John Milton-A Biographical sketch
John Milton was born in London, in Bread Street, Cheapside, on the 9th December 1608. His father had been able to attain some prominence and make a comfortable fortune as a scrivener or notary and through the allied business of private banking or money-lending. Possibly the poet inherited from his father a disposition toward religious independence. He also owed to his father a debt in the way of music. The father was a composer, not of the first rank but still of enough repute. The poet’s life-long devotion to music is seen in the warmth of his allusions to it. Milton’s mother was well- esteemed and known for her charities. Milton had an older sister Anne, who married in 1623, and a younger brother, Christopher, who became a lawyer and, though a Royalist, continued to be on good terms with him.
Milton received his early education at home under private tutors and was then admitted to St. Paul’s School, perhaps in 1620. At school he studied Latin and Greek, besides other subjects. One of his private tutors was a Scotsman, Thomas Young, to whom he later wrote two letters and the Latin Elegy IV (1627), in which he gratefully recalled Young’s introducing him to Latin poetry. Milton was from childhood a great reader. This excessive reading proved to be the initial cause of his subsequent blindness.
His earliest attempts at verse, made at the age of fifteen, were rhymed paraphrases of Psalms 114 and 136. He also wrote a few Latin exercises at this time. His closest friend, at school and later, was Charles Diodati, the son of a prominent physician of Italian origin, who went from St. Paul’s School to the University of Oxford. A less intimate friend was Alexander Gill, the son of the school headmaster.
In 1625, Milton matriculated at Christ’s College, Cambridge. He obtained his B.A. degree in 1629 and his M.A. in 1632 at the same university. Young men who later attained distinction and who were studying at Cambridge during the same period were Roger Williams, Thomas Fuller, Thomas Randolph, and Jeremy Taylor. At Cambridge Milton wrote abundant Latin verse and seven Latin prolusions. (“Prolusions” were public speeches made by students to prove their learning and their rhetorical and argumentative powers). The occasion of his first Latin elegy, addressed to Diodati, was his rustication, after a quarrel with his tutor, in 1626. Back in London, he compared this period of exile from the university to the exile of his beloved Ovid and rejoiced in the opportunity to read classical plays and to see beautiful girls while strolling. On his return to the university, he was assigned to another tutor and graduated in the normal time. At the university, Milton earned the nickname “the Lady” because of his handsome and delicate features and the purity of his mind and behavior which prevented him from joining the diversions of his coarser fellows, During the seven years that he spent at Cambridge he moved from some unpopularity to general respect and high esteem. He did not love the scholastic logic which largely dominated the university curriculum and which he criticized as unless. In his last prolusion, he asserted the creed of a young Renaissance humanist who was at once a Christian, a Platonist, and a Baconian.
Milton’s Latin poetry, with all its conventional rhetoric, sometimes attained higher levels than that of any other English writer. Elegy V, a picture of awakening spring, is aflame with the sexual imagery of an intense though innocent paganism. In Elegy VII he presents himself as a confident foe of Cupid who is overcome by the beauty of a girl he encounters. The young poet’s sensuous instincts were further displayed, along with his mastery of Italian, in six Italian sonnets (1630).
Early in 1628 he wrote the earliest of his English poems, On the Death of a Fair Infant. In part of an academic prolusion in English couplets (At a Vacation Exercise, 1628) he declared his devotion to his native language, a style free from eccentricity, and exalted themes concerning Nature and man. In the Latin Elegy VI, addressed to Diodati in the Christmas season of 1629-30, he praised the light verse inspired by wine and love but turned from that to celebrate the ascetic purity of the heroic poet. The Elegy ended with a reference to a poem he had just written, his first great poem in English, On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity. This poem showed that, poetically speaking, Milton had come of age. It also shows his future direction, both in its religious theme and in its mastery of conception and form and image and rhythm. Probably in the long vacation of 1631, Milton wrote the two companion poems L’Allegro and Il Penseroso. Less ambitious in theme than the Nativity Ode, these two poems have their own complexity, concealed beneath a unique grace and charm. In 1631 he also wrote two elegies on Hobson, the Cambridge carrier whose death occasioned much student wit.
Milton’s scholarly and literary gifts had from childhood marked him out in the minds of his family and teachers for a priestly career. In his later prose, he recorded that he had refused to “subscribe slave” in a church governed by prelacy, but the date of this negative decision is not known. As his academic career neared its end, the problem of an occupation was to come up, and the poem Ad Patrem may well have been written in 1631-32. In this composition, Milton assumes that he would not be pushed into some basely remunerative profession by his father who had encouraged his literary pursuits and who was himself a devotee of the Muses.
