John Milton (December 9, 1608 – November 8, 1674) was an English poet, pamphleteer, and, most enduringly, author of what is widely considered the greatest epic poem in the English language, Paradise Lost (1667). An outspoken defender of religious and civil rights, Milton also published influential tracts supporting the overthrow of Charles I and the establishment of the Puritan-influenced English Commonwealth.
Composed by dictation after Milton became blind, Paradise Lost relates the story of the biblical Fall of Man: It begins with the story of the archangel Lucifer's rebellion in Heaven, his defeat at the hands of God, and his imprisonment (along with his fellow fallen angels) in Hell, where he becomes Satan the fiery prince of demons. The poem goes on to depict the temptation of Adam and Eve, and their expulsion from the Garden of Eden, all the while defending theological positions on predestination, free will, and engaging with political ideas of tyranny, liberty and justice.
Significantly, the central role of lust and seduction is evident in the action of the fall. Satan laments that in hell "there is neither joy nor love, but fierce desire," an allusion to his sexual frustration. Though given to grandiose, cosmic justifications for his despicable behavior, Satan's true motivation for escaping hell and perverting paradise is, at least partly, basic human lust, burning with perverted intensity.
A defender of the Puritanism, Milton published a series of pamphlets critical of the Church of England and, later, in support of the execution of Charles I, in which he argued that the citizenry have the right to depose and punish tyrants. After the English Civil War Milton served in Parliament during the Commonwealth government headed by Oliver Cromwell. Though morally austere, Milton took some unconventional stands in conflict with Puritan values. In "The Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce" (1643), composed after his young wife had deserted him, Milton scandalized English society by arguing that the chaste were more likely to find themselves "chained unnaturally together" in unhappy marriages than those who had had a more experienced youth.
Milton is considered one of the most learned of English poets, having a fluent command of Latin, Greek, Hebrew, and Old English. The influences of these ancient languages infused Milton's poetry with a unique (and sometimes frustratingly complicated) syntax. Although Milton's poetry is sometimes derided for being too difficult and arid—T.S. Eliot claimed that Milton's earlier sensuousness had been "withered by book-learning"—the poet's enormous influence on English verse cannot be underestimated. Hundreds of years after his death it is Milton, not Shakespeare, who is considered the quintessential poet of England. To this day, any poet writing in English who attempts the epic genre must contend with the voice of Milton.
John Milton's eponymous father (c. 1562 – 1647) moved to London around 1583, having been disinherited by his devout Catholic father, Richard Milton, a wealthy landowner in Oxfordshire, after revealing his Protestant faith. Around 1600, the poet's father married Sara Jeffrey (1572 – 1637). Milton was born in London on December 9, 1608.
Milton was educated at St Paul's School, London. He was originally destined for a ministerial career, but his independent spirit led him to give this up. He matriculated at Christ's College, Cambridge, in 1625 and studied there for seven years before he graduated with a Master of Arts cum laude on July 3, 1632. At Cambridge, Milton tutored the American theologian Roger Williams in Hebrew, in exchange for lessons in Dutch. There is evidence to suggest that Milton’s experiences at Cambridge were not altogether positive and were later to contribute to his views on education. Milton found the university system's focus on scholastic logic arid and too disconnected from human concerns. Upon graduating from Christ's College, Milton undertook six years of self-directed private study in both the ancient and modern disciplines of theology, philosophy, history, politics, literature and science, in preparation for his prospective poetical career. As a result of such intensive study, Milton is considered among the most learned of all English poets. In a Latin poem, possibly composed in the mid-1630s, Milton thanks his father for supporting him during this period.
After completing this private study in early 1638, Milton embarked on a tour of France and Italy in May of the same year, meeting with the Italian astronomer Galileo Galilei during his journeys. His trip was cut short after 13 months by what he later termed "sad tidings" of civil war in England. In June 1642, at age 33, Milton married 16-year-old Mary Powell. A month later, she visited her family and did not return for several years, causing Milton great distress. He attempted to divorce her, but when she did return the couple lived together happily, bearing four children, until Mary's death, May 5, 1652, from complications only days following the birth of their fourth child.
In the early 1640s, after returning to England, Milton began to work as a tutor and dreamed of writing an epic Arthurian romance. His dreams would be sidetracked, however, by his sympathy toward the Puritan and Republican causes and his growing distaste for King Charles I. He would spend almost all of his energy over the next twenty years as a pamphleteer and political activist. The choice to lead a political career was very difficult for Milton, who all throughout continued to dream of a life of poetry and the arts, even as he embarked "in a troubled sea of noises and hoarse disputes" to do what he felt bound to do for the sake of his moral responsibility.
