John Milton Poet of the English Revolution

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John Milton

Poet of the English Revolution
Born 1608. Died 1674.

Lived much of his life in London.

Most influential poet in the English language.

Controversial writer and thinker on politics, religion and society.
Boyhood and Youth

John Milton was born December 9, 1608, in Bread Street, London.

His father, also called John Milton, was a scrivener (a legal writer), and also a talented musician and composer.

As a boy, Milton was taught at home by tutors, and then, from the age of 12, at St Paul’s School.

He was a very studious boy, usually reading and studying until late at night.

In 1625, Milton entered Christ’s College, Cambridge.

Cambridge University was one of the oldest universities in Europe, and in the 17th century became a centre of new ideas in philosophy, language, science and religion.

Milton was very outspoken as a student.

He had strong disagreements with his tutor, and was sent home to London for a few months.

He thought the curriculum was wrong, and spoke of his dissatisfaction.

He was not popular with many of the students.
On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity”

1629, Milton wrote his first major poem.

Written before dawn on Christmas Day, the poem describes the birth of Jesus Christ, and how the pagan gods flee from the new Christian god.
Comus (A Mask at Ludlow)

1634. Milton was invited to write a masque, a short play with amateur actors, for the Earl of Bridgewater (a high nobleman) and his family.

Milton wrote the play, and the lyrics for the songs, with music by a famous musician, Henry Lawes.

However, it is likely that the seriousness and puritanism of Milton’s text were not popular with the audience, who expected entertainment.

The main part of the masque features the dangerous situation of a young lady, who is lost in a wood, and meets a spirit, Comus.

Comus tries to persuade the lady to yield to bodily pleasures, and give up the life of purity and the mind.
The 1630s

In the 1630s, the political and ecclesiastical situation in England was not favorable for Protestants like Milton.

Friends of the family, including a former tutor, Thomas Young, went to Holland and Germany, where Protestantism was more accepted.

Many English Protestants also crossed the Atlantic to America, where they hoped to establish a godly community in New England.

Charles I had become king in 1625. He was an absolutist monarch, married to a Catholic, and refused to rule through a representative parliament.

William Laud, the Archbishop of Canterbury, the senior minister of the Church of England, wanted to bring the English closer to Catholicism.

In 1632, Milton left Cambridge, and began to reconsider his career. The church did not seem to offer what he wanted.

He spent some time at his father’s house in London, then went to live in a small cottage in the country, at a village called Horton, not far from London.

In Horton, Milton began a self-directed course of study: of history, of languages, of religion, and of literature. He felt that he had some great purpose in life, but he did not yet know what.

In 1637, a young man from Cambridge, Edward King, died by drowning in the sea between Britain and Ireland.

A group of Cambridge friends made a book of poems in memory of their dead friend. Milton’s poem, “Lycidas” is the last poem in the book.

Lycidas is a pastoral elegy; it is a poem of sad feelings in which the characters are represented, figuratively, as shepherds.

The pastoral elegy had a long history in European literature; the first pastoral elegies were among the earliest poems in classical Greek literature.

At the beginning of the poem, Milton joins the other shepherds (poets) in expressing sadness for Edward King, who is referred to in the poem by the classical, pastoral name, Milton is concerned in this poem with the death of a young man, someone very close in age to himself.

What happens, Milton asks, when a young man dies? What is the purpose of life, it it can be lost so easily?

In thinking about Lycidas’ early death, Milton considers his own life: what has he done, and what would have been achieved if he were to die young?

At the end of the poem, however, Milton finds a renewed sense of life and purpose. In Lycidas he sees a hope for the future.
Italy, 1638-39

Milton had now been studying, at university and on his own, for more than twelve years.

He now travelled in Europe for two years. Especially, he spent more than a year in Italy, meeting leading intellectuals and writers. (It is possible that Milton met Galileo at this time.)

By the end of his visit to Italy, Milton had become a very skilful poet.

He had written a number of poems, in English, in Latin (which was in use as an international language at the time), and in Italian.

In “Lycidas” especially, but also in poems such as “L’ Allegro” and “Il Penseroso” Milton had taken English poetry into new directions, using a depth of language and thought no poet had ever used before.
Civil War

But in 1639, England was heading towards civil war.

The king had fallen into dispute with the Scots, and was forced to hold a parliament. The parliament demanded to share in government, but Charles refused.

The dispute got worse, and both sides (king and parliament) began to arm.
The War of the Three Kingdoms

Scotland rose in rebellion, and invaded England. Charles accepted the Scottish demands, but the situation remained dangerous.

In Ireland, Irish Catholics in the north rebelled, and tried to take their land back from Protestant immigrants.

