On 9 December, 1608, in a house called The Spread Eagle on Bread Street in Cheapside, London, a curmudgeon named John Milton was born. This grumpy baby boy grew into a fiery young man with a harshly Puritan political vision. As an older man, he was left with a physical blindness, but with perhaps the most audaciously sweeping poetic vision in English Literature of 'things unattempted yet in Prose or Rhyme'1.
In about 1620, Milton began studying under Dr Gill at St. Paul's School in London. Apparently he was a very good student under a very good teacher; by the time he went up to Christ's College Cambridge in 1625 the young Milton was already composing very complex poetry in Latin. In 1632 Milton was granted the degree of Master of Arts. Within two years he was working as a poet to the nobility.
On the evening of 29 September, 1634, Comus, Milton's first extended work, was presented to a small public at Ludlow Castle with the children of the house taking on three of the principal roles. Comus is a masque, a type of dramatic presentation known only to specialists today. Masques in general involved ornate spectacle, similar to some productions of the works of Andrew Lloyd Webber, but with a stiff and formal presentation to an intimate audience. Milton's title for this work was simply A Mask; the modern title was given by John Dalton in 1738 when he published an adaptation of the piece for a larger stage. Sometimes Comus is considered too fluid and free to be truly considered a masque and is often referred to as a 'pastoral drama'.
Comus tells the story of a lady and her two brothers lost in the woods. The brothers leave the lady alone while they search for food. Comus, the late Roman god of revelry and debauchery, happens upon the lady and tries to convince her to join his band and become his consort. She is steadfast in her refusal and her brothers, with the help of an attendant spirit, attempt a rescue. The lady, however, is under a spell which is only broken with the help of Sabrina, the spirit of the Severn river.
In 1638, Milton published an elegy he had written the year before as a commemoration of the drowning death of Edward King, with whom Milton had been at Cambridge. Lycidas is one of the finest and most remarkable short poems in English. In it, Milton confronts the issues of the death of the good in youth and the survival of evil into age and through the ages. He finds consolation, if not solution, both in the Christian hope that justice will ultimately be served, and also in a humanistic belief that goodness and greatness continue on in the living. Milton presents the character of Lycidas, a beautiful shepherd boy who was first described by the Ancient Greek poet Theocritus and survived through appearances in works by the Roman poets Horace and Virgil, the English poet Spenser, and many others. Milton makes the daring decision to utter words shocking and unthinkable of such a timeless and immortal youth:
For Lycidas is dead, dead ere his prime,
young Lycidas, and hath not left his peer;
Who would not sing for Lycidas?
There could be no more powerful and shattering evocation of the sad mortality of this world, and yet, Milton ends the poem with a simple hopefulness:
Tomorrow to fresh Woods, and Pastures new.
The Italian Journey (May 1638-July 1639)and After
Like so many young Englishmen of the 17th and 18th century, Milton set off for a tour of the Continent after he finished his studies. Unlike others of his generation, Milton rushed the French leg of his tour, apparently anxious to reach Italy. Once there, he set a very leisurely pace. He stayed several months each in Florence and Rome and a full month in Venice, but his Italian journey never reached further south than Naples. Hearing news from England that civil war seemed to be brewing, he abandoned his plans for Sicily and Greece, making his way home by way of Geneva.
On his return from the Continent, Milton set about publishing a number of political pieces about religious reform in England, including Of Reformation in England, Of Prelatical Episcopacy, and Animadversions upon the Remonstrant's Defence Against SMECTYMNUUS, all in 1641. The Reason of Church-Government Urg'd against Prelaty published in 1642, is an argument in favour of a Puritan church structure in England. Milton wrote in response to a volume of Treatises, Certain Briefe Treatises by a number of theologians who urged that bishops have a major role in the English Church. Milton, in contrast, urged that control of the English Church rest with the 'presbyters and deacons'.
Hints of Paradise Lost
There is evidence that as early as 1640 Milton began planning the work that was to become his masterpiece, Paradise Lost. A manuscript kept at Trinity College, Cambridge (aptly called the 'Trinity Manuscript') contains draft copies of a number of Milton's short poems, including Lycidas. As well, there are four draft sketches of a dramatic production of Adam's Fall. The fourth draft is elaborate enough to begin to push the bounds of drama toward the limitless space of epic. After years of rolling in Milton's mind, the story finally would burst forth as the epic Paradise Lost.
