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Milton, John

John Milton was born in 1608 in London to a wealthy family of a composer and scrivener, John Milton senior. Milton was brought up a Puritan, both by his parents and tutors at St Paul’s School in London. His strong appreciation for the religious values and Puritan traditions influenced his writing and remained a recurrent theme of his works.

Milton studied humanities at Cambridge University and graduated with a master’s degree in 1632. Later, in 1638, he started travelling around Europe, visiting France and Italy, where he was exploring classical art and literature. Despite his family's wishes, he gave up his prospects of training to become an Anglican priest in favour of becoming a poet. To support himself financially, he became a private tutor.

He saw his poetry as a means of serving God and propagating Puritan ideas among his readers. His aim as a poet was to convey messages of the ways of God, to praise morality and to picture disdain for sensuality and baseness.

Milton's poetical ambition was to write epic poetry referring to the literary traditions of ancient Greece and to classical texts such as the Odyssey and the Iliad.

He was a keen supporter of the republican movement and in opposition to the royalists. As well as other works, he also published political material, such as the strongly republican The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates. His radical thoughts were highly controversial at the time – he was admired by the republicans for his courageous anti-royal works, but disregarded by the royalists. He also published works touching upon the necessary educational reforms and the morality of divorce and cases in which it could be acceptable (after the failure of his own marriage). Furthermore, he fought censorship in literature, by publishing tracts such as Areopagitica. His fluent use of Latin in these works helped Milton convey his messages to other scholars and politics across the European continent – Latin was, at the time, the international language.

His vast knowledge of foreign languages (French, Italian, Latin, Greek and German, to name a few), strong political views and his literary artistry led the political leader Oliver Cromwell to appoint Milton as the Secretary for Foreign Tongues (specialising in Latin) in the Commonwealth of England – the republican state created after the execution of Charles I. After the Civil War broke out in 1642 and King Charles I was executed in 1649, Milton devoted himself almost wholly to the publishing of republican manifestos and pamphlets, reducing the focus on his poetry. He thus put his ideas of an epic religious poem about the fall of man aside for a few years.

After Cromwell's death in 1658 there was a general confusion around the government and the ideas of how it should work. The society did not want any more political upheaval but rather the return to the pre-war 'normality'. As a result of a parliamentary agreement, the restoration of monarchy took place in 1660 as Charles II came back from exile and was crowned king.

This return to the monarchy left the republicans, such as John Milton, disillusioned and disappointed. However, he continued writing radical tracts on the lack of need for a monarch in England. Republicanism was no longer the general thought in the society and therefore, as a result of his bold writing, he had to live in hiding and was imprisoned for a short time. Then, after the years of his civil service and writing, Milton gradually became blind. His life finally regained its stability around 1663 when he married for the third time. In 1667, the blind Milton dictated Paradise Lost to his daughters. As well as a fruitful effect of Milton's peaceful final years, this text could also be an outcome of his Restoration despair.

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John Milton was born

Milton was born on 9th December in London to a prosperous family of a composer and scrivener, John Milton senior.

Milton's childhood

Milton was brought up a Puritan, both by his parents and by tutors at St Paul's School in London.

Milton attended Christ's College at Cambridge University

Milton attended Christ's College, Cambridge, to study humanities.

Milton received his MA

Milton retired to his father's country estate in the village of Horton in order to write poetry.

Milton travelled across Europe

Milton travelled to France and Italy to study classical art and literature.

Milton married 16-year-old Mary Powell

Milton disappeared to the countryside in June and returned to London married to a 16-year-old, Mary Powell. She deserted him after only a month, leading him to write and publish a series of pamphlets upon the subject of divorce.

Milton published 1645 Poems

During the same year, Powell and Milton reconciled their marriage, possibly due to family and political pressures of the time.

Appointed Secretary for Foreign Tongues

He rote pamphlets in support of the republican principles held by the Commonwealth.

Milton became blind

It is thought that his blindness was due to the onset of glaucoma, but this lead him to dictate his works to others. During this year Mary, who bore him four children, died a few days after giving birth to their last child. (Only his two eldest daughters, Anne and Mary, were to survive to adulthood.)

Went into hiding at the dawn of the Restoration

His works were burnt and a warrant was released for his arrest. This gave him the perfect chance to start working seriously on the epic he started planning at the age of 16.

The first edition of Paradise Lost was published


Paradise Regained was published

This was a four-book epic based upon the temptation of Christ.

Milton's death

During the year of Milton's death, Paradise Lost was published in its 12-book format for the first time.

The Milton Society of America was established

Their website claims 'It aims to further scholarship on John Milton, to cite outstanding scholars in the field, to publish an annual booklet summarizing the work of the society, and to promote the exchange of ideas about Milton. At present, the society includes 575 members, chiefly from the USA and Canada but also from 10 other nations.'

Visit The Milton Society of America website