On February 13, 1649, King Charles I was beheaded by order of Parliament. Within months, Milton was invited by Oliver Cromwell to become Secretary of Foreign Languages in the Commonwealth's new Council of State. During this time Milton continued to publish pamphlets refuting the criticisms of royalists. The most famous of these, perhaps, was a small pamphlet entitled Eikonoklastes, written in response to the royalist pamphlet Eikon Basilike that had been compiled from the King's own papers. In 1651, Milton's eyesight, which had been declining throughout his life, failed him completely; the great poet would spend the rest of his life completely blind.
Unfortunately, Milton's efforts supporting the Commonwealth were to prove fruitless. In 1660 after Cromwell's son had stepped down as Lord Protector, a confused and divided Parliament would vote to restore Charles' son, King Charles II, to the throne. Milton lamented the English people "now choosing them a captain back for Egypt," but could do nothing.
As soon as Charles II re-assumed power, his Restoration government swiftly executed almost all of the Commonwealth's leading dignitaries. Milton was in serious danger, and in the summer of 1660 a warrant was issued for his arrest. He went immediately into hiding and, although eligible for a pardon under the Act of Oblivion, was arrested in December. Thanks to the intercession of Milton's friends, notably the poet Andrew Marvell who had been elected to a seat in Parliament and spoke on Milton's behalf during his trial, he was spared almost certain execution.
Milton would spend his remaining years, despite being old, blind, impoverished, and completely forgotten, composing some of the greatest poems of his age. In 1667, he published Paradise Lost, to which he sold the publishing rights for a mere ten pounds. It immediately became one of the best-selling works ever written in English. Milton became wildly popular despite being associated with the failed revolution, and he continued to write, publishing a sequel to his epic, Paradise Regained, in 1670, and a final epic modeled on the Bible called Samson Agonistes in 1671. Milton fell ill after the intense stress he had put on himself while composing his epics, and died in 1674.
From politics to poetry
As a writer, Milton spent his early years devoted almost entirely to prose work in the service of the Puritan and Parliamentary cause. His collected prose is over four times the size of his collected poetry. These works, notably Of Education and Eikonoklastes, are not particularly noteworthy examples of English prose style; but they serve as an invaluable introduction to the evolution of Milton's thought, both as a poet and as a political activist. In general, as a young man Milton was an emotional poet and thinker, who, disillusioned by the failure of the Commonwealth, eventually gravitated towards more idealistic and mystical attitudes.
While studying at Cambridge, Milton was strongly drawn to the sensual poetry of Ovid and the Roman lyrical poets. Their influence is evident in Milton's early poetry—most of which, coincidentally, was written in Latin—which has a lush, rhymed, evocative style. Milton's first major poem, On The Morning of Christ's Nativity, written while at Cambridge at age 21, is one of the finest examples of this early style. The poem, with its overtly religious subject matter, also reflects Milton's attitudes towards education, which he felt needed to re-emphasize religious studies in addition to scholasticism:
- Say, Heavenly Muse, shall not thy sacred vein
- Afford a present to the Infant God?
- Hast thou no verse, no hymn, or solemn strain,
- To welcome Him to this His new abode,
- Now while the Heaven, by the sun's team untrod,
- Hath took no print of the approaching light,
- And all the spangled host keep watch in squadrons bright?
- See how from far upon the eastern road
- The star-led wizards haste with odours sweet:
- O run, prevent them with thy humble ode,
- And lay it lowly at His blessed feet;
- Have thou the honour first thy Lord to greet,
- And join thy voice unto the Angel choir,
- From out his secret altar touched with hallowed fire.
Milton's middle period as a poet began in the years after his graduation from Cambridge but before his work in the revolution. He spent these years mostly at his father's home and abroad, voraciously reading in order to obtain the humanitarian education he felt he had not received from the university system. During this time Milton learned Italian and was influenced by the poetry of Petrarch and Dante. Attracted by the musicality and inventiveness of the Italian masters, Milton began writing poems, which in contrast to his late great epics in unrhymed blank verse, are surprisingly song-like and refreshingly easy to read.
