John Milton


John Milton (London, December 9, 1608 – London, November 8, 1674) was an English poet, polemicist, intellectual, and civil servant, serving as Secretary for Foreign Languages to the Commonwealth of England under Oliver Cromwell. He wrote at a time of religious flux and political unrest, and is best known for his epic poem Paradise Lost (1667), written in blank verse.

Born in London, he attended Christ”s College at Cambridge University, where he graduated in 1629 and obtained an M.A. in 1632. He read ancient and modern works of theology, philosophy, history, politics, literature, and science, and in May 1638, he traveled to France and Italy on a tour, met the astronomer Galileo Galilei, and visited the Accademia della Crusca. Upon his return to England, he wrote prose against the episcopate in the midst of the English Civil War, and attacked William Laud, Archbishop of Canterbury. In March 1649, he was made Secretary for Foreign Languages by the Council of State. During this period he published texts in defense of republican principles, and in 1654 he became completely blind and consequently poor. After the English Restoration, Milton continued to defend the republic and criticize the monarchy. He went into hiding and received a warrant for his arrest, and was later pardoned. He died in 1674, having been married three times.

His prose and poetry reflected deep personal convictions, a passion for freedom and self-determination, and the pressing issues and political turmoil of his day. Writing in English, Latin, and Italian, he achieved international fame in his lifetime, and his famous Areopagitica (1644) is among the most influential defenses in history of free speech and freedom of the press.

William Hayley”s biography, published in 1796, called him “the greatest English author,” and he generally remains regarded as “one of the most prominent writers of the English language,” although critical reception has fluctuated in the centuries since his death (often because of his republicanism). Samuel Johnson praised Paradise Lost as “a poem which in respect of design can claim the first place, and in respect of performance, the second, among the productions of the human mind,” although he – a conservative and recipient of royal patronage – described Milton”s politics as those of a “bitter, grouchy republican.” Because of his republicanism, he has been the subject of centuries of British partisanship – a hostile consideration by Anthony Wood in 1691, a “nonconformist” biography by John Toland in 1698, and many others. His political treatises were consulted in the drafting of the United States Constitution.

The stages of Milton”s life parallel the major historical and political divisions in Stuart Britain. Under the increasingly personal rule of Charles I and his breakdown into confusion and constitutional warfare, Milton studied, traveled, wrote poetry mostly for private use, and launched a career as a pamphleteer and publicist. According to the Commonwealth of England, because they were dangerously radical and even heretical, the change in attitudes adopted in the government placed him in public office, and he still acted as an official spokesman in some of his publications. The Restoration of 1660 deprived Milton, now completely blind, of his public platform, but in this period he completed most of his major works of poetry.

His views developed from his own extensive reading, as well as travels and experiences, from his student days in the 1620s to the English Revolution. At the time of his death in 1674, Milton was poor, and on the fringe of English intellectual life, he was still famous throughout Europe and had no regrets about his political choices.

Beginning of life

John Milton was born on Bread Street in London on December 9, 1608, as the second son of composer John Milton (1562-1647) and his wife Sarah Jeffrey. The elder John Milton moved to London around 1583, after being disowned by his devout Catholic father, Richard Milton, for embracing Protestantism. In London, he married Sarah Jeffrey (1572-1637) and found lasting financial success as a clerk. He lived and worked in a house on Bread Street, where the Mermaid Tavern in Cheapside was located. Old Milton was known for his skill as a musical composer, and this talent made his son appreciate it throughout his life and earned him friendships with musicians such as Henry Lawes.

The prosperity of Milton”s father provided his eldest son with a private tutor, Thomas Young, a Scottish Presbyterian with a master”s degree from the University of St. Andrews. Research suggests that Young”s influences served as the poet”s introduction to religious radicalism. Following Young”s tutoring, he studied at St Paul”s School in London. There he began the study of Latin and Greek, and the classical languages left a mark on his English poetry (he also wrote in Italian and Latin). His earliest datable compositions are two psalms made at age 15 at Long Bennington. A contemporary source is Brief Lives by John Aubrey, an uneven compilation including first-hand accounts. In the work, Aubrey quotes Milton”s younger brother Christopher: “When he was young, he studied hard and rested very late, usually until twelve or one o”clock at night.”

Milton attended Christ”s College in 1625, and graduated with a bachelor of arts degree in 1629, ranking fourth among 24 graduates with honors that year at Cambridge University. Preparing to become an Anglican priest, he earned a master of arts degree on July 3, 1632.

