After William SHAKESPEARE. Milton is considered the greatest poet of the English language. He began his education at home, with his mother devoting herself to his religious training. He later went to St. Paul’s School, and then to Christ’s College, Cambridge, with the intention of becoming a clergyman. At the university, Milton took to his studies with an intense seriousness. In his personal demeanor, he was highly reserved, and not altogether at home with his fellow students, who often proved too docile in their approach to education. He also objected to much in the curriculum and established routine, and took particular exception to his tutor. The result of the friction between the two was Milton’s suspension for a term at the beginning of his second year. He returned to Cambridge in the following term and was assigned another tutor, with whom he had no difficulty. He soon won the esteem and respect of the other students, as much, perhaps, for his skill at fencing as for his intellectual eminence. He received his B.A. degree in 1629, and in the same year composed his ode, “On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity,” the most important of his early poems. He continued his studies at Cambridge for the M.A. degree, which he received in 1632. During this time, he wrote two of his most charming and widely anthologized poems, “L’Allegro” and “Il Penseroso.” When he left Cambridge, he had given up any plans to join the church, largely because of what he considered the corrupt practices of the bishops and the clergy. He subsequently retired to his father’s house at Horton, about twenty miles from London, where for five years he devoted himself to intense preparation for becoming a poet, which he had come to consider a sacred vocation.
The ripening of his poetic genius is shown in his chief compositions of this period: Comus (perf. 1634; pub. 1637) and “Lycidas” (1638). Comus, a masque written at the request of Henry LAWES, master of the king’s music, and supplied with musical settings by Lawes, reveals Milton’s passion for music and his kinship with the lyric poets of the Elizabethan period. It also combines Renaissance grace and artistry with Puritan seriousness. The death of Edward King, a young poet and college classmate of Milton’s who was drowned off the coast of Wales, furnished the occasion for “Lycidas,” a pastoral elegy of exceptional beauty. Although King was not a close friend, the death of a contemporary who shared his ambition gave Milton the opportunity to lament the transience and uncertainty of life, to question the value of long preparation for a career that might be cut short just as it was beginning. Along with this doubt and uncertainty is the stern voice of Milton’s Puritanism in his attack on the corruption of the clergy and the perceived threat to English spiritual life posed by Roman Catholicism, “the grim wolf with privy paw.” At the conclusion of the poem, Milton indicates both the need and resolution to move on to “fresh woods and pastures new.” In the following year, 1638, Milton left his idyllic country retreat at Horton to undertake a grand tour of the European continent.
Milton’s later life was filled with much sadness, but his time as a young man in Italy was a period of considerable, albeit short-lived, happiness. As a charming and cultivated young Englishman, he was welcomed by men distinguished in letters, politics, and science, among them Galileo, the controversial astronomer. After about a year, his travels were cut short by news of impending civil strife in England, and by the sad news of the death of Charles Diodati, a close friend from his days at St. Paul’s whose family he had recently visited in Lucca. He expressed his grief for the loss of Diodati in a Latin elegy, Epitaphium Damonis (1640), in which he bade farewell to his youth and his Latin verse, as well as to his friend. Back in London, Milton became a teacher, numbering among his small group of pupils his nephews, John and Edward Phillips.
His plans to write great poetry were now subordinated to his preoccupation with what he saw as his civic duty in the cause of liberty. He began writing pamphlets, an occupation that would consume his intellectual energies for the next twenty years. In later years, in his Defensio Secunda, published in 1654, he summarized the prose works of his middle years as efforts on behalf of “three species of liberty which are essential to the happiness of social life—religious, domestic, and civil.” In defense of what he considered religious liberty, he wrote five pamphlets in 1641 and 1642 attacking the system of episcopacy and the alliance between church and state in the Church of England, and argued for the rule of conscience in spiritual affairs.
