John Milton (1608-1674)

 

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. 

“Of Man’s first disobedience, and the fruit
Of that forbidden tree whose mortal taste
Brought death into the world, and all our woe,
With loss of Eden.”
(from Paradise Lost)
 

John Milton was born in London. His mother, Sarah Jeffrey, a very religious person, was the daughter of a merchant sailor. Milton’s father, named John, too, had risen to prosperity as a scrivener or law writer  he also composed madrigasl and psalm settings. The family was wealthy enough to afford a second house in the country.  

Milton’s first teachers were his father, from whom he inherited love for art and music, and the writer Thomas Young, a graduate of St Andrews University. Milton took part in small domestic consorts, he played often a small organ and he had “delicate, tuneable voice”. At the age of twelve Milton was admitted to St Paul’s School near his home. Five years later he entered Christ’s College, Cambridge. While considering himself destined for the ministry, he began to write poetry in Latin, Italian, and English. One of Milton’e earliest works, ‘On the Death of a Fair Infant’ (1626), was written after his sister Anne Phillips had suffered from a miscarriage. ‘In inventorem bombardae’ (On the inventor of gunpowder), a piece in a series on the occasion of the Gunpowder Plot, contains Milton’s first portrayal of Satan. 

 

Milton did not adjust to university life. He was called, half in scorn, “The Lady of Christ’s”, and after starting a fist fight with his tutor, he was expelled for a term. 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), about the meaning of death, which was composed after the death of his friend Edward King. Milton wrote in Latin as was usual for the time. His first published poem was the sonnet ‘An Epitaph on the Admirable Dramatic Poet, W. Shakespeare’, which was printed anonymously in the Second Folio of Shakespeare’s works (1632). 

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 famous scientist Milton recorded in his celebrated plea for a free speech and free discussion, AREOPAGITICA (1644), in which he stated that books “preserve as in a vial the purest efficacy and extraction of that living intellect bred in them.” Milton returned to London in 1639, and set up a school with his nephews and a few others as pupils. He had planned to write an epic based on the Arthurian legends, but then gave up his literary pursuits, partly due to the Civil War, which divided the country as Oliver Cromwell fought against the king, Charles I. 

Concerned with the Puritan cause, Milton published 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 expressed in THE TENURE OF KINGS AND MAGISTRATES (1649) the view that the people have the right to depose and punish tyrants. 

In 1651 Milton became blind, but like Jorge Luis Borges centuries later, blindness helped him 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. One of his assistants was the poet and satirist Andew Marvell (1621-78), who spoke for him in Parliament, when his political opinions stirred much controversy. After the Restoration of Charles II in 1660, Milton was arrested as a noted defender of the Commonwealth, but was soon released. However, for his opposition Milton was forced to pay a massive fine. Besides public burning of EIKONKLASTES (1649) and the first DEFENSIO (1651) in Paris and Toulouse, Milton escaped from more punishment, but he became a relatively poor man. The manuscript of Paradise Lost he sold for £5 to Samuel Simmons, and was promised another £5 if the first edition of 1,300 copies sold out. This was done in 18 months. 

Milton was married three times. His first marriage started unhappily; this experience promted the poet to write his famous essays on divorce. He had married in 1642 Mary Powell, seventeen at that time. She grew soon bored with her busy husbandand went back home where she stayed for three years. Their first child, Anne, was born in 1646. Mary died in 1652 and four years later Milton married Katherine Woodcock; she died in 1658. For her memory Milton devoted the sonnet ‘To His Late Wife’. In the 1660s Milton moved with his third wife, Elizabeth Minshull, again a much younger woman, to what is now Bunhill Row. The marriage was happy, in spite of the great difference of their ages.  

Milton spent in Bunhill Row the remaining years of his life, apart from a brief visit to Chalfont St Giles in 1665 during a period of plague. His late poems Milton dictated to his daughter, nephews, friends, disciples, and paid amanuenses.
In THE DOCTRINE AND DISCIPLINE OF DIVORCE (1643), composed after Mary had deserter him, 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 morally austere and conscientious, some of his religious beliefs were very unconventional, and came in conflict with the official Puritan stand. Milton who did not believe in the divine birth, “believed perhaps nothing”, as Ford Madox Ford says in The March of Literature (1938).
 

Milton died on November 8, 1674. He was buried beside his father in the church of St Giles, Cripplegate. It has been claimed 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. 

Milton’s achievement in the field of poetry was recognized after the appearance of Paradise Lost. Before it the writer himself had showed some doubt of the worth of his work: “By labor and intent study (which I take to be my portion in this life), joined with the strong propensity of nature, I might perhaps leave something so written to after-times, as they should not willingly let it die.” (from The Reason of Church Government, 1641) Milton’s cosmic vision has occasionally provoked critical 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 had been in Milton’s mind from the 1640s. His ambition was to compose an epic poem to rival the ancient poets, such as Homer and Virgil, whose grand vision in Aeneid left traces in his work. Originally it was issued in 10 books in 1667, and in 12 books in the second edition of 1674. Milton, who wanted to be a great poet, had also cope with the towering figure of Shakespeare, who had died in 1616  Milton was seven at that time. In his own hierarchy, Milton placed highest in the scale the epic, below it was the drama. 

