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< John Milton >

(1608-1674)

Short Biography

John Milton 

Portrait of John Milton c1629 (21)

Birth
John Milton was born at the sign of the Spread Eagle in Bread Street, London, eight years before the death of Shakespeare. His grandfather, Richard Milton, owned land near Oxford. His father, also John, settled in London, where he set up business as a law scrivener. He was also a keen musician and composer of music. His mother, Sara, bore six children of whom three died in infancy. The eldest, Anne, became Mrs Phillips, and Mrs Agar by a second marriage, and it was her son, Edward Phillips, who was both taught by and became John Milton's first biographer. The youngest, Christopher (born 1615,7), became a judge and was knighted. His father must have been financially successful because he sent both his sons to be educated at the university of Cambridge, and retired in 1632 (24) to Horton near Windsor.

Education
He was educated initially at home by Thomas Young, a Scottish Presbyterian, of whom Milton writes in a Latin elegy: 'Under his guidance I penetrated into the recesses of the Muses, saw the sacred and green places of Parnassus, and drank the Pierian cups', ie he introduced him to the writing of poetry. He was a model scholar from an early age, sitting up late to study, and showing an early gift for writing verse. His education continued at St Paul’s School, where he befriended Charles Diodati, the nephew of Giovanni Diodati, who made the Italian version of the Bible in 1607. Of his early education, Milton himself writes: 'My father destined me while yet a little boy for the study of humane letters, which I seized with such eagerness, that from the twelfth year of my age I scarcely ever went from my lessons to bed before midnight; which indeed was the first cause of injury to my eyes, to whose natural weakness there were also added frequent headaches. All which not retarding my impetuosity in learning, he caused me to be daily instructed, both at the grammar-school and under other masters at home and then when I had acquired various tongues, and also not some insignificant taste for the sweetness of philosophy, he sent me to Cambridge.' The 'various tongues' acquired were Latin, Greek, Hebrew, French and Italian. 

Cambridge
In 1625 (17) he entered
Christ College, Cambridge, where he gained the nickname ‘the Lady of Christ’s’. He appears to have been unimpressed with the educational standards of Cambridge, and argued with his first tutor. He writes to Charles Diodati, in a typically defiant spirit: 'At present I care not to visit the reedy Cam, nor does regret for my forbidden rooms grieve me. Nor am I yet in the humour to bear the threats of a harsh master, and other things intolerable to my disposition. If this be exile...then I refuse neither the name nor the lot of a runaway, and gladly I enjoy my state of banishment.' His tutor was replaced.

Early poetry
While still at Cambridge, he wrote elegies and epigrams in Latin, and sonnets in Italian and English, and in 1629 (21) composed his ode On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity, an accomplished work which he later placed at the beginning of his Poems by Mr Milton, in English and Latin (1645, 37).

Financial support and further poetry
After leaving Cambridge in 1632 (24), he took up residence at his parent's house in Horton, Buckinghamshire, where he continued his studies. His lyric poems, L’Allegro and Il Penseroso (1632, 24) date from this period, and reflect something of his delight in this country retreat, where he mainly lived until 1638 (30). Here, he wrote the masques, Arcades and Comus, at the invitation of the composer and musician Henry Lawes, the latter piece for the inauguration of the Earl of Bridgewater as Lord President of Wales, and performed at Ludlow Castle, Shropshire, in 1634 (26) with Lawes playing the Attendant Spirit and the Earl’s children the other parts. Comus was subsequently published (1637, 29) at Lawes instigation. It was well received and particularly eulogised by Sir Henry Wotton, who wrote that it was 'a dainty piece of entertainment, wherein I would much commend the tragical part if the lyrical did not ravish me with a certain Doric delicacy in your songs and odes, whereunto I must plainly confess to have seen yet nothing parallel in our language'. In 1637 (29) he contributed his pastoral elegy Lycidas to a motley collection of elegies on the death of Edward King, a graduate of Christ Church drowned at sea, amplifying the theme into a reflection on the question of the existence of evil and Divine providence.


Milton's house Horton, etching F.S.Walker, 1895

Travel
He left England in April, 1638 (30), visiting France, where he met Hugo Grotius, and Italy, where he was welcomed into the neo-Platonic academies at Florence, and quickly established his reputation as ‘al grande poeta Inghilese, Giovanni Milton, Londra’ with the quality of his Latin and Italian verse. He visited Rome and then Naples, where he was favoured with the attentions of Giovanni Battista Manso, who had been the friend and protector of Torquato Tasso. Returning to Florence, he found and visited the famous Galileo, at that time old and placed under effective house arrest by the Inquisition. He stayed for a month in Venice, from whence he shipped home the books and volumes of music he had collected during his year in Italy. On his way home to England he paid a visit to Geneva, where he met the father of his friend, Charles Diodati, and first heard of his friend’s death the previous year. He arrived back in England in August, 1639 (31).