England broke into open civil war between the king and parliament.
Milton the Controversialist

In 1639, hearing of the crisis in England, Milton quickly returned from Italy.

Though he continued to write poetry, publishing a book of Poems in 1645, he concentrated on writing essays and other prose works on a number of controversial topics.
Milton’s Prose Works

Of Reformation touching Church Discipline (1641, 1642); Of Prelatical Episcopacy (1641); Defences of other writers; The Reason of Church Government (1642)

These tracts argued for Milton’s beliefs about how the church should be governed. Milton believed that no man could be told how to worship, and should have freedom of conscience. (Except for Catholics, whom he believed to be working for Satan.)
Education and Freedom of Speech

On Education (1644) demanded that the university system be reformed, and that new subjects (similar to his own process of self-education) be adopted.

Areopagitica (1645) argued for the relaxation of censorship. (In 1642, censorship had been removed, but some people had become concerned about the extreme writings that had begun to appear.)
1649 Revolution

By 1649 there had been two periods of civil war in England, and Scotland and Ireland remained in conflict, internally and with England.

The leading power was no longer the king, or parliament, but the parliamentary army, under the leadership of Oliver Cromwell. The “New Model Army” discussed politics, religion and other subjects.

In 1649, Charles I was executed for treason, and England became a republic.
Milton and Cromwell

Milton wrote The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates (1649) to justify the execution of the king.

He was given the government position of “Latin Secretary”: using his linguistic and authorial skills, he would write tracts and draft state papers on behalf of the government.


Milton had trouble with his eyesight from the 1630s - he later blamed this on the strain of studying.

By the 1640s he was beginning to go blind, and had to work with a helper. Milton would dictate the words, and the helper would write them down.

In 1642, Milton had married a 16-year old girl, Mary Powell. However, the marriage was not successful at first.

Milton wrote a number of works arguing that people in unhappy marriages should be able to get divorced.

(However, his wife later returned, and they had several children. Mary died young, and Milton married twice again.)

In 1658, Oliver Cromwell died, and the republican Commonwealth he had ruled began to fail. Many English people wanted the king, Charles II, who was living in France, to be restored.

Milton was totally opposed to monarchy. In 1659, he wrote A Ready and Easy Way to Establish a Free Commonwealth but his fellow countrymen did not follow his advice.
Prison, Private Life

When Charles II came to power in 1660, many of the republican leaders were executed. Milton was imprisoned for a few months, and was then allowed to live a quiet, private life.

Milton began to work seriously on the great poem of his life.
Paradise Lost

Milton had been planning an epic poem for some years. A notebook he kept has early drafts of the poem and outlines.

In the 1660s, Milton would think about the poem through the night, and then every morning would dictate the poem to his helpers.

Paradise Lost was first published in 1667. A reorganized and amended version was published in 1674.
Paradise Lost: the great epic

Paradise Lost begins with Milton asking for divine inspiration, as he will attempt to write a poem which answers the fundamental questions of life:

How did the world begin?

Why are we here?

Why do we die?

Is there a God, and how should we relate to God?
Paradise Lost: the fall of Satan

There are twelve “books” (sections of about 1000 lines) in the revised version of Paradise Lost

In the early books of the poem, Milton describes the fall of Satan, who has been a beautiful and powerful angel, into Hell, along with other angels who rebelled against God, and who now become devils.
Satan comes to the world

After some time, Satan rouses himself and decides the devils must find a new world to rule. He journeys across the abyss of the universe, to the newly created world of men.

Adam and Eve

In Paradise, Satan discovers Adam, the first man, and Eve, the first woman.

They live a perfect life, with no pain or suffering, and no death.
The Fall

Satan, disguised as a snake, persuades Eve to disobey God, and to eat the apple of knowledge.

Eve finds that “knowledge” is the knowledge of life, and death.

Adam cannot let Eve die alone, so he too eats the apple.

Because of their disobedience, they become ashamed of their bodies, feel pain, and must leave Paradise.
Samson Agonistes

In this dramatic poem, intended to be read not staged, Milton tells the story of the biblical hero, Samson

A great warrior, blessed by God, but he loses his strength through the seduction of Delilah.

Samson is captured by his enemies, blinded, and put to hard labor in a prison.

However, at the last moment, Samson’s strength returns, and he kills his enemies and himself by destroying the building they are in.
John Milton, 1608-74

Milton died in 1674, at the age of sixty-six.

He is buried in St Giles church, Cripplegate, in London.

Over the next two hundred years, Milton was the most influential poet in the English language.

He was particularly influential on the Romantic poets: Blake, Wordsworth, Byron, and Shelley.

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