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Saturday, 28 May 2016

John Milton

John Milton was born in Bread Street, London, on December 9, 1608, the son of John Milton senior and his wife, Sarah Jeffrey. The house was destroyed in the Great Fire of London.

His father John was a well-off Scrivener (a sort of attorney and financial agent) and composer of music. He’d made a fortune as a notary and money broker.

John jnr's grandfather was a wealthy landowner in Oxfordshire who, being a devout Roman Catholic, had disinherited Milton's father after finding an English Bible in his possession.

His mother Sarah Jeffrey was the daughter of a merchant sailor. She died in 1637.

John had five brothers and sisters but only two survived.

Milton's father—who contributed a collection of madrigals in honor of Elizabeth I—encouraged his son's ambitions; John jnr was writing poetry by the age of ten.

John Milton at age 10 by Cornelis Janssens van Ceulen

He was educated at home by Thomas Young, a Scottish Presbyterian, till the age of 12 when he entered St Paul's School as a day pupil.

John was a hard working student who rarely went to bed before midnight due to his studies. "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."

Milton attended Christ's College, Cambridge between the ages of 17 and 24, where he developed a reputation for poetic skill and general erudition. He gained a bachelor of arts degree in 1629 and master of arts in 1632.

The sober Milton despised the levity of his fellow students. and he was not liked. He complained that possibly half his audience of fellow students “bear malice towards him”.

Looking back, Milton referred to his old college as a "stony hearted stepmother."  He felt the Cambridge curriculum to be antiquated and the tutors to be mostly bores.


On leaving Cambridge, Milton adopted no profession, but embarked on a course of private study with a view of becoming a poet or clergyman, supported by his father.  His independent spirit led him to give up a potential ministerial career, and, he preferred "a blameless silence before the sacred office of speaking bought and begun with servitude and forswearing."

Milton's family rented Berkyn Manor, a house that belonged to Sir John Egerton, in the small village of Horton near Windsor, between 1632 and 1640. Milton spent five quiet years there, reading and writing.

In May 1638, Milton embarked upon a tour of France and Italy that lasted up to the summer of 1639. He particularly enjoyed Italy for its art, culture and music. Milton spent two months in Florence during which he visited Galileo. His plans to go onto Greece were thwarted because of rumors of impending civil war in England, so he returned home.

On his return to England, Milton launched a career as pamphleteer and publicist. He also became a private schoolmaster in 1639, educating his nephews and other children of the well-to-do. This experience, and discussions with educational reformer Samuel Hartlib, led him to write in 1644 his short tract, Of Education, urging a reform of the national universities.

With the parliamentary victory in the Civil War, Milton used his pen in defense of the republican principles represented by the Commonwealth. His political reputation got Milton appointed on March 15, 1649 as Secretary for Foreign Tongues by the Council of State, formed after Charles I's execution. at £288 p.a. Though Milton's main job description was to compose the English Republic's foreign correspondence in Latin, he also was called upon to produce propaganda for the regime and to serve as a censor.

After the death of Oliver Cromwell', Milton lost his job and fortune and returned to poetry. He was forced to go into hiding to escape the vengeance of the royalists after the Restoration and was accidentally caught and arrested. Milton only escaped prosecution because several influential people spoke on his behalf, including Andrew Marvell, his first assistant. Charles II decided to spare Milton, and he was released from prison.

Already one eyed, Milton began to go blind at the age of 43 as a result of glaucoma. After his sight completely failed him he habitually got up at 4.00 in the morning and silently composed in his mind. When his copier, often one of his daughters, arrived at mid morning his retentive memory allowed him to dictate his previous few hours compositions.

Milton Dictates the Lost Paradise to His Three Daughters, ca. 1826. Artist: Eugène Delacroix


While still at Cambridge, Milton he wrote some fine poems, among them the "Ode on the Morning of Christ's Nativity" and the octosyllabics "L'Allegro" and "Il Penseroso."

John Milton's musical masque, Comus, which was commissioned by the Earl of Bridgwater, had its premiere at in 1634 at Ludlow Castle. The English poet wrote the lyrics and Henry Lawes the music.

On November 23, 1644 Milton published Areopagitica, an address to Parliament that opposed a law, which suppressed the freedom of the press. His meeting with the imprisoned Galileo a few years earlier particularly inspired him. Areopagitica was named after the hill in Athens where the court applied laws and debated censorship questions.

Title page of the 1644 edition of Areopagitica

In 1649's The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates, Milton became the first person to uphold the right of the people to execute a guilty sovereign. It is thought he probably attended King Charles’ execution.

After the Restoration as a noted defender of the Commonwealth, Milton's pamphlets were burned by the public hangman.

The now blind John Milton published Paradise Lost, written in 12 books in 1667.  Blind and impoverished, he sold his copyright for Paradise Lost on April 27, 1667 to Samuel Simmons, a London Bookseller, for a paltry £5, plus another £5 after three additions of 1500 copies had been sold.

Paradise Lost was the first great poem written in blank verse. Milton wrote in the preface "The troublesome and modern bondage of Rhyming."

Title page of Paradise Lost, London: 1667, by John Milton 

Milton coined the word "pandemonium" as the name of the main city in hell. In total he came up with more new words than any other writer (including Shakespeare). These totalled 630 and also included besottedly, debauchery, didactic, embellishing, fragrance, love-lorn, padlock, sensuous, stunning and terrific.