Paradise Lost is not easy to read with its odd syntax, difficult vocabulary, and complex, but noble style. Moreover, its cosmic vision is not actually based on the Copernican system, but more in the traditional Christian cosmology of its day, where the Earth (and man) is the center of the universe, not the sun. The poem 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. His character bears similarities with Shakespeare’s hero-villains Iago and Macbeth, whose personal ambition is transformed into metaphysical nihilism. 

Selected works: 

• ODE ON THE MORNING OF CHRIST’S NATIVITY, 1627
• L’ALLEGRO, 1632
• IL PENSEROSO, 1632
• EPITAPH ON SHAKESPEARE, 1632
• ARCADES, 1633
• COMUS, 1634
• LYCIDAS, 1637
• THE REASON OF CHURCH GOVERNMENT, 1641
• AN APOLOGY FOR SMECTYMNUUS, 1642
• THE DOCTRINE AND DISCIPLINE OF DIVORCE, 1643
• OF EDUCATION, 1644
• AREOPAGITICA, 1644
• POEMS, 1645
• THE TENURE OF KINGS AND MAGISTRATES, 1649
• EIKONOKLASTES, 1649
• PRO POPULO ANGLICANO DEFENSIO, 1651
• DEFENSIO SECUNDA / THE SECOND DEFENCE OF THE PEOPLE OF ENGLAND, 1654
• A TREATISE OF CIVIL POWER IN ECCLESIASTICAL CAUSES, 1659
• THE READY AND EASY WAY TO ESTABLISH A FREE COMMONWEALTH, 1660
• PARADISE LOST, 1667 – Kadotettu paratiisi (suom. Yrjö Jylhä, 1933)
• HISTORY OF BRITAIN, 1670
• SAMSON AGONISTES, 1671
• PARADISE REGAINED, 1671
• A BRIEF HISTORY OF MOSCOVIA, 1682
• DE DOCTRINA CHRISTIANA, 1825
• COMMONPLACE BOOK, 1874
• COMPLETE ENGLISH POEMS, OF EDUCATION, AREOPAGITICA, 1919
 

Sample Of his poetry  

ON HIS BLINDNESS
by: John Milton (1608-1674)


HEN I consider how my light is spent
Ere half my days in this dark world and wide,
And that one talent which is death to hide,
Lodged with me useless, though my soul more bent
To serve therewith my Maker, and present
My true account, lest He returning chide,
‘Doth God exact day labor, light denied?’
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 mild yoke, they serve him best. His state
Is kingly: thousands at his bidding speed,
And post o’er land and ocean without rest;
They also serve who only stand and wait.’

ON TIME
by: John Milton (1608-1674)


LY envious Time, till thou run out thy race,
Call on the lazy leaden-stepping hours,
Whose speed is but the heavy Plummets pace;
And glut thy self with what thy womb devours,
Which is no more then what is false and vain,
And meerly mortal dross;
So little is our loss,
So little is thy gain.
For when as each thing bad thou hast entomb’d,
And last of all, thy greedy self consum’d,
Then long Eternity shall greet our bliss
With an individual kiss;
And Joy shall overtake us as a flood,
When every thing that is sincerely good
And perfectly divine,
With Truth, and Peace, and Love shall ever shine
About the supreme Throne
Of him, t’whose happy-making sight alone,
When once our heav’nly-guided soul shall clime,
Then all this Earthy grosnes quit,
Attir’d with Stars, we shall for ever sit,
Triumphing over Death, and Chance, and thee O Time.

THE FIRST LOVE OF ADAM AND EVE
from Paradise Lost
by: John Milton (1608-1674)

HUS talking, hand in hand alone they passed
On to their blissful bower. It was a place
Chosen by the sov’reign Planter, when he framed
All things to Man’s delightful use; the roof
Of thickest covert was inwoven shade,
Laurel and myrtle, and what higher grew
Of firm and fragrant leaf; on either side
Acanthus, and each odorous bushy shrub,
Fenced up the verdant wall; each beauteous flower,
Iris all hues, roses, and jessamine,
Rear’d high their flourished heads between, and wrought
Mosaic; under foot the violet,
Crocus, and hyacinth, with rich inlay
Broidered the ground, more coloured than the stone
Of costliest emblem: Other creature here,
Beast, bird, insect, or worm, durst enter none;
Such was their awe of Man. In shadier bower
More sacred and sequestered, though but feigned
Pan or Sylvanus never slept, nor nymph,
Nor Faunus haunted. Here, in close recess,
With flowers, garlands, and sweet-smelling herbs,
Espousèd Eve decked first her nuptial bed
And heavenly quires the hymenean sung,
What day the genial Angel to our sire
Brought her, in naked beauty more adorned,
More lovely than Pandora, whom the Gods
Endowed with all their gifts, and, O! too like
In sad event, when to the unwiser son
Of Japhet brought by Hermes, she ensnared
Mankind with her fair looks, to be avenged
On him who had stole Jove’s authentic fire.
Thus at their shady lodge arrived, both stood,
Both turned, and under open sky adored
The God that made both sky, air, earth and heaven
Which they beheld, the moon’s resplendent globe,
And starry pole: “Thou also madest the night,
Maker Omnipotent; and thou the day,
Which we in our appointed work employed,
Have finished, happy in our mutual help
And mutual love, the crown of all our bliss
Ordained by thee; and this delicious place,
For us too large, where thy abundance wants
Partakers, and uncropt falls to the ground.
But thou hast promised from us two a race
To fill the earth, who shall with us extol
They goodness infinite, both when we wake
And when we seek, as now, the gift of sleep.”

 

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