Religion and Culture
Milton was born in London in 1608 to a wife of a father holding the Puritan stand. This position caused a rift with his Catholic grandfather, who was a deliberate no-show in Queen Elizabeth's Anglican Church. This purifying spirit in John's household, that refused to believe that the Queen had reformed the Church from "popery" and back to the undiluted sources, was balanced by the Renaissance spirit that looked to Classic sources. Fortunately for Milton, the Puritan movement had not evolved to its ignorant severe anti-worldly state that earned the ugly connotation known today. Young John was instead surrounded by literature, art and music, and attended St. Paul's School in London. In 1625 he came to Christ's College in Cambridge where in his seven years there developed his learned base by immersion in every type of penned material he could discover and began to pen his own works as well.
Poetic Declarations of Independence
Milton's first major poem was composed at Cambridge in 1629, On the Morning of Christ's Nativity
, and some other poems demonstrated enough independence of thought, a character he consistently maintained, that he clashed with a tutor that had him expelled in 1626. He was able to return finally, getting a replacement teacher, but left there in 1632 for Horton
, Buckinghamshire to join his retired father for six joyous years delving into his intellectual and aesthetic pursuits with the goal of meeting what he deemed his great poetic destiny. He had an ongoing vision that was propped by pursuing perfection. His exhaling excellence at Horton produced:
- L'Allegro (1631)
...Come, and trip it, as you go,
On the light fantastic toe;
And in thy right hand lead with thee
The mountain-nymph, sweet Liberty;
And, if I give the honor due,
Mirth, admit me of thy crew,
To live with her, and live with thee....
- Il Penseroso (1631)
Hence, vain deluding Joys,
The brood of Folly without father bred!
How little you bested,
Or fill the fixéd mind with all your toys!
- Comus (1634)
- Lycidas (1637)
The hungry sheep look up, and are not fed,
But, swoln with wind and the rank mist they draw,
Rot inwardly, and foul contagion spread:
Besides what the grim wolf with privy paw
Daily devours space, and nothing said.
And, during this blessed time he wrote many of his "minor" poems.
It was only fitting that Milton, considered the last English Renaissance man -- more interested in emulation of Iliad's Homer than Scotland's Bruce, would travel to Italy in 1638. Here, amongst cultured acquaintances was where his Protestant individuality would become polished with humanism. He would receive further molding: news of King Charles I's invasion of Scotland reached him in his travels and spurred a patriotic fervor that would prompt his return to England to help in 1639. On his way back he stopped in Florence where he met the blind aged science pioneer and master, Galileo, under house arrest by the Inquisition.
Schoolmaster to Secretary
Milton chose to take up a profession that would enable him to use his best talents in the battle for freedom, that of a schoolmaster. By 1641 he was writing controversial pamphlets calling for the end of Bishopric succession, while trying to keep himself honest from some of the Puritan excesses. In 1642 a year in which Puritans closed theaters, Charles I was under fire because the Civil War started to build he started his masterpiece, Paradise Lost and wrote many of his famous sonnets, e.g., VIII relating the invading King's army at London :
Lift not thy spear against the Muses' bower:
The great Emathian conqueror bid
During the next couple of years later Milton writes: contentions for facilitated divorce in 1643 (perhaps despaired from his miserable marriage that year, but still in line with his love of liberty), tracts promoting liberal education, On Education (1644), and an impassioned well thought fortress in words for free speech, Areopagitica:
Give me the liberty to know,
to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience,
above all liberties.
In 1649 the year that Oliver Cromwell's Model Army victoriously delivered the Puritan Protestant Revolution and Charles I's head on a plate, Milton wrote Tenure of Kings and Magistrates and was appointed in this Glorious Commonwealth to be Latin Secretary.
TO THE LORD GENERAL CROMWELL
On the Proposal of Certain Ministers
at the Committee for Propagation of the Gospel
Cromwell, our chief of men, who through a cloud
Not of war only, but detractions rude,
Guided by faith and matchless fortitude,
To peace and truth thy glorious way hast plowed
And on the neck of crownéd Fortune proud
Hast reared God's trophies, and his work pursued.
While Darwen stream, with blood of Scots imbued,
And Dunbar field, resounds thy praises loud,
And Worchester's laureate wreath: yet much remains
To conquer still; Peace hath her victories
No less renowned than War: new foes arise,
Threatening to bind our souls with secular chains.
Help us to save free conscience from the paw
Of hireling wolves, whose Gospel is their maw.
Three years of concentrated effort in this position led to a blindness that still did not sway Milton's course of official -- Pro Populo Anglicano Defensio (1651) and independent writing; especially concerning his personal quest for the ultimate verse.
A Charles Re-throned, A Paradise Lost
1660 is the date marking the date considered the initiation of Restoration, when Charles II was reinstated as Britain's King, but it was to a disappointed Milton a chance to restore his serious project to the front burner of his artistic engine. He began to finish his Paradise Lost and ironic theme at this juncture. His aggravations and interruptions would not come from the new Royal Regime, but from domestic turmoil. He chose this Paradise Lost theme (finished in 1665 published two years later), followed by Paradise Regained and Samson Agnotistes because he saw this as the grandest scale epic ever -- the whole reason for the Almighty's Creation and the Plan of Salvation. In 1674 he finally received his crown in Glory for his work.
First eight verses of Paradise Lost:
Of man's first disobedience, and the fruit
Of that forbidden tree whose mortal taste
Brought death into the World, and all our woe,
With loss of Eden, till one Greater Man
Restore us, and regain the blissful seat,
Sing, Heavenly Muse, that, on the secret top
Of Oreb, or of Sinai, didst inspire
That shepherd who first taught the chosenseed
Source: From Beowulf to Hardy, Robert Shafer; Odyssey Press: NY, 1939