He was probably suspended for arguing in the first year with his tutor, William Chappell. He certainly went home to Lent Term 1626; there he wrote his Elegia Prima, his first Latin elegy, for Charles Diodati, a friend of St Paul”s. Based on remarks by John Aubrey, Chappell “whipped” Milton. Today this story is disputed, although certainly Milton did not like Chappell. Christopher Hill cautiously notes that Milton was “apparently” banished, and that the differences between Chappell and him may have been religious or personal. It is also possible that, like Isaac Newton four decades later, Milton was sent home because of the plague, by which Cambridge was severely affected in 1625. Later, in 1626, his tutor was Nathaniel Tovey.

At Cambridge, he had good relationships with Edward King, to whom he later wrote Lycidas. He also befriended the Anglo-American dissident and theologian Roger Williams. Milton tutored Williams in Hebrew, in exchange for Dutch lessons. Despite developing a reputation for poetic skill and general erudition, he observed the alienation of his peers and of university life as a whole. Seeing his classmates studying comedy on the college stage, he later observed that “they thought themselves gallant men, and I thought them fools.” Because of her long hair and the general delicacy in her appearance, she was known as the “Lady of Christ.” He was dismissive of the university curriculum, which consisted of blistering formal debates on obscure topics, conducted in Latin. Her own corpus is not without humor, notably her sixth prolusion and her epitaphs on the death of Thomas Hobson. While at Cambridge, he wrote several of his well-known poems in English, including On the Morning of Christ”s Nativity, his Epitaph to the Admirable Dramatic Poet, W. Shakespeare, his first poem to appear in print, L”Allegro, and Il Penseroso.

Study, poetry, and travel

Upon receiving his MA in 1632, Milton retired to Hammersmith, his father”s new home from the previous year. He also lived in Horton, Berkshire, from 1635 and undertook six years of independent private study. Hill argues that this was not a return to a rural idyll: Hammersmith was then a “suburban village” falling into the orbit of London, and even Horton was becoming deforested and suffering from blight. He read both ancient and modern works of theology, philosophy, history, politics, literature, and science in preparation for a potential poetic career. His intellectual development can be traced through entries in his notebook (like an errand book), now in the British Library. As a result of such intensive study, Milton is considered one of the most learned of all English poets. In addition to his years of private study, he had a command of Latin, Greek, Hebrew, French, Spanish, and the Italian of his school and undergraduate years; he also added Old English to his linguistic repertoire in the 1650s while researching his History of Britain (”History of Britain”), and probably acquired proficiency in Dutch soon after.

Milton continued writing poetry during this period of study; both Arcades and Comus were commissioned for masques composed by noble patrons, connections of the Egerton family, and performed in 1632 and 1634, respectively. Comus advocates the virtuousness of temperance and chastity.

He contributed his pastoral elegy Lycidas to a memorial collection for one of his Cambridge classmates. Drafts of these poems are preserved in Milton”s poetry notebook, known as the Trinity Manuscript, which is now kept at Trinity College, Cambridge.

In May 1638, he embarked on a journey through France and Italy, which lasted until July or August 1639. His travels supplemented his study with new direct experiences and artistic and religious traditions, especially Roman Catholicism. He met the famous theorists and intellectuals of the time, and was able to display his poetic skills. For specific details about what happened on Milton”s Grand Tour, there seems to be only one primary source: his own Defensio Secunda. Although there are other records, including some letters and some references in his other areas of prose, most of the information about the tour comes from a work that, according to Barbara Lewalski, “was not conceived as an autobiography but as a rhetoric, designed to emphasize his excellent reputation with the scholars of Europe.”

First he went to Calais, and then to Paris, riding, with a letter from diplomat Henry Wotton to Ambassador John Scudamore. Through Scudamore, Milton met Hugo Grócio, a Dutch jurist, poet and philosopher. Milton left France soon after this meeting. He traveled south from Nice to Genoa, and then to Livorno and Pisa. He arrived in Florence in July 1638. While there, he enjoyed many of the sites and structures of the city. His outspokenness in scholarly fashion and neo-Latin poetry earned him friends in Florentine intellectual circles, and he met with the astronomer Galileo, who was under house arrest in Arcetri, as well as others. Milton probably visited the Academia Florentina and the Accademia della Crusca along with smaller academies in the region, including the Apatisti and the Svogliati.

