John Milton: Biography, Life & Literary Career

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The Life of John Milton (1608-1674)

      The life of Milton falls into four periods, as discussed below:

First Period: Early Life

      John Milton was born in Bread Street, London, on the 9th December 1608,—that is to say a little less than eight years before the death of Shakespeare. Thus the early childhood of Milton coincided with the mature work of the great dramatist and the few years of retirement and ease at his birth-place, Stratford-on-Avon, which the great wizard enjoyed after his strenuous labors for the English theatre. The poet's father, John Milton, was a prosperous London scrivener, a profession to which Shakespeare’s predecessor Thomas Kyd seems to have belonged. The poet's mother bore the maiden name of Sarah Caston. She bore three children to her husband, John the poet, Christopher (who rose to be a baronet and an eminent lawyer) and a daughter named Anne. The poet's father was born of a comparatively wealthy Catholic family, but he early forsook the paternal religion,’ was disinherited and forced to earn his own living as a scrivener, made a competence, and retired from his profession in fairly prosperous circumstances. The poet inherited from his father a rooted dislike of Catholicism. Himself foiled in his hopes of acquiring a good university education, the father sought the nearest compensation by giving the best of education to his eldest son, the poet-to-be. The father was a pious and sell-made but cultured man, and like the father of John Ruskin wished his son to enter the Church and one day or other become a bishop in the Anglican Church. Like Ruskin's father, he was disappointed, but not so much as the other. Ruskin's father was sorry that his son would not write poetry, when he wanted him to be a poet like Byron. Milton's father found the son could excel in both departments, verse as well as prose.

      The father chose as his son's first tutor a Puritan divine, Thomas Young—not a suitable choice indeed if he wanted the son to become a member of the Anglican hierarchy. For Thomas Young saw to it that his youthful pupil should turn a Puritan like himself;—and Puritanism always remained young in the poet even in extreme old age. But as for scholarship and intellectual training no better choice could have been made. Thomas Young became afterwards a chaplain to the English merchants in Hamburg.

      Later the poet was entered as day scholar at St. Paul’s School, which he attended for four or five years. Before he left the school he had made good progress in Latin and Greek. He knew some Hebrew, and he had also, on his father’s advice, studied French and Italian. During his pre-college days, Milton writes as follows in the Second Defence of the English People:-

      “My father destined me from a child to the pursuits of literature; and my appetite for knowledge was so voracious, that from twelve years of age, I hardly ever left my studies, or went to bed before midnight. This primarily led to my loss of sight. My eyes were naturally weak, and I was subject to frequent headaches; which, however, could not chill the ardor of my curiosity, or retard the progress of my improvement. My father had me daily instructed in the grammar-school, and by other masters at home. He then after I had acquired a proficiency in various languages, and had made a considerable progress in philosophy, sent me to the University of Cambridge.” [Dr. Hiram Corson’s Translation from the Latin].

      Thus according to his own confession, even in early boyhood, he had been used to turn his nights into day, for purposes of study and when he was barely forty-five nature took a savage revenge and turned his days into the night. The great epics of his last period were written under a total eclipse of sun and moon at eve or mom, so far as he was personally concerned, but there was illumination in his soul. Already as a school-boy, he had developed a taste for philosophy, of which he was to sing in Comus:

How sweet is divine philosophy,
Not harsh and crabbed as dull fools suppose,
But sweet as is Apollo’s lute—

      Though in his last period—that of the Epics,—he was disillusioned with Apollo’s lute and its sweetness and could exclaim on its uselessness—” Kain wisdom all and false philosophy!”

      Already at school Milton had shown some facility at writing verses, but of these early days only two translations of the Psalms have come down to us, Psalm 114 and Psalm 136. Diodati, the Italian friend, to whom Milton later on addressed some poems and letters, was one of Millon’s school mates.