In 1642, when he was thirty-four, Milton married Mary Powell, the seventeen-year-old daughter of a Cavalier family, who found the scholarly and sedate household of Milton uncongenial, and left him within the year. The separation proved a great shock to Milton, who had highly idealized the state of marriage. They were reconciled three years later, and his wife bore him three daughters and a son before her death in 1652. The circumstances of the separation turned Milton’s attention to the divorce laws of the country and he produced between 1643 and 1645 four treatises on divorce, arguing for dissolution of marriage when husband and wife are spiritually and temperamentally incompatible. The divorce pamphlets were punctuated by two other treatises on other phases of “domestic liberty.” The first was a little tractate Of Education (1644), which contains an outline for an extensive course of study and a noble statement of its objective:
“I call therefore a complete and generous education that which fits a man to perform justly, skillfully, and magnanimously all the offices, both private and public, of peace and war.” Later in the same year came the most famous of his prose works, Areopagitica, his eloquent plea for freedom of the press. In 1645 appeared his first volume of collected poems, containing verse in three languages—English, Latin, and Italian.
At this time, the dissension between the king and Puritan Parliament was coming to a head, and Milton entered into the struggle to champion the cause of “civil liberty.” The first of his political treatises, The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates, appeared within a few weeks of the execution of King Charles I in 1649. In recognition of his services to the new Commonwealth government, Milton was appointed secretary for the Foreign Tongues to the Council of State. For the next eleven years, he threw himself energetically into his work, giving not only his energy and talent, but what remained of his failing eyesight. His political fortunes were reversed, however, with the Restoration of Charles II, son of the executed king, in 1660. He was arrested, but through the intervention of friends in high places, including the poet Andrew MARVELL, he was released after the payment of fees and was ultimately pardoned. The preceding ten years had brought great sorrow and domestic upheaval to Milton’s life. By 1652, he was totally blind; in that same year, his wife and infant son also died. His second wife, Katherine Woodcock, whom he married in 1656, died in 1658, along with a baby daughter.
Despite these adverse circumstances, Milton had begun writing the EPIC poem that would ultimately be recognized as his masterpiece, Paradise Lost, in 1658. In 1663, he married for a third time and he and his wife, Elizabeth Minshull, retired to a small cottage outside London where once again he concentrated his remaining energies on poetry, completing, along with Paradise Lost, Paradise Regained and Samson Agonistes (1671).
Paradise Lost was published in ten books in 1667, and republished in twelve books in 1674. Milton’s first choice for the epic poem he had decided to write by the time he was nineteen was the story of King Arthur. He eventually abandoned the topic and decided on some aspect of the fall of man. The elements of Paradise Lost are drawn from all of Milton’s experience and all his reading and thinking. The Christian material is a composite of modern and medieval, and the Hebraic elements are integrated with it and further shaped by Milton’s thorough knowledge of the Greek and Latin classics. The purpose of the poem is to “justify the ways of God to men,” and in every real sense the hero of the poem is Man, created, preserved, counseled, tempted, betrayed, punished, and ultimately banned from Paradise. All of this comes about through the machinations of Satan, the villain of the poem. Milton’s Satan, from the viewpoint of dramatic interest, is the author’s most brilliant creation, a point recognized and celebrated by the Romantic movement of the 19th c., particularly in the works of William BLAKE, Lord BYRON, and Percy Bysshe SHELLEY. Milton is unique among English poets; no other poet dedicated himself so early and so completely to the vocation of poetry, gave his prime years to his perceived duty as a citizen and patriot, or produced his greatest work in the closing years of his life. Paradise Lost is one of the world’s greatest poetical compositions. In theme, scope, and execution it has no equal in English, nor perhaps in any other language.
Bibliography Evans, J. M., Paradise Lost and the Genesis Tradition (1968); Milner, A., J. M. and theEnglish Revolution (1981); Parker, W. R., M. (2 vols., 1968); Potter, L., A Preface to M. (1971; rev. ed., 1986); Webber, J. M., M. and His Epic Tradition (1979)
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