He left Florence in September to travel to Rome. With Florence”s connections, he was able to have easy access to Roman intellectual society. His poetic abilities impressed those like Giovanni Salzilli, who praised Milton within an epigram. In late October, despite his antipathy to the Society of Jesus, he attended a dinner hosted by the English College in Rome, meeting English Catholics, who were also guests, the theologian Henry Holden, and the poet Patrick Cary. He also attended musical events, including oratorios, operas, and melodramas. Milton left for Naples in late November, where he stayed only for a month because of Spanish control. During that time, he was introduced to Giovanni Battista Manso, patron of Torquato Tasso and Giovanni Battista Marino.

Originally Milton wanted to leave Naples in order to travel to Sicily, and then Greece, but returned to England during the summer of 1639 because of what he claimed, in Defensio Secunda, to be “sad news of the civil war in England.” The matter became more complicated when he received the news that Diodati, his childhood friend, had died. The writer actually stayed another seven months on the continent, and spent time in Geneva with Diodati”s uncle after he returned to Rome. In Defensio Secunda, he proclaimed that he was warned against a return to Rome because of his frankness about religion, but he stayed in the city for two months and was able to attend the Carnival and meet Lukas Holste, a Vatican librarian, who guided him through his collection. He was introduced to Cardinal Francesco Barberini, who invited Milton to an opera he organized. Around March, he traveled once more to Florence, staying there for two months, attending further meetings of the academies, and spending time with friends. After leaving Florence, he traveled through Lucca, Bologna and Ferrara before arriving in Venice. In Venice, he was exposed to a model of republicanism, later important in his political writings, but soon found another model when he traveled to Geneva. From Switzerland, Milton traveled to Paris and then to Calais, before finally arriving back in England between July and August 1639.

Civil war, prose treaties, and marriage

Upon returning to England, where the Bishops” Wars presaged further armed conflict, Milton began writing prose tracts against the episcopacy in service of the Puritan and parliamentary cause. His first foray into polemics was Of Reformation touching Church Discipline in England (1641), followed by Of Prelatical Episcopacy, the two defenses of Smectymnuus (a group of Presbyterian theologians named from their initials: the “TY” belonged to their former tutor, Thomas Young), and The Reason of Church-Government Urged against Prelaty. It vigorously attacked the Anglican High Church party and its leader, William Laud, Archbishop of Canterbury.

Although supported by investments from his father, at this time he became a private tutor, educating his nephews and other children to prosperity. This experience, and discussions with educational reformer Samuel Hartlib, led him to write in 1644 his short tract, Of Education, calling for reform in the national universities.

In June 1642, Milton paid a visit to the Forest Hill manor in Oxfordshire and returned with a 16-year-old bride, Mary Powell. A month later, finding life difficult with the stern 35-year-old schoolmaster and pamphleteer, Mary returned to her family. Partly because of the outbreak of the Civil War, she did not return until 1645; however her defection led Milton, over the next three years, to publish a series of pamphlets advocating the legality and morality of divorce. Anna Beer, one of his most recent biographers, points to lack of evidence and the dangers of cynicism, urging that it was not necessarily the case that private life in such a way animated public polemicism. In 1643, Milton had a meeting with the authorities about these writings, in parallel with Hezekiah Woodward, who had more problems. It was the hostile response granted to the divorce tract that spurred him to write Areopagitica, his famous attack on pre-press censorship.

Secretary of Foreign Languages

With the parliamentary victory in the Civil War, Milton used his pen in defense of the republican principles represented by the Commonwealth. The Mandate of Kings and Magistrates (1649) defended popular government and implicitly sanctioned regicide; with his political reputation he was appointed Secretary of Foreign Languages by the Council of State in March 1649. Although the main purpose of his position was to compose foreign correspondences of the English Republic in Latin, he was also called upon to produce propaganda for the regime and serve as censor. In October 1649, he published Eikonoklastes, an explicit defense of regicide, in response to Eikon Basilike (“Royal Portrait”), a phenomenally successful literary work popularly attributed to Charles I, which portrayed the king as an innocent Christian martyr. A month after Milton had attempted to break this powerful image of Charles I (the literal translation of Eikonoklastes is ”the image-breaker”), the exiled king and his party published a defense of the monarchy, Defensio Regia pro Carolo Primo, written by leading humanist Claudius Salmasius. In January of the following year, the author was ordered to write a defense of the English people by the Council of State. Given the European audience and the English Republic”s desire to establish diplomatic and cultural legitimacy, Milton worked more slowly than usual, as he relied on learning commanded by his years of study to compose a rejoinder. On February 24, 1652, he published his Latin defense of the English people, Defensio pro Populo Anglicano, also known as the First Defense. Milton”s purely Latin prose and his evident learning, exemplified in the First Defense, quickly made him a reputation in Europe, and the work made numerous editions.

