John Milton

John Milton (1608-1674). A genius of English epic literature, perhaps even more so than Spencer. Milton's life, both public and private however, was full of trials and tribulations.

He was the eldest son of a scrivener (a self-appointed notary. In his case, a money lender, a drafter of contracts and an estate agent).
Already at an early age it was evident that Milton had an extraordinary gift for languages. At St. Paul's school he mastered Latin and Greek before learning most modern European languages, and then he learnt Hebrew.
Continuing his studies (aged 16) at Christ's College, Cambridge, he graduated with an A.B. in 1629 and an A.M. in 1632.

He was always an avid reader. It's said that he read every book of importance written in English, Latin, Greek and Italian. It was also a matter of fact that he knew the Bible by heart.

In 1638 his generous father allowed him the means to travel in Europe (especially Italy) to finish his superb education.
Naturally his travels, the widening of horizons, his flair for languages allowing him an enormous scope of communication, and his experiences, would have had a regenerating influence on his views. This certainly regarding religion, politics and education, on which he wrote pamphlets and short essays (1644).
At that time he also published Areopagitica in defence of 'free press'. For his forthright opinions, Milton gradually acquired the reputation of being a radical.

In 1642 he married the young 17 year old daughter of a royalist squire. She left him after a few weeks, which prompted Milton to publish a series of pamphlets defending the idea that divorce should be granted on the grounds of incompatibility. This however, was very much out of keeping with the epoch's rules of decorum, and the idea was labelled 'Divorce at pleasure'. It was considered 'the end of all social order'. Today such an argument would be deemed as basic common sense, whereas in the 17th century it was treated as scandalous. These reactions would have aroused Milton's resentment, isolating him even more.

After the execution of Charles I (1649) of which Milton fully approved, he wrote another series of pamphlets in Latin against the European continentals who criticised the new Cromwell regime. During the writing of this, he lost his eyesight. The fatal consequences of continual eye-strain over the years.
Despite this he was able to carry out duties as 'Latin secretary' to Cromwell's Council. As such he contributed considerably towards diplomatic dignity and credibility of the new government.

In 1645 his young wife returned. After having given birth to three daughters, she died in 1652. Milton married again four years later (Katherine Woodcock, who died through child birth in 1658).

In 1660, the Cromwell movement met its end. Milton did all he could, courageously continuing to publish tracts in defence of the 'Good old Cause', but it was hopeless.
Charles II was recalled to the throne.
During the Restoration, Milton was incarcerated. He would probably have been executed had not powerful friends intervened. He got off by paying a fine and losing most of his property.

In spite of his poverty, blindness and solitude, he married a third time (Elizabeth Minshull) in 1663, and completed an epic poem 'justifying the ways of God to men', the idea of which had come to him many years earlier. Although Milton was hardly popular and still branded as a radical, the poem published in 1667 as Paradise Lost, was immediately recognised as a masterpiece. A judgement all the more commendably objective in view of the poem's unprecedented meter of blank verse (rarely used other than by playwrights).

Paradise Lost was followed by Paradise Regained (1671), the second epic poem of four books (Christ's temptation in the wilderness). Then Milton wrote Samson Agonistes, a tragedy not written to be enacted on the stage.

Milton died in 1674 from fatal consequences arisen from gout.

The work of Milton is a splendid, cumulating monument of two great movements, intellectual and social. The richness of the Renaissance and the Christian humanism of the Reformation. Paradise Lost is an epic comparable to those of Homer and Virgil, but it goes further in revealing the nucleus of humanity and its spiritual and physical relationship with the universe. Love, hate; heaven and hell. It reflects Milton's worldly experience, his great intellect and spirituality.

Milton's hero is Adam, but more as the passive sufferer than the Grecian hero. Adam kills no one and is no match for Satan either. His heroism is simply in being able to acknowledge his own weakness and guilt, and his being repentant of it (as with The Prodigal Son).
Perhaps Milton, endowed with his vast knowledge of languages and their roots, even identified with Adam, just as passively, for he comprehended the relativity of good and evil, as the following extract from Areopagitica* contends.
*What is to be said before the Areopagus : An ancient, puissant and greatly respected Athenian tribunal.

