Now most famous for having written the epic poem Paradise Lost, John Milton’s writing career was long and diverse but certain themes can be seen to have consistently preoccupied him. He spent his life grappling with ideas of personal, political and religious freedom in the context of different forms of governance by the Church and state.
Early life and education
Milton was born in London in 1608 and educated at St Paul’s School, followed by the University of Cambridge. He knew at least ten languages, and was enormously well-read in literature, history, theology, philosophy and natural sciences. Milton’s Commonplace Book, in which he made notes on his extensive reading, is now held at the British Library.
Politics and religion
In his lifetime, which spanned the period before, during and after the English Civil Wars between Royalists and Republicans, Milton was not only a celebrated poet, but also a political and religious controversialist. He was the author of a large number of polemical works (many intended for an international audience), and advocated stamping out corruption among the English clergy (Of Reformation, among other works published in 1641–42); the freedom of the press (Areopagitica, 1644); permission for divorce on the grounds of mutual incompatibility (his most famous work on the same theme was The Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce, 1643); and the necessity of Charles I’s execution (see Eikonoklastes, 1649). Thanks to having written these so-called ‘regicide tracts’, Milton lived under the threat of arrest and possibly even execution after the monarchy was restored in 1660.
Poetry and Paradise Lost
Milton published his first volume of poetry, the Poems of Mr John Milton, Both English and Latin, in 1645, which included some compositions from as early as his teens. By 1654, he had gone completely blind (see his sonnet ‘When I Consider How My Light is Spent’), and therefore had to dictate his writings to amanuenses, including his own daughters.
As well as Paradise Lost, first published in ten books in 1667, this later period of Milton’s writing life was spent composing the drama Samson Agonistes (telling the Old Testament story of Samson and Delilah) and Paradise Regain’d (the New Testament story of Christ’s temptation by Satan in the desert). These two works were published together in 1671, followed by a second edition of his early Poems (1673) and the second, 12-book edition of Paradise Lost (1674).
Milton’s reputation has only grown in the centuries since his death, and he has stood for different things to different readers at different times. Many Romantic poets, for instance, saw him – and in particular, his Satan – as a figurehead for revolutionary liberty, and Victorian readers were newly interested in the complexities of his theology. For some modernist poets at the beginning of the 20th century Milton was a ‘tyrannical’ poet who had exerted an inhibiting influence on his literary descendants. In the 21st century, he is widely considered to be Shakespeare’s closest rival as the greatest author in the history of English literature.
Further information about the life of John Milton can be found via the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.