The Second Period

      At Cambridge. On February 12, 1625—six weeks before the accession of King Charles I—Milton was removed to Cambridge and admitted as a “pensioner” of Christ’s College. Al this time, he showed considerable skill in the Latin languages; and it was subsequently said by those who were most capable of forming a judgment, that he was one of the first Englishmen who after the Renaissance wrote Latin verses with classic elegance. For seven years Milton continued to study at Cambridge, taking his B.A. Degree in 1628-29 and the M.A. Degree in July, 1632. But whether from a capricious perverseness, or dislike of a supposed injudicious severity of the college authorities, he conceived a rooted antipathy to the university and was impatient for a release from its jurisdiction. The design which his father had certainly in mind—and which the poet himself had for a time entertained—that he should take orders was entirely relinquished and Milton returned to his father at Horton in Buckinghamshire, where the scrivener had retired on a personally acquired estate of his own, and there he chiefly employed himself in studying Greek and Roman authors and occasionally indulging himself in the composition of English verse.

      John Aubrey in his notes on Milton reports that the poet received unkind treatment from his first tutor at Cambridge, one Mr. Chapell and was afterward transferred to another tutor To veil [Tovey]. He describes Milton at college as of middle stature, with auburn hair and an oval face, with grey eyes, and an exceedingly fair complexion on which account he was called the 'Lady of Christ College'. Milton confirms the latter statement himself in Prolusiones Oratoriae, VI, where he says: “By some of you [i.e. the auditors or fellow-students] I used lately to be nicknamed The lady” (Masson’s Translation). Milton proceeds to argue against the bad taste in grammar in calling a male a lady and suggests he was so called because he wouldn’t drink tankards of ale or snore at midday like them.

      The Prolusiones Oratoriae to one of which a reference is made above were academic exercises in Latin in the form of speeches, which in the opinion of recent critics throw a good deal of light on Milton’s life. They have been translated by Masson, and recently by Miss Phyllis B. Tillyard, with a commentary by Mr. E. M. W. Tillyard. They serve to explain why Milton did not find his Cambridge life so congenial. He did not like Aristotle, whom Milton calls, in these exercises, the “rival and constant calumniator of Pythagoras and Plato.” Education in Milton’s days was based on the medieval system of disputation, and these disputations were based on the old scholastic philosophy, which Milton disliked. Milton’s Third Prolusion is an open attack on the system of education pursued at Cambridge. Even during his Cambridge days, Milton wrote a number of Latin pieces arid the following English poems:—

On the Death of a Fair Infant, 1626. (Milton’s first original poem in English).

At a Vacation Exercise, 1628.

On the Mourning of Christ’s Nativity, 1629 (Certainly the first great English poem from the pen of Milton, then only 21 years of age. It is a “metaphysical” poem in the style of Donne and Cowley. The skillful construction shows that Milton was already an artist. The work is marked by some conceits and fantasies characteristic of his age, but absent from his maturer poems. The blending of Christian and classical thought which we see in this poem remained with him to the end).

An unfinished piece on The Passion.

The first two of his Sonnets.

The Song on May Morning. (This gives us a foretaste of the spirit of L’ Allegro).

The Lines On Shakespeare. (In this we discern some of the most striking qualities of Milton’s style).

Epitaph on the Marchioness of Winchester. (In the meter of L’ Allegro and II Penseroso with some of the gracefulness of language of those poems).

On Time. (This might have been written either at Cambridge or at Horton)

At a Solemn Music. (This may be placed in the Horton period. But probably it may be dated 1630).

      The second sonnet closes the list of Milton’s compositions at Cambridge, and, with the spirit of liberty it breathes, it is in a way prelude to the Prose Works in which he finds Milton acting as a champion of Liberty, which he considered to have a moral and spiritual value. When Milton left Cambridge, he had already discovered his true vocation—Poetry: and in obedience to “an inward prompting” to fit himself by labor and intense study for his life work, he gave up all intention of studying for the Church, left the University after receiving his Master’s degree and retired at the age of twenty-three to his father’s country house at Horton.—The father too having retired from London and his profession of a scrivener. Horton lay near Windsor about twenty miles from London.