Good and evil we know in the field of this world grow up together almost inseparably; and the knowledge of good is so involved and interwoven with the knowledge of evil, and in so many cunning resemblances hardly to be discerned, that those confused seeds which were imposed on Psyche as an incessant labor to cull out and sort asunder° were not intermixed. It was from out the rind of one apple tasted, that the knowledge of good and evil, as two twins cleaving together, leaped forth into the world. And perhaps this is that doom which Adam fell into of knowing good and evil, that is to say of knowing good by evil.
As therefore the state of man now is, what wisdom can there be to choose, what continence to forbear, without the knowledge of evil? He that can apprehend and consider vice with all her baits and seeming pleasures, and yet abstain, and yet distinguish, and yet prefer that which is truly better, he is the true warefaring¹ Christian. I cannot praise a fugitive and cloistered virtue, unexercised and unbreathed, that never sallies out and sees her adversary, but slinks out of the race where that immortal garland² is to be run for, not without dust and heat. Assuredly we bring not innocence into the world, we bring impurity much rather, that which purifies us is trial, and trial is by what is contrary. That virtue therefore which is but a youngling in the contemplation of evil, and knows not the utmost that vice promises to her followers, and rejects it, is but a blank virtue, not a pure; her whiteness is but excremental³ whiteness, which was the reason why our sage and serious poet Spenser (whom I dare beknown to think a better teacher than Scotus or Aquinas°), describing true temperance under the person of Guyon, brings him in with his palmer through the cave of Mammon and the bower of earthly bliss, that he might see and know, and yet abstain.
Since therefore the knowledge and survey of vice is in this world so necessary to the constituting of human virtue, and the scanning of error to the confirmation of truth, how can we more safely, and with less danger, scout into the regions of sin and falsity than by reading all manner of tractates and hearing all manner of reason? And this is the benefit which may be had of books promiscuously read.
But of the harm that may result hence, three kinds are usually reckoned. First is feared the infection that may spread; but then all human learning and controversy in religious points must remove out of the world, yea, the Bible itself; for that ofttimes relates blasphemy not nicely,¹ it describes the carnal sense of wicked men not unelegantly, it brings in holiest men passionately murmuring against providence through all the arguments of Epicurus;² in other great disputes it answers dubiously and darkly to the common reader; and ask a Talmudist what ails the modesty of his marginal Keri, that Moses and all the prophets cannot persuade him to pronounce the textual Chetiv.³ For these causes we all know the Bible itself put by the papist into the first rank of prohibited books. The ancientest Fathers must be next removed, as Clement of Alexandra, and that Eusebian book of evangelic preparation, transmitting our ears through a hoard of heathenish obscenities to receive the Gospel. Who finds not that Irenaeus, Epiphanius, Jerome,° and others discover¹ more heresies than they well confute, and that oft for heresy which is the truer opinion?²

Many there be that complain of divine providence for suffering Adam to transgress; foolish tongues! when God gave him reason, he gave him freedom to choose, for reason is but choosing; he had been else a mere artificial Adam, such an Adam as he is in the motions.³ We ourselves esteem not of that obedience, or love, or gift, which is of force: God therefore left him free, set before him a provoking object almost in his eyes; herein consisted his merit, herein the right of his reward, the praise of his abstinence.

Suppose we could expel sin by this means; look how much we thus expel of sin, so much we expel of virtue; for the matter of them both is the same; remove that, and ye remove them both alike. This justifies the high providence of God, who, though he commands us temperance, justice, continence, yet pours out before us, even to a profuseness, all desirable things, and gives us minds that can wander beyond all limit and satiety. Why should we then affect a rigor contrary to the manner of God and nature, by abridging or scanting those means, which books freely permitted are, both to the trial of virtue and the exercise of truth?° (...)'                                                                                                            1644

°To vent her anger, Venus ordered Psyche to sort out a huge pile of mixed seeds. The ants pitied her and did all the work for her.
¹ Wayfaring or warfaring? Pilgrimage or crusade? The ideas are associated.
² The garland (crown) of virtue.
³ White covering corruption.
° Scholastic theologians.
¹ Daintily.
² Book of Ecclesiastes.
³ 'Keri' : marginal comments of rabbi scholars on the 'Chetiv' of the Bible. The former was sometimes read instead of the 'Chetiv.
° Preparatio Evangelica.  early Christian books went to great lengths and into great detail describing heathen wickedness. St. Irenaeus and St. Jerome were amongst those so accused.
¹ Report.
² One can always find written words to support one's opinion. 'A fool can find material for folly in the best books, and a wise person material for wisdom in the worst'.
³ Marionette shows.
° Censorship.

On Shakespeare°

What needs my Shakespeare for his honored bones
The labor of an age in pilèd stones,
Or that his hallowed relics should be hid
Under star-ypointing pyramid?
Dear son of memory,¹ great heir of fame,
What need'st thou such weak witness to thy name?
Thou in our wonder and astonishment
Hast built thyself a livelong monument.
For whilst to th' shame of slow-endeavoring art
Thy easy numbers flow, and that each heart
Hath from the leaves of thy unvalued² book
Those Delphic lines with deep impression took,
Then thou, our fancy of itself bereaving,
Dost make us marble with too much conceiving;³
And so sepùlchered in such pomp dost lie,
That kings for such a tomb would wish to die.


°The poem is in reply to the complaint of that time, that Shakespeare should have been buried in a more prestigious place than Stratford.
¹ A brother of the Muses.
² Priceless.
³ The millions of enchanted, engrossed (like marble statues) readers, are Shakespeare's eternal monument.

Although all art must speak for itself, it often helps to have a reasonable idea of the lives of artists and writers, to gain a greater perception regarding their masterpieces. Even the briefest biographical account can sometimes be a precious key allowing one to 'read a little more between the lines'.

Text © Mirino. Source- The Norton Anthology English Literature, Volume 1. John Milton, extracts of Milton's Areopagitica, his poem On Shakespeare. Portrait of Milton (unknown artist?) collection of Christ's College. With thanks. April, 2012

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