In 1654, in response to the anonymous monarchist tract “Regii sanguinis clamor,” a work that made many personal attacks against Milton, he completed a second defense of the English nation, Defensio secunda, which praised Oliver Cromwell, now Lord Protector, while urging him to remain true to the principles of the Revolution. Alexander Morus, to whom Milton mistakenly attributed the Clamor (actually by Peter du Moulin), published an attack on Milton in response to which he published the autobiographical Defensio pro se in 1655. In addition to these literary defenses of the Commonwealth and its character, Milton continued to translate official correspondence into Latin. In 1654, he became totally blind, the cause of his blindness is debated, but bilateral retinal detachment or glaucoma is more likely. His blindness forced him to dictate his verse and prose to amanuenses (helpers), one of whom was the poet Andrew Marvell. One of his best-known sonnets, On His Blindness, is presumed to date from this period.

The Restoration

Although Cromwell”s death in 1658 caused the English Republic to collapse into a factional political and military rivalry, Milton stubbornly clung to the beliefs that had originally inspired him to write to the Commonwealth. In 1659, he published A Treatise of Civil Power (”A Treatise of Civil Power”), attacking the concept of a state-dominated church (the position known as Erastianism), as well as Considerations touching the likeliest means to remove hirelings, denouncing corrupt practices in church government. As the Republic disintegrated, Milton wrote several proposals to maintain a non-monarchical government against the will of parliament, soldiers, and the people.

After the Restoration in May 1660, the English author went into hiding during his lifetime, while a warrant was issued against him and his writings were burned. He resurfaced after a general pardon was issued, but was nevertheless arrested and briefly imprisoned before influential friends, such as Marvell, now a Member of Parliament, intervened. On February 24, 1663, he married again, for the third and final time, to a woman born in Wistaston, Cheshire, Elizabeth (Betty) Minshull, then 24, and spent the remaining decade of his life peacefully in London, retreating only to a cottage – Milton”s Cottage – in Chalfont St Giles, his only existing home, during the Great Plague of London.

During this period, he published several minor works and prose, such as a grammar book, Art of Logic, and the History of Britain. His only explicitly political extensions were Of True Religion, 1672, advocating toleration (except to Catholics), and a translation of a Polish treatise advocating an elective monarchy. Both works were referred to in the Exclusion debate-the attempt to exclude the presumptive heir, James, Duke of York, from the throne of England because he was a Roman Catholic-which preoccupied politics in the 1670s and 1680s, and precipitated the formation of the Whig party and the Glorious Revolution.

Milton died of kidney failure on November 8, 1674, and was buried in St Giles Cripplegate Church; according to a biographer, his funeral was attended by “his learned and great friends in London, not without a friendly crowd of the commoners.” A monument to John Bacon the Elder was added in 1793.


Milton and his first wife, Mary Powell (Mary (and Deborah (May 2, 1652 – ?).

Powell died on May 5, 1652 of complications after Deborah”s birth. His daughters survived to adulthood, but he always had a strained relationship with them. He remarried on November 12, 1656 to Katherine Woodcock. She died on February 3, 1658, less than four months after giving birth to a daughter, Katherine, who also died. He married a third time on February 24, 1662, to Elizabeth Mynshull (1638-1728), the niece of Thomas Mynshull, a wealthy philanthropic apothecary in Manchester. Despite the 31-year age difference, the marriage seemed happy, according to John Aubrey, and lasted more than 11 years until Milton”s death. (A plaque on the wall of Mynshull”s Manchester home describes Elizabeth as Milton”s “3rd and best wife.”) Samuel Johnson, however, claimed that Mynshull was “a domestic and attendant companion” and that Milton”s nephew, Edward Phillips, reports that Mynshull “oppressed his children in his life, and cheated them in his death.”

Two nephews (sons of his sister Anne), Edward and John Phillips, were educated by him and became writers. John served as secretary, and Edward was Milton”s first biographer.

His poetry was slow to see the light of day, at least in his name. His first published poem was On Shakespeare (1630), anonymously included in the Second Folio edition of Shakespeare. Amidst combined excitement at the possibility of establishing a new English government, he collected his work in the Poems of 1645. The anonymous edition of Comus was published in 1637, and the publication of Lycidas in 1638, in Justa Edouardo King Shipwreck was signed J. M. Otherwise, the 1645 collection was the only of his poetry to be printed, until Paradise Lost appeared in 1667.

