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John Milton

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English Literature

Milton is undoubtedly among the most decorated English poets, most notably for works such as 'Paradise Lost' and his many political writings. He is well known for composing poetry, despite being blind and for his radical essays on politics and religion during a turbulent period of history.

John Milton's biography

Milton was born in London on 9 December 1608. Milton was educated at St Paul’s school, during which time he was also privately tutored by Thomas Young, a Presbyterian. He likely influenced Milton’s political and religious beliefs, and the pair remained in contact long after Milton’s education was complete. Following his schooling, Milton then went to Christ’s College, University of Cambridge, graduating with a Bachelor of Arts in 1629 and a Master of Arts in 1632. During this time he composed ‘Elegia Prima’ (1626), ‘L'Allegro’ (1645), and ‘Il Penseroso’ (1645/6).

Presbyterians are a sect of Protestant Christians that believe in the highest authority of the scriptures, as well as the ultimate sovereign being God.

Milton’s education led to him being incredibly well-read: he even had his own Commonplace Book, which contained all of his notes on his extensive reading. Milton was also multilingual, knowing at least ten languages. He was fully educated in Latin, Greek, Italian, Hebrew, French and Spanish.

Sometime after his university education, Milton travelled around Europe. In Florence, Milton met Galileo, who was under functional house arrest. The circumstances of the meeting are not known; however, Galileo is thought to have influenced Milton’s portrayal of the known universe in Paradise Lost. Hearing news of the Civil War in England, Milton returned to London in 1639.

Personal Life

Milton married his first wife, 17-year-old Mary Powell, in 1642. However, the marriage was unhappy, and the two separated for many years. During this time, Milton wrote a series of papers called the Divorce Tracts, a series of documents that advocated for the morality of divorce on the grounds of mutual incompatibility (The Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce (1643), The Judgment of Martin Bucer Concerning Divorce (1644), Tetrachordon (1645), and Colasterion (1645)).

During this time, Milton published his first volume of poetry, Poems of Mr John Milton, Both English and Latin (1645). This collection included some very early compositions from Milton’s teenage years.

Milton and Mary eventually reunited and had four children together. Mary Powell died in 1652, and Milton remarried in 1656 to Katherine Woodcock. Katherine died in 1658, around four months after giving birth to Milton’s child, who also died.

Milton’s sonnet, ‘Methought I Saw My Late Espoused Saint' (1658), is thought to be about Katherine!

Milton married for the third and final time in 1663 to Elizabeth Mynshull. Milton was 31 years older than his third wife; however, the marriage was reportedly happy and lasted until he died in 1674.

Political career

We mostly talk about Milton as a poet, but he was also a political figure during and after the English Civil war. In addition to his poetry, Milton also wrote many works on politics and religion.

His most notable political works included writings against corruption in the English clergy (Of Reformation (1641-42)), writings advocating for freedom of the press (Areopagitica (1644)), and defence of Charles I’s execution (Eikonoklastes (1649), Defensio pro-Populo Anglicano (1652), and Defensio Secunda (1654)).

Following Charles II’s ascension to the throne in 1660 and the dissolution of Cromwell’s government, Milton was imprisoned due to his role in the Civil War. Milton was due to be executed but had a wealthy family and friends (notably, a brother who was both a lawyer and a Roman Catholic) who advocated for his release. It was during this time that Milton, now fully blind, wrote much of his most famous poetry, including 'Paradise Lost' (1667), 'Paradise Regain’d' (1671), and 'Samson Agonistes' (1671).

Death

Milton died in England on 8 November 1674. His cause of death was from gout complications or consumption, depending on the source. It is thought that he suffered from renal failure. He was laid to rest inside St Giles-without-Cripplegate, Fore Street, London.

John Milton: Poems

Let's take a look at some of Milton's famous poems.

Paradise Lost (1667)

Paradise Lost is a blank verse, 12-book long epic poem written in English that concerns the book of Genesis. In Paradise Lost, Milton tells the story of Satan’s fall and war with heaven, along with Satan’s plot to tempt Eve and Adam to eat from the Tree of Knowledge.

Milton composed most of Paradise Lost whilst blind, dictating to aides or his daughters.

Themes

Order vs Chaos: throughout Paradise Lost, Milton emphasises the entrenchment of hierarchy both in the order of Heaven and on Earth. The most significant aspect of this hierarchy is that God is the sovereign - he reigns supreme over every other being, and to disobey him is to commit the ultimate sin. This strict adherence to Order is reflected in the structure of the universe according to Milton: Heaven is at the top of the universe, then our universe is within a large chasm of chaos, and then finally, Hell is at the very bottom, representing how Satan is the lowest being on this hierarchy due to his disobedience. Satan’s whole mission throughout Paradise Lost is to disrupt this order and bring chaos to Earth.

