John Milton was the son of a scrivener – a legal secretary aiding in the preparation of legal documents and other transactions. A scrivener’s major skill, in a time of widespread illiteracy, was the ability to read and write. His father was also a composer of church music, inspiring a life-long love of music in his son.
Milton’s father had been disowned by his own father, a devout Catholic, for being a Protestant. The conflict between Christian sects played a major role in Milton’s life.
Milton’s father made a respectable income, allowing for a private tutor. Thomas Young, a Scottish Presbyterian, was Milton’s first teacher. He stamped his student with religious radicalism as well as classical studies.
As a youth, Milton attended St. Paul’s School in London, where he studied Latin and Greek. He was known for studying late into the night. He went on to Christ’s College at Cambridge, where he received a BA with honors despite being suspended by a teacher for disputes religious and political in nature. His intention was to become a priest. He was awarded a Master of Arts in 1632.
After college, he returned to his father’s home and spent six years in self-guided study. He read modern and classical works of philosophy, history, theology, politics, literature and science. By 1638, he spoke Latin, Greek, Hebrew, French, Spanish, Italian, Old English and Dutch. He abandoned his hopes for the priesthood and instead aspired to write.
In the spring of 1638, he embarked on a tour of France and Italy that would last over a year. He met intellectuals and theologians. He shared his written and verbal skills. His father’s connections opened important doors. He shared time with famous minds of the age, including Galileo while he was under house arrest. He attended numerous concerts and operas.
He recorded the events of this trip in his journal Defensio Secunda, including how he was warned not to return to Rome because of his bold religious opinions. He returned to England earlier than he wanted because of its Civil War.
The English Revolution
England was being pulled apart by multiple forces. England was officially a Protestant nation. King Charles I married French princess Henrietta Maria in 1625, immediately after his crowning. She was a Catholic, creating much concern that their children would grow up Catholic. In the midst of the Thirty Years’ War, a European conflict between Catholics and Protestants entwining the Bourbons, the Habsburgs and the Holy Roman Empire, this was troubling for the English people.
Charles was son of James I, who was king of Scotland before ascending to the throne of England. Historically, Scottish parliament did not have a strong influence over their king. Carrying this attitude to English government, James operated independently and rarely called parliament to organize.
Parliament convened only when the king ordered them to and disbanded at the king’s whim. Only parliament could collect taxes for the throne and this was their major function. The English people were accustomed to frequent meetings of parliament to advise the king, but Charles was of a different style. He went a full decade without calling for parliament. Instead, he used obscure fines and forgotten laws to collect money from the unwilling population.
The Royalists and the Parliamentarians squared off for control of the kingdom from 1642-51. In the end, Charles was executed and Oliver Cromwell became Lord Protector of England, Scotland and Ireland.
Milton with Cromwell
Milton became Cromwell’s Secretary for Foreign Tongues. He wrote all foreign correspondence for the country in Latin. He composed defenses of the government’s actions and rebutted the opposition’s arguments.
Charles son, Charles II, routinely parlayed with Cromwell’s government. Milton was in charge of preparing Cromwell’s side of the debate. His Defensio pro Populo Anglicano, also known as First Defense, made him famous throughout the continent by displaying his eloquent Latin and evident learning.
Cromwell died in 1658 and the nation crumbled into feuding political factions. Milton clung to his belief in government by the people and distrust of a state-controlled church. Charles II returned to power in 1660 and Milton went into hiding.
Milton’s Family Life
Milton married for the first time in 1642, when he was 35. His bride was 16-year-old Mary Powell. She returned to her family after a month, finding him to be a severe and stringently opinionated man. Milton spent the next three years publishing pamphlets arguing for the legality and morality of divorce. She returned to him in 1645 and bore him four children. She died in 1652 while giving birth to their last child.
He married Katherine Woodcock in 1656. She died in 1658 after giving birth to their only child, who also died.
He married Elizabeth Mynshull in 1662. She was 31 years younger than him. The marriage was said to be a happy one and lasted until his death in 1674.
His pamphlets on morality, government and theology were widespread. His political work for Cromwell was widely distributed. But his poetry was seen by few during his lifetime. His On Shakespear was anonymously included in Shakespeare’s Second Folio. Milton collected a bulk of his work into a volume called 1645 Poems and published it in 1646.
He was most famous for his blank-verse epic Paradise Lost. He wrote it from 1658-1664 while impoverished, in hiding and completely blind. He dictated the verse to aides.
Paradise Lost was published in 1667 as a series of ten books including over ten-thousand lines of verse. It is the story of the fall of man. It details the temptation of Adam and Eve by the fallen angel Satan. The book’s purpose is to “justify the ways of God to men.”
In 1671, he published the sequel Paradise Regained. The book focuses on hunger, both spiritual and literal, and the temptation of Christ.
Milton died of kidney failure on November 8, 1674. He is buried at the Church of St. Giles Cripplegate. His funeral was attended by a great many of his important and educated friends.
From Paradise Lost: Book One, Lines 221-234
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 he
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.
- “The English Civil War,” http://www.historylearningsite.co.uk/civil_war_england.htm
- “Life of John Milton (1608-1674),” http://www.luminarium.org/sevenlit/milton/miltonbio.htm
- Image: John Milton, http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:John-milton.jpg
- Image: King Charles I, http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:King_Charles_I_after_original_by_van_Dyck.jpg
- “John Milton,” http://www.poets.org/poet.php/prmPID/707
- Image: Coat of Arms of the Commonwealth of England from 1653 to 1659 during the Protectorate of Oliver Cromwell, http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Coat_of_Arms_of_the_Protectorate_(1653%E2%80%931659).svg