The greatest work of this period is, without a doubt, the short elegy “Lycidas,” written by Milton in memory of his friend Edward King who had drowned at sea. Like all of Milton's works, it is influenced strongly by his extensive knowledge of ancient poetry. "Lycidas" is a name that was often used in the pastoral poems of ancient Rome to indicate an innocent shepherd, a sort of stock character, who in this case stands in for Edward King. It is the first Miltonian poem to explicitly take up the issue which would form the center of Milton's oeuvre: the problem of the existence of evil in a world, which Milton believed was fundamentally good. In the poem, Milton wrestles with death—not only that of his friend, but the possibility of his own. How, the narrator in “Lycidas” seems to ask, can life be justified if, like Edward King, one is killed before having time to accomplish whatever great work might be within one's power? Although Milton struggles mightily with these issues, he concludes the poem with a vision of Lycidas lifted off to heaven, ending on a note of ecstatic and almost mystical revelation that would only become more prominent in his later works:
- Weep no more, woful Shepherds weep no more,
- For Lycidas your sorrow is not dead,
- Sunk though he be beneath the watry floar,
- So sinks the day-star in the Ocean bed,
- And yet anon repairs his drooping head,
- And tricks his beams, and with new spangled Ore,
- Flames in the forehead of the morning sky:
- So Lycidas sunk low, but mounted high,
- Through the dear might of him that walk'd the waves
- Where other groves, and other streams along,
- With Nectar pure his oozy Lock's he laves,
- And hears the unexpressive nuptiall Song,
- In the blest Kingdoms meek of joy and love.
Milton penned Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained through dictation because of his blindness. This required him to store vast portions of the poems in his memory for oral recitation—all the more remarkable considering how much planning such complex works would require, even on paper. Some critics have argued that this may account for the bizarre and occasionally torturous sentences that Milton uses, though most do not doubt that, despite his blindness, Milton was in full command of his poetic faculties while writing these epics.
The unparalleled scope of Paradise Lost, his masterpiece, sees Milton famously "justifying the ways of God to men." The twelve-book poem is a retelling of the story of Genesis, beginning with the story of the archangel Lucifer's rebellion in Heaven, his defeat at the hands of God, and his imprisonment (along with his fellow fallen angels) in Hell, where he becomes the fiery prince of demons, Satan. The poem also depicts the creation of the universe, earth, and humanity; conveys the origin of sin, death, and evil; imagines events in Hell, the Kingdom of Heaven, the garden of Eden, and the sacred history of Israel; engages with political ideas of tyranny, liberty and justice; and defends theological positions on predestination, free will, and salvation.
Significantly, the central role of lust and seduction is evident in the action of the fall. Satan's role as a seducer of Eve and Adam is asserted throughout the poem, and Satan laments that in hell "there is neither joy nor love, but fierce desire," an allusion to his sexual frustration. According to critic Clay Daniel, "Satan resembles fallen humanity in that though he gives grandiose, cosmic reasons for his despicable behavior, his true motivation for escaping hell and perverting paradise is, at least partly, something more basic: Satan needs sex. An embodiment of perverted creativity in the cosmos he may be. But on a more down-to-earth level, Satan is a living picture of a being aflame with bestial burning." In earlier works such as "On the Death of a Fair Infant Dying of a Cough," Lycidas, and Samson Agonistes, Milton even equates lust with a kind of spiritual death.
In the poem Milton celebrates original wedded sexual union as a solemn, holy rite. Before consummating their love Adam and Eve give praise and thanks to God; Eve decorates their bed and "heavenly Choirs" celebrate the sanctity of the union. Infused with reverence and spirituality, lovemaking is "chaste," "true," "blest," and "pure" (the word appears four times in a space of less than twenty lines). Two scenes in the poem describe Adam and Eve making love and then peacefully falling asleep in a tender embrace.
In contrast, following their transgression Adam and Eve do not pray to God before coming together, and the act is suffused with carnal imagery and hunger, recalling the desire kindled by the forbidden fruit. "Taste," "savor," "relish, and having "thir fill of Love" displace humble reverence for God in sexual congress. Instead of solemnity, sex becomes sport, a "dalliance," "disport," and "amorous play." Instead of reverent humility, Adam arrogantly wishes there were ten more forbidden trees should they all bear fruit as pleasurable.
