John Milton, Poet
8 November 1674
John Milton was born in London in 1608 (seven and a half years before the death of Shakespeare). His grandfather was a Roman Catholic who had disowned Milton's father when the latter turned Protestant. The boy was sent to St Paul's school, perhaps when twelve, perhaps earlier. From the beginning, Milton was an eager student (he tells us that from the time he was twelve, he seldom stopped reading before midnight), and he learned Latin, Greek, and Hebrew, and began to try to write verse. In 1625 he enrolled at Christ's College, Cambridge, clashed with his tutor the following year and was suspended, returned and was given another tutor, and graduated on schedule. The University in those days still undertook to teach largely by rote memorization, and Milton thought his training there of little value. He undertook to give himself a liberal education by wide reading. His father had hoped to make a lawyer of him, but took it very well when his son announced that he intended to make the writing of poetry his life's work.

In 1629 (when he was 21 years old) he wrote a short poem, "On the morning of Christ's Nativity," his first memorable work, still widely read at Christmas.

A few years later, he wrote a masque (or mask), which was presented in 1634, at Ludlow Castle, near the Welsh border, in honor of the Earl of Bridgewater.

In August 1637, a classmate of Milton's, Edward King, who had written some poetry himself, was drowned, and several of his friends resolved to write poems in his memory and publish a collection of them. Milton was asked to contribute. His poem was called Lycidas.

Between 1641 and 1660, Milton wrote almost no poetry. This was the time when the English Puritans were setting out to overthrow the English monarchy on the grounds that it was levying taxes unlawfully (and was, moreover, in league with the wicked English Church), and to overthrow the English Church on the grounds that, while nominally breaking with Rome, it had retained many Romish customs, such as white gowns for the clergy (instead of the black gowns worn by Puritan clergy, which were obviously more seemly) and that the English Church was therefore just as bad as the Church or Rome (and was, moreover, in league with the wicked English monarchy). Milton believed wholeheartedly in the Puritan cause, and set aside his poetry to write pamphlets in defense of various aspects of liberty as he saw it.

One work that Milton wrote but never published was a theological treatise called De Doctrina Christiana ("On Christian Doctrine"). It is for the most part straightforward Protestant theology, but includes some departures from the mainstream position, and Milton carefully labels them as such. First, and most seriously, Milton was an Arian. That is, he believed that the Father exists eternally, and that He begat the Son (and "before he was begotten, he was not"), and that the Son then created the physical universe. Thus, the Son is far from being a mere human. He is the second greatest of all things. But he is not co-equal and co-eternal with the Father, and is not, in the fullest sense, God. Since the publication of the Doctrina in 1825, critics have looked for indications of heretical beliefs in Milton's Paradise Lost and other published works. Such indications, if they are there, are few, minor, obscure, and doubtful. It is not even certain that Arianism was Milton's settled view. A man writing a paper for his own eyes, to clarify or examine his views, may very well set forth in it the case for a position that he does not hold, simply to see what can be said for it.

In 1642, at the age of 33, Milton married Mary Powell, a girl of 16 from a royalist family. Her family had been large and sociable. Milton's was small and studious. In a few months, she went home to her family. Milton reacted by writing a treatise, "On the Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce," in which he argued that incompatibility of temperament and personality was a sufficient reason for dissolving a marriage. Both Royalists and Puritans found the idea disgraceful, and the pamphlet had no discernible effect in Milton's day. However, it is noteworthy for the importance that Milton here attaches to friendship and companionship and the meeting of minds (as opposed to the mere meeting of bodies) as an essential ingredient in a successful marriage. In 1645 friends brought about a reconciliation, and Mary returned to her husband. In 1646, when the Civil War had gone against the Royalists and the Powells were homeless, he took the ten of them into his own home for a year. Mary bore John three daughters, and died in 1652.

In 1644, Milton published two pamphlets much admired today. The first was called "Of Education," and outlines a course of study for producing an enlightened citizenry. Studies are to include the Bible, the classics, and science. He also published in 1644 his most famous pamphlet, Areopagetica (air-ee-opp-a-JET-i-ca). Those who have read the Book of Acts in the King James translation will remember that while in Athens, Paul is said to have preached on Mars' Hill. In fact, he spoke before the Areopagus, a council of citizens that got its name from its meeting place, a temple of Ares (or Mars), and that was responsible for censorship and the safeguarding of public morals. Milton's pamphlet was written in protest against the setting up by the Cromwell government of a board of Censorship for all printed works. It is an eloquent and forceful argument for freedom of the press. Every college library or large public library will normally have a copy, and most large bookstores will have a paperback copy or be able to order one.