Milton”s magnum opus, the epic poem in white verse Paradise Lost, was composed while blind and poor between 1658 and 1664 (first edition), with minor but significant revisions published in 1674 (second edition). As a blind poet, Milton dictated his verses to a series of aides in his service. It has been argued that the poem reflects his personal despair at the failure of the revolution, but asserts an ultimate optimism in human potential. Some literary critics have argued that he codified many references to his tireless support of the “Good Old Cause.”

On April 27, 1667, Milton sold the publishing rights to Paradise Lost to publisher Samuel Simmons for five pounds, the equivalent of about 7,400 pounds of rent in 2008, with an additional five pounds to be paid if and when each print run of about 1,300 and 1,500 copies were sold. The first release, an in-quarto edition priced at three shillings per copy, was published in August 1667 and sold out in 18 months.

He continued Paradise Lost, with its sequel, Paradise Regained, published along with the tragedy Samson Agonistes (”Samson Agonistes”) in 1671. Both works also resonate with Milton”s post-Restoration political situation. Shortly before his death in 1674, he oversaw a second edition of Paradise Lost, accompanied by an explanation of “why the poem does not rhyme” and introductory verses by Marvell. He republished his Poems of 1645 in 1673, as well as a collection of his letters and the Latin preambles from his days at Cambridge. A 1668 edition of Paradise Lost, reported as the author”s personal copy, is now housed in the archives of the University of Western Ontario.

An unfinished religious manifesto, De Doctrina Christiana, probably written by Milton, exposes many of his heterodox theological views, and was not discovered and published until 1823. His fundamental beliefs were idiosyncratic, not those of an identifiable group or faction, and they were often well beyond the orthodoxy of the time. His tone of voice, however, resulted from the Puritan emphasis on centrality and the inviolability of conscience. He owned himself, but it is Areopagitics, where he was anticipated by Henry Robinson and others, that outlasted his prose works.


In the late 1650s, Milton was an advocate of animistic monism or materialism, the notion that a single material substance that is “animate, self-active, and free” makes up everything in the universe: from rocks and trees and bodies to minds, souls, angels, and God. He invented this position to avoid the mind-body dualism of Plato and Descartes, as well as the mechanistic determinism of Thomas Hobbes. His monism is most notably reflected in Paradise Lost where he has angels as substantial creatures and thus perform such bodily functions as eating and engaging in sexual intercourse but their substance is not carnal, consisting instead of pure intellect, and the De Doctrina, where he denies the dual nature of man and advocates a theory of Creation ex Deo.

Political Thought

In his political writings, Milton addressed specific themes in different periods. The years 1641 and 1642 were devoted to church politics and the struggle against the episcopate. After his divorce writing, Areopagitica, and a gap, he wrote in 1649-1654, following the execution of Charles I, and the polemical justification of regicide and the existing parliamentary regime. Then in 1659-1660 he foresaw the Restoration, and wrote headlong.

His own beliefs were, in some cases, somewhat unpopular and dangerous, and this was true particularly for his commitment to republicanism. In the centuries to come, he would be claimed as an apostle in early liberalism. According to James Tully:

A friend and ally in the pamphlet wars was Marchamont Nedham. Austin Woolrych considers that while they were very close, there is “little real affinity, beyond a broad republicanism,” between their approaches. Blair Worden notes that both Milton and Nedham, with others such as Andrew Marvell and James Harrington, would have had problems with the Rear Parliament not because it was the republic, but the fact that it was not a proper republic. Woolrych speaks of the “gulf between Milton”s vision of the future of the Commonwealth and reality.” In the first version of his History of Britain, begun in 1649, Milton was already writing about of the members of the Long Parliament as incorrigible.

He praised Oliver Cromwell when the Protectorate was created; although, afterwards, he had great restrictions. When Cromwell seemed to be backward as a revolutionary after a few years in power, Milton approached the position of Sir Henry Vane, to whom he wrote a sonnet in 1652. The group of disgruntled Republicans included, in addition to Vane, John Bradshaw, John Hutchinson, Edmund Ludlow, Henry Marten, Robert Overton, Edward Sexby, and John Streater; but not Marvell, who remained with Cromwell”s party. Milton had already praised Overton, along with Edmund Whalley and Bulstrode Whitelocke, in Defensio Secunda. Nigel Smith wrote that

As Richard Cromwell fell from power, he envisioned a move towards a freer republic or “free commonwealth,” writing in the hope of this outcome in early 1660. Milton had advocated an uncomfortable position, in The Ready and Easy Way, because he wanted to invoke the Good Old Cause and win the support of the republicans, but without offering a democratic solution of any kind. His proposal, supported by reference (among other reasons) to the Dutch and Venetian oligarchic constitutions, was for a council with perpetual members. This attitude cut right across the grain of popular opinion at the time, which swung decisively behind the restoration of the Stuart monarchy, which took place later that year. Milton, an associate and advocate on behalf of the regicides, was silenced on political issues with the return of Charles II.


