John Milton

1608-1674. English poet. Born in London and educated at St. Paul's School and Christ's College, Cambridge, he was always of a serious turn of mind and felt himself even in his youth called to a high vocation in the service of God. His earliest important poem, On the Morning of Christ's Nativity, (1629) is really a poem, not of Christmas only, but of the Incarnation, its power and effects.

In the next decade he wrote a number of short poems, of which the most significant is Lycidas (1637), and the masque Comus (1634). The former is a pastoral lament for a college acquaintance, Edward King, but it goes far beyond the occasion to question the whole purpose of life and especially of the dedicated life. In addition it contains Milton's scathing lines of the “hireling shepherds” of the church, concluding almost prophetically with the threat that the Civil War would actualize of that “two-handed engine at the door [which] stands ready to strike once and strike no more.” Comus presents in a tableau the conflict between chastity and vice (luxuria), personified in the persons of the Lady and Comus. The latter enchains her body, but is powerless against her free spirit.

After the outbreak of the Civil War, Milton was occupied first with pamphleteering in the parliamentary cause and then in the service of government as Latin Secretary under the Commonwealth. His pamphlets cover controversy against episcopacy (e.g., Reformation of Church Discipline in England, 1641), about divorce which he supported more liberally than most of his contemporaries, and on political and miscellaneous questions such as the Tractate on Education (1644) and the immortal plea for freedom of printing in Areopagitica (1644). It is said, though with what degree of truth is conjectural, that his unhappy experience of marriage to Mary Powell led to the first divorce pamphlet. Perhaps it need only be added that, despite the known incompatibilities of this first alliance, Milton later married a second and a third time.

With the Restoration, Milton as a regicide and the most eloquent apologist for regicide stood in danger of his life. By this time he was also blind. The intercession of friends gained him inclusion in the general amnesty, and his last years were spent in a return to the poetry which he had forsaken two decades before. In them he was enabled to fulfill the high vocation he had always felt himself called to perform. Paradise Lost appeared in 1667, followed four years later by Paradise Regained and Samson Agonistes. In the first of these he sought no less than “to justify the ways of God to man” in an extensive epic treatment of the Fall. In verse uniquely sonorous and impressive he characterizes the main protagonists in that event and ranges through heaven, hell, and earth in his examination of motive, conflict, and responsibility.

The later poems are less magnificent, and Paradise Regained in particular seems to lack that rich humanism of which its predecessor is the last and finest flower in English literature. There is also an occasional harsh note that is paralleled too in the flashes of savagery that mark, and possibly mar, Samson Agonistes. So much like Milton himself, Samson, “eyeless in Gaza, at the mill with slaves,” wreaks his God's revenge on the Philistine enemy. Yet in the face of suffering and death, Milton's final word on the subject, both stoic and Christian, is: “All is best,/Though we oft doubt what th'unsearchable dispose/Of highest wisdom brings about.”

See Poems (ed. J. Carey and A. Fowler, 1968), and W.R. Parker, Milton, (1968).