Whilst Milton advocates for the integrity of the religious hierarchy in ‘Paradise Lost’, he also was a revolutionary that defended the execution of Charles I, who arguably had the divine right to rule. How do you, as a reader, try and reconcile this ideological inconsistency?

The Nature of Creation and the Universe: Milton was highly interested in the idea of materialism, and there is a high amount of materialist discussion in Milton’s works, particularly in Paradise Lost. For Milton, angels have the same anatomy as humans, space and chaos are made up of raw materials that God can then use to create new worlds, and Hell is a place that you can physically travel to (albeit with a lot of difficulties!). This idea poses the question: if everything is made of material substance, what about God? Did something make God? Milton does not answer these questions; however, he complicates and discusses them at length in his epic.

Materialism is a belief that states everything, including the spiritual, is of material substance.

Free Will: God is ultimately all-seeing: he foresees the fall of man before it happens in Genesis. Milton portrays the fall of man as something that God is aware of in Paradise Lost. However, he bestows upon his creatures the free will to either obey or rebel against his will - so he ultimately does not control our decisions.

While God does not directly control Eve and Adam's actions, he still allows the set-up to happen by letting Satan escape Hell and remain on Earth. How does this fit in with God's portrayal as omnibenevolent? Do you think that Milton successfully reconciles this problem in Paradise Lost?

Paradise Lost Quotes

So Heav’nly love shall outdo Hellish hate,

Giving to death, and dying to redeem,

So dearly to redeem what Hellish hate

So easily destroyed, and still destroys

In those who, when they may, accept not grace.- Book 3

This quote is from God, in which he explains his plan to bring good out of the fall of man. It reflects the fact that, even though Satan achieved a temporary victory in Genesis and the events of Paradise Lost, all of his plans will eventually fall in the face of Heaven's 'love,' which will ultimately always be more powerful.

A mind not to be changed by place or time.

The mind is its own place, and in itself

Can make a heav'n of hell, a hell of heav'n.’ - Book 1

It's very telling that this quote is stated early on in the poem. Milton suggests through his portrayal of Satan's hatred for God and humanity that true Hell is a state of mind. So, while Hell is a physical place where Satan and his devils reside, their real punishment comes from their hatred of God and their unwillingness to repent, which is worse than anything God could ever impose on them.

‘Did I request thee, Maker, from my clay

To mould me man?

Did I solicit thee

From darkness to promote me?’ - Book 10

Adam speaks these words after humanity's fall at the poem's end. His question is poignant, as it essentially questions why God would put humanity on Earth if he intended for us to suffer.

This quote is also an epigraph on the cover of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1818)

Lycidas

Widely regarded as Milton’s best poem, ‘Lycidas’ (1637) is a pastoral elegy commemorating the death of Milton’s friend and fellow Cambridge student, Edward King. Edward King drowned while crossing the Irish Sea the same year that the poem was published. The poem is richly allegorical, with Lycidas being representative of King, and the poem’s narrator is a stand-in for Milton’s voice.

By writing ‘Lycidas’, Milton is following “the tradition of memorialising a loved one through Pastoral poetry, a practice that may be traced from ancient Greek Sicily through Roman culture and into the Christian Middle Ages and early Renaissance.” ¹

Themes

Grief, memory and loss: as is typical of the elegy, Milton laments the death of King in ‘Lycidas’, cursing God for his premature death. Calling back to the ‘pastures’ of Christ’s College, Cambridge, Milton recalls experiences that he shared with King (in the poem, portrayed as a fellow shepherd), using symbols such as ‘satyrs’ and ‘fauns’ for their classmates and a Cambridge professor as ‘Damoetas.’ However, ‘Lycidas’ is ultimately a conciliatory poem. At its conclusion, the narrator speaks of Lycidas in heaven, speaking of an eventual resurrection. Therefore, while ‘Lycidas’ certainly explores Milton’s despair at King’s death, it still ends on a note of acceptance and a sense that the narrator can move on.

Criticisms of the clergy: when first lamenting King’s premature death, Milton notes that King was due to join the clergy and notably says that King would have contrasted the usual ‘depraved, materialistic and selfish’ ministers and bishops of the Church of England’ (Mark Womack). The speaker condemns the ‘foul contagion’ of the clergy; they have ‘blind mouths’. Expanding on the shepherd analogy, the clergy are so incompetent that they ‘scarce themselves know how to hold/A sheep-hook.’ It is clear then that Milton views the Church as intensely corrupt, making King’s lost future in the Church all the more tragic.

