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John Milton was born in Cheapside, London to a prosperous professional family. His grandfather, Richard Milton, had been a Catholic, while his father—also named John—had in his early manhood rejected his Catholic upbringing and embraced Protestantism—an act for which he was disinherited. The elder John Milton moved to London where he found work as a scrivener (a sort of legal and financial factotum), which secured a comfortable living for the Milton family—wife Sara, about whom little is known other than that she came from a respectable family, and three children who survived into adulthood: Anne, John and Christopher. John Sr. was also a musical composer and his association with artistic and intellectual circles exposed his son to a world of creative expression from a young age.
The family’s relative prosperity meant that Milton was well-educated: first by a private tutor named Thomas Young (a Scottish Presbyterian who probably exposed Milton to radical Puritan ideas) and then at the St. Paul’s school where he learned Greek, Latin and Hebrew. In 1625, Milton entered Christ’s College, Cambridge where he was a successful student despite having been “rusticated”—that is, suspended—for a term during his first year, probably for arguing with his tutor. Milton excelled at languages and was an omnivorous reader. In addition to classical poetry and Christian theology, he also read modern languages, including French and Italian, and greatly admired the work of recent poets writing in English, including Sidney, Spenser and Shakespeare.
While he initially considered a vocation in the ministry, Milton soon determined to pursue a career as a poet—though he was apparently in no rush to prove it. By age 23, Milton had already written that “My hasting days fly on with full career, / But my late spring no bud or blossom shew’th,” and while much of his time at Cambridge was spent writing odes, sonnets and elegies in English as well as in Latin, he published nothing under his own name. Milton stayed at Cambridge for seven years, earning a master’s degree, then spent another seven living with his family in Greater London where he continued to pursue his studies and completed numerous poems. These includedL’Allegro and Il Penseroso, as well as the classically-informed pastoral elegy Lycidas, which he wrote on the occasion of the death of a Cambridge classmate. Milton’s first volume of poems wasn’t published until 1645, when its author was 37 years old.
In 1639, Milton returned from a grand tour of France and Italy (a journey during which he not only saw relics of the classical past, but also met modern luminaries and intellectuals, including Galileo, who showed Milton a view of the moon through his infamous telescope) to find his country on the edge of civil war. The decision of the absolutist King Charles I to convene a parliament after over 10 years of personal rule precipitated a political and ecclesiastical crisis that soon resulted in open warfare between Parliamentarians and Presbyterians – who favored a republican form of government – and Royalists, who supported Charles’s monarchy.
Milton saw his opportunity and began a career as a pamphleteer for the republican cause. If Milton was reticent to publish his poetry he had no such misgivings about his prose. In 1641 alone, Milton published five tracts (which he distinguished from his poetry by calling them productions “of my left hand”) attacking the episcopal organization of the English church and defending Presbyterian ministers, including his childhood tutor Thomas Young. In 1644, Milton published his most famous polemic. The Areopagitica was a forceful critique of pre-publication licensing (the practice by which authors had to submit works to a panel of state-appointed censors before they could be published) and has come to be seen as a classic liberal defense of freedom of speech.
In 1642, the 33-year-old Milton married Mary Powell, age 17—who left and returned to her family after only three months. The personal motivations for Mary’s departure are the cause of much speculation. But her political motivations are perhaps more clear – Mary's family was fiercely royalist. Milton’s feelings on the separation are likewise impossible to know, but what is certain is that her departure led him to write and publish a tract entitled The Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce. Mary returned in 1645, however, and the couple had three daughters—Anne, Mary and Deborah. Milton's wife died giving birth to Deborah in 1652 and he would remarry twice—in 1656 to Katherine Woodcock (who also died in childbirth two years later) and then again, in 1663, to Elizabeth Minshull, who survived him.
Milton’s writings on topics as seemingly disparate as Presbyterianism, divorce and pre-publication licensing are all in fact of a piece. Ecclesiastical liberty, domestic or personal liberty and civil liberty were “three varieties of liberty," he wrote, "without which civilized life is scarcely possible.” And as the bloody civil war between the Parliamentarians, under the leadership of Oliver Cromwell, and the Royalists ground on, Milton’s defenses of liberty became more and more impassioned. The most radical tract was perhaps The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates (1649), whose very subtitle openly defended the natural right of the people to take a monarch they deemed tyrannical and “TO DEPOSE AND PUT HIM TO DEATH.” Charles was beheaded the same year and the new Commonwealth was installed.
Milton’s successful career pamphleteering for the republican cause was not lost on Cromwell, who gave Milton a job in the new government as Secretary of Foreign Tongues to the Council of State. In a position somewhere between minister of propaganda and public relations, Milton was tasked with defending the revolution at home and abroad, which he did in works such as the first and second Defences of the English People (1651, 1654). Cromwell’s government fell apart after his death in 1658, but Milton continued pressing for republican governance even as it became clear that the return of Charles II, the heir to the throne who had been living in exile, was imminent. Indeed, on the very eve of the king's return Milton published The Ready and Easy Way to Establish a Free Commonwealth (1660) in which he excoriates his fellow citizens for their failure to sustain the republic and ridicules royalists who “build the chief hope of their common happiness or safety on a single person.”
Milton was arrested, but—perhaps to his own surprise—spared execution. Partly he may have been insulated from the worst consequences of his free speech because of his fame as a poet and an intellectual, or partly because by 1652 he had gone completely blind and now cut a somewhat less than threatening figure. In any case Milton was freed from prison and lived the rest of his days working in retirement from public life. He dictated the Biblical epic Paradise Lost to whatever amanuensis was available—often one of his long-suffering daughters—and the poem was published in a 10-book version in 1667. Milton also composed a much shorter sequel, Paradise Regained, as well as a tragedy, Samson Agonistes, both published in 1671. He spent the last years of his life revising his 1645 edition of Poems and expanding Paradise Lost into the 12-book version most read today. John Milton died in 1674.
Written by Zachary Roberts, Core Lecturer, English and Comparative Literature, Columbia University
Stephen Orgel and Jonathan Goldberg, introduction to Paradise Lost, ed. Orgel and Goldberg (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008)
William Riley Parker, Milton: A Biography, 2ndedition, ed. Gordon Campbell (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996)