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John Milton


John Milton (1608-1674), English poet, wrote what many consider to be one of the greatest epic poems in the English language, Paradise Lost (1667);

Farewell, happy fields,
Where joy for ever dwells! Hail, horrors! hail,
Infernal world! and thou, profoundest Hell,
Receive thy new possessor--one who brings
A mind not to be changed by place or time.
The mind is its own place, and in itself
Can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven.
What matter where, if I be still the same,
And what I should be, all but less than he
Whom thunder hath made greater? Here at least
We shall be free; th' Almighty hath not built
Here for his envy, will not drive us hence:
Here we may reign secure; and, in my choice,
To reign is worth ambition, though in Hell:
Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven.--Book I

and Paradise Regained (1671).

Or, if I would delight my private hours
With music or with poem, where so soon
As in our native language can I find
That solace?--Book IV

England was in a great state of flux during his lifetime; Milton sided with the Puritans and Oliver Cromwell (1599-1658), rejected popular political and religious beliefs, adopted an anti-royalist stance against King Charles I, and joined the pamphlet wars, writing many polemics on the Church of England including "Of Reformation Touching Church Discipline in England" (1641) and "The Ready and Easy Way to Establish a Free Commonwealth" (1660). As George Saintsbury (1845-1933) states in The Cambridge History of English and American Literature (Vol. VII, 1907-21) "the inspirers of his pamphlets were furies rather than muses". Milton also wrote pamphlets on various political issues like free speech and the censorship exerted by Parliament as in "Areopagitica: A speech of Mr John Milton for the liberty of unlicensed printing to the Parliament of England" (1644).

But today Milton is best remembered for his heroic epic verse retelling the story of Adam and Eve and the Fall. In his sympathetic portrayal of man's struggle with good and evil, "That, to the height of this great argument, I may assert Eternal Providence, And justify the ways of God to men." Milton has inspired countless works by artists, film makers, musicians, authors, and poets into the 21st Century including John Keats's "Endymion"; William Blake created illustrations for Paradise Lost and wrote Milton: a Poem (1804-10); Percy Bysshe Shelley writes "Milton stands alone in the age which he illumined." in his Preface to "The Revolt of Islam"; and Lord George Gordon Byron, in his Introduction and Dedication to Don Juan writes;

If, fallen in evil days on evil tongues,
Milton appealed to the Avenger, Time,
If Time, the Avenger, execrates his wrongs,
And makes the word "Miltonic" mean "Sublime,"
He deigned not to belie his soul in songs,
Nor turn his very talent to a crime;
He did not loathe the Sire to laud the Son,
But closed the tyrant-hater he begun.

John Milton was born on 9 December 1608 on Bread Street in London, England to Sarah Jeffrey (1572-1637) and John Milton (1562-1647), scrivener in legal and financial matters. He had an older sister Anne and younger brother Christopher. John was born with poor eyesight which increasingly worsened over time. A life-long student, his schooling started at home under tutor Thomas Young before he went to read the works of Homer and Virgil in Greek and Latin at St Paul's School in London. He entered Christ's College, Cambridge in 1625 with the intent to become a minister. However, upon graduation in 1632 with a Master of Arts degree, Milton was disenchanted with the Church, did not take his orders, and decided to further his studies in languages including Hebrew. He also learned French and Italian, countries he travelled through extensively in the late 1630s where he immersed himself in their history and culture, and met many prominent learned men of the time including Galileo Galilei (1564-1642). Upon his return to England from the continent in 1639 he moved to his parent's home in Horton, Buckinghamshire to focus on further study and writing. Some of his earliest pieces were metrical psalms and poems such as "On the Morning of Christ's Nativity" (1629), "An Epitaph on the Admirable Dramatic Poet William Shakespeare" (1630), and "Il Penseroso" (1631) and its companion piece "L'Allegro" (1631).

He also wrote the masques Arcades (c.1630-4) and Comus (1634), and his eloquent elegy "Lycidas" (1637) to his friend and fellow pupil from Christ's College, Edward King, who had drowned while on a voyage to Ireland. Around this time Milton began teaching and joined the Presbyterian cause to reform the Church and wrote several pamphlets including "Of Reformation (1641), "The Reason of Church Government Urged Against Prelaty" (1642). Poems was published in 1645. In 1643 he married Mary Powell (1626-1652) with whom he would have three daughters and one son; Anne, Mary, John, and Deborah. It was a troublesome marriage and they were estranged for a time, causing Milton to pen "The Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce" (1644). In 1656 he married Catharine Woodcock who died two years later in childbirth along with Milton's fourth daughter, Catharine. In 1663 he married Elizabeth Minshull (1638-1727).

In 1649, after the regicide of King Charles I, Milton was appointed Cromwell's Latin secretary of foreign affairs and wrote many pamphlets in defense of the Commonwealth. The intense work of translating and writing created much strain on his eyes and he resorted to a secretary. By 1652 he was entirely blind and relied on the assistance of Andrew Marvell (1621-1678), but it seems that Milton was not unduly grieved by his loss of sight. After the death of Cromwell and the Restoration of King Charles II in 1660 Milton retired from public life; as staunch defender of the Commonwealth, he first had to hide entirely from King Charles's loyalists and some of his books were burned. The Great Fire of London in 1666 destroyed the Bread Street house where he was born and that he had inherited from his father. During the plague years he left London for surrounding areas; his cottage in the village of Chalfont St Giles, Buckinghamshire and its gardens are now a museum housing many of his works. It was here that Milton prepared for publication Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained, which also includes his poetic drama wherein he reflects on his own life once again under the monarchy, Samson Agonistes (1671);

Should Israel from Philistian yoke deliver!;
Ask for this great Deliverer now, and find him
Eyeless in Gaza at the mill with slaves,
Himself in bonds under Philistian yoke.

John Milton died on 12 November 1674 in Artillery Row, London, and now rests with his father in the church of St. Giles's, Cripplegate, London, England. His On Christian Doctrine was published in 1823.

When I consider how my light is spent
Ere half my days in this dark world and wide,
And that one Talent which is death to hide
Lodged with me useless, though my soul more bent
To serve therewith my Maker, and present
My true account, lest He returning chide,
"Doth God exact day-labour, light denied?"
I fondly ask. But Patience, to prevent
That murmur, soon replies, "God doth not need
Either man's work or his own gifts. Who best
Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best. His state
Is kingly: thousands at his bidding speed,
And post o'er land and ocean without rest;
They also serve who only stand and wait."--Sonnet XIX

Biography written by C. D. Merriman for Jalic Inc. Copyright Jalic Inc. 2008. All Rights Reserved.

The above biography is copyrighted. Do not republish it without permission.

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