Introduction to The Life of John Milton

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       Milton is our greatest poet after Shakespeare. But no two poets have less in common. Understanding Shakespeare is above all a profound experience in broadening one’s humanity; understanding Milton is a profound experience in deepening one’s aesthetic perceptions and widening one’s intellectual horizon. Everybody is a potential audience of Shakespeare; only the intellectually cultivated will love Milton. His learning and erudition are greater than that of any other poet on record. And as a literary artist, he has exerted the widest of all influences over later poets. You may read his influence in the work of Dryden, Pope, Cowper, Collins, Gray, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Shelley, Keats, Tennyson and Browning.

      Milton was fortunate in his parents. His father, a scrivener by profession, was well-known as a composer of music. His mother was a woman noted for her deeds of charity. Their home was cultivated, well-to-do, and firmly Puritan. They lived on Bread Street, Cheapside, London. Milton were born there on December 9, 1608. His father early decided that Milton was to have a literary career and Milton himself tells us: "From twelve years of age I hardly ever left my studies or went to bed before midnight.” After studying at St. Paul’s School, Milton entered Christ College, Cambridge in 1625. At Cambridge, he decided that he was to be a great poet, a poet who would write such poetry as posterity "should not willingly let die.” To that end, he felt he must lead a life of austerity and integrity. For not participating in the riots of his schoolmates, he was affectionately dubbed "the lady of Christ’s."

      In 1632 he took his M.A. and went to live at his father’s new house in the village of Horton, a few miles from London. His literary output up to this time is not very impressive. He had written some Latin verses and a handful of English poems—none of the latter very good. There are a few good lines in his Ode on the Morning of Christ’s Nativity, (1629); the poem On Shakespeare (1630) is better intended than executed; the sonnet To a Nightingale (1631) has a certain charm. But Milton himself in his sonnet On His Being Arrived at the Age of Twenty-three (1631) realized full well that he had accomplished very little of which he could be proud. Milton’s fattier, however, had faith in his son and allowed him to continue his studies at Horton from 1632 to 1638. During these years he made himself master of everything worth knowing in the literature of Rome, Greece, Italy, France, Spain, England; and the Bible, the Talmud, and the writings of the early Christian Fathers were perfectly familiar to him. Toward the close of his stay at Horton, Milton’s genius began to produce its first important fruits; L'Allegro, (1631-2) and II Penseroso (1631-2), Comus (1634), and Lycidas (1637). These great English poems constitute what is known as Milton’s "first period".

      L'Allegro and II Penseroso are companion pieces. The titles are taken from musicology, and mean respectively, ’’the joyful man” and "the thoughtful man." Considered together they are like a musical composition in two movements, the first gay, the second pensive. They are approximately the same length and each opens with a ten-line introduction banishing the mood hostile to the spirit of the piece. They are both written in the same meter, which for the bulk of each poem is iambic tetrameter rhyming in couplets. Together they record twenty-four hours in the experience of the poet. The Joyful Man and the Thoughtful Man are the same individuals, and the poems exhibit two aspects of his temperament. L'Allegro opens at dawn and ends at dark; II Penseroso opens there and closes with the new dawn.

      L'Allegro, after banishing the spirit of "loathed melancholy", welcomes the Goddess of Mirth, Euphrosyne. With her are also invited Jest, Jollity, Sport, Laughter, and Liberty. The poet, as the lark begins his morning song, commences a tour of the day: the cock strutting before the barnyard door; the sounds of hounds and horns on the hill; the sun rising; the plowman busy over the soil; the milkmaid, the mower, and the shepherd, at their tasks; the flocks on the sunlit meadows; the flowers and brooks; the village cottages; the hayloft; country dances. Then, as to light fails the "nut brown ale"; folk tales at the fireside; the reading of books of romance and the comedies of Shakespeare and Jonson. The poem concludes with a desire to be lapped "in soft Lydian airs":

"In notes with many a winding bout
Of linked sweetness long drawn out
With wanton heed and giddy cunning,
The melting voice through mazes running,
Untwisting all the chains that tie
The hidden soul of harmony."

      II Penseroso, after banishing "deluding joys", welcomes the Goddess Melancholy. With her are also invited Peace, Quiet, Fast, Leisure, Contemplation. The poet, as the nightingale sings:

"In her sweetest, saddest plight
Smoothing the rugged brow of night....
Sweet bird, that shun’st the noise of folly,
Most musical, most melancholy!"

      begins a tour of the night: the woods; the wandering moon shedding its light through "Heaven’s wide, pathless way" and on the lawns; the far-off curfew; at home again

"Where glowing embe’ s through the room
Teach light to counterfeit a gloom";

      the bellman’s song; the watcher in the tower of the mysteries of astronomy. Then, the world of books again: the tragedies of the great Greeks, the Iliad, the writings of Chaucer, and Spenser’s Faerie Queene

"Of forests, and enchantments drear
Where more is meant than meets the ear...."