Milton's dismay on finding that the new revolutionary government, undertaken in the name of liberty, could be just as intolerant of dissent as the monarchy it replaced, found expression not only in the "Areopagetica," but also in poetry. He wrote a 24-line poem titled, "On the new forcers of Conscience under the Long Parliament," ending with the line, "New Presbyter is but Old Priest writ Large."

In February 1649, just after the beheading of King Charles I, Milton published a pamphlet called "the Tenure of Kings and Magistrates," arguing that power resides in the people, who may give it to governors, but are free to withdraw it again. He was invited to become Secretary for Foreign Languages in Cromwell's Council of State. As such, he continued to write pamphlets defending the Republic, the killing of the King, and the rule of Cromwell. He was no mere server of those in power. He was still publishing a month before Charles II was brought back from exile to take the throne, at a time when it must have been obvious that the cause was lost, when every consideration of personal safety demanded that he adopt a policy of silence, if not of outright reversal of position.

After 1660, with the monarchy restored, Milton's political dreams lay in ruins under the double blow of the collapse of the Puritan Republic and the failure of said republic to uphold freedom while it lasted. Milton retired to private life and returned to his true vocation, the writing of poetry. He had gone blind while serving as secretary to Cromwell, and now sat composing his poems in his head, and dictating each day to his daughters the portion that he had composed. It was in this retirement that he produced his three long poems, Paradise Lost, Paradise Regained, and Samson Agonistes. He died 8 November 1674.

So much for a summary of Milton's life. Now for comments on some of his poems.

Paradise Lost: Milton's Long Epic

By far his best-known poem is Paradise Lost, an epic in twelve books in the tradition of Virgil's Aeneid, recounting the story of Satan's rebellion against God, and of the disobedience and fall of Adam and Eve, led astray by Satan's lies. The story of Satan's rebellion is not found in the Bible, except in passing allusions capable of more than one interpretation. I will therefore pause to sketch the story as it was generally accepted in Milton's day.

Satan, originally called Lucifer ("light-bearer") was one of the greatest of the angelic beings who serve God in Heaven. However, every created being with intellect and will has a choice whether to put God first or to put himself first, and Satan chose to put himself first. He was not content to be a subordinate. He proposed to be equal to the Most High. (See Isaiah 14:12-15, a passage which probably refers to the King of Babylon (see verse 3), but which has often been applied to Satan.) He rebelled against God, and persuaded one third of the angels to join him. (The number is based on Revelation 12:4, where a dragon is said to draw one third of the stars out of heaven. If we take the dragon to be Satan, and the stars to be angels, we get the result. However, there are numerous references on the book of Revelation to the destruction of one third of something or other, and it is arguable that this is a conventional poetic expression rather than a statistic.) In Milton's account (I am not sure whether this particular idea is Milton's own invention), the event that rouses Satan to rebellion is God's proclamation of His only Son as the ruler of all created things, to whom all angels and the whole universe must pay homage. God says in this connection:

This day have I begot whom I declare,

My only Son....

This is a quotation from Psalm 2:7, which in some manuscripts is quoted in connection with the Baptism of Christ. If we take "beget" as "bring into existence," this would mean that the Son is created after the angels, which is nonsense, since Milton makes it explicit that it is only through the Son that the angels and all other things are created (John 1:3). However, the Hebrew verb "yalad", translated "beget", also has the meaning of "to publicly acknowledge as one's heir." Thus, when we are told (Genesis 50:23) that Joseph's great-grandchildren were begotten on Joseph's knees, this does not mean what you are thinking. It means that soon after the child was born, Joseph, in his capacity as head of the family, took the child on his knees and accepted it before witnesses as a member of the family.

So, God the Father proclaims the glory of the Son and commands all the angels to worship Him (see Hebrews 1:6). At this Satan rebels, and leads other angels into rebellion with him. They fight against the loyal angels, led by Michael, and are defeated and cast out of Heaven (see Revelation 12:7-9). Satan, who has heard rumors that God intends to create a race of humans, then plots to obtain his revenge by destroying their happiness and their delighted obedience to God. And the rest of the story is found in Genesis chapters 2 and 3, except that these chapters make no mention of Satan, and say simply that the sepent deceived Eve. Milton tells us that the serpent was really Satan disguised as a serpent.

