John Milton was born on December 9, 1608, in London. Milton’s father was a prosperous merchant, despite the fact that he had been disowned by his family when he converted from Catholicism to Protestantism. Milton excelled in school, and went on to study privately in his twenties and thirties. In 1638 he made a trip to Italy, studying in Florence, Siena, and Rome, but felt obliged to return home upon the outbreak of civil war in England, in 1639. Upon his return from Italy, he began planning an epic poem, the first ever written in English. These plans were delayed by his marriage to Mary Powell and her subsequent desertion of him. In reaction to these events, Milton wrote a series of pamphlets calling for more leniency in the church’s position on divorce. His argument brought him both greater publicity and angry criticism from the religious establishment in England. When the Second Civil War ended in 1648, with King Charles dethroned and executed, Milton welcomed the new parliament and wrote pamphlets in its support. After serving for a few years in a civil position, he retired briefly to his house in Westminster because his eyesight was failing. By 1652 he was completely blind.
Despite his disability, Milton reentered civil service under the protectorate of Oliver Cromwell, the military general who ruled the British Isles from 1653 to 1658. Two years after Cromwell’s death, Milton’s worst fears were realized—the Restoration brought Charles II back to the throne, and the poet had to go into hiding to escape execution. However, he had already begun work on the great English epic which he had planned so long before: Paradise Lost. Now he had the opportunity to work on it in earnest. It was published in 1667, a year after the Great Fire of London. The greatness of Milton’s epic was immediately recognized, and the admiring comments of the respected poets John Dryden and Andrew Marvell helped restore Milton to favor. He spent the ensuing years at his residence in Bunhill, still writing prolifically. Milton died at home on November 8, 1674. By all accounts, Milton led a studious and quiet life from his youth up until his death.
Thanks to his father’s wealth, young Milton got the best education money could buy. He had a private tutor as a youngster. As a young teenager he attended the prestigious St. Paul’s Cathedral School. After he excelled at St. Paul’s he entered college at Christ’s College at Cambridge University. At the latter, he made quite a name for himself with his prodigious writing, publishing several essays and poems to high acclaim. After graduating with his master’s degree in 1632, Milton was once again accommodated by his father. He was allowed to take over the family’s estate near Windsor and pursue a quiet life of study. He spent 1632 to 1638—his mid to late twenties—reading the classics in Greek and Latin and learning new theories in mathematics and music.
Milton became fluent in many foreign and classical languages, including Italian, Greek, Latin, Aramaic, Hebrew, French, Spanish, Anglo-Saxon, and spoke some Dutch as well. His knowledge of most of these languages was immense and precocious. He wrote sonnets in Italian as a teenager. While a student at Cambridge, he was invited in his second year to address the first year students in a speech written entirely in Latin.
After Cambridge, Milton continued a quiet life of study well through his twenties. By the age of thirty, Milton had made himself into one of the most brilliant minds of England, and one of the most ambitious poets it had ever produced.
In his twenties, Milton wrote five masterful long poems, each of them influential and important in its own separate way: “On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity,” “Comus,” “Lycidas,” “Il Penseroso,” and “L’Allegro.” Through these poems, Milton honed his skills at writing narrative, dramatic, elegiac, philosophical, and lyrical poetry. He had built a firm poetic foundation through his intense study of languages, philosophy, and politics, and fused it with his uncanny sense of tone and diction. Even in these early poems, Milton’s literary output was guided by his faith in God. Milton believed that all poetry served a social, philosophical, and religious purpose. He thought that poetry should glorify God, promote religious values, enlighten readers, and help people to become better Christians.
Aside from his poetic successes, Milton was also a prolific writer of essays and pamphlets. These prose writings did not bring Milton public acclaim. In fact, since his essays and pamphlets argued against the established views of most of England, Milton was even the object of threats. Nevertheless, he continued to form the basis for his political and theological beliefs in the form of essays and pamphlets.
Milton’s political ideals are expressed in the many pamphlets he wrote during his lifetime. He championed the absolute freedom of the individual—perhaps because he had been so often betrayed by the institutions in which he put his trust. His distrust of institutions was accompanied by his belief that power corrupts human beings. He distrusted anyone who could claim power over anyone else, and believed that rulers should have to prove their right to lead other people.
Milton was an activist in his middle years, fighting for human rights and against the rule of England’s leaders, whom he believed were inept. Knowing he was not a fighter, he demonstrated his activism by writing lengthy, rhetorical pamphlets that thoroughly and rigorously argue for his point of view. Although he championed liberty and fought against authority throughout his career, in theory he believed in a strict social and political hierarchy in which people would obey their leaders and leaders serve their people. He believed that leaders should be leaders because they are better and more fit to rule than their subjects. But despite these rigid views of authority, Milton believed that the social hierarchy that actually existed in his day was extremely corrupt, and he directly challenged the rule of Charles I, the king of England during much of Milton’s lifetime. Milton argued that Charles was not, in fact, fit to lead his subjects because he did not possess superior faculties or virtues.
