English poet, essayist and political figure John Milton ranks right up there with William Shakespeare in a list of literary greats. Check out this lesson for an overview of Milton's life and most important works.
It's easy to portray artists as rebels of their time. The thinking goes, if they're not offending someone's sensibilities, they're probably not making anything interesting. This is true to varying degrees, but it is super true when it comes to John Milton. He is an English poet of titanic proportions. He is super important; listen hard young grasshopper as I tell you about him. He was spirited; he was critical; he was a free-thinker, and he loved challenging popular institutions and modes of thought. He also had long hair, which makes him the perfect rebel. Although, that might have just been the style in those days - Isaac Newton had long hair and Alexander Hamilton is the stone-cold fox of the ten dollar bill.
Throughout his life (and afterwards, because there were things published after he was dead), he published a bunch of groundbreaking works - groundbreaking is a fair term to use with him - of both poetry and prose that attracted a ton of controversy. Perhaps even more controversial to the anti-establishment thinkers of today, Milton for a long time was working for 'the Man.' He worked for the government; he spent his days supporting the legitimate English government. He's kind of like Mel Gibson's character in The Patriot; he's all reasonable and mild-mannered, and then he turns into a crazy-father-revenge-hero when his kids get killed. Milton turned for a reason; it's just not quite that dramatic.
We'll start at the beginning. We got a little ahead of ourselves. John Milton was born in 1608 in London. He was the child of a composer and a Protestant 'rebel' who was disowned by his very Catholic father. Back before Christians had other religions to worry about, the Catholic-Protestant divide was a really big, important thing. Even back in my mother's time, she remembers 'the Protestant kids went to Baskin Robbins and the Catholics went to Carvel,' and they also called ketchup CAT-sup. Apparently that was a thing. Now that's a little unfamiliar, but back in Milton's time, it was really important whether you were Protestant or Catholic.
From a really early age, Milton was immersed in academia; he gets a private tutor; then he goes to this special fancy private school, and then he gets to go to Christ's College in Cambridge in 1625. He graduates from Cambridge four years later, and he goes on to get a master's degree. Then he goes on and studies a ton on his own. He had an insatiable appetite for learning. If he had had the Internet, he might've spent time watching videos like this to educate himself. I don't know, maybe I won't flatter myself. All of this led to Milton being one of the most learned of the early English poets/writers. He had strong backgrounds in almost everything - languages, theology, literature and politics. He knew it all. He was a smart dude.
This studying and traveling around had a hugely major effect on Milton's political opinions, which were brought to the forefront when he got home right before the English Civil War. That's right; the English had a Civil War too. It was probably very civil, indeed, with tea breaks. In this conflict, the free-thinking Milton took sides with the Parliamentarians, who were basically people who didn't want to have a king anymore. They were rebelling against King Charles I. During this period, Milton published a whole bunch of pamphlets supporting Parliamentarian philosophies.
From these pamphlets we get one of the more important facts about Milton's political life, which was that he was an early adopter of republicanism (with a small 'r'). He's not aligned with George W. Bush, Mitt Romney and all those kinds of people; republicanism back then just meant that you favored a government that was by the people. This was a republic that you got to vote in. For him, this meant that you'd be able to essentially elect your king - or whatever you wanted to call him - instead of it going down the line of kings, and letting them become tyrants just because they claimed that they had divine right by God. So, that's an important thing that Milton believed about politics.
Major Prose & Political Life
During this period, Milton wrote a ton of important prose works; that was where he was really focused. In 1643 he publishes Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce, coming out in favor of being able to end marriages, which was still quite controversial at the time. Now, 50% of marriages end in divorce, but back then, no divorce! His most lasting prose piece was published in 1644 (Areopagitica), and it's basically an attack on censorship. In 1649 he releases The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates, which is basically saying that the people have the right to execute a bad monarch. Charles I could not have been happy with this because the target was clearly on his back for that.
It was great for Milton that he was into republicanism because they won for a little bit. The Parliamentarians came out on top in the war. Oliver Cromwell won, and he appointed Milton his official Secretary for Foreign Tongues, which meant that he was to write all of England's international edicts and what not (which had to be done in Latin). It was the Esperanto of today, except it was a real language that people did know how to speak and wasn't made up by the U.N. He was also the State's official propagandist, essentially. It was ironic given his past, saying that state censorship shouldn't happen. In this period, his writing is exemplified in 1651's Defensio pro Populo Anglicano or the Defense of the People of England, a work commissioned by Cromwell's government to bolster its reputation. Again, it's work as a propagandist.