Milton's view of sin is largely orthodox. The notion of a "fall," or original sin as a hereditary taint is an explicitly Christian notion first advanced by Saint Paul in explaining the redemptive role of Christ, the sinless "last Adam." Augustine in the fourth century and Luther and Calvin at the time of the Protestant Reformation further emphasized the depravity that resulted from original sin and the hereditary transmission of sin through procreation. Although among modern Christians the prevalent view of the fall emphasizes Adam and Eve's disobedience while downplaying the nature of the sin by which they disobeyed, biblical scholars recognize at the root of the biblical narrative an ancient attack against idolatrous sexual rites.
Paradise Lost, like Dante's Divine Comedy, is notable because it draws together a number of thoughts on spirituality and the afterlife which, though not strictly biblical, have become commonplaces for most systems of belief. In the epic verses of Dante and Milton one finds the expression, beautifully rendered, of the multiple circles of Hell and stages of Heaven, of Satan as a prince of the angels who is ultimately cast down as a prince of the devils, and, unique to Milton, a Puritan reading of the Book of Genesis that presents intriguing views on predestination and the existence of evil in a good world.
In addition to this, the poem is also fascinating for its rhetorical and poetical technique. What makes Paradise Lost so influential and enduringly popular—more so perhaps than any other canonical epic poem—is that its characters are eminently majestic and sympathetic. Critics have noted Milton's unusually empathetic depiction of Satan and made subsequent observations that "villainy" is often more dramatically interesting than "virtue." William Blake, a great admirer of Milton and illustrator of the epic poem, said of Milton that "he was a true Poet, and of the Devil's party without knowing it."
Paradise Lost borrows the Shakespearian techniques of soliloquy and interior monologue, of psychological drama, and applies them to the ancient figures of the Old and New Testaments. Here, in Milton, we find the character of Satan lamenting his own imprisonment in Hell, and yet still daring and dreaming wildly of his own possible victory, refusing, to the bitter end, to ever give in or surrender. We find a villain who is not simply one of Homer or Virgil's cardboard cut-outs, but a character of such depth and personality that we not only listen to him but are beguiled by his words and plight:
- Is this the Region, this the Soil, the Clime,
- Said then the lost Arch Angel, this the seat
- That we must change for Heav'n, this mournful gloom
- For that celestial light? Be it so, since hee
- Who now is Sovran can dispose and bid
- What shall be right: fardest from him is best
- Whom reason hath equald, force hath made supream
- Above his equals. Farewel happy Fields
- Where Joy for ever dwells: Hail horrours, hail
- Infernal world, and thou profoundest Hell
- Receive thy new Possessor: One who brings
- A mind not to be chang'd by Place or Time.
- The mind is its own place, and in it self
- Can make a Heav'n of Hell, a Hell of Heav'n.
- What matter where, if I be still the same,
- And what I should be, all but less then hee
- Whom Thunder hath made greater? Here at least
- We shall be free; th' Almighty hath not built
- Here for his envy, will not drive us hence:
- Here we may reign secure, and in my choyce
- To reign is worth ambition though in Hell:
- Better to reign in Hell, then serve in Heav'n.
Milton invigorates all the figures of the Bible — from Adam and Eve to Moloch and Beelzebub, from God and Christ to Gabriel and Uriel—with the same vitality through his masterful sense of drama and character. Still, it is the character of Lucifer who would, despite Milton's intentions, become his most enduring creation and exert the greatest literary influence.
Paradise Lost is also notable for its technical aspects. In a preface to the poem, Milton wrote an a "defense" for his insistence on writing his poem in unrhymed iambic pentameter, which he called "blank verse," a form that had fallen out of favor since the time of Shakespeare and the Jacobean playwrights such as Ben Jonson. Milton himself wrote that he felt that these earlier poetic traditions, which can trace their roots well into the medieval period of English literature, were more compelling than the largely European-influenced poetry of flowery rhyme and rhythm that had become popular in his age (and would continue to be the dominant form of English poetry for another two hundred years).
Style and Legacy
Milton's choice of style for his late epics is curious, especially considering his earlier admiration for and imitation of Petrarch, Dante, and Ovid. Yet, as an old man, Milton turned towards a densely philosophical style of writing, influenced by the dialogues of Plato which in his later life he turned to almost to the exclusion of everything else, with the notable exception of the Book of Revelations, which the aged Milton prized as the highest achievement in all of literature. Milton's late, "grand style" which found its full expression in Paradise Lost and its sequel Paradise Regained, is clearly influenced by the language of the Bible, and particularly Revelations and the Psalms, both of which Milton could read, before his blindness, in the original. The epic shape of his late poems, and their concern with a concept as grand as the existence of good and evil, is clearly also influenced by his extensive reading of idealist philosophy.
