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John Milton 1608 – 1674

One of the greatest poets of the English language, best-known for his epic poem PARADISE LOST (1667).

Paradise Lost is an epic poem in blank verse by the 17th-century English poet John Milton (1608–1674). The first version, published in 1667, consisted of ten books with over ten thousand lines of verse. A second edition followed in 1674, arranged into twelve books (in the manner of Virgil’s Aeneid) with minor revisions throughout and a note on the versification. It is considered by critics to be Milton’s major work, and it helped solidify his reputation as one of the greatest English poets of his time.

The poem concerns the biblical story of the Fall of Man: the temptation of Adam and Eve by the fallen angel Satan and their expulsion from the Garden of Eden. Milton’s purpose, stated in Book I, is to “justify the ways of God to men

Milton’s powerful, rhetoric prose and the eloquence of his poetry had an immense influence especially on the 18th-century verse.

John Milton 1608–1674

John Milton was born in London. His first teacher was his father, from whom he inherited love for art and music, and the writer Thomas Young, a graduate of St Andrews University.

At the age of twelve Milton was admitted to St Paul’s School near his home and five years later he entered Christ’s College, Cambridge. During this period, while considering himself destined for the ministry, he began to write poetry in Latin, Italian, and English. One of Milton’s earliest works, ‘On the Death of a Fair Infant’ (1626), was written after his sister Anne Phillips has suffered from a miscarriage.

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), written after the death of his friend Edward King.

In 1635 the Milton’s moved to Horton, Buckinghamshire, where John pursued his studies in Greek, Latin, and Italian. He travelled 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 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. During this period he did not write much, earlier he had planned to write an epic based on the Arthurian legends. 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 defence of the liberty of the press (1644), and in support of the regicides (1649).

Milton sitting in his garden at the door of his house

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 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 arouse much controversy.

After the Restoration of Charles II in 1660, Milton was arrested as a noted defender of the Commonwealth, but was soon released. Milton was married three times. His first marriage started unhappily; this experience prompted 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 husband and 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. 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.

In THE DOCTRINE AND DISCIPLINE OF DIVORCE (1643), composed after Mary had deserter him, Though Milton was a Puritan, morally austere and conscientious, some of his religious beliefs were very unconventional, and came in conflict with the official Puritan stand.

Milton died on November 8, 1674

Milton visiting Galileo at Florence in Famous Men of Modern Times

On His Blindness – Poem by John Milton

When 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

Lodg’d 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-labour, 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.”

Quotes by John Milton

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