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On this day in history in 1608, was born John Milton.
Milton was poet, who served as a pamphleteer for the Puritan Commonwealth, and who went blind through overwork, yet lived to write Paradise Lost, one of the prominent works of the English language.
John Milton was born on 9th December, 1608, in Bread Street London, the son of John Milton, a scrivener. Milton Senior was the son of an Oxfordshire yeoman, who has disinherited him for turning Protestant. Of his mother, Milton wrote that she was ‘well esteemed and known for her charities’.
Milton was educated at St. Paul's School, London, where he was instructed in Latin, Greek, and Hebrew. In 1625, Milton entered Christ's College, Cambridge. He took his B.A. in 1629 and his M.A. in 1632. At Cambridge, Milton learned the craft of writing in Latin verse, and, in order to sharpen his style, produced an occasional verse in English. In 1628, he wrote his first English poem, On the Death of a Fair Infant, an elegy in the Elizabethan style. He was encouraged to continue in this style and moved on to produce On the Morning of Christ's Nativity, and the companion poems L'Allegro and Il Penseroso.
In 1632, Milton left Cambridge and stayed at his father’s house, first at Hammersmith and then at the country estate at Horton, near Windsor. His father kept him while he busied himself with further study and the writing of verse. He produced some short poems and a major work, Comus, an allegorical adventure in which virtue triumphs over the specious arguments of the antihero. He also wrote Lycidas, an attempt to rationalise the ways of God, possible the greatest short poem in the English language. [For a critical account of Lycidas, click here] In 1638, Milton visited Italy where he met, amongst others, the astronomer, Galileo Galilei, who was under house arrest on account of his views, which conflicted with the stance of the Catholic Church.
Upon returning home in 1639, Milton settled in London and took in pupils, in order to scratch out a living. The Bishops' Wars were then in progress, to be closely followed by the English Civil War. Milton, by now an accomplished writer as well as a convinced Puritan, began to issue pamphlets on behalf of the Parliamentary cause. In June 1642, Milton married Mary Powell, the daughter of a Royalist. The young bride left her husband within a few months of marriage. In 1643, Milton published a tract entitled Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce, giving his approval to divorce within the Christian community. His wife returned to him in 1645, after her family was ruined by the Civil war. Together they had three daughters, Anne, Mary, and Deborah.
In 1649, after the execution of Charles I, Milton published the tract The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates, stating that power resides in the people, who may depose and execute an unworthy king. The next month, Milton was summoned to Cromwell's Council and appointed as ‘Secretary for Foreign Tongues’, the government Foreign Minister. His duties included correspondence with foreign governments and the editing of the state newspaper, Mercurius Politicus, a journal which sounded off against the king in exile, Charles II, who was referred to young Tarquin. In 1654, he appeared to be suffering from glaucoma, and later that year went completely blind. He carried on his secretarial duties by dictation.
In 1660, following the Restoration, the bodies of Cromwell and other deceased leaders of the Commonwealth were exhumed and hanged at Tyburn. Any living Commonwealth leaders were in real danger, and in the summer of 1660, a warrant was out for Milton’s arrest. However, in August 1660, Parliament passed the Act of Oblivion, granting an amnesty for all crimes committed during the Commonwealth, with the exception of the murder of Charles I. Milton could not be prosecuted, but his writings were publicly burned and he was ostracised from polite society. Being blind, having no function in life, and living with only his daughters for company, Milton decided to write an epic work of what he saw as the most momentous event in history, the fall of man in the Garden of Eden. He may have written fragments of the work during the period 1655-58, but in 1661, using his daughters as scribes, he started earnestly on his magnum opus, Paradise Lost.
Paradise Lost is an epic poem written in blank verse, telling the story of Satan and his expulsion from heaven, and his temptation of Adam and Eve, and their being cast out of the Garden of Eden. Milton writes in the style of a Greek dramatist, reworking a story already familiar to his audience but adding a new twist. Satan is portrayed as a king, ‘high on a throne of royal state’. He has a capacity for leadership and the courage of an ancient epic hero, but perversely uses these virtues against God and goodness. Adam and Eve are innocents, the ordinary people, who are beguiled by the power of Satan, the king, and turn away from God. The angels are ordinary people too, they eat and drink, and even have sex, but they lead the human race out of the power of Satan, back to God, rather like Milton and his cronies liked to think they behaved when in conflict with the king. Milton's Latinate language and his deferment of the main verb to the latter part of his sentences, give the work a solemn grandeur which compels the reader to trust the poet’s propositions, much as the serpent beguiles the innocents in the Garden.
Paradise Lost was published in 1667, after which Milton wrote an inferior sequel, Paradise Regained and the tragedy, Samson Agonistes. Milton spent his last years without company, blind and crippled with gout, until he died on 8th November 1674, at his home at Chalfont St. Giles. [Now a museum. Milton's Cottage, Deanway, Chalfont St. Giles, Buckinghamshire, HP8 4JH] He is buried in the churchyard of St. Giles, Cripplegate. [St. Giles Church, St. Giles Churchyard, Barbican, London, EC2Y 8DA]
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