      The Horton Period. To these six years of country life,—years which Milton regarded clearly as a time of “ripening”, for his great work, we owe the best of his minor poems. These were written in the order we name them here:—

L. Allegro and H Penseroso, 1632.
Arcades, 1633.
Comus, 1634, and
Lycidas, 1637.

      L' Allegro and 11 Penseroso re-capture in their rhythm and phrasing “some of the supreme felicities of Elizabethan verse, the ease and magic of words and the serenity of the heart.” 'these are poems which will never run the risk of becoming stale. As Dr. Johnson said, “Every man that reads them reads them with pleasure. They exhibit a quintessence of a happy English life: and in them, the poet reveals his own temperament as a typical but richly gifted one.” The contrast in these two poems is a contrast, not so much of two characters, as of two moods. Under the influence of one mood, a man seeks light-hearted mirth. He joys in the cheerful sights and sounds of the morning. In the hay time and the harvest, in the simple feasts of country folk. If he goes to town, he finds pleasure in pomps and pageants, in weddings, comedies and masques. The Puritan mood is forgotten here. Under the influence of the other mood, a man loves the quietude of the country, the trim garden in the evening, astronomy and philosophy, the tragic muse and religious anthems.

      Arcades and Comus, a Masque presented at Ludlow Castle, were written for the private stage and the music of Milton’s friend and neighbor, Henry Lawes. Both are masques. Written after Prynne’s attack on the drama - the Histrio-mastix (’’The Actor Flogged”), they show that Milton did not share the view of extreme Puritanism that a drama is an evil in itself. To Milton at this stage of his career not the drama itself but its misuse was the evil. The admirer of Euripides and of Shakespeare’s “native wood notes wild” could not condemn drama as such. But since the time of Beaumont and Fletcher, there had been a steady decadence in the Elizabethan drama and a tendency toward moral looseness. Milton was resolved to bring back the drama to a glorification of virtue. The subject of Comus is the sacredness of chastity. From Peels’s Old Wives’ Tale, Milton took the subject of a girl lost in a wood where she is caught by a magician and rescued by her brothers. This magician becomes Comus in Milton’s masque. He is a personification of revelry and the son of Circe and Bacchus and he possesses his mother’s power of changing men into beasts. As the scene of the play is Shropshire, Sabrina, the nymph of the Severn, is brought in to complete the work of the brothers and end the masque in happiness. The play is called “a eulogy of virtue.” The magician can have no lasting power over the freedom of the lady’s mind, and whatever power he can use over her physical self is but temporary and will last only as long as “Heaven sees good”. The lady and her brothers present the ideal of the nobler Puritans, Comus and his bestial troop stand for the gay world of fashion, the courtiers of Charles I. This poem gives us Milton’s first exercise in blank verse, but being a masque, with song and dance, they are some excellent lyrics.

      Lycidas is a monody on the death by drawing in the Irish Sea of Milton’s college friend, Edward King. It follows the form of the Greek Pastoral, following the conventions of Theocritus, Bion and Moschus. It is to be ranked with the greatest of Pastoral Elegies in the English language, such as Matthew Arnold’s Thyrsis and Shelley’s Adonais. In thought, it more resembles the work of Virgil (in the Eclogues) than that of Matthew Arnold. That is to say like Virgil and Matthew Arnold, Milton employs the Greek pastoral form as a framework into which he fits his views on life and art, on the beauty of human friendship and a cultural social intercourse. Milton shows himself in this poem as an uncompromising Puritan. The apparent incongruities—which Dr. Johnson harps so much upon in his criticism of the poem, such as the mixture of paganism and Christianity and the actual lack of professed sincerity of grief—are brought into perfect harmony by the thought which lies behind them and for which they provide the most beautiful expression.

      Travel. The death of his mother set the poet at liberty to travel, for which he obtained his father’s consent, and a letter of advice from Sir Henry Wotton, Provost of Eton College. He left England in 1638, and went first to Paris, where he was introduced to the celebrated Grotius, the writer on International Law (author of De Jure Belli et Pads ” On Law in War and Peace”), who was then residing at the French Court as an ambassador from Sweden. He then proceeded to Italy; and after an absence of fifteen months returned to his native country, which he found in the turmoils of a civil commotion—the beginning of the causes of the Civil War.