'Lycidas' Quotes

And now the Sun had stretch'd out all the hills,

And now was dropt into the Western bay;

At last he rose, and twitch'd his Mantle blew:

To morrow to fresh Woods, and Pastures new

This quote is the poem's closing lines and portrays a peaceful, beautiful evening of the sun setting over the hills. The poem ends on a very hopeful note, with a sense of peace and the promise of renewal. Just as we know the Sun will rise the morning after the poem, the narrator knows that, eventually, 'Lycidas' will live again.

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. So Lycidas sunk low, but mounted high, Through the dear might of him that walked the waves.

In the same vein as the quote above, this quote conveys hope despite the poem's elegaic form. At the beginning of the poem, the poet laments that 'For Lycidas is dead, dead ere his prime,' while here he is saying that Lycidas is not truly dead - instead, he is the 'day-star', the same analogy as the 'sun' of the previous quote, fated to die and be re-birthed.

The hungry sheep look up, and are not fed,

But, swoln with wind, and the rank mist they draw,

Rot inwardly, and foul contagion spread:

Besides what the grim wolf with privy paw

Daily devours apace, and nothing said;

But that two-handed engine at the door

Stands ready to smite once, and smite no more.

This is the most heavily quoted passage when exploring Milton's criticisms of the church in Lycidas. Here, the 'sheep' are Christians, hungry because they are not cared for or guided in the way that Christians should be due to the corruption of the clergy. The 'rot' and 'foul contagion' are the sin that spreads through Christians when the clergy are inadequate and fail to lead. The 'grim wolf' represents the Catholic Church, of which Milton had a shallow opinion, which stands ready to metaphorically 'eat' the vulnerable Christians.

John Milton's books

Let's explore some of Milton's popular books.

Areopagitica

Areopagitica; A speech of Mr. John Milton for the Liberty of Unlicenc’d Printing, to the Parlament of England (1644) is a polemic written in prose. Written in the wake of the 1643 Licensing Order, which Milton strongly opposed, Areopagitica is a rigorous and passionate defence of freedom of expression and explicitly attacks censorship.

A polemic is a strongly worded, argumentative text, usually written to criticise something.

The Licensing Order was a law that mandated no book, pamphlet, or paper shall be henceforth printed unless the same be first approved and licensed by such.

Areopagitica's principles have been used to interpret important laws such as the First Amendment of the United States constitution and are quoted in various American cases concerning censorship, such as New York Times v Sullivan. In short, it’s highly influential as a political text, which speaks to Milton’s skill as a political writer!

Themes

Religion and Censorship: in keeping with its theme, Milton did not register 'Areopagitica' in accordance with the new Licensing Order before publishing it. As Milton argues, indiscriminate censorship of books is a direct offence against God as it deprives people of the free will to choose between good and evil. Instead, it places this responsibility in the hands of Parliament. Milton draws many parallels between the Catholic religion and the practice of censorship, referencing the Spanish Inquisition and the Council of Trent (a council in Italy that attempted to suppress Protestantism by forbidding certain books).

Who kills a man kills a reasonable creature, God’s image, but he who destroys a good book, kills reason itself, kills the image of God, as it were in the eye.

The Truth: of course, censorship leads to the limitation of knowledge, and, as Milton argues, if we cannot access the knowledge, we are unable to access the truth. Milton argues that we cannot truly separate the idea of the truth from the pursuit of knowledge and learning. Censorship takes away the subjectivity of truth and makes it easier to promote lies and propaganda. Milton points out the danger of suppressing of the truth, arguing that it will create further division among the people of England due to their decreased understanding of the world around them.

Areopagitica Quotes

I mean not tolerated Popery, and open superstition, which as it extirpates all religions and civil supremacies, so it self should be extirpate, provided first that all charitable and compassionate means be used to win and regain the weak and the misled.

Ye cannot make us now lesse capable, lesse knowing, lesse eagarly pursuing of the Truth, unlesse ye first make yourselves that made us so, lesse the lovers, lesse the founders of our true Liberty. We can grow ignorant again, brutish, formall, and slavish as ye found us, but you then must first become that which ye cannot be, oppressive, arbitrary, and tyrannous as they were from whom ye have free'd us.

A good Booke is the precious life-blood of a master spirit, imbalm'd and treasur'd up on purpose to a life beyond life.

This last quotation is displayed over the entrance of the New York Public Library!

Why is John Milton important to English Literature?

Milton’s works are highly significant to the English canon due to their discussions of fairly radical beliefs of his time. Milton’s political and religious beliefs made him a revolutionary and an outcast, and as a result, his reputation as a poet has lasted into the modern day.