Like many Renaissance artists before him, Milton attempted to integrate Christian theology with classical modes. In his early poems, the poet-narrator expresses a tension between vice and virtue, the latter invariably related to Protestantism. In Comus, Milton can make ironic use of the masked court Carolinian elevating notions of purity and virtue over the conventions of court revelry and superstition. In his later poems, Milton”s theological concerns became more explicit. Milton embraced many heterodox Christian theological views. He rejected the Trinity, in the belief that the Son was subordinate to the Father, and his sympathy or curiosity was probably compromised by Socinianism: in August 1650, he licensed William Dugard”s publication of Racovian Catechism on the basis of a non-Trinitarian belief. One source interpreted it as broadly Protestant, if not always easy to locate in a more precise religious category.

In his 1641 treatise, Of the Reformation, Milton expressed his displeasure with Catholicism and the episcopate, presenting Rome as modern Babylon and bishops as Egyptian fiefdoms. These analogies are in keeping with Milton”s Puritanical preference for Old Testament imagery. He was familiar with at least four commentaries on Genesis: those by John Calvin, Paul Fagius, David Pareus, and Andre Rivet. Through the Interregnum, Milton often presents England, rescued from the trappings of a worldly monarchy, as a chosen nation resembling Old Testament Israel, and shows its leader, Oliver Cromwell, as one of the last days of Moses. These views were linked to the Protestant view of the Millennium, which some sects, such as the Fifth Monarchism predicted would arrive in England. He would, however, come to criticize the “worldly” millenarian views of these and others, and expressed orthodox ideas about the Four Empires prophecy.

The restoration of the Stuart monarchy in 1660 began a new phase in his work. In Paradise Lost, Paradise Regained, and Samson Agonist, Milton laments the end of the Commonwealth of the gods. The Garden of Eden may allegorically reflect Milton”s vision of England”s recent fall from grace, while Samson”s blindness and captivity-mirroring Milton”s own lost vision-may be a metaphor for England”s blind acceptance of Charles II as king. Illustrated by Paradise Lost is mortalism, the belief that the soul is dormant after the body dies. Despite the restoration of the monarchy, Milton did not lose his personal faith; Samson shows how the loss of national salvation does not necessarily preclude the salvation of the individual, while Paradise Regained expresses of continuing Milton”s belief in the promise of Christian salvation through Jesus Christ. While he may have maintained his personal faith despite the defeats suffered for his cause, the Dictionary of National Biography told how he had been alienated from the Church of England by Archbishop William Laud, then similarly moved from the Dissenters for his denunciation of religious toleration in England.

Religious Tolerance

Milton said in Areopagitica about “the freedom of knowledge, to pronounce, and freely discuss the agreement of conscience, above all liberties” (applied, however, only to the conflicting Protestant sects, and not to atheists, Jews, Muslims, or Catholics). “Milton advocated disestablishment as the only effective way to achieve broad tolerance. Rather than forcing a man”s conscience, the government must recognize the persuasive force of the Gospel.”


Milton wrote The Doctrine & Discipline of Divorce in 1643, at the beginning of the English Civil War. In August of the same year, he presented his ideas to the Westminster Assembly of Divines, which had been created by the Long Parliament to bring about further reforms in the Church of England. The Assembly was convened on July 1, against the wishes of King Charles I. Milton”s thoughts on divorce caused him considerable problems with the authorities. An orthodox Presbyterian view of the time was that Milton”s views on divorce constituted a heresy of man:

Even here, however, his originality is qualified: Thomas Gataker had already identified “mutual consolation” as the main goal in marriage. He abandoned his campaign to legitimize divorce after 1645, but expressed his support for polygamy in De Doctrina Christiana, the theological treatise that provides the clearest evidence for his views.

