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John Milton

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John Milton
Occupation Poet, prose polemicist, civil servant
Notable work(s) Paradise Lost, Paradise Regained, Samson Agonistes, Areopagitica

John Milton ( December 9, 1608 – November 8, 1674) was an English poet, prose polemicist and civil servant for the Commonwealth of England. Best known for his epic poem Paradise Lost, Milton is also known for his treatise condemning censorship, Areopagitica.

Very soon after his death (and continuing to the present day) Milton became the subject of partisan biographies, confirming T. S. Eliot's belief that "of no other poet is it so difficult to consider the poetry simply as poetry, without our theological and political dispositions... making unlawful entry". Milton's radical, republican politics and heretical religious views, coupled with the perceived artificiality of his complicated Latinate verse, alienated Eliot and other readers; Samuel Johnson disparaged him as "an acrimonious and surly republican." (Note that for English people living shortly after the English Civil War, the term "republican" indicated anyone who had opposed the Crown during the war.)


The phases of Milton's life closely parallel the major historical divisions of Stuart Britain - the Caroline ancien régime, the Commonwealth of England and the Restoration - and it is important to situate his poetry and politics historically in order to see how both spring from the philosophical and religious beliefs Milton developed during the English Revolution. At his death in 1674, blind, impoverished and yet unrepentant for his political choices, Milton had attained Europe-wide notoriety for his radical political and religious beliefs.

Family life and childhood

John Milton's father, also named John Milton (1562 - 1647), moved to London around 1583 after being disinherited by his devout Catholic father, Richard Milton, for embracing Protestantism. In London, Milton senior married Sarah Jeffrey (1572 - 1637), the poet's mother, and found lasting financial success as a scrivener (a profession that combined the functions of solicitor, realtor, public notary and moneylender), where he lived and worked out of a house on Bread Street in Cheapside. The elder Milton was noted for his skill as a musical composer, and this talent left Milton with a lifetime appreciation for music and friendship with musicians like Henry Lawes.

After Milton was born on 9 December 1608, his father's prosperity provided his eldest son with private tutoring, and a place at St Paul's School in London, where he began the study of Latin and Greek that would leave such an imprint on his poetry. The fledgling poet, whose first datable compositions are two psalms done at age 15 at Long Bennington, was remarkable for his work ethic: "When he was young", recalled Christopher, his younger brother, "he studied very hard and sat up very late, commonly till twelve or one o'clock at night". Milton was born on Bread Street, the same road where The Mermaid Tavern was located, where legend has it that Ben Jonson and other poets often caroused.

Cambridge years

John Milton matriculated at Christ's College, Cambridge, in 1625 and, in preparation for becoming an Anglican priest, stayed on to obtain his Master of Arts degree on 3 July 1632. At Cambridge Milton befriended Anglo-American dissident and theologian, Roger Williams. Milton tutored Williams in Hebrew in exchange for lessons in Dutch. Though at Cambridge he developed a reputation for poetic skill and general erudition, Milton experienced alienation from his peers and university life as a whole. Watching his fellow students attempting comedy upon the college stage, he later observed that 'they thought themselves gallant men, and I thought them fools'. The feeling it seems was mutual; Milton, due to his hair, which he wore long, and his general delicacy of manner, was known as the "Lady of Christ's", an epithet probably applied with some degree of scorn. At some point Milton was probably rusticated for quarrelling with his tutor, which reflects the general disdain in which he held the university curriculum, consisting of stilted formal debates on abstruse topics conducted in Latin. Yet his corpus is not devoid of "quips, and cranks, and jollities", notably his sixth prolusion and his jocular epitaphs on the death of Hobson, the driver of a coach between Cambridge and London. While at Cambridge he wrote a number of his well-known shorter English poems, among them On the Morning of Christ's Nativity, his Epitaph on the admirable Dramatick Poet, W. Shakespeare, his first poem to appear in print, L'Allegro and Il Penseroso.

Study, poetry and travel

Upon receiving his MA in 1632, Milton retired to his father’s country homes at Hammersmith and Horton and undertook six years of self-directed private study by reading both ancient and modern works of theology, philosophy, history, politics, literature and science, in preparation for his prospective poetical career. Milton’s intellectual development can be charted via entries in his commonplace book, now in the British Library. As a result of such intensive study, Milton is considered to be among the most learned of all English poets; in addition to his six years of private study, Milton had command of Latin, Greek, Hebrew, French, Spanish, and Italian from his school and undergraduate days; he also added Old English to his linguistic repertoire in the 1650s while researching his History of Britain, and probably acquired proficiency in Dutch soon after.