The modern reader of this poem is likely to run into two general sorts of difficulties.

First, he may not understand what sort of poem Milton is writing, or the basic ideas underlying the poem. For this, the best remedy I know is the book, A Preface To Paradise Lost, by C S Lewis. It is available in hardback and in paperback (Oxford University Press), and should be in any large library. I suggest reading it before reading the poem, or after reading the poem, or sandwiched between sessions of reading the poem. In addition to discussing the literary background of the poem, its roots in Homer and Virgil and in Beowulf, the reasons for the style of the poem, and so on, Lewis discusses the character of Satan, the implications of his choice, and so on. It is a valuable antidote to the work of many modern critics who say that Satan is the real hero of the poem, and that he deserves our admiration (and had Milton's) for rebelling against the "establishment."

Second, the reader may find himself bewildered by the many references and allusions that Milton throws out. If your copy of Milton has footnotes explaining all the references, fine. If it doesn't, just keep reading and don't worry about them. For example, in line 15 of the poem, Milton tells us that his epic will soar "above the Aonian Mount." If you have a profusely footnoted edition, you will be told that this mount is Helicon, in Boetia, a mountain sacred to the Muses and therefore a symbol of poetic inspiration. If you do not have any footnotes, and do not already know about Helicon, there is really no problem. You gather from the context that Milton means that he is promising you a first-rate poem, a poem that will fly, a poem that will lift your imagination to behold great things. And, as you read on, you will find that he keeps his promise.

And so the poem begins:

Of Man's first disobedience, and the fruit
Of that forbidden tree, whose mortal taste
brought death into the world, and all our woe
(with loss of Eden, till one greater Man
restore us, and regain the blissful seat),
sing, Heavenly Muse, that on the secret top
of Horeb, or of Sinai, didst inspire
that Shepherd, who first taught the chosen seed
in the beginning how the heavens and earth
rose out of Chaos, or if Zion's hill
delight thee more, and Siloa's brook that flowed
fast by the oracle of God; I thence
invoke thy aid to my adventurous song,
that with no middle flight intends to soar
above the Aonian Mount, while it pursues
things unattempted yet in prose or rhyme.
And chiefly Thou, O Spirit, that dost prefer
Before all temples the upright heart and pure,
instruct me, for Thou knowest; Thou from the first
wast present, and with mighty wings outspread
dove-like satst brooding o'er the vast abyss
and madest it pregnant: what in me is dark
illumine, what is low, raise and support,
that to the height of this great argument
I may assert Eternal Providence,
and justify the ways of God to men.
Say first, for Heaven hides nothing from Thy view
Nor the deep tract of Hell, say first what cause
moved our grand parents in that happy state,
favored of Heaven so highly, to fall off
from their Creator, and transgress His will,
for one restraint, lords of the World besides?
Who first seduced them to that foul revolt?
    The infernal serpent; he it was, whose guile
    stirred up with envy and revenge, deceived
    the mother of mankind, what time his pride
    had cast him out from Heaven, with all his host
    of rebel angels, by whose aid aspiring
    to set  himself in glory above his peers,
    he trusted to have equalled the Most High,
    if he opposed; and with ambitious aim
    against the throne and monarchy of God
    raised impious war in Heaven and battle proud
    with vain attempt.
                 Him the Almighty Power
    hurled headlong flaming from th' eternal sky
    with hideous ruin and combustion down
    to bottomless perdition, there to dwell
    in adamantine chains and penal fire,
    who durst defy the Omnipotent to arms.

Here again, if you recognize that "adamant" is an old word for "diamond," and that diamonds are among the hardest objects known, and that the adjective means "extraordinarily hard, unyielding," so much the better. But if you do not know this, you will still get the idea that "adamantine chains" are special, and that anyone bound with adamantine chains has a real problem. And that is all you really need to know. Again, you may feel that Milton's sentences are much too long and complicated for you, that it is a real effort to disentangle them. But again, you will find that this is not a problem. Milton carefully introduces his ideas in the order in which he wants you to encounter them. In lines 6-10 we read

Sing, heavenly Muse, that on the secret top
Of Horeb, or of Sinai, didst inspire
that shepherd, who first taught the chosen seed
in the beginning, how the heavens and earth
rose out of chaos....

