John Milton Biography


Early Years

John Milton was born in London on December 9, 1608. His parents were John Milton, Sr. and Sarah Jeffery, who lived in a prosperous neighborhood of merchants. John Milton, Sr. was a successful scrivener or copyist who also dabbled in real estate and was noted as a composer of liturgical church music. The Miltons were prosperous enough that eventually they owned a second house in the country.

Milton seems to have had a happy childhood. He spoke of his mother's "esteem, and the alms she bestowed." Of his father, Milton said that he "destined me from a child to the pursuits of Literature, . . . and had me daily instructed in the grammar school, and by other masters at home." Though the senior Milton came from a Catholic family, he was a Puritan himself. Milton's religion, therefore, was an outgrowth of family life and not something he chose at a later period in his maturity.


Sometime, as early as age seven but perhaps later, Milton became a student at St. Paul's school, which was attached to the great cathedral of the same name. St. Paul's was a prestigious English public school — what would be called a "private school" in the U.S. Milton spent eight years as a "Pigeon at Paules," as the students were known, and came out a rather advanced scholar. He had studied the Trivium of Grammar, Rhetoric, and Logic and had probably been exposed to the Quadrivium of Mathematics, Geometry, Astronomy, and Music. He had also learned Latin well, was competent in Greek and Hebrew, had a smattering of French, and knew Italian well enough to write sonnets in it. The one language he did not study was English. Some of his language acquisition — Italian — came from private tutors hired by his father.

Also at St. Paul's, the young Milton made a friendship that was among the closest of his life with Charles Diodati. After leaving St. Paul's, the two young men would write each other in Latin. Through his friendship with Diodati, Milton came into contact with many of the foreign residents of London.

In 1625, Milton matriculated at Christ's College, Cambridge, intending to become a minister. Instead, Milton's facility with language and his abilities as a poet soon made the ministry a secondary consideration. Also, Milton was not pleased with the medieval scholastic curriculum that still existed at Christ's College. This displeasure caused him to become involved in frequent disputes, including some with his tutor William Chappell. In 1626, perhaps because of this dispute or perhaps because of some other minor infraction, Milton was "rusticated" or suspended for a brief period. Whatever the reason, Milton did not seem to mind the respite from Christ's, nor did the rustication impede his progression through the school in any significant way.

In March of 1629, Milton received his BA and three years later, in July 1632, completed work on his MA. In completing these degrees, Milton had already become an accomplished poet. His first significant effort was the Christmas ode "On the Morning of Christ's Nativity." Evidence also exists that he completed L'Allegro and Il Penseroso ("The Cheerful Man" and "The Pensive Man") while in college. These works had not achieved any notoriety for Milton, but they do demonstrate the genius that was within him.

Early Literary Work

After Milton's graduation, he did not consider the ministry. Instead, he began a six-year stay at his father's recently purchased country estate of Horton with the stated intention of becoming a poet. Milton made his move to Horton, a village of about 300 people, in 1632, saying that God had called him to be a poet. One of his first great works, Comus, a Masque, was written around this time.

In 1637, Milton's mother died, possibly of the plague. That same year, one of his Cambridge friends, Edward King, a young minister, was drowned in a boating accident. Classmates at Cambridge decided to create a memorial volume of poetry for their dead friend. Milton's poem, untitled in the volume but later called Lycidas, was the final poem, possibly because the editors recognized it as the artistic climax of the volume. Whatever the reasoning, the poem, signed simply J. M., has become one of the most recognized elegiac poems in English.

Influences Abroad

Having been through the years at Cambridge and six more at Horton, Milton took the Grand Tour, an extended visit to continental Europe. Such a tour was viewed as the culmination of the education of a cultivated young man. Milton as a true scholar and poet wanted more from this tour than just a good time away from home. He wanted to visit France and especially Italy. In Paris, in May of 1638, he met the famed Dutch legal scholar and theologian Hugo Grotius. Grotius' ideas on natural and positive law worked their way into many of Milton's political writings.

In Italy, Milton met a number of important men who would have influence on his writing. In Florence, he most likely met Galileo, who was under house arrest by the Inquisition for his heliocentric views of the solar system. Milton had a lifelong fascination with science and scientific discovery. Book VIII of Paradise Lost mentions the telescope and deals with planetary motions. Also in Italy, Milton attended an operatic performance in the company of Cardinal Francesco Barberino. The actual opera is not known but may have been one by Museo Clemente, who was popular at the time. Milton's own knowledge of and love for music shows up in much of his poetry, and, in some ways, Paradise Lost is operatic poetry. Finally, in Italy, Milton met Giovanni Batista, Marquis of Manso, who was the biographer of the great Italian epic poet, Torquato Tasso. Tasso's Jerusalem Delivered was obviously an influence on Milton's own epic poetry. To what extent Batista was also an influence is difficult to determine, but Milton did write the poem, Mansus, in his honor.

At this point in his journey, Milton planned to go to Greece but had to cut his tour short. Civil war was simmering in England; in addition, Milton learned that his old friend Charles Diodati had died. Late in 1638, Milton returned to London, where in 1639, he settled down as a schoolmaster for his nephews and other children from aristocratic families. For the first time in his life, Milton was on his own, earning his own way in the world.

Writing Career and Marriage

At this time, Milton began writing prose pamphlets on current church controversies. The political climate was charged as Charles I invaded Scotland, and the Long Parliament was convened. Milton wrote pamphlets entitled Of Reformation, Of Prelatical Episcopacy, and Animadversions in 1641, and The Reason for Church Government in 1642. For the young poet, the Puritan aspect of his work, at least in the public eye, began to take precedence over his poetry. Milton more and more sided with the idea that the church needed "purification" and that that sort of reform could not come from a church so closely connected to the king.