After taking his M.A. degree in July, 1632, Milton went to stay at his father’s country-house at Horton, near Windsor, Berkshire, where he spent some six years. During these years he laid the foundation or set the direction of his liberal thinking. With a humanistic zeal he lost himself in the study of history, literature, and philosophy, ancient and modern, to gain. An insight into all the generous arts and affairs. Occasionally he visited London in quest of books or something new in mathematics or music. An important landmark in his early career is the sonnet, “How soon hath Time”, written on his twenty-fourth birthday (9th December, 1632).Though this sonnet expresses his uneasiness about his present and future, he earnestly dedicates his life to his great Task-Master’s will. The first fruits of this self-dedication were two short religious poems, On Time, and At a Solemn Music (1632- 33). They have the form of a madrigal, a stanza of a canzone*; and the irregular lines are powerfully modulated, so that every word has weight. The poems are expressive of the beatific vision that always stirred his imagination. Both contrast the grossness of temporal life, the jarring discord of sin, with the eternity and harmony of heaven and goodness.
Perhaps in 1632, Milton had, at the invitation of the musician Henry Lawes, written Arcades, a miniature masque intended as a tribute to the dowager Countess of Derby. In 1634, he wrote Comus, another masque. Comus was Milton’s first dramatization of his great theme, the conflict of good and evil. He has told us that his early reading had nourished his faith in chastity. He had loved and imitated the erotic poetry of Ovid and his fellows. But, while continuing to cherish their art, he had turned away from their sensuality to the idealism of Dante and Petrarch. Then came the romances of knighthood. Finally, “the divine volumes of Plato” taught him the true love of the good. Prior to and beyond all were “those chaste and high mysteries” glorified by St. Paul and the Book of Revelation.
Comus was in a way of song of innocence. Lycidas, written in 1637, was a song of experience. This poem, in form and sentiment an elegy of the classical kind, was Milton’s first attempt to justify the ways of God to himself and to other men. The premature death (by drowning) of a virtuous and promising young man, Edward King, who was about to enter a career of service to God, brought home to Milton’s mind the whole enigma of life and death, of the rightness of things in a world where such things could happen. The passages on fame and the hired clergymen in this poem should not be treated asdigressions. They are quite central in the emotional dialectic. In the end, God’s justice and providence and the conditions of earthly life are vindicated, not by reason, but by the beatific vision of Lycidas’s soul received into heaven. “The poem is remarkable for its complexities and depth, its reverberating solidity of reference, its rich variety of pace and tone, the artistic control that dominates its turbulent emotions, and the high serenity of victory won at the end.’
Milton’s mother died in 1637. In May, 1638 the poet went to Italy. He stayed chiefly in Florence, Rome, and Naples. The Italian men of letters gave him a cordial reception. Their treatment of him warmed his heart and nourished his self-confidence. To his distinguished host in Naples, BaptistaManso, Milton wrote an epistle (1638-39), which is one of his best Latin poems. He also wrote an epistle to a Roman poet, Salzilli, and several epigrams in praise of the singing of the famous Leonora Baroni. Although he mingled happily with Catholics, he maintained his stout Protestantism and sometimes spoke of religious subjects. He also called on Galileo in the latter’s semi-captivity.
Milton felt compelled to give up his plan to visit Sicily and Greece on receiving news of mounting political and civil tensions in England. In August, 1638 his friend, Diodati (who had become a physician), had died. On his way back to England, Milton, stopped at Geneva to see Diodati’s uncle, John Diodati, who was a Professor of Theology there. He ‘reached England in July, 1639 and settled down in a house in London where he set up a school. His first pupils were Edward and John Phillips, the sons of his sister Anne. Late in 1640, he wrote an elaborate elegy in Latin on Diodati. This has commonly been ranked at the head of Milton’s Latin poems. It contains expressions of heart-felt loneliness which are especially moving from a man often regarded as proudly self-sufficient.
Milton devoted the years 1641-60 wholly to writing prose tracts in the cause of religious and civil liberties. As he tells us in an important personal passage in his fourth tract, Reason of Church Government Urged against Prelacy (1642), it was a great sacrifice on his part to put aside his poetic ambitions in order to embark on a career of pamphleteering. But, as he proceeded with this work, he felt encouraged by the thought that in his many and varied defenses of liberty he was, in another way, fulfilling his epic and patriotic aspirations.
The large bulk of Milton’s prose is read only by scholars. It fills four times as many volumes in his poetry. Milton’s age was an age of great prose. Milton’s own prose, at its best, has a very individual if often undisciplined greatness. Even if he had never written any poetry, his prose works would remain a valuable interpretation of the Puritan revolution. These prose works have a significant place in the history of political thought. Besides, they are a record of Milton’s growth in religion and politics, and of his dreams and disillusionments. They are indeed an essential introduction to his mature poetic works. They serve as a bridge between the radiant idealism of youth and the much-tried faith and fortitude of age.