The reference is to Moses, to whom God spoke on Mount Horeb or Mount Sinai (considered to be two names for the same mountain), and who is considered to be the author of the book of Genesis, and in particular of the account of Creation in Genesis 1. But if you miss this reference, you still have a mental picture of a secret mountain top, followed by a glimpse of a wise shepherd, followed by a pisture of the heavens and the earth rising out of chaos. And this is the icture sequence that Milton wants you to have here. So, if you do not have footnotes, and do not have as much classical background as you would like to have, don't worry, just read and enjoy. Even if you have footnotes, I suggest ignoring them at first reading. Consulting them will break your concentration, will interrupt the flow of the poem and not give it a chance to speak to you.

So set aside some time and read Milton's Paradise Lost, and with it C S Lewis's A Preface To Paradise Lost. You'll be glad you did.

Comus: Milton's Masque

A masque is a particular kind of theatrical performance, traditionally performed before royalty or other distinguished persons, in which the characters of the drama usually wear masks and represent abstract qualities. Those of you who saw the six-part series on public television called The Six Wives of Henry VIII (starring Keith Mitchell) and the following six-part series called Elizabeth R (starring Glenda Jackson) will remember that Play 6 (I think) of the latter series opens with a brief portion of a masque being presented before Queen Elizabeth (Tudor), in which the speaker is Death. A friend of mine wrote a masque in 1955 or thereabouts to be presented at Oxford before the present Queen. Some of the characters represented Peace, Prosperity, and the like, while others represented Tyranny abroad and Discord and Idleness (=Unemployment) at home, and after each had given suitable speeches, Tyranny, Discord, and Idleness announced that they had been defeated and would surrender and go quietly away. Obviously, it is not meant to be judged by the criteria that one would apply to an Alfred Hitchcock movie.

Milton's play (to which he gave no title except "A Masque") was performed at Ludlow Castle near the Welsh border, before the lord of that castle, the Earl of Bridgewater. The roles of the humans in the play were performed by the Earl's 15-year-old daughter and her brothers, 9 and 11. (Their tutor, Mr. Lawes, was a friend of Milton's.) The play concernes a young lady who is travelling through the forest with her brothers to reach her father's castle. She meets an evil spirit called Comus (the son of Circe and Bacchus) who is disguised as a simple shepherd and offers her the hospitality of his humble cottage for the night. He thus traps her and tries to persuade her to drink from a magic chalice, which turns all who drink from it into beasts. (It probably symbolizes unchastity.) He argues that Nature has filled the world with pleasures, and that it is ungrateful to refuse the gifts of Nature. The Lady replies that gluttony and starvation are not the only options, and that the right choice is the temperate and wise use of Nature's gifts in accordance with the ends for which Nature's God created them. The evil spirit is defeated, the Lady freed, and she and her brothers are led safely to the castle, their goal (whether Ludlow Castle, or Heaven, or both).

Lycidas: Milton's Pastoral Elegy

Edward King was a fellow student of Milton's, a Puritan youth who had written some poetry and was intending to become a preacher. He was on a ship in the Irish Sea when it sank, and he was drowned. Several of his friends decided to write poems in his memory and publish the collection. Milton's contribution, Lycidas, belongs to a tradition going back to the ancient Greeks and Romans. It is a pastoral. That is, the poet and the persons he writes about are all treated as shepherds (or shepherdesses) living in the hillsides and pastures of ancient Greece. Edward King is renamed Lycidas, and Milton mourns his death.

For Lycidas is dead, dead ere his prime,
Young Lycidas, and hath not left his peer:
Who would not sing for Lycidas? he knew
himself to sing, and build the lofty rhyme.
He must not float upon his watery bier
unwept, and welter to the parching wind
without the meed of some melodious tear....
Now thou art gone, and never must return!
Thee, shepherd, thee the woods and desert caves
with wild thyme and the gadding vine o'ergrown,
and all their echoes mourn....

