John Milton (1608-1674)

John Milton is the second poet after William Shakespeare. He was born in London in 1608 and educated at Christ’s College, Cambridge.

It would be reasonable to divide Milton’s literary activity into three groups:

1. The first short poems written at Horton (After leaving the University Milton settled in Horton, Buckinghamshire, 1632—1637).

2. Prose: “History of Britain” (1646).

3. The greatest epic poems: “Paradise Lost” (1667), “Paradise Regained” (1671).

John Milton was a great Puritan poet and pamphleteer. His life was closely connected with the Bourgeois Revolution, the short-lived Commonwealth and the restoration of English Monarchy. The “New Model Army” was a powerful organization with Oliver Cromwell at the head. Oliver Cromwell as the creator of this popular unity was the first great modern revolutionary leader.

Milton’s father was both competent and fortunate. Music was his passion. He was a talented composer and received wide recognition in Protestant circles. He early recognized his son’s exceptional abilities and sent him to an excellent day school. Milton’s school days were happy. He blossomed in the atmosphere of love and music.

His difficulties started at Christ’s College, Cambridge. The difficulties were not of an intellectual character. They were caused by the medieval traditions of drinking encouraged at the college. Some people nicknamed John Milton “The Lady”, because he had never had the strength to drink off a bottle.

Milton’s graduation from Cambridge took place in 1629. He received his Master’s Degree in 1632. After that he retired to Horton, his father’s estate in Buckinghamshire, He spent there, in Horton, six years of intensive study of modern and ancient history, maths, art, music and poetry. In Horton his first short poems appeared.

In 1642, when he was 35, he rode into the country to collect a family debt of £500 from a royalist, near Oxford, but returned a month later without the money. Instead of the money he brought a bride of seventeen, Mary Powell. From the very beginning the marriage was an unhappy one. His young wife went to her family estate and refused to return. Milton was shocked. He was in despair, because his moral principles were against the very idea of casual love-making. The idea of a good marriage proved his high respect for woman as an intellectual companion and comrade, rather than as merely a housekeeper and childbearer. These ideas were expressed in his work “The Doctrine and Discipline of Divorcer”. But Milton had to accept his wife back in 1645 when Mary’s Royalist family decided to appeal to their Puritan son-in-law. In 1652 Mary died. There was no joy in their marriage. More than that, by that time Milton was totally blind. The death of his wife didn’t upset Milton much. Since 1646 he had been working on his “History of Britain”, and when in 1656 Oliver Cromwell became a Lord Protector, Milton considered his dictatorship a progressive one. In the same year Milton married the 28-year-old Catherine Woodcock. They were very devoted to each other, but in 1658 she died with her infant daughter. But again, Milton was not too much upset because another death, the death of Oliver Cromwell, was more important for him. The loss was terrible. The restoration of Monarchy was only a matter of months.

Almost alone Milton raised his voice boldly against the restoration of Monarchy. He spoke out in a published letter to general Monk. Then he wrote an open letter to a new Parliament.

In 1660 the Monarchy was restored, with Charles I’s elder son becoming King Charles II, and the search continued for a mutually-satisfactory balance of power between crown and Parliament.

When Charles II became King, the change in English literature was almost as great as the change in government. For one thing: the theatres opened again, and new dramatists, therefore, appeared. The plays were written in heroic couplets, the men were brave and the women were beautiful.

In 1660 The Royal Society, the oldest British scientific society, was founded. Among its earliest members were the diarist Samuel Pepys, the architect Christopher Wren, and the physicist Isaac Newton, whose theory of gravitation brought a new coherence to the universe

Milton became unpopular. He was arrested. The estate of £2000 was confiscated.

The rest of his story is a great one. Until 1663 his household consisted of three daughters, the two elder of whom had been brought up by Mary Powell’s Royalist mother. Milton had to depend on them because of his blindness and poverty. The youngest daughter, Deborah, born in 1650-51, had remained at Milton’s home during his second brief marriage in 1656-58. There were several close friends who visited him from time to time. Among them was his doctor who introduced a young woman of 24 to Milton. In 1663 they married.

That was the period when Milton wrote his great epic poem “Paradise Lost”, based on the story of Adam and Eve and their failure to keep God’s demands. Milton dictated his poem because of his blindness. It was planned in ten books, but it was written in twelve. The plot centres around Adam and Eve, Satan and his rebel-angels, God, three guardian angels: Raphael, Gabriel and Michael. The background is the whole Universe, including Heaven and Hell.

The revolutionary spirit is shown in Satan who revolts against God, and is driven away out of the Heaven with the rebel-angels. They fall into the Hell where “No light, but rather darkness visible, … and rest can never dwell, hope never comes”. Though banished from Heaven, Satan is glad to have got freedom. Satan possesses the human features. He is a rebel. God personifies Monarchy, Satan is determined to go on with the war against God. Milton’s Adam and Eve are full of energy. They love each other and are ready to meet whatever the earth has in store for them. God banishes them from Paradise to the newly-created world where they are to face a life of toil and woe. Milton’s sympathies are with them. This shows his faith in Man. Many well-known sayings come from “Paradise Lost”:

Better to reign in hell than serve in heaven.”

The mind is its own place, and it itself

Can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.”

Paradise Lost” was published in 1667.

The second great epic poem “Paradise Regained” was published in 1671. This story is more severe. It is devoted to the description of Christ’s temptations in the desert. Much in this book is taken from Milton’s youthful ambitions.

Milton wrote of life because he loved it enough to fight for it; he fought for freedom.

Milton died in 1674, leaving all his property to the wife who spoke with warm affection of her talented husband.

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