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John Milton

(1608—1674) poet and polemicist

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son of John Milton the elder, a scrivener and composer of music. He was educated at St Paul's School and Christ's College, Cambridge, where he wrote poetry in Latin, Italian, and English, on both sacred and secular themes. His first known attempts at English verse, ‘On the Death of a Fair Infant’ and ‘At a Vacation Exercise’, were probably written in 1628. His first distinctively Miltonic work, ‘On the Morning of Christs Nativity’, written in 1629, shows a growing mastery of stanza and structure, an exuberant and at times baroque use of imagery, and the love of resounding proper names so marked in his later work. His fragmentary ‘The Passion’ was probably written in 1630, and the ‘Arcades’ probably in 1632. ‘On Shakespeare’, his two epitaphs for Hobson, the university carrier, and ‘An Epitaph on the Marchioness of Winchester’ belong to 1631. His twin poems, ‘L'Allegro’ and ‘Il Penseroso’, may also have been written at Cambridge. On leaving Cambridge he embarked on an ambitious course of private study at his father's home in preparation for a future as poet or clergyman; his Latin poem ‘Ad Patrem’ (?1634) appears to be an attempt to persuade his father that the two pursuits were reconcilable. His ‘masque’ Comus was published anonymously in 1637, in which year he wrote Lycidas, a pastoral elegy. During the 20 years that elapsed between this and his composition of Paradise Lost, Milton wrote no poetry, apart from some Latin and Italian pieces, and some sonnets, of which the most notable are those ‘On the late Massacre in Piedmont’, on his blindness, on his deceased wife, his addresses to Cromwell, Fairfax, and Vane, and those to Lawes (with whom he had collaborated on the ‘Arcades’ and Comus) and to his young friends and students Edward Lawrence and Cyriack Skinner. From 1638 to 1639 Milton travelled abroad, chiefly in Italy; he met Grotius in Paris and Galileo. His Latin epitaph on his friend Diodati, Epitaphium Damonis, written in 1639, is his finest Latin poem.

His attentions were now diverted by historical events to many years of pamphleteering and political activity, and to a tireless defence of religious, civil, and domestic liberties. In 1641 he published a series of five pamphlets against episcopacy, engaging in controversy with bishops Hall and Ussher, and displaying from the first (Of Reformation in England and the Causes that Hitherto Have Hindered It) a vigorous, colourful Ciceronian prose, and a keenly polemic spirit which could yet rise to visions of apocalyptic grandeur. The Reason of Church Government (1642) was followed by An Apology against a Pamphlet…against Smectymnuus (1642), which contains interesting autobiographical details. In July 1642 Milton married Mary Powell, daughter of Royalist parents; he was 33, she 17. Within six weeks he consented to her going home to her parents near Oxford on condition that she returned by Michaelmas. She did not do so, for reasons perhaps connected with the outbreak of the Civil War. The Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce (1643) argues among other points that a true marriage was of mind as well as of body. This pamphlet made him notorious, but he pursued his arguments in three more on the subject of divorce in 1644–5, including Tetrachordon. of Education, and Areopagitica, his great defence of the liberty of the press, both appeared in 1644. At this time he became aware of his growing blindness; by 1652 he was to be totally blind.


Subjects: Literature

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