The page of Milton, John, English biography
BiographyOne 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. His father, also named John, 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'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. 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'e 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 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 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 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 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 contoversy. After the Restoration of Charles II in 1660, Milton was arrested as a noted defender of the Commonwealth, but was soon released. Milton paid a massive fine for his opposition. Besides public burning of EIKONKLASTES (1649) and the first DEFENSIO (1651) in Paris and Toulouse, Milton escaped from more punishment after Restoration, 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.
In the 1660s Milton moved with his third wife, Elizabeth Minshull, again a much younger woman, to what is now Burnhill Row. The marriage was happy, in spite of the great difference of their ages. He spent in Bunhill Row 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. His first marriage started unhappily; this experiences promted Milton to write his famous essays on divorce. He had married in 1642 Mary Powell, who was seventeen at that time. She grew soon bored with the poet 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, who died in 1658. For her memory Milton devoted his sonnet 'To His Late Wife'.
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 was Puritan, morally austere and conscientious, some of his religious beliefs were very unconventional, and were in conflict with the official Puritan stand. He did not believe in the divine birth, and "believed perhaps nothing", as Ford Madox Ford says in The March of Literature (1938).
Milton died 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. Milton's position 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 personality and achievement still arouse 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 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, whose grand vision in Aeneid left traced in his poem. It 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. 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. Milton's 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 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, 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 is the center, 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 intellectual nihilism is transformed into metaphysical drama.
Milton's 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. Noteworthy, Nietzsche's Zarathustra has more superficial than real connections with Milton's Lucifer, although Nietzsche knew Milton's work.