Lecture 11: The Seventeenth Century
John Milton was born December 9, 1608, in London. His father, also named John Milton, had been disinherited by his family because he turned from Roman Catholicism to the Church of England. He earned his living as a scrivener (i.e., he copied documents by hand, a necessary profession in the days before Xerox machines).
Milton's father was devoted to him, and gave him the best education he could afford. He provided him with a private tutor, who stayed with him even after Milton entered St. Paul's School in 1620. Even as a child, Milton was studious; he often studied until midnight, long after the rest of the family was in bed. He loved knowledge: "Even at that time," he wrote, "the knowledge of natural and divine things seemed to me the highest pleasure and felicity imaginable." He began writing poetry early, and fully intended to be a poet, whatever his profession might be.
In 1625, he entered Christ's College at Cambridge University. It was probably his and his parents' intention that he study for a profession in the Puritan church. But Milton was not a happy or a popular student, challenging professors and fellow students alike; in addition, the atmosphere in England was becoming much less friendly to Puritanism, and Milton was becoming much more interested in poetry. He received his B.A. in 1629 and his M.A. in 1632, and left Cambridge to live on his father's estate at Horton, where he spent the next five years writing and studying. During this time, he wrote "L'Allegro," "Il Penseroso," "Arcades," and Comus. His mother died in 1637; shortly thereafter, Milton embarked on a Grand Tour of Europe.
Milton was on the Continent for two years. He met, among others, Galileo in Italy. He also wrote sonnets to a young lady in Bologna, who is unknown and may have been imaginary. In Bologna, also, Milton wrote Lycidas, an elegy for his college friend, Edward King, who had drowned in 1637; and Epitaphium Damoni, an elegy for another college friend, Charles Deodati, who died in 1638.
Political affairs in England were, at this time, reaching a crisis. Revolution loomed, and Milton felt he had a role to play. He came back to England and settled in London. There, he took on several students and began a school of sorts. More importantly, Milton cast his lot with the political reformers by writing several pamphlets supporting their ideas.
In 1642, Milton, who was 34, married Mary Powell, who was 17. It was clear almost immediately that the marriage was a mistake. About a month later, she left him and returned to her family's home; she was not to return for three years, and then she probably only came back to get Milton's help for her family. Mary's family was on the Royalist side, and after the overthrow of Charles I, they were expelled from their home and lands in Oxford. In 1646, the entire family moved into Milton's home. It is said that Milton made Mary beg on her knees to be allowed to come back to him.
Milton's family had also been affected deeply by the civil war: his brother Christopher served on the Royalist side.
Milton's first child, a daughter, Anne, was born in 1646; his second, Mary, in 1648. His son, John, was born in 1651, and another daughter, Deborah, was born in 1652. His wife, Mary, died three days later, due to complications of childbirth. His son, John, who was less than a year old, died the next month, possibly after being neglected by a nurse.
Meanwhile, in 1649, Charles I was executed; Milton was probably present for the execution. About a month later, Milton took a job with Cromwell's government as Secretary for the Foreign Tongues, a post dealing with diplomatic correspondence in Latin.
In February of 1652, Milton became totally blind, probably due to glaucoma; in 1653, the poet Andrew Marvell became his assistant. In 1655, Milton began to work less on government affairs and more on his own literary pursuits, possibly on Paradise Lost.
On November 12, 1656, Milton married Katherine Woodcock. In October 1657, they had a daughter, Katherine, but there were medical complications, and the following February, Katherine Woodcock died; her daughter died a month later.
Those were not the only changes to occur in Milton's life in 1658. On September 3, Oliver Cromwell died. His son's government failed, and Charles II was restored to the throne. In the political backlash, Milton's books and pamphlets were burned. Milton went into hiding, but was arrested and imprisoned in October 1659; he was released two months later, probably due to the intercession of Marvell and other friends. Many others were not so lucky; there were plenty of public executions over the next few months.
Milton had lost a great deal of his money and property when the government changed hands; he was never really poor, but now he needed to economize. He and his daughters lived quietly in a small house in Bunhill Fields in London, where he worked on his masterpieces: Paradise Lost (published 1667), then Paradise Regained, and finally Samson Agonistes (both published in 1671). Milton's daughters served as his secretaries, reading to him and taking dictation for hours. They were treated as secretaries, too. After the death of their mother, they had been raised by Milton without attention or affection; he seems to have educated them solely so they could be of service to him, and they responded by hating him.
Milton married for a third time in 1663. His third wife, Elizabeth Minshull, seems to have been better suited to him than his other wives, but his daughters hated her too.
In 1665, Milton and his family rented a house in the village of Chalfont St. Giles, where they moved temporarily to escape the Plague in London. (This house has been preserved as a museum.) The publication of Paradise Lost was delayed due to the Plague; it was delayed again by the Great Fire of London in 1666, which destroyed most of the printing houses (as well as Milton's father's house).
Milton died November 8, 1674, and was buried near his father in the Church of St. Giles in Cripplegate.
Milton's intention in Paradise Lost was to write a great national epic, to celebrate the accomplishment of the New English Jerusalem under Cromwell. Milton believed that England had been chosen by God to be the expression of His will on earth; Paradise Lost was originally intended to inspire Englishmen to live up to their mission, and to glorify God. But after the failure of the Protectorate, Milton's intentions changed. He now believed that an earthly paradise was not possible to achieve, and turned his attention to individual atonement and regeneration.
One of the major themes in Paradise Lost is hubris, or pride. Satan, for example, is destroyed because of it. Later, Satan uses pride to induce Eve to eat from the Tree of Knowledge.
Another theme is the issue of personal responsibility. God is never blamed for what happens to those who disobey Him. Satan, Adam, and Eve, it is made clear, have only themselves to blame. They exercised their free will and chose the actions; the responsibility for the consequences lies with them. But the consequences do not end with them: one of Milton's points is that every act of disobedience against God affects not only the individual who performs it but many others.
Milton also addresses the meaning of evil in a universe created by a benevolent God. Many critics have argued over Milton's portrayal of Satan: some feel that Milton miscalculated, making Satan too sympathetic (perhaps, after the Fall, identifying with his loss of Heaven). Others argue that Milton aroused our sympathy for Satan so that we could feel the full consequences--the full pain--of his loss.
In addition, Milton explores the theme that good may come out of evil: Christ's sacrifice and our redemption would never have happened if Satan had failed. On the other hand, evil may come out of good, as well: Eve, in succumbing to Satan's charms, believes she is gaining knowledge and making it available to Adam, as well as to herself.
And speaking of Satan: Milton also addresses the idea that appearances can be deceptive, thus stressing the spiritual dangers and temptations that are always at hand. Eve is charmed by the snake, and is therefore more easily fooled.
And speaking of Eve: many critics have noted that Milton's disdain for women is showing in his portrayal of Eve. To readers today, Milton seems uncomfortably sexist. But to be fair, Milton was not the first to state that women were responsible for Original Sin, and Paradise Lost reflects the general attitude of Milton's time toward women.
One of the most important themes in Paradise Lost is knowledge. Eve's sin is disobedience to God, but significantly, she eats from the Tree of Knowledge. Satan convinces her to do so by telling her she can know as much as God. Later, Michael rebukes Adam for asking about the stars and the heavens, telling him that some things are God's alone to know (Book XII)--this, from Milton, the lover of knowledge, in the time of Galileo!
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Some of the information in this lecture derives from:
1. The Heavenly Muse, by A. S. P. Woodhouse.
2. Milton, by E. M. W. Tillyard
3. "John Milton," in British Authors Before 1088, eds. Stanley J. Kunitz and Howard Haycraft