This Day In Literary History
On December 9th, 1608, the legendary English poet and polemicist John Milton was born in London, England. He had an older sister and a younger brother. Two baby sisters died in infancy.
Milton was born into an affluent and cultured middle class family. His father was cast out of the family when his own father, an insanely devout Catholic, caught him reading an English-language copy of the Bible, a violation of Church doctrine.
As a child, John Milton lived with his grandmother and siblings. He attended a Protestant church where the minister, Richard Stock, became a close family friend and strong influence on John, who shared in Stock's hatred of the Catholic Church and his belief in publicly censuring the sins of the powerful.
Although Milton's parents lived apart from the rest of the family, his father's prosperity provided him tutors. He soon entered St. Paul's School in London, where at the age of 15, he wrote his first known poems - two psalms.
In 1625, Milton enrolled at Christ's College, Cambridge, to be educated for the ministry. He had already begun studying Latin and Greek, and also learned Italian. He continued his language studies at university.
Later, he became friends with Anglo-American theologian and political dissident Roger Williams. Williams also loved languages, and soon, he and Milton were tutoring each other; Milton taught Williams Hebrew in exchange for Williams teaching Milton Dutch.
After graduating Christ's College in 1629. Milton enrolled at the University of Cambridge, from which he earned a Master of Arts degree in 1632. Although he had intended to become a minister, he never entered the ministry, as he had come to hate the Anglican Church and organized religion in general.
He moved in with his parents on the outskirts of London and began educating himself. The family would move to Berkshire, most likely to avoid the plague outbreak.
In addition to Latin, Greek, Hebrew, Italian, and Dutch, Milton became proficient in French and Spanish as well. He also learned Old English and began writing poetry prolifically, though most of his work remained private and would not be published publicly for some time.
To earn money, he wrote poetry and masques commissioned by wealthy patrons. Masques were the precursors of musical plays; not operas, but plays with musical numbers, singing, and dancing.
In 1638, John Milton embarked on a 15-month tour of France and Italy, accompanied by a servant. In Florence, he met legendary astronomer Galileo, who was under house arrest at the time. When he returned to England, the Bishops' Wars resulted in more armed conflict between England and Scotland.
Milton began a new phase of his writing career - he became a polemicist, writing prose tracts on various subjects; he opposed episcopacy and favored parliamentary government. He also became a private schoolmaster, educating his own nephews and other children from affluent families.
In June of 1643, Milton married Mary Powell, the 16-year-old daughter of a man who owed him money. A month later, unable to stand her cold and domineering 35-year-old husband any longer, Mary deserted him and returned to her family.
Due to the outbreak of the English Civil War, Mary remained with her family for two years. During this time, Milton wrote and published a series of pamphlets wherein he argued in favor of the legality and morality of divorce.
The pamphlets outraged the authorities, who confiscated and burned them. When Milton learned of this, he wrote and published Areopagitica, his celebrated anti-censorship tract.
After the Civil War ended, Mary returned to John Milton and they reconciled. She bore him four children and remained with him until her death in 1652. His first published poetry collection, 1645 Poems, appeared late that year.
With the parliamentary victory in the First Civil War, Milton's reputation as a polemicist earned him an appointment as Secretary for Foreign Tongues in March of 1649. In October, he published his famous polemic text, Eikonoklastes.
Eikonoklastes was defense of the execution of Charles I, written in response to the Eikon Basilike, a text published by the exiled Charles II and his party, which depicted Charles I as a Christian martyr.
John Milton continued to serve in his position, despite the fact that he had developed an eye disorder (most likely glaucoma) which left him totally blind by 1654. Undaunted, Milton dictated his writings to assistants, which included a sonnet about his condition, On His Blindness, which is one of his best known poems.
After Oliver Cromwell died in 1658, the English Republic collapsed into warring factions. This led to the Restoration, where the government was restored under the rule of the monarchy, as Charles II returned from exile.
The return of the monarchy sent John Milton into hiding, as a warrant was issued for his arrest. His writings were seized and burned. He was eventually arrested and briefly imprisoned until some powerful friends intervened and got him a pardon.
He lived quietly for the last decade of his life, publishing several minor prose works. Then, in 1667, his greatest work was published, one that would establish him as one of the greatest English poets of all time.
Paradise Lost was a book-length, blank verse epic poem based on the biblical story of the fall of Adam and Eve, who were tempted by Satan and then expelled from the Garden of Eden by God.
The poem incorporates paganism and classical Greek references as well as Christianity. It deals not only with the Old Testament's book of Genesis, but incorporates elements from both Testaments of the bible and addresses such diverse topics as marriage, politics, monarchy, fate, sin, and death.
Milton's dazzling work is comprised of twelve "books." The first book opens with Satan and his fellow rebel angels in Hell, just after being cast out of Heaven following their defeat in a war with God.
The last book finds the Archangel Michael telling Adam of the future of the world before leading him and Eve out of the Garden of Eden. Though Adam and Eve have lost the physical Paradise, they have gained a Paradise within themselves, which is "happier farr."
John Milton wrote Paradise Lost over a six year period, from 1658-64, via dictation to his assistants. It would become one of the most famous and influential works of English literature ever written.
He would follow it with Paradise Regained, a shorter sequel, published in 1671, along with a play, Simon Agonistes. Three years later, he died of kidney failure at the age of 66.
Quote Of The Day
"A good book is the precious life-blood of a master spirit, embalmed and treasured up on purpose to a life beyond life." - John Milton
Today's video features a complete full cast dramatic reading of John Milton's classic epic poem, Paradise Lost. Enjoy!