In 1642, the Civil War began, and its effects touched Milton directly. That same year, he married Mary Powell, daughter of a Royalist family from Oxford. A month after the marriage, Mary returned to Oxford to live with her family. The precise reasons for her leaving Milton are not known. Personal problems, political differences, or simple safety (Oxford was the headquarters for the Royalist army) may have motivated her. Milton's brother, Christopher, also announced as a Royalist at about this same time.

Whatever the reason for Mary Powell's desertion of Milton, he published the pamphlet On the Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce in 1643, followed by On Education and Areopagitica in 1644. Each of these works centered on the need for individual liberty. The ideas that Milton expressed in these writings are commonplace values today, but in the 1640s, they were so radical that Milton acquired the nickname, "Milton the divorcer."

Around 1645, Mary Powell returned to Milton. Once again, the reasons for her return are unclear. Charles I had lost the Battle of Naseby and any hope for military victory. The Powell family, avowed Royalists, were now in danger. They were ejected from their home in Oxford as Charles' power waned. Within a year of Mary's return to Milton, her entire family had moved in with the couple.

With the return of Mary and the arrival of her family, Milton was suddenly the head of a large household. His first collection of poetry, entitled Poems, was published in 1646. The volume included Lycidas, Comus, and "On the Morning of Christ's Nativity." In July, seven months after Poems was published, Milton's first daughter, Anne, was born. The marriage that had begun inauspiciously now seemed, if not perfect, at least sound.

Shortly after the reunion of Milton with his wife and the birth of his first child, both his father-in-law, Richard Powell, and his own father died. Milton was left with a moderate estate. He complained at this point that he was surrounded by "uncongenial people," a problem that was resolved a few months later when all the Powell relatives moved back to Oxford. Milton and his wife and daughter then moved into a smaller house in High Holborn. For the first time, the couple had a reasonably normal life and family. In 1648, a second daughter, Mary, was born.

The year 1649 marked a decisive change in Milton's life. Charles I was executed, with Milton probably in attendance. The murder of a king was shocking to the people of a country that had always lived under a monarchy and for whom the king had an aura of divinity. Milton attempted to justify the situation with his Tenure of Kings and Magistrates.

This pamphlet, along with Milton's other work for the Puritans, resulted in his being offered the position of Secretary for the Foreign Tongues. Milton now assumed full-time political office, corresponding with heads of states or their secretaries in Latin, the lingua franca of the day. Among other duties, he also responded to political attacks on the new Cromwellian government, particularly those attacking the philosophy and morality behind the violent overthrow of the monarchy. To this end, Milton wrote Eikonoklastes in response to Eikon Basilike, supposedly written by Charles the night before his execution, and Defensio pro populo Anglicano in response to Salmatius' Defensio Regia. During this period, Milton worked out of official lodgings in Scotland Yard.

Later Years

During 1652, Milton suffered a number of traumatic events. First, his eyesight, which had been growing weaker, gave out completely, probably because of glaucoma. By 1652, Milton was totally blind. Second, his young son, John, (b. 1651) died under mysterious circumstances. Third, his wife died from complications in giving birth to the Milton's third daughter, Deborah. And fourth, Pierre du Moulin published the pamphlet Regii Sanguinis Clamor (Outcry of the King's Blood), a pro-Charles pamphlet to which Milton was ordered to reply. Milton's reply was entitled Defensio Secunda, which was published in 1654. By that time, Andrew Marvell, Milton's friend and fellow poet, was working as his assistant. Milton was also allowed to cut back on his official labors and to use an amanuensis (akin to a secretary) as an aide.

Even with his personal and physical problems, Milton continued to write. His major personal project in the 1650s was De Doctrina Christiana, a work in which he tried to state formally all of his religious views. In 1656, he married Katherine Woodcock, who died two years later. He would marry for the third time in 1663 to Elizabeth Minshull, who became his nurse as his health declined in his later years.

With the death of Oliver Cromwell in 1658, Milton's political fortunes were reversed. As Royalists gained power, Milton went into hiding at the home of a friend. During this time, his Defensio pro populo Anglicano and Eikonoklastes were publicly burned. Milton stayed in hiding until Parliament passed the Acts of Oblivion, pardoning most of those who had opposed Charles II. Even so, Parliament considered arresting Milton, an act which was carried out in October 1659. Fortunately for Milton, neither Charles nor his cohorts were especially bloodthirsty or vindictive, and Milton was released in December.

By the time of the actual restoration of the monarchy in 1660, Milton was hard at work on Paradise Lost. Milton had long considered writing a major work on the grand themes of Christianity. His familiarity with the Iliad, Odyssey, Aeneid, The Divine Comedy, and Jerusalem Delivered inclined him to the epic format. His preparations for the ministry as well as the natural bent of his Puritanism led him toward the subject of Man's fall. During much of the early 1660s, he worked on his epic and, in 1667, finally published Paradise Lost, an epic in ten books. He followed up his masterpiece with Paradise Regained and Samson Agonistes in 1671. Milton is thus one of a relatively small group of creative geniuses whose greatest works were written after they turned 50. The years of essay and pamphlet writing did not diminish his creative spark.

In 1674, Milton published the second edition of Paradise Lost, revising it to make a total of twelve books. Mostly he rearranged rather than rewrote. For example, he made what had been Book X into Books XI and XII. After the publication of the second edition, his health deteriorated, and on November 9, 1674, Milton died of complications from a gout attack. He was 66 years old. He was survived by his third wife and two of his daughters by Mary Powell. He was buried near his father's grave in Cripplegate. By 1700, Paradise Lost was recognized as one of the classics of English literature.

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