In particular, Milton’s portrayal of Satan was a favourite of many romantic poets, both as a tragic hero and as a symbol of freedom and revolution. In particular, Milton's popularity was notable among major romantic authors such as William Blake, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Mary Shelley, and Lord Byon. Percy Shelley’s Prometheus in Prometheus Unbound (1820) is modelled after Milton’s Satan, and much of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) is inspired by ‘Paradise Lost.’

In the 21st century, Milton is considered to be second to Shakespeare in terms of great British authors. His work inspired Philip Pullman's popular His Dark Materials (1995-2000) trilogy and is continually referenced by various other modern plays, novels and films.

John Milton (1608-1674) - Key takeaways

  • Milton (1608-1674) was a writer, philosopher and civil servant. He was a puritan, a branch of Protestantism.
  • Milton wrote numerous poems and political pamphlets during his life, the most famous of which include ‘Paradise Lost’, Aeropagitica, and ‘Lycidas.’
  • Milton wrote many works on politics and religion, in addition to his own poetry.
  • His most notable political works included writings against corruption in the English clergy (Of Reformation (1641-42)), writings advocating for freedom of press (Areopagitica (1644)), and in defence of Charles I’s execution (Eikonoklastes (1649), Defensio pro Populo Anglicano (1652), and Defensio Secunda (1654)).
  • Milton was the Secretary for Foreign Tongues under Oliver Cromwell’s government. He went into hiding in 1660 following Charles II’s ascension to the throne.
  • Milton married three times; his wives were: Mary Powell, Katherine Woodcock, and Elizabeth Mynshull.

1. Mark Womack, On the value of Lycidas, ‘Studies in English Literature 1500-1900’, 37(1).

John Milton

Milton was buried inside St Giles-without-Cripplegate, Fore Street, London


Milton died in England, on 8 November 1674. His cause of death was from complications of gout or consumption, depending on the source. It is thought that he suffered from renal failure. 

Milton is best known for his composition of 'Paradise Lost', an English epic poem that is studied worldwide today. He is also known for his role in the English Civil War as a supporter of Oliver Cromwell. 


Milton was greatly influenced by Shakespeare. He even wrote a poem, ‘On Shakespeare’, in which Shakespeare is praised as a “son of Memory” and “great heir of fame”.

Milton’s most famous poem is 'Paradise Lost'. 

Final John Milton Quiz

Question

John Milton was a poet, but what was his other profession?

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Civil servant

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Why did Milton have to dictate most of 'Paradise Lost' to his aides?

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He was blind.

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Who was Milton particularly critical of in his writings on the Church of England?

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Answer

William Laud, the Archbishop of Canterbury

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What classical plot device does Milton use to start off 'Paradise Lost'?

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He calls upon a muse to help him tell his story, and he begins the actual plot in medias res. 

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Name two members of Satan's army.

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Answer

Any two from:


Moloch, Belial, Mammon, and Beelzebub

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What is the literal meaning of 'in medias res?'

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In the middle of things

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What is the name of Satan's daughter?

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Sin

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What does Sin give birth to?

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Death

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What does Eve do that causes the fall of man?

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She eats from the Tree of Knowledge, disobeying God's orders

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What animal does Satan disguise himself as?

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A snake

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Who warns Adam and Eve of Satan's presence in Paradise?

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Raphael

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What do Sin and Death do at the end of 'Paradise Lost'?

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They build a bridge between Hell and Earth

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What does Satan travel through on his journey to Earth?

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Chaos/the Abyss

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Who did Milton support in the English civil war?

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Oliver Cromwell

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Why did Milton have to go into exile?

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The downfall of Cromwell's government and the coronation of King Charles II

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When was Milton born?

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9 December, 1608

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Who tutored Milton and would later influence his views on politics and religion?

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Thomas Young

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Where did Milton go to university and who did he meet there? (Hint: the person he met would later inspire the pastoral elegy 'Lycidas')

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Milton attended Christ's College, Cambridge, where he met Edward King

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What notable scientific figure did Milton meet in Florence?

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Galileo

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What were the names of Milton's three wives?

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Mary Powell, Katherine Woodcock, and Elizabeth Munshull.

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When did Milton go blind?

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1654

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What was Milton's position under Oliver Cromwell's government?

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Secretary of Foreign Tongues

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Why did Milton have to go into hiding in 1660?

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Charles II ascended to the throne

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What sect of Christianity did Milton believe in?

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Puritanism

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What was the sequel to 'Paradise Lost' called?

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'Paradise Regain'd'

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Who was Milton's sonnet,  ‘Methought I Saw My Late Espoused Saint' (1658), about?

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Milton's second wife, Katherine

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When did Milton die?

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8 November 1674

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