Milton's Third Period

      Henceforth Milton settled in London, took pupils and wrote pamphlets on the controversies of the time, except that there was a brief interval of rest in his pamphleteering campaign from 1645 to 1649. The result of his taking pupils was the Tractate on Education discussed later on in this Introduction. The result of his Puritan convictions and espousal of the Presbyterian party was his anti-Episcopalian tracts with which he inaugurated his pamphleteering career. There were at least five of these Puritan tracts from 1641 to 1642. Then came Milton’s first marriage in 1642 and the first Tract on Divorce followed soon afterward. Early in 1644 followed the second edition of this tract and soon after the Tractate on Education. Then followed the second Trace on Divorce and soon after it the Areopagilica in 1644. Two more Tracts on Divorce followed in 1645. Then came a break for four years.

      In 1643 Milton married Mary Powell, daughter of an Oxfordshire cavalier. The match was so unsuited (there being also a great disparity in age) that within a few weeks the wife returned to her parents and refused to return. The husband sat down to write his Tracts on Divorce, the chronology of which is given above. These he published without a license against an ordinance passed by Parliament. Action was taken against him by the Stationers’ Company and this led to the composition of the Areopagilica. The Areopagitica is the best remembered among all the prose tracts of Milton. It has a universal interest for all times and climes. It is an eloquent plea for unrestrained liberty of thought and publication. The rigid system of censorship which prevailed in Milton’s days is condemned in unequivocal terms. It contains some of the most eloquent prose in the English language. In 1645, the ruin of the Cavalier cause made his wife’s friends desire her to return to him. He forgave and received her, and soon afterward gave shelter to her parents and sisters. The poet moved from Aldergate to a more commodious house at Barbican, In 1646 came the poet’s break with the Presbyterians and the death of his father and soon afterward he gave up his pupils and moved to a cozier house near Lincoln’s Inn Fields.

      In 1649 in support of the execution of King Charles I, he published his first political tract, Tenure of Kings and Magistrates. This brought Milton into controversy with one of the great scholars of Europe, Salmasius Milton replied with his Defence of the English People in the matter of the execution of King Charles I, Salmasius made a scurrilous reply. Milton rejoined with his Second Defence of the English People. Both scholars abused each other with the choicest flowers of Latin invective and ill-natured personalities. No fishwives could use Billings gate better than these great scholars used the language of Persius and Juvenal for personal abuse. The same year he was made “Secretary for Foreign Tongues” (which meant practically Latin Secretary) to the new Council of State on a salary of £ 290 a year. His eye-sight began to fail the same year and a succession of political tracts made it worse. The date of his treatise on Christian Doctrine (Latin) cannot be determined: It was published in 1825. Milton’s views seem to have undergone a grave change between his epics and this tract.

      We find Milton continually changing his residence in London. On his appointment as Secretary for Foreign Tongues to the Council of State, he moved to chambers allowed him at Whitehall in 1649. In 1652, he moved to a “garden house” in Petty France, Westminster, overlooking St. James’ Park, where he was constantly visited by leading men of the day. In 1652, he became totally blind. Mary Powell died the same year. She had borne him three daughters, Anne, Mary and Deborah. The only male child, John, died in infancy in 1651.

      On November 12, 1656, Milton married Katharine Woodcock, who gave birth to a daughter, on October 19, 1657. Both mother and child died in February 1658. In one of his Sonnets of the time, Milton writes about this lady after her death and refers to her as a saint—” My late espoused saint.” He had of course never seen her with physical eyes at least after marriage.