But since this was politics, nothing lasts forever. Cromwell's Commonwealth collapsed at the end of the 1650s, the monarchy took back control and Milton was then a wanted criminal because he was so involved with the Parliamentary government. Eventually a pardon was issued, but he found himself in a bad place. He doesn't have any money; he's unpopular. He also went completely blind from glaucoma (that's not so good). It seemed that maybe his time was over as an important figure, but no!
This is when his poetry really gets going. He had written poetry before, but maybe the blindness helps him. Homer, the famous Greek poet, was also blind. Maybe there's a little bit of inspiration going on there. Milton had published poems before; going back to the 1630s he wrote anonymously 'On Shakespeare,' and in 1631 he wrote a pair of pastoral poems, 'L'Allegro' and 'Il Penseroso.' It's fair to say that these took a backseat to political prose during the Commonwealth. His most famous piece from this time period, though, was probably the pastoral elegy 'Lycidas.' It basically memorializes the death of a friend of his from Cambridge named Edward King.
Even though this is a respectable track record for publishing, probably nobody expected that Milton's most lasting work would be the groundbreaking (again, I normally use that word 'groundbreaking' sparingly) 1667 epic Paradise Lost. It's over 10,000 lines long, and it is about the biblical fall of man. It's like 'whoa,' and it's unprecedented from what he'd written before. It ends up being somewhat modeled on Greco-Roman epics. So, it marries Christian theology with Greek stuff, essentially. It tells the story of the war between Heaven and Hell and the fallout on Earth from that battle. It's pretty universally considered one of the most important works ever written in English, and it's studied everywhere. It gets a whole lesson itself. Don't you worry; we will come back to Paradise Lost.
You might be wondering, how did he write poetry when he was blind? His daughters took dictation for him, which is really sweet. I just imagine him and his daughters, almost like an old blind King Lear, or something like that.
After Paradise Lost, Milton had a few more epics up his sleeve. He wrote Paradise Regained in 1671, which is a shorter epic about the temptation of Christ. It didn't get quite as much attention as its predecessor, and that's still true today. He also wrote Samson Agonistes, which is a closet drama. All that means is that it is a play not intended to be performed. Unfortunately it is not a play that is meant to be performed in a closet! It would be awesome if it were. This tells the tale of the once-invulnerable Samson in the last few hours of his life. Neither of these would go on to have the lasting effect of Paradise Lost, but together they represent his greatest poetic impact.
One final note about Milton: he's a famous poet; he's a popular poet; he's great. I wouldn't call him an easy poet. He writes with some serious old-timey language, which is understandable because he's an old-timey guy. He doesn't sound like Shakespeare; you're going to be able to distinguish that pretty clearly. So, he doesn't sound like Shakespeare; he's got a style all his own. His poetry was characterized by really whacky sentence structure. If you encounter a poem that has old-timey language and you can't find a verb or you have to wait ten lines for it, you might be looking at a Milton poem! It's a good way to pick him out of a lineup.
As an example, we're going to take a little looksee at the beginning of 'Lycidas' and see how he sounds. That's important for being able to recognize him.
'YET once more, O ye Laurels, and once more
Ye Myrtles brown, with Ivy never-sear,
I com to pluck your Berries harsh and crude,
And with forc'd fingers rude,
Shatter your leaves before the mellowing year.
Bitter constraint, and sad occasion dear,
Compels me to disturb your season due:
For Lycidas is dead, dead ere his prime'
So, the first verb we get in that is 'com,' and that's not even until the third line. But, that's not even the point of this opening! We don't get to the point until the eighth line - the point being that Lycidas is dead. All that flowery preamble to the point is really characteristic of Milton. He loves to talk and talk and get really involved in his own language.
So, let's talk a little bit about Milton's legacy. He dies in 1674 of kidney failure, which is sad. But, his legacy has never really gone away. The Romantics in the early nineteenth century were really into Milton for both technical and also personal reasons: they really appreciated his lack of rhyme and also his descriptions of what Romantics would come to call 'the sublime' - meaning the awe-inspiring. They really liked how Paradise Lost described Hell. That's what they were into. At times, Milton has been prized above Shakespeare as a person who contributed to English. That's a tough claim to make! So, he's up there - Milton and Shakespeare are the titans of English. Without a doubt, Paradise Lost is firmly in the canon. Everybody has to read it, and we will devote a lesson to it next. So, that's the little intro to John Milton.
After watching this lesson, you should be able to:
- Summarize John Milton's early life and political beliefs
- Understand Milton's involvement in Oliver Cromwell's Commonwealth
- Identify Milton's major works
- Recognize the style of Milton's poetry