      As Dawn approaches, the poet escapes the morning light by seeking heavy woods and some quiet brook, or else the cathedral where the organ plays and the full-voiced choir sings so as to dissolve him into ecstasy "And bring all Heaven before mine eyes."

      Comus is a masque written, as masques often were, for a particular occasion: an entertainment of the family of the Countess of Derby. Henry Lawes, the distinguished composer, to whom Milton later indited a sonnet, wrote the music to Milton’s words. Although Milton was familiar with Jonson’s masques, his earnestness of moral purpose differs widely from the tradition of court masques. The story presents an allegory on the ideal of chastity which was so dear to Milton. A girl and her two brothers lose their way in a forest, and she becomes separated from them. Comus, the son of Bacchus and Circe, finds the girl, and conducts her to his dwelling where many creatures whom his enchantments have overcome are sunk in bestiality. Comus tries to work his sorcery on the girl, but she is strong against his powerful appeals to sensuality. A guardian spirit leads her two brothers to her rescue. The leading idea in the poem is that the virtuous mind is safe from the attacks of evil:

"Love virtue, she alone is free;
She can teach ye how to climb
Higher than the sphery chime;
Or if Virtue feeble were,
Heaven itself would stoop to her."

      Among the many beauties of Comus are two wonderful songs:

"Sabrina fair,
Listen where thou art sitting
Under the glassy, cool translucent wave...."


"Sweet echo, sweetest nymph that liv’st unseen
Within thy airy shell
By slow Meander’s margent green...."

      Comus was presented on September 29th, 1634 in honor of the Earl of Bridge water.

      Lycidas has been called by many critics the greatest achievement of English lyrical poetry. It is an elegy written upon the death of a fellow alumnus of Milton’s, Edward King, who was drowned in the Irish Sea in 1637. A group of King’s former schoolmates at Cambridge issued a commemorative volume titled Obsequies to the Memory of Mr. Edward King (1638). It was in this limited publication that Lycidas first appeared. Heretofore, of his great poems only Comus had been published, and that anonymously.

      Lycidas is not an expression of personal grief (personal grief was to be eloquent in Milton’s next important poem, the Latin Epitaphium Damonis), but rather a record of the thoughts that King’s death evoked in the poet. King had written verses himself and had prepared himself for the Church. These two facts of the dead man’s career form the basis for what Milton had to say. Outwardly the poem is written in the tradition of pastoral poetry, and more particularly in the tradition of the pastoral elegy as exhibited in the ancient Greek Lament for Bion by Moschus. The poet is spoken of as a shepherd. But Milton introduces the innovation of identifying the Christian idea of shepherd (pastor) as meaning priest. In a wonderful fusion of pagan and Christian tradition, Milton makes his elegy the occasion for a scathing attack on the corruptions of the clergy in his time, with parenthetical thrusts of scorn at his trivial contemporaries, the Cavalier poets. The lament for King concludes with a burst of glorious poetry:

"Weep no more, woeful shepherds, weep no more,
For Lycidas, your sorrow, is not dead.
Sunk though he be beneath the watery floor;
So sinks the day-star in the ocean bed,
And yet anon repairs his drooping head,
And tricks his beams, and with new-spangled ore Flames in the forehead of the morning sky."

      The poem concludes with a hint that the poet hereafter will sing in another strain.

      In April, 1638, Milton left Horton for a tour of the continent. He visited Paris, Nice, Genoa, Leghorn and Pisa. At Florence, the great center of cultural activity in Italy, he made many friendships among prominent. Italian writers. He went on to Siena, Rome and Naples. He was about to proceed to the East when he learned of civil discords brewing in England, and felt it was his duty to come home. When he arrived in England he discovered that his best friend, Charles Diodati, had died. In memory of their friendship, Milton wrote his greatest Latin poem, the Epitaphium Damonis, which may be considered the last poem in his first period. The first period of Milton’s career may be summarised as exhibiting him as a son of the Elizabethans, interested primarily in love of beauty and learning, with the Puritan side of his nature present but not emphatic.

      The "second period" of Milton’s career (1641-1654) finds him much the Puritan that he writes very little poetry. On his return from the continent, he settled in London and began to tutor. In 1641 begins a long period of pamphleteering in the service of democracy and Puritanism. He had already decided that he must write a great poem. But he felt that duty to his country required his laying aside his own creative ambitions and placing his talents at the service of those who were fighting His first piece of argumentative prose was Of Reformation (1641), an attack on the political corruption of the clergy in the English Church, and a plea for democracy in the structure of the Church. In the same year he wrote Of Prelatical Episcopacy, an argument to prove the superiority of the Presbyterian system of Church government; and Animadversions, an attack on Bishop Hall (the Character writer), a powerful prelate of the English Church. The Reason of Church Government (1642) is Milton’s longest ecclesiastical tract, and urges the separation of Church and State. The last of the anti-Episcopal pamphlets, published the same year, was An Apology, an answer to personal attacks on him made by the opposition.