      Then came the Restoration in 1660. For some time Milton was concealed in a friend’s house in Bartholomew Close. He was arrested during the summer of that year, but at the intercession of his friends, he was discharged. Then the passing of the Act of Amnesty and Oblivion soon delivered him from further molestation. Two of Milton’s books were burnt by the common hangman, but no punishment was inflicted on him. Now his part in political strife was over and he was free to devote himself entirely to far greater work. But he had suffered heavy losses and his official post and salary attached to it (it had been reduced in 1655) were gone. None the less on February, 24, 1663, the blind poet once again married a third wife, Elizabeth Minshull, a lady thirty years younger than himself Shortly afterward, Milton moved to a house in Artillery Walk, where he lived for the rest of his life (except for a short time in 1665 during the Great Plague). Here he wrote his epics and Samson Agonistes, the great works of his Fourth Period. His private life in the Fourth Period is best talked on to the Third Period. He dictated these works to his daughters, but there was no great love lost between them and their second stepmother. The great epics were the only public events now in the life of Milton: they were published in 1667 and 1671. Paradise Lost was re-published in 1674. In the same year, the great poet died of gout on November 8, 1674, and was buried in St. Giles, Cripplegate, beside his father. The three daughters and the widow survived. Milton had left his estate by will to his third wife. The three daughters contested the will. Milton’s brother Christopher gave evidence in Court on behalf of the widow. But the will was set aside owing to a flaw. The widow died in 1727. The youngest daughter Deborah married a Mr. Foster, and her daughter, Elizabeth Foster was the only known descendant of the poet. Elizabeth Foster died in 1754.

      We have in the above sketch talked on Milton’s private life in his closing years to the Third Period. In the Third Period the only poetry which Milton found time to write after his Prose was the great Sonnets. In these Sonnets, Milton rejected the Shakespearean form and reverted to that of Petrarch. Five of his sonnets are in the Italian tongue. Some of these sonnets especially those addressed to friends like Lawrence and Cyriach Skinner (Edward Phillips in his life of his uncle tells us that they used to visit Milton when residing at Petty France) are composed in the mood of Horace. Others were suggested by passing events. One of the most famous of these is the sonnet On the Late Massacre in Piedmont. It is generally recognized as the mightiest sonnet in any tongue. Its only defect is his unrestrained expression of his ever-growing hatred of the Catholic Church.

Milton's Fourth Period: 1660-1674: The Period of the Great Poems

      We now come to the fourth period of Milton’s life, which is the third epoch in his literary work.

      As far back as 1641—full seventeen years before he actually began to write his great epic,—Milton had in his Reason of Church Government announced his intention of devoting himself to a work “not to be raised from the heat of youth or the vapors of wine, like that which flows at waste from the pen of some vulgar amorist.....nor to be obtained by the invocation of dame Memory and her siren Slaughters, but by devout prayers to the Eternal Spirit who can enrich with all utterance and knowledge.”

      For a long time he had not made up his mind on the subjects made by Milton in 1640. Before this, he had decided on the Arthur story and he had announced that intention in a Latin poem written at Naples to his friend and host Manso. Between 1639 and 1642, Milton made no less than four schemes or “drafts” for a work to be called Adam Unparadized. Of these two are mere lists of characters and two are short abstracts of “plots” of a tragic drama, which seems to have been the form first intended (or this subject. The scheme was laid aside during the stormy scenes of the Civil War and the Commonwealth government. After Cromwell’s death, Milton applied himself to the project. After the Restoration, he finished his epic on the subject.

      Paradise Lost was finished in 1663 -1665, during the “reign” of Milton’s third wife. Milton took the MS with him to the cottage at Chalfont, St. Giles, in Buckinghamshire to which he had retired during the Great Plague of 1665. It was not published till 1667. The delay was probably due to the Great Fire of London and the interruption to business caused on that account. The poem appeared under the title of Paradise Lost in ten books. In the second edition of 1674, the poem was divided into twelve books, by splitting Books VII and X. In this form, the poem has, since 1674, been always printed.

      Paradise Regained and Samson Agonistes were published together in 1671, just three years before the poet’s death.

      It is rather sad to read that the copyright of Paradise Lost was sold to a publisher named Samuel Simmons for the immediate payment of five pounds for every future edition were sold, with a fresh payment of five pounds for every future edition when the same number of copies was sold. All the editions were limited to fifteen hundred copies each. The third edition appeared after the poet’s death in 1678, after which the poet’s widow sold all her rights to Simmons for eight pounds. The sum of twenty-eight pounds constitutes the entire remuneration, the poet and his widow received for a performance, which while it immortalized the name of the poet, conferred an honor equally imperishable upon the nation signalized for his birth.