Milton's style and subject matter would have an immense influence on succeeding generations of poets. Among his immediate contemporaries, Lady Hutchinson would publish an epic on the subject of good and evil explicitly modeled on Milton entitled Order and Disorder in 1679; and the noted poet John Dryden would publish a libretto, The State of Innocence and the Fall of Man, in 1677. Paradise Lost and its immediate successors would themselves become some of the most widely read works of English literature well into the Romantic period, and Milton's influence on the Romantics, particularly on Percy and Mary Shelley and John Keats, is notable even more than a hundred years after his death.
Keats regarded Milton's style as a "beautiful and grand curiosity," echoing the reaction that many readers would have as the excitement over Milton's poetry distilled into serious contemplation. The Victorians of the late nineteenth century, particularly George Eliot and Thomas Hardy, would continue to hold Milton in high esteem; but by the early twentieth century a critical backlash against Milton moved into full swing. Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot, two of the most prominent poets of modernism, would point out that despite his undeniable gifts, Milton would sometimes write sentences so convoluted as to be indecipherable. A famous example, quoted by Eliot in an essay on Milton, is drawn from Book V of Paradise Lost, in a long speech from Satan where either an adjective or a verb is pushed to the end of nearly every line:
- Thrones, Dominations, Princedoms, Virtues, Powers,
- If these magnific Titles yet remain
- Not merely titular, since by Decree
- Another now hath to himself ingross’t
- All Power, and us eclipst under the name
- Of King anointed, for whom all this haste
- Of midnight march, and hurried meeting here,
- This only to consult how we may best
- With what may be devis’d of honors new
- Receive him coming to receive from us
- Knee-tribute yet unpaid, prostration vile,
- Too much to one, but double how endur’d,
- To one and to his image now proclaim’d?
The reader, Eliot argues, has no idea a question is even being asked until bumping into the question mark. However, if one can forgive Milton his occasionally incomprehensible syntax, there is little doubt that he is a remarkable poet whose legacy has affected not only poetry, but the English language itself. Words which Milton coined in his epics that have found their way into the language include: dreary, pandæmonium, acclaim, rebuff, self-esteem, unaided, impassive, enslaved, jubilant, serried, solaced, and satanic.
More recently, there has been renewed interest in the poet's greatest work following the publication of Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy, which is heavily based on Paradise Lost.
- Il Penseroso (1633)
- Comus (1634)
- Lycidas (1638)
- Of Reformation (1641)
- Of Prelatical Episcopacy (1641)
- Animadversions (1641)
- The Reason for Church Government (1642)
- Apology for Smectymnuus (1642)
- Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce (1643)
- Of Education (1644)
- Judgement of Martin Bucer Concerning Divorce (1644)
- Areopagitica (1644)
- Tetrachordon (1645)
- Colasterion (1645)
- L'Allegro (1645)
- Poems of Mr John Milton, Both English and Latin (1645)
- The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates (1649)
- Eikonoklastes (1649)
- Defensio pro Populo Anglicano (1651)
- Defensio Seconda (1654)
- A treatise of Civil Power (1659)
- The Likeliest Means to Remove Hirelings from the Church (1659)
- Ready and Easy Way to Establish a Free Commonwealth (1659)
- Brief Notes Upon a Late Sermon (1660)
- Paradise Lost (1667)
- Accedence Commenced Grammar (1669)
- History of Britain (1670)
- Samson Agonistes (1671)
- Paradise Regained (1671)
- Art of Logic (1672)
- Of True Religion (1673)
- Poems, &c, Upon Several Occasions (1673)
- Epistolae Familiaries (1674)
- Prolusiones (1674)
ReferencesISBN links support NWE through referral fees
- Daniel, Clay. Death in Literature. Lewisburg, PA: Bucknell University Press, 1994. ISBN 0838752489
- Jokinen, Anniina "Sentence et solas: Joy and Sensuality in Paradise Lost Before and After the Fall"  Retrieved March 8 2008
All links retrieved May 21, 2018.
- The John Milton Reading Room – online collection of all of Milton's poetry and selections of his prose
- "The masque in Milton's Arcades and Comus" samizdat.
- Milton links luminarium.org
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