About the Author
One of the greatest poets of the English language, best-known for his epic poem Paradise Lost (1667). Milton's powerful, rhetoric prose and the eloquence of his poetry had an immense influence especially on the 18th-century verse. Besides poems, Milton published pamphlets defending civil and religious rights.
John Milton was born in London. His mother Sarah Jeffrey was the daughter of a merchant sailor, and his father had risen to prosperity as a scrivener or law writer - he also composed music. The family was wealthy enough to afford a second house in the country. Milton was educated at St Paul's School and then at Christ's College, Cambridge (1625-32), where he was called, half in scorn, "The Lady of Christ's." During his Cambridge period, while considering himself destined for the ministry, he began to write poetry in Latin, Italian, and English. He was expelled for a term after starting a fist fight with his tutor.
On leaving Cambridge Milton had given up his original plan to become a priest. He adopted no profession but spent six years at leisure in his father's home, writing during that time L'Allegro, Il Penseroso (1632), Comus (1634), and Lycidas (1637). In 1635 the Miltons moved to Horton, Buckinghamshire, where John pursued his studies in Greek, Latin, and Italian. He traveled in France and Italy in the late 1630s, meeting in Paris the jurist and theologian Hugo Grotius and the astronomer Galileo Galilei in Florence - there are references to Galileo's telescope in Paradise Lost. His conversation with the blind scientist Milton recorded in Areopagitica, which attacked censorship. Milton returned to London in 1639, and set up a school with his nephews and a few others as pupils. The Civil War silenced his poetic work for 20 years. War divided the country as Oliver Cromwell fought against the king, Charles I.
Concerned with the Puritan cause, Milton wrote a series of pamphlets against episcopacy (1642), on divorce (1643), in defense of the liberty of the press (1644), and in support of the regicides (1649). He also served as the secretary for foreign languages in Cromwell's government. After the death of Charles I, Milton published The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates (1649) supporting the view that the people had the right to depose and punish tyrants.
In 1651 Milton became blind, but like Jorge Luis Borges is our century, blindness helped to stimulate his verbal richness. "He sacrificed his sight, and then he remembered his first desire, that of being a poet," Borges wrote in one of his lectures. After the Restoration of Charles II in 1660, he was arrested as a noted defender of the Commonwealth, but was soon released. Besides public burning of Eikonklastes and the first Defensio in Paris and Toulouse, Milton escaped from more punishment after Restoration, but he became a relatively poor man. In the 1660s Milton moved with his third wife to what is now Burnhill Row. He spent there the remaining years of his life, apart from a brief visit to Chalfont St Giles in 1665, to avoid the plague. His late poems were dictated to his daughter, nephews, friends, disciples, and paid amanuenses.
Milton was married three times (Mary Powell, 1642; Katherine Woodcock, 1656; Elizabeth Minshull, 1662). His marriages were unhappy. Mary Powell grew bored with the life of a poet soon after the honeymoon was over and went back home where she stayed for three years. Milton wrote his famous essays on divorce. In The Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce (1643) Milton argued that a true marriage was of mind as well as of body, and that the chaste and modest were more likely to find themselves 'chained unnaturally together' in unsuitable unions than those who had in youth lived loosely and enjoyed more varied experience. Though Milton was Puritan, morally austere and conscientious, some of his religious beliefs were unconventional to the point of heresy, and came into conflict with the official Puritan stand.
Milton died from 'gout struck in' on November 8, 1674 in Chalfont, St. Giles, Buckinghamshire. He was buried beside his father in St Giles', Cripplegate. Many writers believe that Milton's grave was desecrated when the church was undergoing repairs. All the teeth and 'a large quantity of the hair' were taken as souvenirs by grave robbers. As a writer, Milton's towering figure was recognized early, but his personality and works have continued to arouse discussion. Even T.S. Eliot has attacked the author and described him as one whose sensuousness had been 'withered by book-learning.' Eliot claimed that Milton's poetry 'could only be an influence for the worse.'
The theme of Fall and expulsion from Eden in Paradise Lost had been in Milton's mind from 1640s. His ambition was to compose an epic poem to rival the works of ancient writers, such as Homer and Virgil. The poem was originally issued in 10 books in 1667, and in 12 books in the second edition of 1674. The troubled times, in which Milton lived, left their mark on his theme of religious conflict.
Paradise Lost is not easy to read with its odd syntax, difficult vocabulary, and complex, noble style. It tells a biblical story of Adam and Eve, with God, and Lucifer (Satan), who is thrown out of Heaven to corrupt humankind. Satan, the most beautiful of the angels, is at his most impressive: he wakes up, on a burning lake in Hell, to find himself surrounded by his stunned followers. He has been defeated in the War of Heaven. "All is not lost; th' unconquerable Will, / And study of revenge, immortal hate, / And courage never to submit or yield... /" Milton created a powerful and sympathetic portrait of Lucifer. This view influenced deeply Romantic poets William Blake and Percy Bysshe Shelley, who saw Satan as the real hero of the poem and a rebel against the tyranny of Heaven. In The Marriage of Heaven and Hell Blake stated that Milton as 'a true Poet, and of the Devil's party without knowing it.' Many other works of art have been inspired by Paradise Lost, among them Joseph Haydn's oratorio The Creation, Alexander Pope's The Rape of the Lock and The Dunciad, John Keat's poem Endymion, Lord Byron's The Vision of Judgment, satanic Sauron in J.R.R. Tolkien's saga The Lord of the Rings.
Most author biographies courtesy of Author's Calendar. Used with permission.