John Milton (1608-1674)

    Widely considered among the five greatest poets in the English language, John Milton was born and educated in London, the son of a musical composer.  His early schooling took place at the St. Paul's School.  From this prestigious beginning, Milton made his way to Cambridge, where he studied at Christ's College from which he took a BA in 1629 and an MA in 1632.  While his studies were those of a future clergyman, Milton began early to read and write poetry in Latin, Italian, and English.
    Upon his graduation, Milton returned to the home of his father where for several years he studied widely focusing on languages (Greek, Latin, and Italian) and theology, especially the early church fathers.  During these years he also became more serious and capable in his poetic output.  A dramatic masque Comus was performed in 1634 although not published (and then anonymously) in 1637.
    Dating also to 1637, his great pastoral elegy, Lycidas, held by most critics to be among the greatest examples of that form, expresses his grief over the loss of a college friend, Edward King.  In this work, the attentive reader can begin to discern the great Christian faith that lies at the heart of Milton the poet and which serves as the core of his most celebrated works.  The end of Lycidas, especially, resounds with a powerful expression of faith in resurrection and redemption.
    After the completion of Lycidas, Milton's poetic output slowed to a trickle for the next twenty years.  From 1637 until 1639 he travelled in Europe, mostly in Italy.  Upon his return, his attentions were consumed first by his employment as a tutor and later by the political turmoil of the English Civil War.  In 1641 he began publishing pamphlets against the episcopal church and what he perceived as the unfinished English Reformation.  Areopagitica, his famous defense of a free press, appeared in 1644.
    During this period in which Milton's influence was growing, another force worked against him.  During the mid-1640s, he began to notice the deterioration of his eyesight.  This decay continued until he was completely blind in 1651.
    After the execution of Charles I, Milton became involved in the Commonwealth government of Oliver Cromwell, serving as Latin secretary to the Council of State.  He served faithfully in these duties through the period, publishing a number of political works as circumstances demanded.  Upon the restoration of the monarchy, Milton was arrested, fined, and released.
    It was during the period after his fall from public power that John Milton made his most celebrated contribution to English literature and Western culture.  Although he had reputedly penned parts of his greatest work, Paradise Lost, as early as 1642, the epic's completion came no earlier than 1663.  It was not published until 1667.  Paradise Lost begins just after the revolt of Satan against God.  It then follows Satan's actions against Adam and Eve, leading to the Fall.  During the course of the work's ten books of blank verse, backstory, including a narrative of the battle between the loyal and rebellious angels, is provided.  One common criticism of the work is that it creates in Satan too heroic a character.
    Milton offered in Paradise Regained a sequel that provided much more hope.  This shorter work deals with Christ's temptation in the wilderness.  Milton's argument between the two is that while paradise was lost due to the failure of Adam and Eve to resist temptation, it was regained (partially) through Christ's successful resistance.
    Having penned the works on which his reputation would rest, Milton finished his life with a few miscellaneous prose works, including a history of Britain and a discussion of the logic of Peter Ramus.  He died of gout in 1674 and was buried next to his father in St. Giles Church, Cripplegate, London.

The Luminarium has a valuable Milton page.

This text copyright 1998, Mark Browning. Permission is granted for all noncommercial use of this article.