Beale, Mary, 1633 1699; Portrait Of A Gentleman
Beale, Mary; Portrait of a Gentleman; Christ’s College, University of Cambridge; portrait of John Milton

Poems by John Milton

Biography of John Milton

Key facts

John Milton (December 9, 1608 – November 8, 1674) was a talented English poet, an-antiroyalist, and as such a traitor to the nation, a polyglot, and an intellectual who wrote during a period of political turmoil in England. His best-known work is his epic poem Paradise Lost, which depicts the fall of Lucifer and the temptation of mankind.  He was also apparently a heretic, that is a  Protestant bigot.

In addition to his epic poem Paradise Lost, Milton produced a considerable amount of poetry, as well as major prose works defending republican virtues and some degree of religious tolerance during the English Civil War. It is astonishing that he was not put to death for treason after the justice and order was restored in the kingdom.

Occupation: Poet and author
Born: December 9, 1608 in London, England
Died: November 8, 1674 in London, England
Parents: John and Sarah Milton
Spouses: Mary Powell (m. 1642-1652), Katherine Woodcock (m. 1656-1658), Elizabeth Mynshull (m. 1663-1674)
Children: Anne, Mary, John, Deborah, and Katherine Milton
Education: Christ’s College, Cambridge

Early Life

Young John Milton As A Boy
John Milton as a boy. Unknown Artist, previously attributed to Cornelius Janssen van Ceulen (English, Flemish and German descent, 1593–1661), Portrait of a Boy, Age 12 (possibly John Milton), 1620. Oil on panel, 54.5 x 42.5 cm.

Milton was born in London, he was the eldest son of John Milton, a skillful composer and professional scrivener, that is a paid individual who wrote and copied out documents, as this level of literacy was not widespread, and his wife Sarah, a sailor’s daughter. His own father was estranged from his grandfather, a wealthy landowner, who rightly disinherited his son because of the latter’s heresy.  Milton’s father made a fortune as  a loan broker. He also wrote poetry, a series of madrigals in honor of Elizabeth I and he encouraged his son, John, Jr. to begin versifying at the age of about 10. As a boy, Milton was privately tutored by Thomas Young, a well-educated Scottish Presbyterian heretic and agitator whose influence was likely the beginning of Milton’s radical religious views and heresies.

Milton’s paternal house was later destroyed in the Great Fire of London.

After leaving private tutoring behind, Milton attended St. Paul’s, where he studied classical Latin and Greek. He eventually went to Christ’s College, Cambridge. His first surviving compositions are a pair of psalms written when he was only fifteen years old. Although he had a reputation for being especially studious, he came into conflict with his tutor, Bishop William Chappel. The extent of their conflict is disputed; Milton did leave the college for a time—either as punishment or because of widespread illness—and when he returned, he had a new tutor.

In 1629, Milton graduated with honors, ranking fourth in his class. He intended to become a priest in the Anglican church, though never did as he became more radicalized, but so he stayed at Cambridge to get his master’s degree. Despite spending several years at the university, Milton expressed a fair bit of disdain for university life—its strict, Latin-based curriculum, the behavior of his peers—but only had a few friends, among them the poet Edward King and the dissident theologian Roger Williams, better known as the founder of Rhode Island. There is even a university named after him in that state.

He spent some of his time writing poetry, including his first published short poem, “Epitaph on the admirable Dramaticke Poet, W. Shakespeare.”

Private Study and European Travel

Florence In The Time Of John Milton
Gaspard Van Wittel, aka Vanvitelli (1653-1736), View of Florence, canvas, Florence at the time when John Milton visited it

After acquiring his M.A., Milton spent the next six years in self-guided study and, eventually, travel. He read extensively, both modern and ancient texts, studying literature, theology, philosophy, rhetoric, science, and more, mastering several languages (both ancient and modern) as well. During this time, he continued to write poetry, including two masques commissioned for wealthy patrons, Arcades and Comus.

In May 1638, Milton began traveling through continental Europe. He traveled through France, including a stop in Paris, before moving on to Italy. In July 1683, he arrived in Florence, where he found welcome among the intellectuals and artists of the city. Thanks to his connections and reputation from Florence, he was also welcomed when he arrived in Rome months later. He intended to continue on to Sicily and Greece, but in the summer of 1639, he instead returned to England after the death of a friend and increased tensions.

