About John Milton
John Milton was born in 1608 in Bread Street, Cheapside, the son of a composer and scrivener. He was educated at St Paul’s School and Christ’s College, Cambridge and seemed destined for the priesthood. However, at Cambridge he began to write poetry in Latin and Italian, as well as English; afterwards he began a period of private study as preparation for a life as a poet or clergyman. His first published work was his poem in praise of Shakespeare, printed anonymously in the second folio of 1632. Milton’s father had been a trustee of The Blackfriars theatre where the company for whom Shakespeare wrote and acted, The King’s Men, had performed; this is believed to have led to the invitation to Milton to write this tribute to his great predecessor.
In 1637, he wrote ‘Lycidas’, an elegy for his friend, Edward King, who had drowned at sea, and began to prepare to write a great Christian poem. However, for the next twenty years he wrote no poetry in English apart from some sonnets, including ‘ On the late Massacre at Piedmont’. This was written in response to one of many atrocities perpetrated by supporters of the Catholic Church in their efforts to suppress a religious group known as the Waldensians who rejected the authority of the Pope. Its righteous fury prefigures Milton’s later prose work in defence of freedom of thought and conscience.
From 1642 onwards, with the outbreak of the Civil War, Milton’s energies were diverted to public controversy in defence of liberty. He defended divorce, argued for press freedom, and attacked the excessive power and influence of bishops. After the execution of Charles 1 in 1649, he was appointed Latin Secretary to the Cromwellian Protectorate, writing pamphlets on behalf of the government. But by 1649 his sight was failing and by 1651 he was totally blind; nonetheless he continued in his work, assisted by a series of secretaries including the poet Andrew Marvell. His sonnet ‘On his Blindness’ accepts his disability without anger, drawing the reader to the famous final line ‘They also serve who only stand and wait.’
As though in proof of the argument of his sonnet on blindness, he at last wrote the great epic poem he had conceived twenty years before, ‘Paradise Lost. This was published in 1667, by which time the monarchy had been restored, two of his books had been burnt in public for sedition, he had been arrested, fined then released into retirement. It tells the story of the Fall of Man: the temptation of Adam and Eve by Satan and their expulsion from the Garden of Eden. Its argument is stated by Milton in Book One: “To justify the ways of God to Man”. Its theme is Man’s freedom to choose; the poem expresses in a different form the polemics of some of his earlier prose writing. ‘Paradise Lost’ is powerful and sonorous in some passages, in others subtly suggestive; it is unique in its seriousness of tone, ambition and scale.
Milton died of gout in 1674 and was buried beside his father in St Giles’, Cripplegate. ‘Paradise Lost’ caused little stir when published, and for many years Milton’s reputation mostly rested on his prose work. However, by the late eighteenth century he was recognised as a master, giving inspiration to, among many other poets, Blake, Wordsworth and Keats.
Poems by John Milton
Read by Helen Dunmore