During 1641-42, Milton wrote five pamphlets attacking prelacy. Milton urged that the Reformation must be completed with a drastic purge of Romanism and a return to the democratic simplicity and purity of the apostolic church. He puts all the emphasis on the inward spirit of Biblical faith in contrast with outward show and spurious tradition.
Milton wrote several tracts on marriage and divorce. In May, 1642, several months before the outbreak of the Great Rebellion, Milton married Mary Powell, the daughter of a royalist squire of Oxford shire who owed money to his father. The marriage of a scholar and poet of thirty-three and an uneducated girl half his age, from a large, easy-going household, could hardly have been expected to be successful. The young wife, visiting her family a little later, refused to come back. Milton was, of course, much distressed. In the tracts, Milton argued that incompatibility between man and wife was an even stronger reason for divorce than adultery which was then recognized as the sole basis for it. A loveless marriage, he said, was a crime against human dignity. Both religious and philosophic tradition and the way of the world recognized the superiority of man over woman. Without denying that view, Milton upheld a personal and Puritan ideal of marriage as an active bond of mutual love and mental companionship. He was, however, attacked as a new libertine by most people. In 1645, a reconciliation between Milton and his wife was effected. In 1646, when his wife’s family had been ruined by war, he took into his house the whole noisy family of ten members and kept them for nearly a year. Three daughters, Anne, Mary, and Deborah were born in 1646, 1648 and 1652 respectively. Mrs. Milton died a few- days after Deborah’s birth. In 1654, Milton published his well-known pamphlets, Of Education and Areopagitica, the latter of which is regarded as a classic document. In Areopagitica, he expressed a boundless faith in the Englishmen whom God had chosen to complete the Reformation begun by Wycliffe. Here he showed himself as a resolute believer in the power of truth to win its way through free inquiry and discussion.
In the next few years Milton probably worked chiefly on his History of Britain and his large treatise on Christian doctrine. In February, 1649, two weeks after the execution of Charles I, appeared a political tract, The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates, by Milton. Milton rejected the Stuart claim of the Divine Right of Kings, and his object was to reconcile the public mind to the execution of Charles. In March, 1649 Milton was invited to become Secretary for Foreign Languages to Oliver Cromwell’s Council of State. In his official capacity Milton remained quite busy, especially in replying to the propaganda that the supporters of the King were carrying on against the King’s execution. By 1651, however, whenMilton was just forty-three, he had completely lost his eye-sight which had been failing for years. Blindness greatly reduced his strictly secretarial duties, though he continued till 1659 as a translator of official letters.
His last political pamphlet was published in March, 1660. It was a daring act on Milton’s part to bring out this pamphlet in the face of events which were moving to restore monarchy in England and to bring back Charles II who had been living in exile. When in May, 1660 Charles IL made his triumphant entry into England, the event was probably the greatest disillusionment in Milton’s life. All his republican ardor and endeavors came to nothing.
During the twenty years devoted to public affairs Milton was mostly cut off from poem, but he wrote seventeen occasional sonnets, versified a number of Psalms and began the composition of Paradise Lost. Worth mentioning here are three deeply personal sonnets and one “On the Late Massacre in Piedmont”. Two of the personal sonnets were written on the subject of his blindness, and the third on the death of Milton’s second wife, Katharine Woodcock, whom he had married in 1656.
With the re-establishment of monarchy in England, Milton, having been a well-known apologist and defender of the regicide, was in real danger, the new government had already exhumed and hanged at Tyburn the bodies of Oliver Cromwell and some others. In the summer of 1660, a warrant for Milton’s arrest was issued. He was taken into custody but soon released. His life was spared through the efforts of the poet Andrew Marvell or perhaps of the royalist playwright, Sir William Davenant (whose life Milton had earlier saved during Cromwell’s rule). It may have been argued that the blind writer was now harmless and that nominal proceedings against him were enough. His remaining fourteen years were on the whole, outwardly, and to some extent inwardly, peaceful. Of course, he had his share of troubles: a frugal domestic economy necessitated by financial stringency, blindness and gout, and a certain amount of friction with his daughters because of faults on both sides. Apart from the publication of books, the chief events of these years were Milton’s marriage in 1663 to a third wife, the young and amiable Elizabeth Minshull, who survived him, and the removal, during the plague of 1665, to a house at Chalfont St. Giles, Buckinghamshire (now a Milton Museum).
The publications of Milton’s later years were: Paradise Lost (1667), for which he received ten pounds; text books of simplified Latin Grammar (1669) and Logic (1672); the History of Britain (1670); Paradise Regained (1671); Samson Agonistes (1671); the second, enlarged edition (1673) of the Poems of 1645; the second, revised edition of Paradise Lost (1674); and EpistolaeFamiliares with the ProlusionesOratoriae(1674).
Milton died on the 8th November, 1674, a month short of his sixty-sixth birthday. He was buried in St. Giles’s, Cripple gate, and the burial was attended by all his learned and great friends.