John Milton, 1608–1674

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Biographical note

Poet, was born 9th December 1608 in Bread Street, London. His father, also John, was the son of a yeoman of Oxfordshire, who cast him off on his becoming a Protestant. He had then become a scrivener in London, and grew to be a man of good estate. From him his illustrious son inherited his lofty integrity, and his love of, and proficiency in, music. Milton received his first education from a Scotch friend of his father’s, Thomas Young, a Puritan of some note, one of the writers of Smectymnuus. Thereafter he was at St. Paul’s School, and in 1625 went to Christ’s College, Cambridge, where for his beauty and his delicacy of mind he was nicknamed “the lady.” His sister Anne had married Edward Phillips, and the death of her first child in infancy gave to him the subject of his earliest poem, On the death of a Fair Infant [1626]. It was followed during his 7 years’ life at the University, along with others, by the poems, On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity [1629], On the Circumcision, The Passion, Time, At a Solemn Music, On May Morning, and On Shakespeare, all in 1630; and two sonnets, To the Nightingale and On arriving at the Age of Twenty-three, in 1631.

In 1632, having given up the idea of entering the Church, for which his father had intended him, he lived for 6 years at Horton, near Windsor, to which the latter had retired, devoted to further study. Here he wrote L’Allegro and Il Penseroso in 1632, Arcades [1633], Comus in 1634, and Lycidas in 1637. The first celebrates the pleasures of a life of cheerful innocence, and the second of contemplative, though not gloomy, retirement, and the last is a lament for a lost friend, Edward King, who perished at sea. Arcades and Comus are masques set to music by Henry Lawes, having for their motives respectively family affection and maiden purity. Had he written nothing else these would have given him a place among the immortals. In 1638 he completed his education by a period of travel in France and Italy, where he visited Grotius at Paris, and Galileo at Florence. The news of impending troubles in Church and State brought him home the following year, and with his return may be said to close the first of three well-marked divisions into which his life falls. These may be called (1) the period of preparation and of the early poems; (2) the period of controversy, and of the prose writings; and (3) the period of retirement and of the later poems.

Soon after his return Milton settled in London, and employed himself in teaching his nephews, Edward and John Phillips, turning over in his mind at the same time various subjects as the possible theme for the great poem which, as the chief object of his life, he looked forward to writing. But he was soon to be called away to far other matters, and to be plunged into the controversies and practical business which were to absorb his energies for the next 20 years. The works of this period fall into three classes — (1) those directed against Episcopacy, including Reformation of Church Discipline in England [1641], and his answers to the writings of Bishop Hall, and in defence of Smectymnuus; (2) those relating to divorce, including The Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce [1643], and The Four Chief Places of Scripture which treat of Marriage [1645]; and (3) those on political and miscellaneous questions, including the Tractate on Education [1644], Areopagitica [1644], A Speech for the Liberty of Unlicensed Printing (his greatest prose work), Eikonoklastes, an answer to the Eikon Basiliké of Dr. Gauden, The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates [1649], in defence of the execution of Charles I., which led to the furious controversy with Salmasius, the writing of Pro Populo Anglicano Defensio [1650], the second Defensio [1654], which carried his name over Europe, and The Ready and Easy Way to establish a Free Commonwealth, written on the eve of the Restoration.

In 1643 Milton had married Mary Powell, the daughter of an Oxfordshire cavalier, a girl of 17, who soon found her new life as the companion of an austere poet, absorbed in severe study, too abrupt a change from the gay society to which she had been accustomed, and in a month returned to her father’s house on a visit. When the time fixed for rejoining her husband arrived, she showed no disposition to do so, upon which he began to aim at a divorce, and to advocate in the works above mentioned “unfitness and contrariety of mind” as a valid ground for it, views which incurred for him much notoriety and unpopularity. A reconciliation, however, followed in 1645, and three daughter were born of the marriage.

In 1649 the reputation of Milton as a Latinist led to his appointment as Latin or Foreign Sec. to the Council of State, in the duties of which he was, after his sight began to fail, assisted by A. Marvell and others, and which he retained until the Restoration. In 1652 his wife died, and four years later he entered into a second marriage with Katharine Woodcock, who died in child-birth in the following year. To her memory he dedicated one of the most touching of his sonnets. At the Restoration he was, of course, deprived of his office, and had to go into hiding; but on the intercession of Marvell, and perhaps Davenant, his name was included in the amnesty. In 1663, being now totally blind and somewhat helpless, he asked his friend Dr. Paget to recommend a wife for him. The lady chosen was Elizabeth Minshull, aged 25, who appears to have given him domestic happiness in his last years. She survived him for 53 years. The Restoration closed his second, and introduced his third, and for his fame, most productive period.

He was now free to devote his whole powers to the great work which he had so long contemplated. For some time he had been in doubt as to the subject, had considered the Arthurian legends, but had decided upon the Fall of Man. The result was Paradise Lost, which was begun in 1658, finished in 1664, and published in 1667. A remark of his friend, Thomas Ellwood, suggested to him the writing of Paradise Regained, which, along with Samson Agonistes, was published in 1671. Two years before he had printed a History of Britain, written long before, which, however, is of little value. The work of Milton was now done. In addition to his blindness he suffered from gout, to which it was partly attributable, and, his strength gradually failing, but with mind unimpaired and serene, he died peacefully on November 8, 1674.

In Milton the influences of the Renaissance and of Puritanism met. To the former he owed his wide culture and his profound love of everything noble and beautiful, to the latter his lofty and austere character, and both these elements meet in his writings. Leaving Shakespeare out of account, he holds an indisputable place at the head of English poets. For strength of imagination, delicate accuracy and suggestiveness of language, and harmony of versification, he is unrivalled, and almost unapproached; and when the difficulties inherent in the subject of his great masterpiece are considered, the power he shows in dealing with them appears almost miraculous, and we feel that in those parts where he has failed, success was impossible for a mortal. In his use of blank verse he has, for majesty, variety, and music, never been approached by any of his successors. He had no dramatic power and no humour. In everything he wrote, a proud and commanding genius manifests itself, and he is one of those writers who inspire reverence rather than affection. His personal appearance in early life has been thus described, “He was a little under middle height, slender, but erect, vigorous, and agile, with light brown hair clustering about his fair and oval face, with dark grey eyes.”

[From A Short Biographical Dictionary of English Literature by John W. Cousin, 1910]

Works

  • On the death of a Fair Infant [1626]
  • On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity [1629]
  • On the Circumcision [1630]
  • The Passion [1630]
  • Time [1630]
  • At a Solemn Music [1630]
  • On May Morning [1630]
  • On Shakespeare [1630]
  • To the Nightingale [1631]
  • On arriving at the Age of Twenty-three [1631]
  • L’Allegro [1632]
  • Il Penseroso [1632]
  • Arcades [1633]
  • Comus [1634]
  • Lycidas [1637]
  • Eikonoklastes [1649]
  • Paradise Lost [1667]
  • Paradise Regained [1671]
  • Samson Agonistes [1671]

Prose works

  • 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 / edited with introduction and notes by William Talbot Allison [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 Readie and Easie Way to Establish a Free Commonwealth [1660]
  • Brief Notes Upon a Late Sermon (1660)
  • Accedence Commenced Grammar (1669)
  • History of Britain (1670)
  • Artis logicae plenior institutio [Art of Logic] (1672)
  • Of True Religion (1673)
  • Epistolae Familiaries (1674)
  • Prolusiones (1674)
  • A brief History of Moscovia, and other less known Countries lying Eastward of Russia as far as Cathay, gathered from the writings of several Eye-witnesses (1682)
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