Author of Paradise Lost and renowned English poetby Rit Nosotro First Published:: 2003
John Milton was born in London, in 1608. His father was a composer, which may explain, in some way, his bent toward the arts in his own life. His first official education took place at St. Paul’s School, in London . Upon his graduation from that institution, he enrolled in Cambridge, where he was something far less than a model student. On one occasion he started a fist fight with one of his tutors, and was consequently expelled for a year.2 He afterwards returned to Cambridge and obtained his B.A. in 1629, and his M.A. in 1632.1
Milton’s early education prepared him to enter the clergy. However, in the course of his studies he became disillusioned by the official Church of England, and decided to serve God as a poet instead . Despite his intent to serve God, however, Milton did hold several thoroughly un-Christian views. Consequently, after leaving Cambridge, Milton returned to his father’s house in Horton, and studied and wrote on his own. During this time, Milton wrote two major works. The first, Comus was a musical drama, which he completed in 1634. The second, and more significant, was “Lycidas.” “Lycidas” is an elegy written on the death of Milton’s friend, Edward King. It is often cited as one of the best English short poems ever written. Its significance, however, is not in its artistic quality but in its content. This poem marks the first time Milton’s works took on a distinctly Christian worldview, instead of being based on Greek and Roman classics . Even so, however, the Christian aspects of the work are all but drowned out in references to ancient mythology, and only truly shine through in the end of the poem, where Milton talks about the ultimate resurrection of the dead, and Christ’s saving work.
After spending six years in Horton, Milton left in 1638 to travel and study abroad. He Returned to England in 1640, upon hearing about the increasing discord between parliament and the Monarchy. For the next twenty years he wrote little in the way of artistic presentations, but profusely on political and social topics.2
In 1643 Milton married Mary Powel. Mary was just sixteen at the time, and their marriage was quite unhappy – the separated after just a few months. This painful event caused Milton to write an essay on divorce.2 This essay marks another first in Milton’s published works. While “Lycidas” elevated the Bible over classical sources, Milton’s essay on divorce elevated his feelings and opinions over the Bible.
From 1640 to 1660, Milton worked devotedly for the commonwealth, holding several official positions, and writing in support of the puritans. During this period, in 1644, he published what is possibly his most famous piece of prose, Areopagitica, in which he defended freedom of the press.2
Milton’s personal life during the commonwealth was characterized by his marriages, and his increasing struggles with his deteriorating eyesight. After several years of separation, Milton and Mary Powel were reunited, but Mary died in 1652. Milton married Katherine Woodcock soon after, but she too died after only a few years of marriage, in 1658.2 Earl in the 1640s, Milton noticed that his eyesight was failing, and by 1652, he was completely blind. All of his works beyond this time were composed mentally and dictated.
When the monarchy was restored in England in 1660 Milton was arrested and fined, but released unharmed. After his release he went into retirement, but it was in his retirement that he actually left his greatest mark on the world.2 He said once that he wanted to “Leave something so written to after-times, as they should not willingly let it die.”3 In 1667 he did so, when he published Paradise Lost. After his fall from power and public grace with the return of the English Monarchy, Milton lived rather poorly, and received only 5 pounds for his manuscript of Paradise Lost,3 giving yet more proof to the axiom that art goes unappreciated until the artist is dead. Paradise Lost first appeared in 12 books, but was later revised and put into ten.1 Milton is criticized frequently for making Satan too heroic a character in Paradise Lost, and for missing the point that Satan is, in fact, completely evil.3 After Paradise Lost Milton also wrote Paradise Regained, which deals with Christ’s successful resistance of temptation in the wilderness, and puts it forward as a contrast to Adam’s failure in the Garden.2
Milton was, while a firm Puritan in many ways, at opposition to the Bible on some points. Firstly, and most obviously, he believed in divorce of convenience, or on the basis of ‘incompatibility’ which the Bible clearly condemns. More seriously, Milton may not have believed in the Divine birth and actual deity of Christ.3 His sympathetic portrayal of Satan in Paradise Lost also raises questions about his faith. Whatever his relationship with God may, or may not, have been, Milton’s contribution to literature cannot be doubted. He is widely heralded as the second best English poet, after Shakespeare, and his masterpiece, Paradise Lost is now considered a magnificent classic.
1 Browning, Mark, “John Milton (1608-1674),” 1998, http://www.ccel.org/m/milton/milton.html
2The World Book Encyclopedia, 1994, World Book, inc.
3 “John Milton (1608-1674),” 2000, http://www.kirjasto.sci.fi/jmilton.htm (10/13/05)
4 Personal Reading of “Lycidas”