John Milton

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John Milton (9 December 1608 – 9 November 1674) was an English poet and polemicist who is today primarily celebrated for his twelve-book epic poem in English blank verse, Paradise Lost. Other poems for which he is remembered are Comus, a masque (or play with music); and Lycidas, an elegy on the death of a university acquaintance, which features prominently, for example, in the “Nestor” episode in James Joyce's Ulysses.


Life

He was born 9 December 1608, the son of a well-to-do London scrivener, and had private tuition before attending St Paul's School and then Christ's College, Cambridge. By this time he was already writing poetry in English and Latin. The first poem to be published was On Shakespeare. On leaving Cambridge after taking his M A he started on five more years of private study, interrupted by the occasional poem or masque, living from 1632 with his father, first in Hammersmith then in Horton in Buckinghamshire. During this period he wrote Comus, commissioned by Henry Lawes, who wrote the music, and also contributed Lycidas to the volume of elegies to Edward King, a volume not published till 1638, by which time Milton was on the continent.

Milton's continental tour, from late 1637, took him to Paris, Florence, where he stayed five months, Rome, where he stayed two, and Naples, returning via Rome and Florence. In France, Florence and Rome he met some of the leading intellectuals of his day. Returning to London, he took on pupils, starting with his nephews, and, as the Parliament began to assert itself against the king, started on his career as a pamphleteer, attacking episcopacy with displays of erudition. In 1642 he married Mary Powell, the breakdown of the marriage causing him to start writing in favour of divorce (though he had already accumulated materials on the subject. He also wrote Of Education and Areopagitica, an eloquent plea for unlicensed publication. He was eventually reunited with his wife, and his first daughters were born. A collection of early poems was published in 1645.

In 1649, around the time of the execution of Charles I, he published The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates, justifying calling the king to account, and it was probably this that brought him his appointment as secretary for foreign tongues to the Council of State, then governing England. At once he was commissioned to write replies to Eikon Basilike (supposedly written by Charles I) and other royalist propaganda, and he continued with such work, both under the Council of State and under Oliver Cromwell and his successors. This work made him a figure of European stature, notorious to some, an intellectual hero to others. The later efforts were despite his growing and eventually complete blindness and the death of his wife in 1652. He remarried in 1656, but was widowed again in 1658, the same year as he began dictating Paradise Lost. Following the death of Cromwell he intervened in the debates about future government, and on the very eve of the Restoration was defending the republican ideal in The Ready and Easy Way to establish a Free Commonwealth.

A warrant for his arrest was issued at the Restoration, and he went into hiding. He was not, however, excluded from the Act of Indemnity and Oblivion, and once it was passed he emerged. He was, however, arrested, and put in the Tower of London, but then pardoned (reason unknown — it is sometimes supposed that Andrew Marvell intervened on his behalf). In 1663 he married for the third time. Paradise Lost was completed in the same year, but not published till 1667, when the sales were steady, but not spectacular. Paradise Regained and Samson Agonistes came out together in 1671. In 1673 he brought out a new edition of his minor poems. He had also produced some prose works, including a History of Britain. He died the night of 9-10 November 1674.

Blindness

At the age of 42 he lost his eyesight completely and had to dictate his ensuing works to various amanuenses; and in various poems, such as at the beginning of Book III of Paradise Lost, the sonnet “Me thought I saw my late espoused Saint”, and his final work, the “dramatic poem” Samson Agonistes, Milton addresses his sad feelings relating to his loss of sight. Perhaps best known of all, for one of the best known last lines in English literature, is his sonnet 19 [1]

When I consider how my light is spent,
E're half my days, in this dark world and wide,
And that one Talent which is death to hide,
Lodg'd with me useless, though my Soul more bent
To serve therewith my Maker, and present
My true account, least he returning chide,
Doth God exact day labour, light deny'd,
I fondly ask; But patience to prevent
That murmur, soon replies, God doth not need
Either man's work or his own gifts, who best
Bear his milde yoak, they serve him best, his State
Is Kingly. Thousands at his bidding speed
And post o're Land and Ocean without rest:
They also serve who only stand and waite.

Paradise Lost

See main article Paradise Lost

The first edition of Paradise Lost, in ten books, was published in 1667; the now standard twelve book version was published in 1674. On Paradise Lost, literary giant John Dryden described his contemporary’s achievement as “undoubtedly one of the greatest, most noble, and most sublime poems which either this age or nation has produced.”[2] The poetry of Milton served as a profound inspiration to the later Romantic poets, particularly Shelley (e.g., Prometheus Unbound), Keats (e.g., the two Hyperion poems) and William Blake (e.g., The Four Zoas). In more recent years T.S. Eliot noted that poets can study Milton “with profit to their poetry and to the English language.”[3] According to Gordon Campbell, "In America, where Christianity is still a vital force, Paradise Lost is valued as the supreme epic of Christendom." [4] In his lifetime Milton received a total of £10.00 for his work on Paradise Lost.[5]

"Milton was, like Dante, a statesman and a lover; and, like Dante, he had been unfortunate in ambition and in love. ... But the strength of his mind overcame every calamity. Neither blindness, nor gout, nor age, nor penury, nor domestic afflictions, nor political disappointments, nor abuse, nor proscription, nor neglect, had power to disturb his sedate and majestic patience. His spirits do not seem to have been high, but they were singularly equable. His temper was serious, perhaps stern; but it was a temper which no sufferings could render sullen or fretful. Such as it was when, on the eve of great events, he returned from his travels, in the prime of health and manly beauty, loaded with literary distinctions, and glowing with patriotic hopes, such it continued to be when, after having experienced every calamity which is in incident to our nature, old, poor, sightless and disgraced, he retired to his hovel to die.

Hence it was that, though he wrote the Paradise Lost at a time of life when images of beauty and tenderness are in general beginning to fade, even from those minds in which they have not been effaced by anxiety and disappointment, he adorned it with all that is most lovely and delightful in the physical and in the moral world." (from Macaulay's essay on Milton, 1825)[6]

Primary sources

  • French, J. M., ed. Life Records of John Milton (5 vol 1949-58)

References

  1. Sonnet 19. This sonnet, numbered XVI in Poems (1673)was probably written in 1652.
  2. See the Prefatory Essay in Dryden’s The State of Innocence, 1674.
  3. Eliot, T.S., "Milton II" in Selected Prose of T.S. Eliot (London: Faber and Faber, 1980), p. 274.
  4. Gordon Campbell, "Milton, John (1608–1674)", Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, (2008).
  5. Gordon Campbell, "Milton, John (1608–1674)", Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, (2008).
  6. Essay on Milton Thomas Babington Macaulay, Baron, 1800-1859 (August 1825)