John Milton, 8 November 1674
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painting of the young John Milton

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 of 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.

written by James Kiefer


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. Amen.