Milton took public stances on a great number of issues, but most important to the reading of Paradise Lost are his positions on religion. In Milton’s time, the Anglican Church, or Church of England, had split into the high Anglican, moderate Anglican, and Puritan or Presbyterian sects. Milton was a Presbyterian. This denomination called for the abolishment of bishops, an office that exists as part of the Catholic and Anglican churches. Milton, however, gradually took his views further, ultimately calling for the removal of all priests, whom he referred to as “hirelings.” Milton despised the corruption he saw in the Catholic Church, repeatedly attacking it both in his poetry and prose. In “Lycidas,” he likens Catholics to hungry wolves leaping into a sheep’s pen, an image similar to his depiction of Satan leaping over the wall of Paradise in Paradise Lost, Book IV. He saw few problems with the division of Protestants into more and smaller denominations. Instead, he thought that the fragmentation of churches was a sign of healthy self-examination, and believed that each individual Christian should be his own church, without any establishment to encumber him. These beliefs, expressed in a great number of pamphlets, prompted his break with the Presbyterians before 1650. From that point on, Milton advocated the complete abolishment of all church establishments, and kept his own private religion, close to the Calvinism practiced by Presbyterians but differing in some ways. Milton’s highly individual view of Christianity makes Paradise Lost simultaneously personal and universal.
In his later years, Milton came to view all organized Christian churches, whether Anglican, Catholic or Presbyterian, as an obstacle to true faith. He felt that the individual and his conscience (or “right reason”) was a much more powerful tool in interpreting the Word of God than the example set by a church. Throughout Paradise Lost, Milton expresses the idea that Adam and Eve’s fall from grace was actually fortunate, because it gives individual human beings the opportunity to redeem themselves by true repentance and faith. The importance of remaining strong in one’s personal religious convictions, particularly in the face of widespread condemnation, is a major theme in the later Books of Paradise Lost, as Michael shows Adam the vision of Enoch and Noah, two followers of God who risk death to stand up for him.
Paradise Lost also presents a number of Protestant Christian positions: the union of the Old and New Testaments, the unworthiness of mankind, and the importance of Christ’s love in man’s salvation. Nonetheless, the poem does not present a unified, cohesive theory of Christian theology, nor does it attempt to identify disbelievers, redefine Christianity, or replace the Bible. Instead, Milton’s epic stands as a remarkable presentation of biblical stories meant to engage Christian readers and help them to be better Christians.
Women and Marriage
Much of Milton’s social commentary in Paradise Lost focuses on the proper role of women. In Book IV he makes clear that he does not think men and women are equals, alluding to biblical passages that identify man as the master of woman. Although Milton viewed women as inferior to men, believing that wives should be subservient to their husbands, he did not see himself as a woman-hater. In Paradise Lost, he distances himself from the misogyny popular in his time—the belief that women are utterly inferior to men, essentially evil, and generally to be avoided. Milton’s character Adam voices this harsh view of womankind, but only after the fall, as an expression of anger and frustration. Put simply, Milton’s early views in Paradise Lost may be misogynistic by today’s standards, but he nevertheless presents Eve’s wifely role as an important one, as Adam and Eve help one another to become better and more complete individuals.
Milton’s views on marriage are mainstream today, but they were viewed as shocking and heretical in his own time. Milton was a pioneer for the right of divorce in an age when divorce was prohibited by nearly all denominations. In fact, the only grounds for a lawful divorce in Milton’s time was usually sexual incompatibility due to unlawful relations with other parties. But in his Doctrine of Discipline and Divorce, Milton expresses his belief that any sort of incompatibility—sexual, mental, or otherwise—is justified grounds for a divorce. In the same essay, he argues that the main purpose of marriage is not necessarily procreation, as most people thought at that time, but to bring two people together in completion. He felt that conversation and mental companionship were supremely important in a marriage, and admits that his first marriage might have failed due to a lack in this regard. He also argued that the partners in a marriage must complement each other. His portrayal of Adam and Eve after the fall is a vivid example of his belief that two people can complement each other, smoothing out one anothers’ faults and enhancing each others’ strengths.
At the early age of sixteen, Milton already aspired to write the great English epic. As he read the classical epics in school—Homer’s Odyssey and Iliad and Virgil’s Aeneid—he began to fantasize about bringing such artistic brilliance to the English language.
Milton considered many topics for his epic. Early on, he thought that the story of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table was a noble topic. Then, as he grew slightly older, he hoped to write an epic about Oliver Cromwell, who took control of England in 1653 after helping to dethrone and execute King Charles. Judging from these two topics, it is clear that Milton wanted to write his epic on a distinctly British topic that would inspire nationalist pride in his countrymen. Such a topic would also mimic Homer’s and Virgil’s nationalist epics of strong, virtuous warriors and noble battles. However, Milton abandoned both of these ideas, and for a time gave up the notion of writing an epic at all.
But in the mid-1650s, Milton returned to an idea he had previously had for a verse play: the story of Adam and Eve. He concluded that the story might fail as a drama but succeed as an epic. In 1656 the blind Milton began to recite verse each morning to one of his two daughters, who wrote his poem down for him. Milton continued to dictate Paradise Lost for several years, finishing in 1667 when it was first published in ten books. Milton soon returned to revise his epic, redividing it into twelve books (as the classical epics were divided), and publishing it in its authoritative second edition form in 1671.
Later in 1671 he published his final work: Paradise Regained, the sequel to his great epic. Due to his strong religious beliefs, Milton thought that this work surpassed Paradise Lost in both its art and its message, though most readers today would disagree.