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Learn about the life and work of John Milton, the great English poet in this new Do You Know episode form English Plus Podcast.
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John Milton was an English poet, whose rich, dense verse was a powerful influence on succeeding English poets, and whose prose was devoted to the defense of civil and religious liberty. Milton is often considered the greatest English poet after Shakespeare. His masterpiece, Paradise Lost, is considered unsurpassed among English epic poems. It is a powerfully imaginative and dramatic work, based in part on the biblical story of the temptation and fall of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden.
Milton was born in London on December 9, 1608, and educated at Saint Paul’s School and Christ’s College, University of Cambridge. He intended to become a clergyman in the Church of England, but growing dissatisfaction with the state of the Anglican clergy together with his own developing poetic interests led him to abandon this purpose. From 1632 to 1638 he lived in his father’s country home in Horton, Buckinghamshire, preparing himself for a career of scholarship and literary creativity by embarking upon an ambitious program of reading the Latin and Greek classics and ecclesiastical and political history. In 1638 and 1639 he toured France and Italy, where he met the leading literary figures of the day. On his return to England, he settled in London and began tutoring schoolboys and writing a series of social, religious, and political tracts.
In 1642 Milton married Mary Powell; he was 33 years old, and she was 16. She returned to her family after a few weeks because of the incompatibility of their temperaments and was not reconciled with her husband until 1645. Before her death in 1652, she gave birth to three daughters and a son; the son died a month after his mother. Toward the end of 1656 Milton married Katherine Woodcock, who died early in 1658, shortly after giving birth to a daughter who lived only a few months. He married a third time, to Elizabeth Minshull, in 1663.
In his writings, Milton supported the parliamentary cause in England’s civil war between Parliamentarians and Royalists, and in 1649 he was appointed Latin secretary in the government of Oliver Cromwell. While in this post he wrote several tracts in Latin defending the Commonwealth government against foreign criticism for having executed the king. He became totally blind about 1652 and thereafter carried on his literary work helped by an assistant. With the aid also of the poet Andrew Marvell, he fulfilled his government duties until the restoration of Charles II in 1660. With the Restoration of the monarchy, Milton was punished for his support of Parliament by a fine and a short term of imprisonment. Until his death on November 8, 1674, he lived in seclusion with his third wife.
Of the poet’s personality, memoirs written by Milton’s contemporaries indicate that his was a singular blend of grace and sweetness and of force and severity amounting almost to harshness. In some of his own writing he reveals his arrogance and bitterness. Although isolated and embittered by blindness, he fulfilled the tasks he had set himself, lightening his dark days with music and conversation.
John Milton’s work is marked by cosmic themes and lofty religious idealism; it reveals an astonishing breadth of learning and command of the Greek, Latin, and Hebrew classics. His blank verse is of remarkable variety and richness, so skillfully modulated and flexible that it has been compared to organ tones.
Milton’s career as a writer may be divided into three periods. The first, from 1625 to 1640, was the period of such early works as the poems written while he was still at Cambridge, the ode “On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity” (1629), the sonnet “On Shakespeare” (1630), “L’Allegro” and “Il Penseroso” (both probably 1631), “On Time” (1632?), “At a Solemn Musick” (1632-1633?), the masques Arcades (1632-1634?) and Comus (1634), and the elegy Lycidas (1637). “L’Allegro” and “Il Penseroso” are companion poems that contrast the temperaments of the cheerful, active person and the melancholy, reflective person. Comus is a masque, or dramatic entertainment, that deals with the magical powers by which chastity is enabled to withstand temptation. Lycidas is a pastoral elegy written in memory of Milton’s friend Edward King, who died in 1637.
Milton’s second period, from 1640 to 1660, was devoted chiefly to the writing of the prose tracts that established him as the ablest pamphleteer of his time. In the first group of pamphlets, Milton attacked the institution of bishops and argued in favor of extending the spirit of the English Reformation. The first published of this group was Of Reformation Touching Church Discipline in England (1641); the one most deeply pondered and elaborately reasoned was The Reason of Church Government Urged Against Prelaty (1641-1642), in which he denounced the “impertinent yoke of prelaty [high-ranking clergy], under whose inquisitorious and tyrannical duncery no free and splendid wit can flourish.” This pamphlet also contains an important digression in which Milton tells of his own early life, education, and ambitions.