Milton continued to write poetry during this period of study--his masques Arcades and Comus were composed for noble patrons, and he contributed his pastoral elegy Lycidas to a memorial collection for one of his Cambridge classmates in 1638. Drafts of these poems are preserved in Milton’s poetry notebook, known as the Trinity Manuscript because it is now kept at Trinity College, Cambridge.

After completing his course of private study in early 1638, Milton embarked upon a tour of France and Italy in May of the same year that was cut short 13 months later by what he later termed ‘sad tidings of civil war in England.’ Moving quickly through France, where he met Hugo Grotius, Milton sailed to Genoa, and quickly took in Pisa before he arrived in Florence around June, where he probably joined the Svogliati under Jacopo Gaddi. Florence, Rome, Naples, and Venice were Milton’s primary stops on his lengthy Italian visit, during which his candor of manner and erudite neo-Latin poetry made him many friends in intellectual circles. Milton met a number of famous and influential people through these connections, ranging from the astronomer Galileo to the nobleman Giovanni Battista Manso, patron of Torquato Tasso, to Cardinal Francesco Barberini, nephew of Pope Urban VIII. After some time spent in Venice and other northern Italian cities, Milton returned to England in July via Switzerland and France.

Overall, in Italy Milton rejoiced in discovering the intellectual community he had missed at Cambridge—he even altered his handwriting and pronunciation of Latin to make them more Italian. At the same time, his firsthand observation of what he viewed as the superstitious tyranny of Catholicism increased his hatred for absolutist confessional states.

Civil war, prose tracts, and marriage

Upon returning to England, where the Bishops' Wars suggested that armed conflict between King Charles and his parliamentary opponents was imminent, Milton put poetry aside and began to write anti-episcopal prose tracts in the service of the Puritan and Parliamentary cause. Milton’s first foray into polemics was Of Reformation touching Church Discipline in England (1641), followed by Of Prelatical Episcopacy, the two defences of Smectymnuus (an organisation of Protestant divines named from their initials: the "TY" belonged to Milton's favourite teacher from St Paul's, Thomas Young), and The Reason of Church-Government Urged against Prelaty. With frequent passages of real eloquence lighting up the rough controversial style of the period, and with a wide knowledge of ecclesiastical antiquity, he vigorously attacked the High-church party of the Church of England and their leader, William Laud, Archbishop of Canterbury.

Though supported by his father’s investments, at this time Milton also became a private schoolmaster, educating his nephews and other children of the well-to-do. This experience, and discussions with educational reformer Samuel Hartlib, led him to write in 1644 his short tract, Of Education, urging a reform of the national universities.

In June 1642, Milton took a mysterious trip into the countryside and returned with a 16-year-old bride, Mary Powell. A month later, finding life difficult with the severe 33-year-old schoolmaster and pamphleteer, Mary returned to her family. Because of the outbreak of the Civil War, she did not return until 1645; in the meantime her desertion prompted Milton, over the next three years, to publish a series of pamphlets arguing for the legality and morality of divorce. It was the hostile response accorded the divorce tracts that spurred Milton to write Areopagitica, his celebrated attack on censorship. In the midst of the excitement attending the possibility of establishing a new English government, Milton published his 1645 Poems—the only poetry of his to see print until Paradise Lost appeared in 1667.

Secretary of Foreign Tongues

With the parliamentary victory in the Civil War, Milton used his pen in defence of the republican principles represented by the Commonwealth. The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates (1649) defended popular government and implicitly sanctioned the regicide; Milton’s political reputation got him appointed Secretary for Foreign Tongues by the Council of State in March 1649. Though Milton's main job description was to compose the English Republic's foreign correspondence in Latin, he also was called upon to produce propaganda for the regime and to serve as a censor. In October 1649 he published Eikonoklastes, an explicit defence of the regicide, in response to the Eikon Basilike, a phenomenal best-seller popularly attributed to Charles I that portrayed the King as an innocent Christian martyr.