      Strange, as it may appear, Milton is said to have always preferred Paradise Regained to Paradise Lost. According to an anecdote of Milton’s Quaker friend, Ellwood, Paradise Regained was written in part at least during the Plague Year at Chalfont and was probably finished there. Milton thought that Paradise Lost was a complete epic and that the poem ended with the confident reassurance of the recovery of Paradise for Adam’s descendants. But a story is told that Milton gave to Ellwood the manuscript of Paradise Lost to read, and on returning it, Ellwood said, “Thou hast said much of Paradise Lost, but what hast thou to say of Paradise Found? ” [Notice the Quaker’s thou instead of you]. Milton had to reflect on this and consider that if a cultured man like Ellwood—he used to read Latin books to Milton during his blindness—could not see the assurance of the recovery of Paradise through the Messiah, he must make the matter clear and write a fresh book to set forth the recovery: hence Paradise Regained!

      Paradise Regained differs from the other poem in being rather a dialogue in epic form than an epic. It is a poem in four books dealing with one episode, Satan’s Temptation of Christ in the Wilderness. There is no “story interest” in it, and no action and little of the true epic simplicity—and there are scarcely any real characters except Christ and Satan. In Paradise Lost too, there are just two human characters—there could not be more—and they are not introduced till the fourth book. The wealth of imagery in the Paradise Lost becomes obscure in Paradise Regained. The epic similes in Paradise Lost show Milton’s wonderful reading and still more wonderful imagination.

      There is a feeling of grandeur and spaciousness about Milton’s epics which nothing can approach, still less equal. And there is a majesty and elevation of language and a music and sonorous quality in the blank verse for which Tennyson’s description of Milton as “the mighty-mouthed inventor of harmonies” and “God-gifted organ-voice of England” is perhaps the most adequate characterization.

      Samson Agonistes is a tragedy in the Greek form on the death of the blind champion of the Jewish nation in captivity. In many ways, Milton identifies himself with Samson Agonistes (the Struggler Like Samson, Milton too is blind and helpless among the Philistines. The despairing mood is however not the prevalent one, for the poem is a glorification of the Almighty, who after duly punishing his disobedient creature, makes him the instrument of the downfall of the foes of the Jewish race, and the means of its deliverance.

      Milton’s poetry is remarkable for the fact that he always maintains a high level. Even Shakespeare in uneven; and both Wordsworth and Tennyson have left a mass of uninspired work. Milton, except for one or two ephemeral sonnets, soars immediately into the very empyrean of poetry. He did not mean his later poetry to be merely for amusement. He held his poetical genius as one of God’s most transcendent gifts and believed that poetry far from injuring society, is one of the great instruments of its refinement and exaltation. He wrote as a dedicated spirit and as a prophet. He is nothing, if not serious.

Milton’s Death and Character

      When in his sixty-sixth year, the gout with which he had long been tormented, prevailed over the enfeebled powers of nature, on the 10th of November, 1674, he quietly departed this life at his house at Bunhill Fields, and was buried next to his father, in the chancel of St. Giles, Cripplegate. His funeral was splendidly and numerously attended. No memorial marked the place where he was buried, though, towards the end of the Victorian Age, a tablet was erected. A monument has been erected to his memory in Westminster Abbey.

      In his youth, he was accounted extremely handsome. We have given above in an account of his college days Aubrey’s description of his appearance and how he came to be called the Lady of Christ College. The color of his hair was light brown; the symmetry of his features exact, enlivened with an agreeable air and a beautiful mixture of fair and ruddy. His stature was about middle size, neither too lean, nor corpulent; his limbs were well-proportioned, nervous and active. In his diet he was abstemious, and strong liquors of all kinds were his aversion. Being convinced how much his health had suffered by night studies in his younger years, he was accustomed to retiring early (seldom later than nine) to bed; and rose commonly before five in the summer and six in the winter. When blindness restrained him from other exercises, he had a machine to swing in, and amused himself in his chamber with playing on an organ. His deportment was erect, open, affable; his conversation, easy, cheerful, instructive; his wit, on all occasions, at command, facetious, grave, or satirical, as the subject required. His judgment was just and penetrating, his apprehension quick, and his memory tenacious of what he read. Of the English poets, he set most value upon Spenser, Shakespeare, and Cowley.

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