The mourner goes on to ask the proper response to the knowledge that anyone can die at any time, with all his goals unachieved. Ought we to seek pleasure and forget all else? Is fame worth pursuing, and does it really convey a kind of immortality? And so through many like questions, hinted at rather than stated explicitly, so that much of the poem is not so much an examination of Milton's uncertainties as a device to bring to the forefront some of the uncertainties lurking in the mind of the reader. (A footnoted edition helps, since it is worth knowing, for example, that the site of King's drowning was overlooked (from a distance) by a mountain with a statue of the Archangel Michael--hence the reference to the "guarded mount" and the plea, "Look homeward, Angel, now, and melt with ruth." However, not knowing this should not spoil the poem for you. You do not have to know very much about Eleanor Rigby to enjoy the Beatles' song of that name.) Finally, the poet compares Lycidas to the sun, which sinks only to rise again, and then concludes on an explicitly Christian note of comfort.

So Lycidas sunk low, but mounted high,
Through the dear might of him that walked the waves

He speaks of Lycidas in Heaven, where all tears are wiped from his eyes, and closes with the image of the shepherd, his mourning for Lycidas ended, arising and going on his way comforted.

The poem is just under 200 lines long. One critic has said: "It may be the most beautiful short poem in the language."

Paradise Regained: Milton's Short Epic

After writing about the fall of the human race through the disobedience of Adam and Eve, Milton undertook to write about the restoration of the human race through the perfect obedience of Jesus Christ. His short epic, Paradise Regained, does not deal with the Crucifixion, but with the Temptation in the wilderness, and the epic features a debate between Christ and Satan, just as Paradise Lost features a debate between Abdiel and Satan, and another between Eve and Satan, and the Masque a debate between Comus and the Lady, and the twin poems L'allegro and IL Penseroso a debate between merriment and thoughtfulness, and Lycidas between competing possible responses to life and death, and Samson Agonistes debates between Samson and the Danites, Samson and Manoah, Samson and Delilah, and Samson and Harapha. The alert reader may detect a pattern here.

Christ triumphs over Satan, rejecting his temptations and refuting his arguments. When Satan withdraws defeated, the angels hail the triumph of Christ, and bid him now begin his work of reconciling and redeeming mankind.

Some critics think the poem an inferior sequel to Paradise Lost. Others think that it is even better than its predecessor. It is a different Kind of poem, and thus perhaps neither better nor worse.

Samson Agonistes: Milton's Tragedy

While Paradise Lost is written in the manner of Virgil's epic poem, the Aeneid, the story of the events leading up to the founding of the city of Rome, Samson Agonistes (ag-o-NIS-teez) is written in the manner of the Greek tragedies. The story of Samson is found in the Book of Judges, 13-16. Milton's drama covers only the last few hours of Samson's life, when, after a lifetime of being undefeatable in battle and irresistible in strength, and a lifetime of misusing and wasting the powers that God had given him for the deliverance of his people from the Philistines, he has lost everything, and is a blinded captive and slave. In his captivity, he is visited by his father Manoah, by spokesmen for his tribe, by his wife Dalila (Delilah), and by a Philistine warrior Harapha. By his dialogue with each in turn he moves slowly from self-pity and despair to renewed trust that God has accepted his repentance and has work for him to do. Finally, acting in accordance with what he takes to be the will of God, he sacrifices his own life in destroying the chief oppressors of his people, and so achieves in death more than he had in life.

Some critics think this Milton's best work. Almost all are agreed that it is by far the best English tragedy ever written on the Greek model. No other work comes close.

PRAYER (traditional language):

Almighty Father, who didst move thy servant John Milton to sing Of man's disobedience and spiritual death, and of the perfect obedience of thy Son Jesus Christ, by which we are restored to life and wholeness: Mercifully grant to us thy servants that we may praise thee according to our abilities, and may always be found obedient to thy will, walking in the footsteps of the same thy well-beloved Son our Savior Jesus Christ; who with thee and the Holy Spirit liveth and reigneth, one God, now and for ever.

PRAYER (contemporary language):

Almighty Father, who moved your servant John Milton to sing of Man's disobedience and spiritual death, and of the perfect obedience of your Son Jesus Christ, by which we are restored to life and wholeness: Mercifully grant to us your servants that we may praise you according to our abilities, and may always be found obedient to your will, walking in the footsteps of your well-beloved Son our Savior Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.

Unless otherwise indicated, this biographical sketch was written by James E. Kiefer and any comments about its content should be directed to him. The Biographical Sketches home page has more information.