The schoolmaster
He set up a school (1639, 31), at first taking the two young sons of his recently deceased sister, John and Edward Phillips, as students, then the sons of friends and noblemen. 

Marriage
In 1642 (34) he married Mary Powell, the 17 year old daughter of a family to whom Milton’s father had lent money some years previously, and from whom Milton himself was receiving interest of £24 per annum on the loan. She stayed with him for only three weeks, however, leaving to make a visit to her parents at Forest Hill, near Oxford, and failing to return. She also failed to respond to his several letters, and, when he sent a servant to enquire after her, his servant was rudely rebuffed. It is possible that the outbreak of Civil War at this time made her return more difficult, and it is certainly true that his wife’s family were staunch Royalists, while Milton’s sympathies lay with the Parliamentarians, for whom he became an important pamphleteer and apologist. 

Pamphlets
On his return to England, Milton made the decision to enter into the struggle between King and Parliament on the side of the Parliamentarians. He writes in a letter: 'I resolved, though I was then meditating other matters, to transfer to this struggle all my genius and all the strength of my industry.' He produced twenty five pamphlets over the next twenty years, defending liberty, religious, domestic, and civil. His first pamphlet , Of Reformation touching Church Discipline in England, and the causes that hitherto have hindered it, was published in 1641 (33), and was followed by others on the same subject with the overall stated objective of freeing the land of 'this impertinent yoke of Prelaty under whose inquisitorious and tyrannical duncery no free and splendid wit could flourish'.  A series of pamphlets on divorce, probably partly motivated and certainly informed by his own marital problems, followed. The first, the Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce Restor'd to the good of both sexes, from the bondage of Canon Law (1643, 35) argued in favour of divorce on grounds of incompatibility. It was promptly attacked by another, anonymous pamphleteer, and Milton penned Colasterion (Greek for instrument of punishment) in reply, in which he observed : ‘I mean not to dispute philosophy with this pork, who never read any’'. In 1643 (35) a strict ordinance governing publication of printed matter was introduced by the largely Puritan parliament. Milton's response was to pen the Areopagitica, a speech to the Parliament of England in favour of the liberty of unlicensed printing. His pamphlet, On the Tenure of Kings and Magistrates (1649, 41), published just before the execution of Charles I, gave grounds for regicide. Milton argued that men are born free, and that the power of kings is derivative, committed to them in trust by the people for the common good. If a king acted as a tyrant it was, therefore, justifiable to depose him, statements which were, of course, at complete odds with Charles I’s view that kings ruled by divine right. The last published pamphlet, A ready and easy way to establish a free Commonwealth, appeared in March, 1660 (52), just before the return of Charles II from exile and the restoration of the monarchy.


King Charles shown as inspired directly by God: frontispiece to the Eikon Basilike

First collected edition of his poetry
Poems of Mr John Milton, both English and Latin, was published in 1645 (37) by Humphrey Mosely, who had recently published Edmund Waller with great success. Moseley writes: 'Let the event guide itself which way it will, I shall deserve of the age by bringing into the light as true a birth as the Muses have brought forth since our famous Spenser wrote, whose poems in these English ones are as rarely imitated as sweetly excelled.' The book included sonnets, psalm paraphrases, the masks Arcades and Comus, the odes Il Penseroso and L'Allegro, and the epitaph Damonis (in Latin), mourning the death of his friend Charles Diodati.

His wife returns
His wife returned to him in 1645 (37), and she thereafter bore him 4 children before she died giving birth. 

Official appointment in Cromwell's government
In 1649 (41), he was appointed Secretary for Foreign Tongues to Cromwell’s Council of State, which involved him in the day to day affairs of government, and in its dealings with foreign powers. He was given the task of replying to the Eikon Basilike (the Royal Image), a pamphlet eulogising the king as a saint and martyr which had appeared soon after his execution and which was generally taken to have been written by the king himself, though John Gauden, subsequently Bishop of Worcester, later claimed to have written it. Milton replied with the Eikonoklastes (the Image Breaker), taking apart the rosy picture painted by the Eikon, and enumerating Charles’ faults in a dispassionate and matter of fact way. Later in the same year another pamphlet, Defensio Regia contra Populum Anglicanum (A Defense of the King against the People of England), commissioned by Charles II in exile in the Low Countries, appeared. It was written by the noted scholar Salmasius. Milton was again asked to reply, and his Defensio Populo Anglicano etc (Defense of the People of England) followed, demonstrating scorn of Salmasius' Latin, of his scholarship, and contempt for his intelligence. Salmasius himself died shortly afterwards, and it was left open to Milton to claim unopposed that he had broken his opponent by his arguments. The Council of State rewarded him with a vote of thanks and money, and his Continental reputation was greatly enhanced. A response to Milton’s Defensio Populo appeared subsequently, written by an Anglican clergyman. The Regii Sanguinis Clamor ad Coelum (The Cry of the Royal Blood to Heaven) was full of personal abuse towards Milton himself, and Milton took delight in replying with Defensio Secundo, in which he wrote extensively about himself in a humane and sympathetic way which made the abuse of his adversary seem ludicrous, malicious and misguided.