A month after Milton had tried to break this powerful image of Charles I (the literal translation of Eikonklastes is 'the image breaker'), the exiled Charles II and his party published a defence of monarchy, Defensio Regia Pro Carolo Primo, written by one of Europe's most renowned orators and scholars, Claudius Salmasius. By January of the following year, Milton was ordered to write a defence of the English people by the Council of State. Given the European audience and the English Republic's desire to establish diplomatic and cultural legitimacy, Milton worked much slower than usual, as he drew upon the vast array of learning marshalled throughout his years of study to compose a suitably withering riposte. On 24 February 1652 Milton published his Latin defence of the English People, Pro Populo Anglicano Defensio, also known as the First Defence. Milton's pure Latin prose and evident learning, exemplified in the First Defence, quickly made him the toast of all Europe. In 1654, in response to a Royalist tract, Regii sanguinis clamor, that made many personal attacks on Milton, he completed a second defence of the English nation, Defensio secunda, which praised Oliver Cromwell, now Lord Protector, while exhorting him to remain true to the principles of the Revolution. Alexander More, to whom Milton wrongly attributed the Clamor, published an attack on Milton, in response to which Milton published the autobiographical Defensio pro se in 1655. In addition to these literary defences of the Commonwealth and his character, Milton continued to translate official correspondence into Latin. The probable onset of glaucoma finally resulted by 1654 in total blindness, forcing him to dictate his verse and prose to amanuenses, one of whom was the poet Andrew Marvell.

After bearing him four children—Anne, Mary, John, and Deborah—Milton’s wife, Mary, died on May 5, 1652 from complications following Deborah's birth on May 2. In June, John died at age 15 months; Milton’s daughters survived to adulthood, but he always had a strained relationship with them. On November 12, 1656, Milton remarried, this time to Katherine Woodcock. Her death on February 3, 1658, less than four months after giving birth to their daughter, Katherine, who also died, prompted one of Milton’s most moving sonnets.

Milton and the Restoration

Milton later in life

Though Cromwell’s death in 1658 caused the English Republic to collapse into feuding military and political factions, Milton stubbornly clung to the beliefs which had originally inspired him to write for the Commonwealth. In 1659 he published A Treatise of Civil Power, attacking the concept of a state church (known as Erastianism), as well as Considerations touching the likeliest means to remove hirelings, denouncing corrupt practises in church governance. As the Republic disintegrated Milton wrote several proposals to retain parliamentary supremacy over the army: A Letter to a Friend, Concerning the Ruptures of the Commonwealth, written in October 1659 in response to General Lambert’s recent dissolution of the Rump Parliament; Proposals of certain expedients for the preventing of a civil war now feared in November; and finally, as General Monck marched toward London to restore the Stuart monarchy, two editions of The Ready and Easy Way to Establishing a Free Commonwealth, an impassioned, bitter, and futile jeremiad damning the English people for backsliding from the cause of liberty.

Upon the Restoration in May 1660, Milton went into hiding for his life as a warrant was issued for his arrest and his writings burnt. Re-emerging after a general pardon was issued, he was nevertheless arrested and briefly imprisoned before influential friends, such as Marvell, now an MP, intervened. On February 24 1663 Milton remarried, for a third and final time, a Wistaston, Cheshire-born woman Elizabeth (Betty) Minshull, then aged 24, and spent the remaining decade of his life living quietly in London, with the exception of retiring to a cottage in Chalfont St. Giles (his only extant home) during the Great Plague. Milton died of kidney failure on 8 November 1674 and was buried in the church of St Giles Cripplegate; according to an early biographer, his funeral was attended by “his learned and great Friends in London, not without a friendly concourse of the Vulgar.”

Paradise Lost

Milton’s magnum opus, the blank-verse epic poem Paradise Lost, which appeared in a quarto edition in 1667, was composed by the blind Milton from 1658-1664. It reflects his personal despair at the failure of the Revolution, yet affirms an ultimate optimism in human potential. Milton encoded many references to his unyielding support for the “ Good Old Cause.” Though Milton notoriously sold the copyright of this monumental work to his publisher for a seemingly trifling £10, this was not a particularly outlandish deal at the time. Milton followed up Paradise Lost with its sequel, Paradise Regained, published alongside the tragedy Samson Agonistes, in 1671. Both these works also resonate with Milton’s post-Restoration political situation. Just before his death in 1674, Milton supervised the release of a second edition of Paradise Lost, accompanied by an explanation of “why the poem rhymes not” and prefatory verses by Marvell. Milton republished his 1645 Poems in 1673, as well a collection of his letters and the Latin prolusions from his Cambridge days. A 1668 edition of Paradise Lost, reported to have been Milton's personal copy, is now housed in the archives of the University of Western Ontario.

