Paradise Lost: Biography: John Milton
John Milton was born December 9, 1608, in London to John Milton, scrivener, and Sara Jeffrey. He was the eldest son, and his father’s prosperity allowed for private tutoring for the precocious child. He attended St. Paul’s School in London where he learned the classics in Latin and Greek.
He entered Christ College, Cambridge, in 1625, with the view of becoming a priest in the Anglican Church. He received his Master of Arts degree and befriended dissident religious thinkers. It was at this time he wrote some of his famous shorter poems, “On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity,”(1629) and “L’Allegro and Il Penseroso” (1631 and 1632).
Milton by 1632 knew he could not become an Anglican priest because there was too much he disapproved of in church doctrine and practice. Instead, he undertook an intense course of study to prepare himself to become a poet. He is one of the most learned poets, having mastered Greek, Latin, Hebrew, French, Italian, Spanish, Dutch, and Old English. He read widely in philosophy, history, literature, and theology. During this period, he wrote his short masterpieces, the masque, Comus (1634), and the great elegy, “Lycidas” (1637).
After six years of study, Milton traveled for a year in France and Italy, meeting the leading thinkers of the day, such as Grotius, Galileo, and the poet Tasso. He cut his tour short because of the Civil War breaking out in England between the monarchists loyal to king and church, and the Puritans loyal to church reform and Parliamentary rule. The Puritans won the war in 1651, Oliver Cromwell becoming the leader of the new Commonwealth.
Milton played his part for the Puritans with his polemical tract writing that made the case for reform, such as The Reason of Church Government (1642). His tracts were written in Latin, the language of learning, and thus available to scholars all over Europe.
In 1642, when Milton was 33, he married 16-year-old Mary Powell from a Royalist family, who fled after one month of marriage. She did not come back until 1645, possibly because of her family’s politics. During her absence, Milton wanted to take another wife and wrote tracts advocating divorce. Because of the public furor over that, he wrote his famous tract against censorship, Aeropagitica. In 1645, he published a collection of his Poems, written in English and Latin.
When Parliament won the Civil War, Milton was employed by the new government writing pamphlets promoting its views. He went blind while writing his pamphlets defending regicide, and the Royalists felt it was a divine judgment on him.
Meanwhile, his first wife died from childbirth in 1652, having borne four children, and he married his second who died in childbirth in 1658 after less than two years of marriage. The Commonwealth collapsed the same year and Milton was in political trouble with the Restoration of the monarchy in 1660. He was briefly imprisoned until friends, like the poet Marvell, secured him a pardon, but he lost all his property.
Blind, in poverty, and married for a third time, the aging Milton began Paradise Lost, the great epic for which he had prepared his whole life. It was published in 1667, and Paradise Regained and the tragedy Samson Agonistes followed in 1671. A last collection of Poems was published in 1673. Although disillusioned with the ways of the world, his epic records the eternal hope of the human spirit. Milton died in 1674 of kidney failure.
Milton is second to none in English literature, except Shakespeare. His legacy was monumental to poets and politicians alike. His Aereopagitica on a free press influenced the American founders, for instance. The Romantic poets, like Wordsworth, Keats and Blake, tried to emulate his giant themes and canvas in their own works.