JOHN MILTON (1608-74)

John Milton was born in a house on Bread Street, in Cheapside, London, on 9 December 1608. His father, also John Milton, was a scrivener by trade, and in his hours of leisure an amateur composer and musician of considerable accomplishment. Milton makes only a few fleeting references to his mother, Sara Jeffrey, in his extant writings, but is warm in his praise of his father's learning, the artistic talents he felt had nurtured his own poetic bent, and his generosity in educating and supporting the young Milton. A contented childhood was spent chiefly in study, particularly of the ancient and modern languages; under a series of tutors, and later at St Paul's School, he learnt French, Italian and Hebrew, as well as the standard Latin and Greek of the contemporary curriculum.

Milton was evidently a serious and profound scholar, but he was no prodigy. His youth seems to have been spent in watching gifted contemporaries excel educationally and socially, while he followed an arduous and extended course of learning that was subsequently cast as a poetic apprenticeship. At the age of 16, slightly on the late side for the early seventeenth century (his closest friend, Charles Diodati, was just 13 when he matriculated at Oxford), Milton entered Christ's College, Cambridge.

He was a little disappointed. This solemn and difficult young man failed to find either the level of scholarship or the intimate companions he had been hoping for, and was presumably dismayed by the nickname that recognised his troubling lack of maturity: Milton was known as 'the Lady of Christ's'. Nevertheless, the seven years he spent at Cambridge between 1625 and 1632 were crucial in his intellectual formation, and before he left he had been recognised by his fellow-students and tutors as a nascent poet (he had published verses in both Latin and English) and a polemical and incendiary rhetorician.

The most important poetic consequence of his university years, however, was not written until 1637. On graduating Master of Arts, Milton returned to his parents' house to pursue further private study. It was at the end of this period that he heard of the death of Edward King, a younger contemporary who had been made a fellow of Christ's at the age of 18, and who was just 25 when his vessel was shipwrecked off the Cornish coast. The poem Milton wrote in his memory was Lycidas, an elegiac lyric of extraordinary beauty and poise. As well as its moving reflections on untimely death and unfulfilled promise, the poem levels an obdurate attack on a corrupt church and clergy, and warns of the continued threat of catholicism: concerns which were to become more urgent as the political situation in Britain drew to a crisis over the following years. Lycidas ends, though, on a note of hope; the poet turns 'to fresh Woods, and Pastures new'.

Which is precisely what Milton did. The next stage in his self-education was a continental tour, which lasted well over a year and encompassed France, Italy and Switzerland. He was welcomed into intellectual circles, particularly in Italy, and met some of the great men of his age – including Galileo, still under the house arrest of the Inquisition for his heretical views on the movements of the planets. The poetry Milton wrote in this period was in Latin, the international language of humanist scholarship, and it earned him many admirers; his poetic apprenticeship was almost complete. When he returned to Britain, however, he found a country in ferment and on the brink of civil war, and his rhetorical talents were diverted into other channels.

Divisions in church and state had been polarized by the excesses of Charles I and his unpopular (because seen as crypto-catholic) archbishop, William Laud.

Milton's instinctive anticlericalism hardened into confirmed Republicanism, and he weighed into the pamphlet war on the side of the reformers. The antiprelatical tracts Milton published in the early 1640s are extraordinary exercises in uncompromising, exuberant polemical satire: they draw on the considerable rhetorical armoury at Milton's command in their call for the extirpation of clerical hierarchy.

They also inaugurate another marked and unusual feature of Milton's writing: a personal, autobiographical voice. His readers are introduced to a scholar of rare accomplishment, a prophetic poet and a chaste, good man. This voice is heard even more distinctly in the next pamphlet battle Milton engaged in, one in which his interests were intimately concerned.

In the spring of 1642, Milton rode to visit acquaintances in the Oxfordshire countryside, and came back a month later a married man. His bride was the 17-year-old Mary Powell, and the marriage was conspicuously not a success. After a few weeks of living with Milton, she left for a visit to her family and didn't come back.

Her mortified husband published a series of tracts arguing for a quite revolutionary change in the law: the right to divorce on the grounds not of physical infidelity but intellectual incompatibility.

Unsurprisingly, these raw and emotive appeals against the necessity of 'grinding in the mill of an undelighted and servil copulation' did not go down well, and it was the government's attempt to suppress the publication of what were considered his wicked and atheistical views that prompted the composition of Milton's most important prose work: Areopagitica. It is a foundational text in the philosophy of the freedom of speech: Milton denounces censorship, and argues for toleration and the free expression of ideas. He imagines an enlightened commonwealth where all men can weigh the available evidence and come to informed decisions on important questions – though catholic propaganda is, characteristically, excluded from this information amnesty.

The years from 1645 saw a move away from polemical engagement. As the King's fortunes took a turn for the worse, the royalist family of Milton's skittish bride began to see the advantages of a well-connected republican relative, and a rapprochement was engineered. The couple's first child, Anne, was born in 1646; their second, Mary, two years later in 1648. At the beginning of this period, Milton also collected his poems into a handsome volume, though with a notoriously inept portrait as the frontispiece; he composed an unflattering reflection in Greek which the hapless engraver unwittingly appended to his work. As well as Lycidas, and verses in Latin, Italian and Greek, Poems (1645) contained A Masque (commonly called Comus after its antihero), which Milton had composed ten years earlier for the Countess of Derby's festivities at Ludlow Castle. Masques were wildly popular in the Caroline court, but Milton's excursion into the genre takes the form of a critique of royal excess; it is an important element of the self-presentation as a reformist poet that this volume asserts.