      In 1643, Milton went into the country on a commission for his father, met Mary Powell, daughter of a Cavalier family, and married her. After a month with her he left her presumably to make her farewells to her friends. Once he was in London, however, she refused to rejoin him. The sudden failure of his marriage turned Milton’s thoughts to the subject of divorce. In 1643, 1644 and 1645 he issued four tracts on divorce: The Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce, The Judgment of Martin Bucer, Tetrachordon, and Colasterion. It is Milton’s view in these pamphlets that all that should be necessary to disrupt a marriage tie is the willingness of both parties to separate. He believed incompatibility to be a better argument for divorce than adultery. Naturally, Milton was bitterly attacked for these revolutionary opinions. It is interesting that in spite of his stand, when his wife pleaded with him to be taken back in 1645, he was willing to have her return. She bore him three daughters and died in 1652.

      Milton’s defense of divorce began a series that continued his defense of personal liberty, as he had already defended religious liberty. His next important tract was Of Education (1644), in which he urges the supplementing of books with personal contact and practical experience. The same year saw the publication of his most important treatise, Areopagitica, a noble defense of the freedom of the press. Parliament had passed a law requiring all books to be licensed by a censor. The Presbyterians, now in control, were attempting to bring all of England to their way of thinking. Milton was indignant that a Puritan party should revive Charles I’s licensing act. The Areopagitica was addressed to Parliament in the hope of convincing it to repeal the act It is a magnificent example of the classic oration. (The title is derived from a speech addressed by Isocrates to the Athenian court of the Areopagus.) Milton argues that only enemies of truth have ever tried to crush a free press, and that it is impossible to make men good by external restraints. Most of all he is concerned by the danger to the pursuit of truth. He has complete faith in the ability of people who can read to find their own salvation. The Areopagitica has remained a source of inspiration to all who have fought for freedom of speech and of the press, and Milton’s arguments were to be repeated in France in the era preceding the French Revolution.

      The struggle between the King and Parliament now came to a head. Charles was tried, and, in February 1649, beheaded. Milton's next track begins his series on political liberty. In Of the Tenure of Kings and Magistrates (1649) he attempted to quiet the public’s reaction of fear to the beheading of Charles. His argument was that a people may end whenever they see fit the rule of their monarch. The new Commonwealth recognized the importance of Milton’s service in this pamphlet and appointed him Latin Secretary in March 1649. Among his many duties was to defend his country against the many attacks which the monarchies of Europe were aiming at it in print. His energies were now completely absorbed in this work. Eikonoklastes (1649) was an answer to a monarchist attempt to paint Charles as a martyred saint. This kind of work and the mass of State correspondence which it was his duty to answer resulted in Milton’s losing the sight of one eye in 1650. A very dangerous book against the Commonwealth now appeared, but Milton was threatened with the loss of the sight of his other eye if he did not cease his labors. Fully aware of the risk he was taking, he answered in The Defense of the English People (1651). In 1652 he was a blind man.

      Blindness, terrible to all its victims, must have been tragic beyond description to a poet who loved books more than anyone we know of, and who was, moreover, an expert musician on the organ. Yet, nowhere in Milton do we read of regret for having sacrificed his eyesight. When another enemy of the Republic, learning of Milton’s blindness, attacked him in particular and cited Milton’s affliction as God’s punishment for his part in the execution of Charles, Milton dictated his spirited Second Defense of the English People (1654), which contains a noble defense of his conduct. The Second Defense of the English People is in one respect Milton’s most interesting prose work, for it contains a long and very informative autobiographical section.

      Milton continued his defense of the Republic despite his blindness. His later treatises are: Pro Se Defensio, (1655), A Treatise of Civil Power (1659), Considerations (1659)—and, in 1660, when Charles Stuart was preparing to return to assume his father’s throne, Milton’s warning against the restoration of the Stuarts, The Ready and Easy Way to Establish a Free Commonwealth. His prose works also include a History of Britain (1646-1660), Of Christian Doctrine (1655-1660), Of Religion (1672), a Latin grammar, a Latin dictionary, and a book on Russia.

      In the meantime, because of his blindness, he had retired from active service in the Council. He married Katherine Woodcock in November of 1656, but she died in February 1658 with the daughter to which she had given birth. It was on her that he wrote his most touching sonnet.

      It is ironical that it was his blindness which gave him the freedom again to take up his vocation of poet. His third, and last period, may be said to begin in 1655 with his great sonnets, and includes his major works: Paradise Lost, Paradise Regained, and Samson Agonistes.

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