The second phase of Milton’s devotion to social and political concerns yielded, among others, The Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce (1643), in which he argued that since marriage was instituted for intellectual as well as physical companionship, divorce should be granted for incompatibility. It was inspired by his unhappy first marriage. This phase also produced his most famous prose work, Areopagitica (1644), an impassioned plea for freedom of the press in which Milton demands “the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties.” In Of Education (1644) Milton advocated an education combining classical instruction, to prepare the student for government service, with religious training.
The third group of pamphlets includes those Milton wrote to justify the execution of Charles I. The first of these, The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates (1649), deals with constitutional questions and particularly with the rights of the people against tyrants. In the final group of tracts, including A Treatise of Civil Power in Ecclesiastical Causes (1659), Milton gave practical suggestions for government reform and argued against a professional clergy and in favor of allowing people to interpret the Bible according to their own conscience.
Epic Poems and Sonnets
During his years as a prose writer and government servant, Milton composed part of his great epic poem Paradise Lost and 17 sonnets, among which are some of the most notable in the English language. These sonnets include “On His Blindness” (1652?-1655), which reveals the consolation he found in religious faith, and “On His Deceased Wife” (1658), written as a tribute to his second wife. The apogee of Milton’s poetic career was reached in his third period, from 1660 to 1674, during which he completed Paradise Lost (1667) and composed the companion epic Paradise Regained (1671) and the poetic drama Samson Agonistes (1671).
Paradise Lost is considered Milton’s masterpiece and one of the greatest poems in world literature. It is written in 12 books that vividly tell the story of Satan’s rebellion against God and his tempting of Adam and Eve to eat the forbidden fruit of the tree of knowledge. The poet’s announced aim was to “justify the ways of God to men,” although Satan holds center stage in the first four books and for many readers emerges as the most interesting figure in the poem. But Satan’s heroism, which is genuine within its limits, serves finally to set off the greater heroism of Christ and Adam. The last part of the poem systematically degrades Satan, and it is precisely because Adam does not react to his fall as Satan does to his that the Fall can be thought of as fortunate.
Paradise Lost was written with soaring imagination and far-ranging intellectual grasp in Milton’s most forceful and exalted style. It is richly ornamented with references to classical mythology and literature, echoes of the Bible, figures of speech, metrical devices, allegorical representations, puns, and concealed rhymes. The tone is lofty and dignified as befits an epic. Among the finest passages of the poem are Satan’s first defiant speeches in Hell; his magnificent, imaginative journey through Chaos to Earth; the rich, disordered luxuriance of paradise; and the repentance and reconciliation of Adam and Eve after the Fall.
Paradise Regained, which tells of human salvation through Christ, is a shorter and lesser work, although still one of great richness and strength. In four books, the poem recounts Satan’s temptation of Christ in the wilderness. The temptations are sensual satisfaction, worldly power, and philosophical knowledge. Christ successfully resists them all. Having foiled Satan, he returns quietly to his mother’s house to await the drama of his last days. Deliberately undramatic and inward, Christ offers a model of Christian heroism, which makes Paradise Regained a poem of great and subdued nobility. Appropriately, the style of Paradise Regained is far plainer and more restrained than that of Paradise Lost.
Samson Agonistes presents the Old Testament story of Samson in the form of a Greek tragedy. It is composed partly in blank verse and partly in unrhymed choruses of varied line length. There is a vindictive, unreconciled tone in the agony expressed by Samson over his blindness, his defeat, and the treachery of his wife, which has caused readers to see consistent autobiographical significance in the poem. Milton is thought to have employed the biblical story of Samson to inspire the defeated English Puritans with the courage to triumph through sacrifice.