The Politics And Poetry Of John Milton

CULTURE | September 29, 2019

John Milton. Source: (happyho.in)

Best known for writing Paradise Lost, John Milton was a 17th Century historian and writer, engaging in both poetry and prose. His political influence during his lifetime impacted not only the British civil wars but also the American and French revolutions. Meanwhile, his literary influence went on to inspire the likes of Wordsworth and Blake, as well as Percy and Mary Shelly.

Milton was born in London on December 9, 1608. His father, John Milton Sr., was a scrivener and moneylender, having been disinherited by his own father, Richard Milton. His mother, Sara Jeffrey Milton, was the daughter of a merchant tailor. Sara and John Sr. had several children but only three survived to adulthood. Milton was the middle child with an older sister, Anne, and younger brother, Christopher.

Around 1620, Milton’s father enrolled him at St. Paul’s School. He also hired a private tutor named Thomas Young, a Scottish Presbyterian whose influence likely led to Milton’s interest in politics and religion. It was at St Paul’s that Milton met Charles Diodati with whom he would remain friends through adulthood. It was also there that Milton learned Latin and Greek. He would later go on to become proficient in Italian, Hebrew, French, and Spanish. In 1625, he enrolled at Christ’s College, Cambridge, originally to be educated in ministry, but it was with a Bachelor of Arts degree that he graduated in 1629. He stayed on and received a Master of Arts degree in 1632.

Christ’s College, Cambridge. Source: (wikiwand.com)

After Cambridge, Milton moved back into his family home in Hammersmith, London. He stayed there for three years before moving with his family to Buckinghamshire where he would spend another three years. He spent these six years reading extensively, primarily Greek and Latin authors, preparing for a career in poetry. His reading material incorporated a wide range of subjects including religion, science, philosophy, politics, and literature. He wrote several poems during this time, including “On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity,” “On Shakespeare,” and “Lycidas.”

John Milton’s cottage in Buckinghamshire. Source: (familypedia.wikia.com)

In May of 1638, Milton set off on what was to be a fifteen-month tour of Europe. It was unfortunately cut short by news of the impending civil war in England as well as the death of his childhood friend, Charles Diodati, likely a result of the plague. However, during his thirteen-month tour of France and Italy, Milton made a number of influential contacts, including Galileo, who was under house arrest at the time. Once back in England, he moved to London and began tutoring his nephews, John and Edward Phillips. He also wrote a Latin elegy entitled “Epitaphium Damonis” in memory of Diodati.

The Works of John Milton. Source: (bonanza.com)

Around this time, Milton switched from poetry to prose, writing tracts which imparted his political and religious ideals. From 1641-42, he wrote five tracts on the reformation of church government, involving himself in the ongoing conflicts with the Church of England and the Royalist government. In 1642, he married 16-year-old Mary Powell. The marriage was rocky from the beginning and she returned to her family home after only a few months. They were separated for about three years, during which time Milton composed four tracts advocating the morality of divorce. The couple eventually reconciled and had four children, including one son who died in infancy, before Mary’s death in 1652. After the divorce tracts, Milton went on to write Education and Antimonarchical tracts. His political sway and language proficiency led to his appointment as Secretary for foreign tongues under Oliver Cromwell.

Milton steadily began losing his eyesight and by 1652 was totally blind. However, he continued his duties with the help of several assistants. In 1658, he married Katherine Woodcock. They had been married just fifteen months when she died giving birth in 1658. Milton spent a short time in prison in 1660 after Charles II was restored to the throne but was quickly released due to his influential contacts. 

Poet’s Corner in Westminster Abbey. Source: (pinterest.com)

In 1663, he married for a third time to Elizabeth Minshull. It was with her assistance, as well as that of his daughters from his first marriage, that he was able to complete his most famous work. Paradise Lost was published in ten volumes in 1667 and is considered to be the greatest epic poem completed in English. It tells the story of the temptation of Adam and Eve and their subsequent banishment from the Garden of Eden. Milton followed up Paradise Lost in 1671 with two poems, Paradise Regained and Samson Agonistes, which respectively chronicle Satan’s temptation of Christ and Samson’s battle with temptation. Milton died on November 8, 1674, due to possible renal failure. He was buried inside St. Giles Cripplegate Church in London. A monument on Poet’s Corner in Westminster Abbey is dedicated to him.

Tags: John Milton | poetry | politics

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