Interestingly, the period of Milton's first marriage, which began in 1642, almost exactly coincides with the years of The English Civil War. The tumult of the times was reflected within the Milton household: Mary Powell, his new bride, moved home to her parents shortly after the wedding. The couple were not reconciled until 1645. Milton's first work published as a married man was a defence of divorce.
The Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce and More Political Writings
In The Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce, published August 1, 1643, Milton defends what he suggests is the Old Testament doctrine of divorce. He argues that (despite some apparent scriptural statements to the contrary) Christ nowhere in the New Testament outlaws the dissolution of marriages. Of Education, published in 1644 is a syllabus for the Christian education as Milton thinks it should be. Milton lays out the schedule of the student's day, prescribing the practical Latin and Greek authors which he thinks will supplement an intensive study of the Bible. He also includes physical education, particularly martial skills. He envisions a boarding school where 'ill habits' will not be acquired. In The Judgement of Martin Bucer concerning Divorce, 1644, Milton argued to Parliament:
...that the constitution and reformation of a Commonwealth, if Ezra and Nehemiah did not mis-reform, is, like a building, to begin orderly from the foundation thereof, which is Marriage and the Family, to set right first whatever is amiss therein. How can there else grow up a race of warrantable Men, while the house and home that breeds them, is troubled and disquieted under a bondage not of God's constraining with a natureless constraint (if his most righteous judgments may be our rule) but laid upon us imperiously in the worst and weakest Ages of Knowledge, by a canonical tyranny of stupid and malicious Monks: who having rashly vow'd themselves to a single Life, which they could not undergo, invented new Fetters to throw on Matrimony, that the World thereby waxing more dissolute, they also in a general looseness might sin with more favour.
Apparently Milton was having trouble at home.
Milton's Areopagitica, published Nov. 23, 1644 is a passionate plea to Parliament for freedom of the press in England. The title is an attempt to flatter Parliament by suggesting that it compares to the classically venerated law court of ancient Athens, the Areopagus.
Poems of Mr John Milton
In 1645 Milton published a collection of his poems, titled in a very logical manner, Poems of Mr John Milton. The collection contains a number of sonnets, including that now known as 'On His Blindness', although his blindness had not fully progressed by 1645. There is also the disturbingly-titled religious piece titled 'Upon the Circumcision', a celebration of the circumcision of Christ. 'L'Allegro' and 'Il Penseroso' are musical pastoral companion pieces of happiness and melancholy. The collection also includes Lycidas and Comus.
The Arrival of Children
Milton fathered four children: Anne, born 29 July, 1646; Mary, born 25 October, 1648; John, born 16 March, 1651; and Deborah, born 2 May, 1652. The three daughters were all apparently employed (without pay) as secretaries for their father. There are stories that, once he lost his sight, he had them read Latin works aloud to him, but he never taught them to understand what they were reading. But John Aubrey writes:
Hath two daughters living; Deborah was his amanuensis; he taught her Latin, and to read Greek to him when he lost his eyesight2...
More Political Writings
In 1649, Milton became Latin Secretary to Cromwell, the Lord Protector of the Commonwealth. In the same year, Milton published The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates, the work that at times brings the charge of regicide down upon his head. Milton's defence is not aided by the long subtitle of the work:
Proving that it is lawful, and hath been held so through all ages, for any, who have the power, to call to account a tyrant, or wicked king; and, after due conviction, to depose, and put him to death; if the ordinary magistrate have neglected, or denied to do it. and that they, who of late so much blame deposing, are the men that did it themselves.
Eikonoklastes, published in the same year, is a scathing response to a work purporting to be written by the deposed king, Charles I, before his execution. Milton's defence continued to find no help in his writings.
By 1652 Milton had completely lost his sight. He was now dependant entirely on his hired amanuenses, and, later, his daughters for his literary efforts.
Death of Mary and John
Milton's wife Mary died on 5 May, 1652 of all too common complications of childbirth. The baby, Deborah, survived, but John, jr., just one year old, died on the sixteenth of the next month.
A New Marriage
Whether he had a revived faith in the doctrine of marriage or had wearied of life as a blind single father to three young girls, after four years as a single parent, on 12 November, 1656, Milton married a new wife, Katherine Woodcock. Sadly, she too died in childbirth on February 3, 1658. The child did not survive.