During the Restoration Milton also published several minor prose works, such as a grammar textbook, his Art of Logic, and his History of Britain. His only explicitly political tracts were the 1672 Of True Religion, arguing for toleration (except for Catholics), and a translation of a Polish tract advocating an elective monarchy. Both these works participated in the Exclusion debate that would preoccupy politics in the 1670s and '80s and precipitate the formation of the Whig party and the Glorious Revolution. Milton's unfinished religious manifesto, De doctrina christiana, in which he laid out many of his heretical views, was not discovered and published until 1823.

Philosophical, political, and religious views

In all of his strongly held opinions, Milton can generally be called a "party of one" for going well beyond the orthodoxy of the time. Milton's idiosyncratic beliefs stemmed from the Puritan emphasis on the centrality and inviolability of conscience.


By the late 1650s, Milton was a proponent of monism or animist materialism, the notion that a single material substance which is "animate, self-active, and free" composes everything in the universe: from stones and trees and bodies to minds, souls, angels, and God. Milton devised this position to avoid the mind-body dualism of Plato and Descartes as well as the mechanistic determinism of Hobbes. Milton's monism is most notably reflected in Paradise Lost when he has angels eat (5.433-39) and engage in sexual intercourse (8.622-29) and the De Doctrina, where he denies the dual natures of man and argues for a theory of Creation ex Deo.


Milton's fervent commitment to republicanism in an age of absolute monarchies was both unpopular and dangerous. In coming centuries, Milton would be claimed as an early apostle of liberalism.


Milton was writing at a time of religious and political flux in England. His poetry and prose reflect deep convictions, often reacting to contemporary circumstances, but it is not always easy to locate the writer in any obvious religious category. His views may be described as broadly Protestant. As an accomplished artist and an official in the government of Oliver Cromwell, it is not always easy to distinguish where artistic licence and polemical intent overshadow Milton's personal views.

Milton embraced many theological views that put him outside of contemporary Christianity. A prime example is Milton's rejection of the Trinity in the belief that the Son was subordinate to the Father, a position known as Arianism; and his probable sympathy with Socinianism (modern-day Unitarianism), which held that Jesus was not divine. Another controversial view Milton subscribed to, illustrated by Paradise Lost, is mortalism, the belief that the soul dies with the body. Milton abandoned his campaign to legitimize divorce after 1645, but he expressed support for polygamy in the De doctrina christiana, the unpublished theological treatise that provides evidence for his heretical views.

Like many Renaissance artists before him, Milton attempted to integrate Christian theology with classical modes. In his early poems, the poet narrator express a tension between vice and virtue, the latter invariably related to Protestantism. In Comus Milton may make ironic use of the Caroline court masque by elevating notions of purity and virtue over the conventions of court revelry and superstition. In his later poems, Milton's theological concerns become more explicit. In his 1641 treatise, Of Reformation, Milton expressed his dislike for Catholicism and episcopacy, presenting Rome as a modern Babylon, and bishops as Egyptian taskmasters. These analogies conform to Milton's puritanical preference for Old Testament imagery. Through the Interregnum, Milton often presents England, rescued from the trappings of a worldly monarchy, as an elect nation akin to the Old Testament Israel, and shows its leader, Oliver Cromwell, as a latter-day Moses. These views were bound up in Protestant views of the Millennium, which some sects, such as the Fifth Monarchists predicted would arrive in England. The Restoration of the Stuart monarchy in 1660 began a new phase in Milton's work. In Paradise Lost, Paradise Regained and Samson Agonistes Milton mourns the end of the godly Commonwealth. The Garden of Eden may allegorically reflect Milton's view of England's recent Fall from Grace, while Samson's blindness and captivity – mirroring Milton's own lost sight – may be a metaphor for England's blind acceptance of Charles II as king. However, despite the Restoration of the monarchy Milton did not lose his own faith; Samson shows how the loss of national salvation did not necessarily preclude the salvation of the individual, while Paradise Regained expresses Milton's continuing belief in the promise of Christian salvation through Jesus Christ.

Though he may have maintained his personal faith in spite of the defeats suffered by his cause, the Dictionary of National Biography recounts how he had been alienated from the Church of England by Archbishop William Laud, and then moved similarly from the Dissenters by their denunciation of religious tolerance in England. "Milton had come to stand apart from all sects, though apparently finding the Quakers most congenial. He never went to any religious services in his later years. When a servant brought back accounts of sermons from nonconformist meetings, Milton became so sarcastic that the man at last gave up his place".