Charles I was executed in 1649, and a commonwealth established with Oliver Cromwell as its head. Milton, already well-known for his contributions to national debate, published The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates­ – a tract defending the regicide – after the king's death. He was offered a post in the new administration as Secretary for Foreign Languages, and he threw himself into his new role as public servant with customary vigour.

For the next few years, he wrote no poetry as he discharged his duties, which included responding to hostile publications on the commonwealth's behalf. One of these productions was his Defence of the English People, in answer to Salmasius's attack on the legality of Cromwell's republic, and his call for the English monarchy to be reinstated with Charles II on the throne. Milton's Defence was a tour-de-force of scholarship and argument, and it gained him an international reputation; it also, however, lost him his sight. Already without the use of one eye, Milton had for the past few years been relying more and more heavily on secretaries and amanuenses; in February 1652, he went totally and permanently blind.

This was a period of great suffering for Milton. Just a few months later, his wife died after giving birth to their third daughter, Deborah; his only son, twelve-month-old John, followed her to the grave within six weeks. He started to write poetry once again, composing a sonnet on his blindness of unprecedented power and intensity.  'When I consider how my light is spent' rails against the deprivation of his sight, but concludes in determination and faith: 'They also serve', Milton proclaims, 'who only stand and wait'. He did not, however, adopt such a passive stance, nor lessen noticeably in productivity; for the remainder of Cromwell's Protectorate, he continued to discharge his secretarial duties, as well as working on his History of Britain, and the compendium of theological commentary which was to be published two centuries after his death as De Doctrina Christiana. There followed a brief period of relative contentment. Milton married again, apparently happily, in 1656, though again he lost his wife; she, and their infant daughter, died after just two years of companionable marriage.

Another death, that of Cromwell, resulted in a time of political turbulence that was increasingly alarming for a strident and unbending republican. Though the commonwealth had not always precisely embodied his political ideals, it was for Milton vastly preferable to the alternative: a restoration of the Stuart monarchy. During the two uneasy years between the end of the Protectorate and the realisation of this horrifying prospect in 1660, Milton continued to urge his ideological position with fervour and, in the end, almost suicidal recklessness.  As governments changed every couple of months and the Puritans lost their unity and their hold, he published avant-garde polemics on political and religious liberty, culminating in The Readie & Easie Way to Establish a Free Commonwealth, which appeared on the very eve of the Restoration. Old, blind and vulnerable, Milton criticises his countrymen for degeneracy and servility, reiterates his defence of the regicide, and reminds the ascendant royalists of their most inflexible and formidable enemy; it was not a tactful move. When Charles II was made king in May 1660, Milton was in danger of his life.

In the end, and much to the surprise of both friends and enemies, Milton escaped the torture and execution for treason that had been the fate of so many of his erstwhile associates. These years, though, were by no means easy. As well as the crushing disappointment of his political hopes, Milton had to deal with a brief period of imprisonment, the burning of his treatises, straightened circumstances, the threat of fire and plague, and domestic insubordination: his daughters were dismayed by the blight of their prospects occasioned by his disgrace, and bitterly resented his third marriage, in 1663, to a woman thirty years his junior. Whatever the reasons (and blame probably attaches to both sides), Milton's relations with his daughters were desperate: after his death, they alleged that he kept them in a state of dependence and never even taught them to write, though they were required to read to him in languages they didn't understand; during his life, they stole from him and sold his books. Milton seems at times a cross between Lear and Gloucester, cursed with ungrateful offspring whose bile and unhappiness has its root in his own shortcomings as a father.

At some point in the late 1650s, Milton started writing the greatest long poem in the English language: Paradise Lost For nearly ten years of instability and unrest, both personal and political, he worked on this epic of original sin: the story of creation, of the rebel angels, of Adam and Eve and their temptation and fall, is told in over ten thousand lines of magisterial blank verse, dictated by a blind man to whoever could transcribe his words. It is an unequalled achievement: the passionate, prophetic culmination of a lifetime's absorption in profound thought, and a lifetime's refinement of a virtuosic rhetorical gift.  Its cosmic scale contracts, at times, to the dark spaces of the poet's head. 'Seasons return, but not to me returns | Day', he laments; all is 'a universal blank', with 'wisdom at one entrance quite shut out'. He is 'fallen on evil days', 'In darkness and with dangers compass'd round', but still his divine muse inspires him to ever greater lyrical heights. Paradise Lost. A Poem in Ten Books was published in 1667 to almost immediate acclaim, despite the notoriety of its author; the revised edition in twelve books followed in 1674. Its influence on the history of English literature is incalculable.

 In his last years, Milton found a measure of peace. His undutiful daughters left home (not very amicably, by later accounts), and he set himself to various kinds of work. He revised a grammar, a book on logic and his History of Britain, begun many years before, for the press; he also published, in 1671, the two great poems of this final period: Paradise Regain'd and Samson Agonistes. The first treats of the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness; the second, framed as a classical tragedy, retells the story of Samson, weak and blinded, in his captivity.  This once-great warrior – 'eyeless in Gaza', abandoned by God and questioning the righteousness of his cause – has obvious personal resonance. In the end, it should be noted, Samson pulls down the temple on the heads of his enemies. Milton was by now in failing health, suffering badly from the gout. He died, apparently peacefully, in November 1674, and was buried with his father in St Giles, Cripplegate.

 

Sophie Read