Political Writings Yet Again
A Treatise of Civil Power in Ecclesiastical Causes published in 1659, is a defence of freedom of religion summed up by its subtitle: 'Showing that it is not lawful for any power on earth to compel in matters of religion.' Considerations Touching the Likeliest Means to Remove Hirelings out of the Church, published the same year, continues the defence of freedom of religion. Here Milton confronts the potential for coercion of a paid clergy. Milton argues that ministers should be freely elected out of a congregation by the congregation on the basis of 'their spiritual knowledge and sanctity of life.'
In The Ready and Easy Way to Establish a Free Commonwealth of 1660 Milton returns to civil politics. The Ready and Easy Way is a final attempt to prevent the restoration of the monarchy. The 'Way' of the title was nothing else than a free election of members to the Commonwealth Parliament who would be devoted to the Commonwealth. The coronation of Charles II came later the same year.
Arrest and Release
On 16 June of 1660, Parliament voted to arrest John Milton. The poet and former Secretary to Cromwell went into hiding until, on 15 December, 1660 Parliament voted to release Milton from the charge of the Sergeant at Arms.
A Newer Marriage
Milton married his third and final wife, Elizabeth Minshul, on February 24, 1663. Elizabeth survived long enough to become Milton's widow. This marriage, whatever may have occurred indoors, was uneventful to the outside world.
Plague and Retirement
In 1665, Milton retired in retreat from the threat of plague in London to a cottage in the Buckinghamshire village of Chalfont St Giles. This cottage is the only residence of John Milton that survives to this day. It is presently operated as an historic site by Milton's Cottage Trust. Thousands of tourists each year enjoy a privilege Milton never knew: they see Milton's Cottage. Milton resided in the cottage until 1666 and it was here that he did much of his work on Paradise Lost.
Paradise Lost (in Ten Books)
On 20 August, 1667, Milton published the initial version of his masterpiece, Paradise Lost. This epic poem in blank verse is the recounting of the story of the universe in detail from before its creation, through the war in Heaven between Satan and God, to the creation, temptation, and fall of Adam and Eve. To many readers Lucifer (Satan) appears to be the hero of the poem, which may seem odd in the product of such a devoutly Christian poet. Perhaps, however, Lucifer is attractive to us because we are all fallen humanity; in Adam we have succumbed to Lucifer before and it is a master stroke of Milton's to have us fall for him again in Paradise Lost.
Paradise Lost is perhaps the greatest epic poem in any modern language, certainly comparing favourably with The Divine Comedy of Dante, for example.
The History of Britain
In 1670 Milton published a history of his country from its foggy roots to the Norman Conquest. Overshadowed by his poetic History of the Universe (Paradise Lost), his History of Britain was little-read in his time and is unread in ours.
Paradise Regain'd, published in 1671, is an epic poem in four books recounting Satan's Temptation of Christ in the Wilderness. While shorter, the poem is less accessible to modern audiences than is Paradise Lost. Paradise Regain'd is a poem of discussion, not action: There is little in it to divert the modern mind accustomed to action over substance.
Also published in 1671, Samson Agonistes is another attempt by Milton to fuse a classical form to a Biblical theme. In this case, Milton chose the form of a Greek tragedy - a drama, to present the story of the Hebrew hero Samson during his dark, blinded imprisonment prior to his suicide attack in the Temple of the Philistines. The parallel between the blind poet and the blinded hero could not have been lost on Milton. Surely, like Samson, Milton knew himself to be nearing the end of his life, and, also like Samson, Milton found his old enemy in power over him. The play closely follows the ideals of tragedy as laid out by Aristotle: the action takes place in a single day and in a single place; Samson's prison cell on the day of his death. The destruction of the Temple, of Samson, and of his enemies occurs out of sight of the audience; the news is brought to them by a messenger.
Paradise Lost (in Twelve Books)
In 1674 Milton published a reorganised version of Paradise Lost in twelve books. This reorganisation, which involved only a little new material, brought the structure of the poem more into line with Classical Epic's standard of books in multiples of twelve.3.
Milton died on 8 November, 1674. His monumental The Christian Doctrine, written in Latin, was published posthumously.