john miltonIntroduction

John Milton was born in 1608 and educated at St. Paul's School in London, where he learned Latin, Greek and Hebrew. In 1625 he enrolled at Christ's College, Cambridge, graduating successfully though clashing with his tutors. Milton senior hoped the son would make a lawyer, but duly supported him when Milton spent six years at Horton studying the classics, and then toured Italy. In 1629 Milton wrote On the Morning of Christ's Nativity, and in 1634 the masque Comus, which was performed at Ludlow Castle. The death of a classmate Edward King in 1639 caused Milton to write Lycidas, but from 1641 to 1660 he wrote almost no poetry, turning instead to political tracts.

At the age of 33, the studious Milton married the 16 year old daughter of a sociable royalist family, and the girl soon returned to her parents. Friends effected a reconciliation in 1645, and Mary Powell bore him three children, dying in 1652. Milton remarried, twice, but the marriages were not wholly successful. He acted as Cromwell's Latin Secretary but found the Commonwealth as intolerant as previous governments under Charles I. His services to the Cromwell placed him in some danger when the monarchy returned in 1660, but, by now blind and ostensibly harmless, Milton was eventually allowed to return to his first vocation. He wrote some of the greatest of English poetry in Paradise Lost, Paradise Regained and Samson Agonistes, and died on 8 November 1674.

Leaving aside the shorter poems, translations, and prose works (see below), Milton's fame rests on a masque, two epic poems and a tragedy. Comus is elaborate court entertainment. The son of Bacchus and Circe appears as a shepherd and tries to tempt a young lady (chastity: played by the Earl of Bridgewater's daughter) with a magic potion, but she is rescued by her brothers and led to safety. Paradise Lost is an epic in manner of Virgil: its twelve books recount the fall of Lucifer and the expulsion of mankind's first parents from the Garden of Eden. Paradise Regained is much plainer, depicting the temptation of Christ in the wilderness. In Samson Agonistes, the blind Samson moves from self-pity to faith, using his renewed strength to bring down the temple of the Philistines and triumph over Israel's enemies: a Old Testament tragedy built on the Greek model.

Milton was possibly the best educated Englishman of his time, equally proficient as musician and writer. The earlier poetry was enormously varied and accomplished. Written when he was 21, the Morning of Christ's Nativity ode sounds a tender adoration not heard later. Arcades, L'Allegro and IL Penseroso were apprentice work but contain some of most exquisite lines in English, endlessly anthologised. Then there were the sonnets in Latin, Italian and English, all occasional pieces but matchless at their best, reviving a form that had dropped from fashion. From 1639, Milton threw himself into the Protestant struggle, and the impassioned prose of The Doctrine & Discipline of Divorce, Areopagitica, Of Education, The Reason of Church-government , The Reason of Church-government, The Readie & Easie Way to Establish a Free Commonwealth is not to all tastes. In 1641 Milton made notes on 98 possible subjects for an epic, thereafter sketching out sections of Paradise Lost before settling down to write in earnest when the Protestant cause was lost. The humanist mood hardened to rebellion in Paradise Regained, and to faith again in Samson Agonistes.

Like Shakespeare, Milton is the focus of an academic industry, now rather specialised, with work not generally available on the Internet. But Milton is worth studying for two reasons: to appreciate some of the greatest poetry in English, and to learn from a master craftsman. Both will take prolonged effort, but you may find C. Rick's Milton's Grand Style (1989) useful, and possibly older works such as A. Burnett's Milton's Style (1981), S. Sprott's Milton's Art of Prosody (1953), and R. Bridges' Milton's Prosody (1921), which generally have extensive bibliographies, though somewhat out of date.

Suggestion: Complete Poems and Major Prose: Milton. Edited by Merritt Y. Hughes. Prentice Hall. 1957. $54.00

An old edition and still the best. Now being updated/reissued. 1059 pages of Milton's works with truly helpful notes and commentaries.



C. John Holcombe   |  About the Author    | ©     2007 2012 2013 2015.   Material can be freely used for non-commercial purposes if properly referenced.