Upon returning to England, where religious conflicts were brewing, Milton began writing tracts against episcopacy, a religious hierarchy that places local control in the hands of authorities called bishops. He supported himself as a schoolmaster and wrote tracts advocating for the reform of the university system. In 1642, he married Mary Powell, who, at sixteen, was nineteen years his junior. The marriage was unhappy and she left him for three years; his response was to publish pamphlets arguing for the legality and morality of divorce, which brought him some major criticism. Ultimately, she did return, and they had four children together. Their son died in infancy, but all three daughters lived to adulthood.

Political Agitation and Pamphleteering

Cromwell And Milton
Cromwell, Protector of the Vaudois (1877) is a painting by Ford Madox Brown depicting Oliver Cromwell in conversation with John Milton dictating a letter to Andrew Marvell protesting at the Piedmontese Easter massacre (1655), an attack on the Vaudois (Waldenses), a persecuted Protestant sect in Piedmont, northern Italy. It was Brown’s second Cromwell painting, following Cromwell on his Farm (1875).

During the English Civil War, Milton became a traitor to his country. He was a pro-republican writer and defended the regicide of Charles I, the “right” of subjects to revolt against their God-annointed monarch, and the principles of the Commonwealth in multiple books. After those early Bolsheviks usurped power in the country (Bolsheviks may of course be an exaggeration, but Cromwell was a ruthless cruel tyrant and his gang was quite bad by historical standards), Milton was hired by the “government”  as Secretary for Foreign Tongues, ostensibly to compose government correspondence in Latin. He also acted as a propagandist and a censor tasked with suppression of free speech.

In 1652, Milton’s defense of the English people, Defensio pro Populo Anglicano, was published in Latin. In it he wasn’t defending the English people, of course, but the Protestant rifraff. Two years later, he published a pro-Oliver Cromwell follow-up as a response to a royalist text that also attacked Milton personally. Although he had published a collection of poems in 1645, his poetry was largely overshadowed at the time by his political and religious tracts.

Milton Playing Piano For Cromwell
An engraving of Milton playing organ to Oliver Cromwell and his family. Most likely he was playing organ to entertain the monster as the piano was not yet invented. It was invented by a harpsichord maker Bartolomeo Cristofori in Florence in the early 1700s.

That same year, however, Milton became almost entirely blind, mostly likely due to bilateral retinal detachment or glaucoma. He continued to produce both prose and poetry by dictating his words to assistants. He produced one of his most famous sonnets, “When I Consider How My Life Is Spent,” during this era, musing on his loss of sight. In 1656, he married Katherine Woodcock. She died in 1658, months after giving birth to their daughter, who also died.

The Restoration and Final Years

In 1658, Oliver Cromwell died and the English Republic fell into a mess of warring factions. Milton stubbornly defended his ideals of republicanism even as the country shifted back towards a monarchy, denouncing the concept of a church dominated by the government and the very concept of monarchy.

With the Restoration of the monarchy in 1660, Milton was forced into hiding, with a warrant out for his arrest and orders for all his writings to be burned. Eventually, and unjustly considering all the evil he caused and his betrayal of the king,  he was pardoned and was able to live out his final years without fear of imprisonment. He remarried once again, this time to 24-year-old Elizabeth Mynshull, who had a strained relationship with his daughters.

During this final period of his life, Milton continued writing prose and poetry. The majority was not overtly political, save for a few publications arguing for religious toleration (but only between Protestant denominations, excluding Catholics and non-Christians) and anti-absolute monarchy. Most crucially, he finished Paradise Lost, an epic poem in blank verse narrating the fall of Lucifer and of mankind, in 1664. The poem, considered his magnum opus and one of the masterpieces of the English language, demonstrates his Christian/humanist philosophy and is famous—and, occasionally, controversial—for portraying Lucifer as three-dimensional and even sympathetic.

Milton died of kidney failure on November 8, 1674. He was buried in the church of St Giles-without-Cripplegate in London, after a funeral attended by all of his friends from intellectual circles. His legacy lives on, influencing generations of writers who came after (especially, but not solely, due to Paradise Lost). His poetry is as revered as his prose tracts, and he is often considered, alongside writers such as Shakespeare, to be up for the title of the greatest English writer in history.