Milton wrote during a period when thoughts on divorce were anything but simplistic; instead, there was active debate among thought leaders. However, his basic approval of divorce within strict parameters set by the biblical witness were typical of many influential Christian intellectuals, particularly the Westminster theologians. He addressed the Assembly on the subject of divorce in August 1643, at a time when it was beginning to form its opinion on the subject. In Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce, he argued that separation was a private matter, not a legal or ecclesiastical one. Neither the Assembly nor Parliament condemned him or his ideas. In fact, when the Assembly wrote the Westminster Confession of Faith they allowed divorce in cases of infidelity or abandonment. Thus, the Christian community, at least within the “Puritan” subset, approved Milton”s views.


History was particularly important to the political class of the period, and Lewalski considers that Milton “more than most illustrates” a remark by Thomas Hobbes about the weight placed at the time on the classical Latin historical writers Tacitus, Livy, Salustius, and Cicero, and their republican attitudes. He himself wrote that “worthy acts are often not without worthy relations,” in Book II of his History of Britain. A sense of history mattered a great deal to him:

When Paradise Lost was published, Milton”s stature as an epic poet was immediately recognized. He cast a formidable image on English poetry in the 18th and 19th centuries; he was often considered equal or superior to all other English poets, including Shakespeare. However, from the beginning he was championed by Whig politicians, and condemned by conservatives: with the regicidal Edmund Ludlow he was claimed as one of the first Whigs, while the conservative Anglican minister Luke Milbourne grouped him with other “agents of darkness,” such as John Knox, George Buchanan, Richard Baxter, Algernon Sidney, and John Locke.

Reception of poetry

John Dryden, an early enthusiast, in 1677 began the trend of describing Milton as the poet of the sublime. His The State of Innocence and the Fall of Man: an Opera (1677) is evidence of an immediate cultural influence. In 1695, Patrick Hume became the first editor of Paradise Lost, offering an extensive apparatus of annotation and commentary, especially pursuing allusions. William Blake considered him the greatest English poet. Blake placed Edmund Spenser as a precursor to Milton, and saw himself as his son of poetry. In his Milton a Poem, He uses him as a character.

In 1732, the scholar Richard Bentley offered a corrected version of Paradise Lost. Bentley was considered presumptuous, and was attacked the following year by Zachary Pearce. Christopher Ricks judges that, as a critic, Bentley was somewhat sharp and erroneous, and “incorrigibly eccentric”; William Empson also notes Pearce as more sympathetic to Bentley”s basic line of thought which is justified. The biography of William Hayley, published in 1796, called him “the greatest English author,” and he generally remains regarded as “one of the most prominent writers of the English language,” although critical reception has fluctuated in the centuries since his death, often because of his republicanism.

There was an early and partial translation of Paradise Lost into German by Theodore Haak, and based on a standard verse translation by Ernest Gottlieb von Berge. A subsequent prose translation by Johann Jakob Bodmer was very popular; it influenced Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock. Milton”s German language tradition returned to England in the person of Johann Heinrich Füssli.

Many 18th century Enlightenment thinkers revered and commented on his poetic and non-poetic works. In addition to John Dryden, these included Alexander Pope, Joseph Addison, Thomas Newton, and Samuel Johnson. For example, in The Spectator, Joseph Addison wrote extensive notes, annotations, and interpretations of certain passages in Paradise Lost. Jonathan Richardson the Senior and Jonathan Richardson the Younger co-wrote a book of criticism. In 1749, Thomas Newton published an extensive edition of Milton”s poetic works with annotations provided by himself, Dryden, Pope, Addison, the Richardsons (father and son) and others. Newton”s edition was a culmination of the honor accorded Milton by early Enlightenment thinkers, but it may also have been motivated by Richard Bentley”s infamous edition described above. Samuel Johnson wrote numerous essays on Paradise Lost, and Milton was included in his Lives of the Most Eminent English Poets (1779-1781).

Romantic theory

Edmund Burke was a theorist of the sublime, he regarded Milton”s description of Hell as exemplary and sublimity as an aesthetic concept. For Burke, it was to define it next to the mountaintop, a storm at sea, and Infinity. In The Beautiful and the Sublime (”The Beautiful and the Sublime”), he wrote: “No person seems better to have grasped the secret of intensification or of arranging the terrible things, if I may use the expression, in their strongest light, by the force of a judicious obscurity than Milton.”