Legacy and influence

Milton's literary career cast a formidable shadow over English poetry in the 18th and 19th centuries; he was often judged equal or superior to all other English poets, including Shakespeare. It is possible to observe Lucy Hutchinson's epic poem about the fall of Humanity, Order and Disorder (1679), and John Dryden's The State of Innocence and the Fall of Man: an Opera (1677) as evidence of an immediate cultural influence.

The influence of Milton's poetry and personality on the literature of the Romantic era was partly ironic. The Romantic poets valued his exploration of blank verse, but for the most part rejected his religiosity. William Wordsworth began his sonnet "London, 1802" with "Milton! thou should'st be living at this hour" and modeled The Prelude, his own blank verse epic, on Paradise Lost. John Keats found the yoke of Milton's style debilitating; he exclaimed that "Miltonic verse cannot be written but in an artful or rather artist's humour." Keats felt that Paradise Lost was a "beautiful and grand curiosity," but his own unfinished attempt at epic poetry, Hyperion, is said to have suffered from Keats's failed attempt to cultivate a distinct epic voice. Mary Shelley's novel Frankenstein draws heavily on Paradise Lost: The novel begins with a quotation from Paradise Lost, and the relationship between the Creature and Frankenstein is often seen as a metaphor for the relationship between God and Adam in Paradise Lost. The Romantics' simulataneous acceptance of Milton's poetics and rejection of his theological concerns may have encouraged later readers to neglect the theological content of his long poems while admiring his often thunderously musical lines.

The Victorian age witnessed a continuation of Milton's influence; George Eliot and Thomas Hardy being particularly inspired by Milton's poetry and biography. By contrast, the early 20th century, owing to the critical efforts of T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, witnessed a reduction in Milton's stature.

Milton coined many words that are now familiar; in Paradise Lost readers were confronted by neologisms like dreary, pandæmonium, acclaim, rebuff, self-esteem, unaided, impassive, enslaved, jubilant, serried, solaced, and satanic.

In the political arena, Milton's Areopagitica and republican writings were consulted during the drafting of the Constitution of the United States of America. Also, the quotation from Areopagitica – "A good book is the precious lifeblood of a master spirit, embalmed and treasured up on purpose to a life beyond life" – is seen in many public libraries, including the New York Public Library.

The John Milton Society for the Blind was founded in 1928 by Helen Keller to develop an interdenominational ministry that would bring spiritual guidance and religious literature to deaf and blind persons.

John Milton's Paradise Lost is also the inspiration for Phillip Pullman's His Dark Materials; indeed, the name of the trilogy is derived from a quotation.

Poetic and dramatic works

  • L'Allegro (1631)
  • Il Penseroso (1633)
  • Comus (a masque)(1634)
  • Lycidas (1638)
  • Poems of Mr John Milton, Both English and Latin (1645)
  • Paradise Lost (1667)
  • Paradise Regained (1671)
  • Samson Agonistes (1671)
  • Poems, &c, Upon Several Occasions (1673)

Political, philosophical and religious prose

  • Of Reformation (1641)
  • Of Prelatical Episcopacy (1641)
  • Animadversions (1641)
  • The Reason of Church-Government Urged against Prelaty (1642)
  • Apology for Smectymnuus (1642)
  • Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce (1643)
  • Judgement of Martin Bucer Concerning Divorce (1644)
  • Of Education (1644)
  • Areopagitica (1644)
  • Tetrachordon (1645)
  • Colasterion (1645)
  • The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates (1649)
  • Eikonoklastes (1649)
  • Defensio pro Populo Anglicano [First Defense] (1651)
  • Defensio Secunda [Second Defense] (1654)
  • A treatise of Civil Power (1659)
  • The Likeliest Means to Remove Hirelings from the Church (1659)
  • The Ready and Easy Way to Establish a Free Commonwealth (1660)
  • Brief Notes Upon a Late Sermon (1660)
  • Accedence Commenced Grammar (1669)
  • History of Britain (1670)
  • Artis logicae plenior institutio [Art of Logic] (1672)
  • Of True Religion (1673)
  • Epistolae Familiaries (1674)
  • Prolusiones (1674)
  • A brief History of Moscovia, and other less known Countries lying Eastward of Russia as far as Cathay, gathered from the writings of several Eye-witnesses (1682)
  • De Doctrina Christiana (1823)


  • Al Pacino's character in the movie The Devil's Advocate is named John Milton. In the movie Milton is Satan, in the guise of a lawyer.
  • Philadelphia rock band Milton and the Devils Party consists of two English professors who named the band after William Blake's comment that Milton was "a true Poet and of the Devils party without knowing it" in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.
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