Oliver Cromwell portrait by Samuel Cooper

Blindness
In the course of his work for the government, his eyesight had begun to fail, and by 1651 (43) he was completely blind. 

Second marriage
He nevertheless continued to work as Latin Secretary, and in 1656 (48) he married Katherine Woodcock, who bore him a son in 1657 (49). Both mother and son died shortly after the birth, however. His sonnet, Methought I saw My Late Espousèd Saint, refers to this Katherine. 

Death of Cromwell and restoration of the monarchy
Cromwell died in 1658 (50), and was given a state funeral, only for his body to be dug up and hoisted on the gibbet at Tyburn at the restoration of the monarchy in 1661 (53). Milton went into hiding, and, when found, was briefly imprisoned.

Paradise Lost
His major work, Paradise Lost, was issued in ten books in 1667 (59). It is, of course, one of the universally recognised classics of the English language. Stopford Brooke gives an idea of the esteem in which the poem was held by later critics. Writing in 1879, he comments on the following lines from the poem:

The fig tree, not that kind for fruit renown'd,
But such as at this day to Indians known
In Malabar or Decan spreads her arms

Branching so broad and long, that in the ground
The bending twigs take root, and daughters grow
About the mother tree, a pillared shade
High overarch't, and echoing walks between.

'Fulness of sound, weight of march, compactness of finish, fitness of words to things, fitness of pauses to thought, a strong grasp of the main idea while other ideas play around it, power of digression without loss of power to return, equality of power over vast spaces of imagination, sustained splendour when he soars, a majesty in the conduct of thought, and a music in the majesty which fills it with solemn beauty, belong one and all to the style; and it gains its highest influence on us, and fulfils the ultimate need of a grand style in being the easy and necessary expression of the very character and nature of the man. It reveals Milton, as much, sometimes even more than his thought.' But faults are also recognised: 'It is often, not only needlessly, but as it were of set purpose, involved... It loses freedom of movement in its involutions; it delays too long, as it winds in and out, to express the thought or the image; it is rarely brief, even where brevity would be te life of thought. It is troubled with ellipses, and the inversioins are sometimes, even when they are deliberate, wearisome. The Latinisms and forms of expression belonging to other languages are frequent, and have been much blamed, but they are a true part of the style, and the natural property of the man. But blame as we like, one thing is true, the style is never prosaic. The poetic form was Milton's native tongue.'

Illustration for Paradise Lost by Gustave Doré

Illustration for Paradise Lost by Gustave Doré (1832-1883)

Third marriage
He married again in 1663 (55) to Elizabeth Minshull, who was 24 at the time. 

Final works
His final poetic works, Paradise Regained and Samson Agonistes, were published in 1671 (63), the first describing Christ's temptation in the desert, and the second Samson's blindness and ultimate triumph in destroying the temple of the Philistines, with clear parallels to Milton's own blindness and the court of Charles II. His History of Britain and a Latin Accidence were published in 1669 (61), a Treatise on Christian Doctrine and his Artis Logicae in 1672 (64), and a Tract on True Religion in 1673 (65). In 1673 he also reissued his earlier poems, with some additions, and, in the following year, a translation from the Latin of the Declaration of the Poles on the Election of John Sobieski, probably as a result in his interest in the idea of the election of kings.

Death
He ended his days in a small house near Bunhill Fields, where he was frequently visited by admirers, including the Poet Laureate of the day, John Dryden, and foreign dignitaries who came to see the author of the Defensio Populo Anglicano. He died alone with his wife and a maid in 1674 (66) without pain or emotion. According to testimony at the time no one in the room noticed his passing.

Milton! Thou shouldst be living at this hour;
England hath need of thee: she is a fen
Of stagnant waters: altar, sword, and pen,
Fireside, the horoic wealth of hall and bower,
Have forfeited their ancient English dower
Of inward happiness. We are selfish men.
Oh! Raise us up, return to us again;
And give us manners, freedom, virtue, power.
Thy soul was like a star and dwelt apart:
Thou hadst a voice whose sound was like the sea,
Pure as the naked heavens, majestic, free,
So didst thou travel on life's common way
In cheerful godliness; and yet thy heart
The lowliest duties on herself did lay.

William Wordsworth, 1802

John Milton Biography : Links to poetry

Comus

Methought I saw my late espousèd Saint

On Time

 

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