Portrait of John Milton c1629
John Milton was born at the sign of the Spread Eagle in Bread Street, London, the son of a law scrivener, who was also a keen musician and composer of music.
He was educated initially at home by Thomas Young, a Scottish Presbyterian. 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 son of a Protestant Italian doctor, who helped him in his study of the Italian language. 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, who was replaced.
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 (1645, 37). His lyric poems, L’Allegro and Il Penseroso (1632, 24), echo the poet Ben Jonson’s classical symmetry, clarity and urbanity, but introduce a deftness, charm and delicacy in both tone and rhythm, which were clearly beyond his model.
Financial support and further poetry
His father continued to support him financially after he left Cambridge in 1632 (24), and he was therefore able to continue his studies. 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. Performed at Ludlow Castle, Shropshire, in 1634 (26) with Lawes playing the Attendant Spirit and the Earl’s children the other parts, it was well received and particularly eulogised by Sir Henry Wotton. 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.
He then set off for the Continent, 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 heard of his friend’s death the previous year.
Back in England by 1639 (31), he set up a school, at first taking the two young sons of his recently deceased sister as students, then the sons of friends and noblemen.
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.
His pamphleteering was highly successful, and he was extraordinarily adept at patiently taking his opponents’ arguments to pieces in a dispassionate way, thereby nullifying their emotive energy. He also wielded the calculated insult with a deft superiority of wit and erudition which few could match. In 1643 (35) he published a pamphlet in favour of divorce on grounds of incompatibility, the Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce. It was promptly attacked by another pamphleteer, and Milton penned Colasterion in reply, in which he observed : ‘I mean not to dispute philosophy with this pork, who never read any’.
He published a volume of his poems, Poems both in English and Latin, in 1645 (37) through Humphrey Mosely, who had recently published Edmund Waller with great success, but sales were slow, and the book did not establish his reputation.
His wife returns
His wife returned to him in the same year, and she thereafter bore him 4 children before she died giving birth.
His pamphlet, On the Tenure of Kings and Magistrates (1649, 41), published just before the execution of Charles I, gave grounds for regicide. He 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, perfectly justifiable to depose him, statements which were at complete odds with Charles I’s view that kings ruled by divine right.
Official appointment in Cromwell's government
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, and he was given the task of replying to the Eikon Basilike (the Royal Image), a eulogising pamphlet which had appeared soon after the execution of the king. 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) appeared, this time originating on the Continent, and written by the noted scholar Salmasius. Milton was again asked to reply, and his Defensio Populi Anglicani etc (Defense of the People of England) followed. Salmasius himself died shortly afterwards, and it was left open to Milton to claim unopposed that he had broken his opponent by his arguments. A response to Milton’s Defensio Populi appeared, 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 he 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.
In the course of his work for the government, his eyesight had begun to fail, and by 1651 (43) he was completely blind.
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.
His major work, Paradise Lost, was issued in ten books in 1667 (59).
Illustration for Paradise Lost by Gustave Doré (1832-1883)
He married again in 1663 (55) to Elizabeth Minshull, who was 24 at the time.
His final poetic works, Paradise Regained and Samson Agonistes, were published in 1671 (63).
He ended his days in a small house near Bunhill Fields, alone with his wife and a maid. He died in 1674 (66) without pain or emotion, according to testimony at the time no one in the room noticing his passing.
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