John Milton (December 9, 1608 - November 8, 1674) was an English poet, most famous for his blank verse epic Paradise Lost.
His father, John Milton Sr., was a well-off scrivener, and his grandfather a wealthy landowner in Oxfordshire who, hewing to the old faith, had disinherited Milton's father after finding an English Bible in his possession. Milton père, from all indications, encouraged Milton's writerly ambitions, which developed early; he was writing poetry by the age of nine. "When he was young," Christopher, his younger brother, recalled to an early biographer after John's death, "he studied very hard and sat up very late, commonly till twelve or one o'clock at night." He was educated at St Paul's School, London, and at Christ's College, Cambridge (1625-32). While still at Cambridge he wrote some fine poems, among them the "Ode on the Morning of Christ's Nativity" and the octosyllabics L'Allegro and Il Penseroso. While at Cambridge he developed a reputation for poetic skill and general erudition, although due to his hair, which he wore long, and his general delicacy of manner, he was known as the "Lady of Christ's", an epithet perhaps applied with some degree of scorn.
He was originally destined to a ministerial career, but his independent spirit led him to "prefer a blameless silence before the sacred office of speaking bought and begun with servitude and forswearing." He spent five quiet years at Horton in Buckinghamshire, reading and writing. To this period belong "Arcades", "Comus", and "Lycidas", all breathing the lofty spirit of his religious convictions.
In 1638 and 1639 he traveled on the continent, coming into contact with such men as Grotius, Galileo, and Lucas Holete, but was recalled by a rumor of the outbreak of the armed struggle for liberty at home.
The next twenty years of his life were devoted almost entirely to prose work in the service of the Puritan cause. In 1641 and 1642 appeared his tractates Of Reformation touching Church Discipline in England, Of Prelatical Episcopacy, the two defenses of Smectymnuus (an organization of protestant divines named after their nitials), and The Reason of Church Government Urged against Prelaty . With frequent passages of real eloquence lighting up the rough controversial style of the period, and with a wide knowledge of ecclesiastical antiquity, he struck weighty blows at the intolerant High-church party which seemed to dominate the Church of England.
In 1642 Milton married a sixteen-year-old girl, Mary Powell, who left a month later to return to her family. In the next three years Milton published a series of pamphlets arguing for the legality and morality of divorce, the first entitled The Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce. In it Milton attacked the English marriage law as it had been taken over almost unchanged from medieval Catholicism, and sanctioning divorce on the ground of incompatibility or childlessness. In 1645, however, Mary returned. She died in 1652 from complications following childbirth—a death that may have affected Milton deeply, as evidenced by his twenty-third sonnet. (To be accurate, though, we don't know whether the sonnet concerns Mary's death in 1652, or the death of Milton's second wife, also following childbirth, in 1658.)
His intercourse with Hartlib and Comenius led him to write in 1644 a short tract on Education, urging a reform of the national universities; and in the same year appeared the most popular of his prose writings, Areopagitica, a Speech for the Liberty of Unlicensed Printing.
The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates (1649) announced his adhesion to the cause of the Commonwealth, to which he was made Latin secretary in March. As part of his duties in this post, he wrote his Eikonoklastes (1649) in reply to the Eikon Basilike popularly attributed to Charles I, the first Pro populo Anglicano defensio (1651) against Salmasius, and in 1654 his Defensio secunda and Pro se defensio; and his fine Latin style was of great avail for the drafting of the state papers which passed between Oliver Cromwell's government and the continent.
His incessant labours cost him his eyesight, but he retained his office until the Restoration. He then lived in retirement, devoting himself once more to poetical work, and publishing Paradise Lost in 1667, the epic by which he attained universal fame (blind and impoverished he sold the copyright to this work on April 27th that year for £10), to be followed by the much inferior Paradise Regained, together with Samson Agonistes, a drama on the Greek model, in 1671.
Milton's religious position, partially expressed in the treatises named above and in his Civil Power in Ecclesiastical Causes and Considerations touching the Likeliest Means to Remove Hirelings out of the Church (1659), is most clearly seen in his posthumous De doctrine Christiana, the manuscript of which, long lost, was discovered only in 1823.
His point of view is entirely subjective and individualistic; his faith is deduced from Scripture by the inner illumination of the Spirit, not tied to human traditions. It is not therefore surprising to find him taking his own view on the Trinity, the divinity of Christ and the Holy Ghost, predestination, the creation of the world, etc., as also in regard to practical questions such as marriage, infant baptism, and the observance of Sunday.
What he attempts to give is not a complete scientific treatment in the modern sense but an exposition of the clear and universally acceptable teaching of scripture. In many points he is the prophet and herald of a new era, a Protestant individualist and idealist, as well as a typical figure for the revolutionary cause to which he devoted the best powers of his life.