Milton wrote in Book 1 of Paradise Lost:
Likening his Maker to the grazed ox —
Jehovah, who, in one night, when he passed
From Egypt marching, equalled with one stroke
Both her first-born and all her bleating gods.
This contains a pangram (every letter in the alphabet) from the Z in 'grazed' to the b in 'Both.'

Dr Johnson said of this work "Paradise Lost is one of the books which the reader admires and lays down and forgets to take up again. Its perusal is a duty rather than a pleasure."

When asked why Milton could write such great literature as Paradise Lost, but such poor sonnets, Dr Johnson replied, "Milton, Madam, was a genius, that could cut a Colossus from a rock: but could not carve heads from cherry stones."

A pioneer of irregular, rather than regular stanza forms in his poetry., Milton's powerful prose and eloquent poetry had an immense influence on 18th century verse.


John Milton devoted his energies to the Puritan cause. Milton had a puritan morality, austere and conscientious but he was theologically unorthodox almost to the point of heresy.

Milton could have become a clergyman but he felt that “tyranny had invaded the church” so he became a poet instead.

Milton wanted to reform politics with his poetry before switching to writing political treatises advocating such things as divorce and freedom of the press. He wrote Areopagitica, the finest defence of freedom of the press ever written.

In Paradise Lost, in which he attempted "to justify the ways of God to man." it was Abdul the Seraph who withstood Satan and other rebel spirits. In fact this religious masterwork is more like science fiction than orthodox Christianity.


Milton was rosy cheeked, wore his hair long and a bit effeminate looking. As a student he was known as “the lady of Christ's College” because of his handsome appearance and his general delicacy of manner,, an epithet perhaps applied with some degree of scorn.

Portrait of John Milton in National Portrait Gallery, London 


In June 1642, the 35-year-old Milton paid a visit to the manor house at Forest Hill, Oxfordshire, and returned with a pretty 16-year-old bride, Mary Powell  A month later, finding life difficult with the severe 35-year-old schoolmaster and pamphleteer, the bored Mary refused to return to him after visiting her royalist family.

In 1671 Milton wrote his last poem Samson Agonistes (Samson the Champion), In the work he compared his desertion by Mary Powell with the blinded Samson's abandonment into Philistine hands.
Mary did not return until 1645; in the meantime her desertion prompted Milton, over the next three years, to publish a series of pamphlets arguing for the legality and morality of divorce. The first entitled The Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce, found him attacking the English marriage law as it had been taken over almost unchanged from medieval Catholicism, sanctioning divorce on the ground of incompatibility or childlessness.

After three years Milton and Mary were reconciled. In 1646, her family, having been ejected from Oxford for supporting Charles I in the Civil War, moved in with the couple.

They had four children: Anne, Mary, John, and Deborah.

Mary died on May 5, 1652 from complications following Deborah's birth three days earlier. Her death affected Milton deeply, as evidenced by his 23rd sonnet.

In June 1652, John died at age 15 months; Milton's daughters survived to adulthood, but he had a strained relationship with them. They neglected their blind father in his old age and rebelled against reading to him and taking his dictation. The girls conspired to sell some of his books to “the dunghill woman”.

Though the date of Mary Jnr's death is not known, it is known that she married one John Maugridge. They became the parents of a daughter, Mary Milton Maugridge in 1669.

Milton's second wife, Katherine Woodcock was 28 when they married in November 1656. She was the daughter of a Captain Woodcock, of Hackney. Katherine died on February 3, 1658, less than four months after giving birth to their daughter, Katherine, who passed away on March 17th.

On February 24, 1663, Milton married Elizabeth Minshull, who was the niece of Thomas Mynshull, a wealthy apothecary and philanthropist in Manchester. 30 years his junior, pretty and golden-haired, according to John Aubrey's Brief Lives Elizabeth was,"A genteel person, a peaceful and agreeable woman."

Elizabeth enjoyed music and could talk at length about art and other things that interested Milton. She is said to have sung to his accompaniment on the organ

Elizabeth cared for her blind husband until his death. She survived him for over half a century.


For supper the blind writer habitually had "olives or some light thing" and a glass of wine.

Milton felt he was physically refreshed and strengthened by music. The puritan poet was a talented musician with a "tuneable voice" and he played the organ or viol for an hour or so daily.

In 1651 John Milton moved into a "pretty garden-house" in Petty France, a short street in the City of Westminster. He lived there until the Restoration. Later it became No. 19 York Street, belonged to Jeremy Bentham, was occupied successively by John Stuart Mill and William Hazlitt, and finally demolished in 1877.

The back of No. 19, York Street (1848). 

In 1665 John Milton fled to the 100 year old half-timbered building Milton's Cottage (the only surviving one among the houses he lived in), Chalfont St Giles, Buckinghamshire to escape the plague. He arrived disillusioned having not been part of a general amnesty of Charles II and having spent time in prison. His wife, Elizabeth, was in poor health. His daughter, Deborah, from his first marriage, acted as housekeeper. It was there he completed Paradise Lost and started Paradise Regained.


Milton died of kidney failure on November 8, 1674. He passed away with so little pain or emotion that no one noticed him dying.

He was buried in the church of St Giles Cripplegate, Fore Street, London, next to his father

Memorial in St Giles-without-Cripplegate, London. By Edwardx - Wikipedis Commons

According to an early biographer, Milton's funeral was attended by “his learned and great Friends in London, not without a friendly concourse of the Vulgar."

Gravedigger Elizabeth Grant was later found to be charging visitors sixpence a time for viewing of Milton’s teeth and part of his leg.

After Milton's death Elizabeth sold the remaining copyright for Paradise Lost for £8.

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