as the First Defence. Milton's pure Latin prose and evident learning, exemplified in the First Defence, quickly made him the toast of all Europe. In 1654, in response to a Royalist tract, Regii sanguinis clamor, that made many personal attacks on Milton, he completed a second defence of the English nation, Defensio secunda, which praised Oliver Cromwell, now Lord Protector, while exhorting him to remain true to the principles of the Revolution. Alexander More, to whom Milton wrongly attributed the Clamor, published an attack on Milton, in response to which Milton published the autobiographical Defensio pro se in 1655. In addition to these literary defences of the Commonwealth and his character, Milton continued to translate official correspondence into Latin. The probable onset of glaucoma finally resulted in total blindness by 1654, forcing him to dictate his verse and prose to amanuenses, one of whom was the poet Andrew Marvell.
After bearing him four children—Anne, Mary, John, and Deborah—Milton’s wife, Mary, died on 5 May, 1652 from complications following Deborah's birth on 2 May. In June, John died at age 15 months; Milton’s daughters survived to adulthood, but he always had a strained relationship with them. On 12 November, 1656, Milton remarried, this time to Katherine Woodcock. Her death on 3 February, 1658, less than four months after giving birth to their daughter, Katherine, who also died, prompted one of Milton’s most moving sonnets.
Upon the Restoration in May 1660, Milton went into hiding for his life as a warrant was issued for his arrest and his writings burnt. Re-emerging after a general pardon was issued, he was nevertheless arrested and briefly imprisoned before influential friends, such as Marvell, now an MP, intervened. On 24 February 1663 Milton remarried, for a third and final time, a Wistaston, Cheshire-born woman Elizabeth (Betty) Minshull, then aged 24, and spent the remaining decade of his life living quietly in London, with the exception of retiring to a cottage in Chalfont St. Giles (his only extant home) during the Great Plague. Milton died of kidney failure on 8 November 1674 and was buried in the church of St Giles Cripplegate; according to an early biographer, his funeral was attended by “his learned and great Friends in London, not without a friendly concourse of the Vulgar.”
During the Restoration Milton also published several minor prose works, such as a grammar textbook, his Art of Logic, and his History of Britain. His only explicitly political tracts were the 1672 Of True Religion, arguing for toleration (except for Catholics), and a translation of a Polish tract advocating an elective monarchy. Both these works participated in the Exclusion debate that would preoccupy politics in the 1670s and '80s and precipitate the formation of the Whig party and the Glorious Revolution. Milton's unfinished religious manifesto, De doctrina christiana, in which he laid out many of his heretical views, was not discovered and published until 1823.
Milton embraced many theological views that put him outside of contemporary Christianity. A prime example is Milton's rejection of the Trinity in the belief that the Son was subordinate to the Father, a position known as Arianism; and his probable sympathy with Socinianism (modern-day Unitarianism), which held that Jesus was not divine. Another controversial view Milton subscribed to, illustrated by Paradise Lost, is mortalism, the belief that the soul dies with the body. Milton abandoned his campaign to legitimize divorce after 1645, but he expressed support for polygamy in the De doctrina christiana, the unpublished theological treatise that provides evidence for his heretical views.
Like many Renaissance artists before him, Milton attempted to integrate Christian theology with classical modes. In his early poems, the poet narrator express a tension between vice and virtue, the latter invariably related to Protestantism. In Comus Milton may make ironic use of the Caroline court masque by elevating notions of purity and virtue over the conventions of court revelry and superstition. In his later poems, Milton's theological concerns become more explicit. In his 1641 treatise, Of Reformation, Milton expressed his dislike for Catholicism and episcopacy, presenting Rome as a modern Babylon, and bishops as Egyptian taskmasters. These analogies conform to Milton's puritanical preference for Old Testament imagery. Through the Interregnum, Milton often presents England, rescued from the trappings of a worldly monarchy, as an elect nation akin to the Old Testament Israel, and shows its leader, Oliver Cromwell, as a latter-day Moses. These views were bound up in Protestant views of the Millennium, which some sects, such as the Fifth Monarchists predicted would arrive in England. The Restoration of the Stuart monarchy in 1660 began a new phase in Milton's work. In Paradise Lost, Paradise Regained and Samson Agonistes Milton mourns the end of the godly Commonwealth. The Garden of Eden may allegorically reflect Milton's view of England's recent Fall from Grace, while Samson's blindness and captivity – mirroring Milton's own lost sight – may be a metaphor for England's blind acceptance of Charles II as king. However, despite the Restoration of the monarchy Milton did not lose his own faith; Samson shows how the loss of national salvation did not necessarily preclude the salvation of the individual, while Paradise Regained expresses Milton's continuing belief in the promise of Christian salvation through Jesus Christ.
Though he may have maintained his personal faith in spite of the defeats suffered by his cause, the Dictionary of National Biography recounts how he had been alienated from the Church of England by Archbishop William Laud, and then moved similarly from the Dissenters by their denunciation of religious tolerance in England. "Milton had come to stand apart from all sects, though apparently finding the Quakers most congenial. He never went to any religious services in his later years. When a servant brought back accounts of sermons from nonconformist meetings, Milton became so sarcastic that the man at last gave up his place".
The influence of Milton's poetry and personality on the literature of the Romantic era was partly ironic. The Romantic poets valued his exploration of blank verse, but for the most part rejected his religiosity. William Wordsworth began his sonnet "London, 1802" with "Milton! thou should'st be living at this hour" and modeled The Prelude, his own blank verse epic, on Paradise Lost. John Keats found the yoke of Milton's style debilitating; he exclaimed that "Miltonic verse cannot be written but in an artful or rather artist's humour." Keats felt that Paradise Lost was a "beautiful and grand curiosity," but his own unfinished attempt at epic poetry, Hyperion, is said to have suffered from Keats's failed attempt to cultivate a distinct epic voice. Mary Shelley's novel Frankenstein draws heavily on Paradise Lost: The novel begins with a quotation from Paradise Lost, and the relationship between the Creature and Frankenstein is often seen as a metaphor for the relationship between God and Adam in Paradise Lost. The Romantics' simulataneous acceptance of Milton's poetics and rejection of his theological concerns may have encouraged later readers to neglect the theological content of his long poems while admiring his often thunderously musical lines.
The Victorian age witnessed a continuation of Milton's influence; George Eliot and Thomas Hardy being particularly inspired by Milton's poetry and biography. By contrast, the early 20th century, owing to the critical efforts of T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, witnessed a reduction in Milton's stature.
Milton coined many words that are now familiar; in Paradise Lost readers were confronted by neologisms like dreary, pandæmonium, acclaim, rebuff, self-esteem, unaided, impassive, enslaved, jubilant, serried, solaced, and satanic.
In the political arena, Milton's Areopagitica and republican writings were consulted during the drafting of the Constitution of the United States of America. Also, the quotation from Areopagitica – "A good book is the precious lifeblood of a master spirit, embalmed and treasured up on purpose to a life beyond life" – is seen in many public libraries, including the New York Public Library.
The John Milton Society for the Blind was founded in 1928 by Helen Keller to develop an interdenominational ministry that would bring spiritual guidance and religious literature to deaf and blind persons.