The Romantic poets valued his exploration of white verse, but mostly rejected its religiosity. William Wordsworth began his sonnet, “London, 1802,” with “Milton! thou shouldst be living at this hour” and modeled The Prelude, his own epic white verse, on Paradise Lost. John Keats found the yoke of his style unpleasant; he exclaimed that “his verse cannot be written, but instead a cunning mood of the artist.” Keats thinks Paradise Lost was a “beautiful and great curiosity,” but his own unfinished attempt at epic poetry, Hyperion, was unsatisfactory to the author because, among other things, it had too many “Miltonic inversions.” In The Madwoman in the Attic, Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar note that Mary Shelley”s novel Frankenstein is, in the opinion of many critics, “one of the fundamental ”romantic” readings of Paradise Lost.”

Later Legacy

The Victorian era witnessed a continuation of Milton”s influence, George Eliot and Thomas Hardy were particularly inspired by Milton”s poetry and biography. The hostile 20th century criticism by T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound did not reduce his stature. F. R. Leavis, in The Common Quest, responds to the points made by Eliot, in particular, the claim that “the study of Milton could be of no help: it was only an obstacle,” arguing, “As if it were a matter of deciding not to study Milton! The problem, instead, was the escape from an influence that was so hard to escape because it was not recognized, belonging, as it did, to the climate of the usual and ”natural.”” Harold Bloom, in The Anguish of Influence, wrote that “Milton is the central problem in any theory and history of poetic influence in English

His Areopagitica is still cited as relevant to the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. The prose quote-“A good book is the precious soul of a master spirit, embalmed and held the purpose of a life beyond life”-is displayed in many public libraries, including the New York Public Library. The title of Philip Pullman”s trilogy His Dark Materials is derived from a quote, “His dark materials to create more Worlds,” line 915 of Book II in Paradise Lost. Pullman was concerned with producing a version of Milton”s poem accessible to teenagers, and spoke of Milton as “our greatest public poet.” T. S. Eliot believed that “in no other poet is it so difficult to consider poetry simply as poetry, without our theological and political dispositions … making illegal entry.”

Literary legacy

The use of white verse, in addition to its stylistic innovations (such as grandiloquence of voice and vision, peculiar diction, and phraseology) later influenced poets. At the time, poetic white verse was considered distinct from its use in drama in verse, and Paradise Lost was taken as a unique exemplar. Isaac Watts said in 1734, “Mr. Milton is esteemed the father and author of blank verse in our midst.” “Miltonic verse” may be synonymous with a century with blank verse as the poetry, a new poetic ground independent of both drama and the heroic dysthymic. The lack of rhyme was sometimes taken as his definition of innovation. He himself considered the unrhymed quality of Paraiso Perdido to be an extension of his own personal freedom:

This quest for freedom was largely a reaction against the conservative values entrenched within the rigid heroic dysthymic. Within a dominant culture that stressed elegance and finish, he granted primacy to freedom, breadth, and the imaginative suggestive character, eventually evolved into the Romantic vision of sublime terror. His reaction to the vision of a poetic world included, begrudgingly, the recognition of the poet”s similarity to classical writers (Greek and Roman poetry being without rhyme). Blank verse became a recognized medium for religious works and the translation of the classics. Unrhymed lyrics like William Collins” Ode to the Night (in the meter of Milton”s translation of Horace”s Ode to Pyrrha) were not uncommon after 1740.

A second aspect of Milton”s blank verse was the use of unconventional rhythm:

Before Milton, “the sense of regular rhythm … had been beaten into the head of the Englishman, for security of whatever was part of his nature.” The “Heroic measure,” according to Samuel Johnson, “is pure … when the accent rests on every second syllable throughout the verse The repetition of this sound or percussion, sometimes equal, is the fullest harmony of which a single verse is capable,” Censor pauses, more agreed upon, were best placed in the middle and end of the line. In order to support this symmetry, lines were most often octo- or decasyllabic, with no hitched ends. To this scheme Milton introduced modifications, which included hypermetrical syllables (trisyllabic feet), inversion or undershooting of stresses, and changing pauses for all parts of the line. Considering these characteristics to be a reflection of “transcendental union of order and freedom.” Admirers remained hesitant to adopt the departures from traditional metrical systems: “The English … were writing separate lines for so long that they could not get rid of the habit.” Isaac Watts preferred his lines distinct from each other, as did Oliver Goldsmith, Henry Pemberton, and Scott de Amwell, whose general opinion was that his frequent omission of the initial unstressed foot was “disagreeable to a good ear.” It was not until the late 18th century that poets (beginning with Thomas Gray) began to appreciate “the composition of Milton”s harmony … how he liked to vary his pauses, his measures, and his feet, which gives that charming air of freedom and desert to his versification.”


  1. John Milton
  2. John Milton
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