John Milton

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Milton, John

Milton, John, 1608–74, English poet, b. London, one of the greatest poets of the English language.

Early Life and Works

The son of a wealthy scrivener, Milton was educated at St. Paul's School and Christ's College, Cambridge. While Milton was at Cambridge he wrote poetry in both Latin and English, including the ode “On the Morning of Christ's Nativity” (1629). Although the exact dates are unknown, “L'Allegro” and “Il Penseroso” were probably written not long after this. His dislike of the increasing ritualism in the Church of England was the reason he later gave for not fulfilling his plans to become a minister. Resolved to be a poet, Milton retired to his father's estate at Horton after leaving Cambridge and devoted himself to his studies. There he wrote the masque Comus (1634) and “Lycidas” (1638), one of his greatest poems, an elegy on the death of his friend Edward King.

Political and Moral Tracts

In 1638 Milton went to Italy, where he traveled, studied, and met many notable figures, including Galileo. Returning to England in 1639, he supported the Presbyterians in their attempt to reform the Church of England. His pamphlets, which attacked the episcopal form of church government, include Of Reformation in England (1641) and The Reason of Church Government Urged against Prelaty (1642).

In 1643 Milton married Mary Powell, a young woman half his age, who left him the same year. Disillusioned by the failure of his marriage, he started work on four controversial pamphlets (1643–45) upholding the morality of divorce for incompatibility. His Areopagitica (1644), one of the great arguments in favor of the freedom of the press, grew out of his dissatisfaction with the strict censorship of the press exercised by Parliament.

Milton gradually broke away from the Presbyterians, and in 1649 he wrote The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates, which supported the Independents who had imprisoned King Charles in the Puritan Revolution. In it he declared that subjects may depose and put to death an unworthy king. This pamphlet secured Milton a position in Oliver Cromwell's government as Latin secretary for foreign affairs, and he continued to defend Cromwell and the Commonwealth government in his Eikonoklastes [the image breaker] (1649)—an answer to Eikon Basilike—and in the Latin pamphlets First Defense of the English People (1651), Second Defense of the English People (1654), and Defense of Himself (1655).

Later Life

In the midst of his heavy official business and pamphleteering, Milton, whose sight had been weak from childhood, became totally blind. From then on, he had to carry on his work through secretaries, one of whom was Andrew Marvell. Mary Powell returned to Milton in 1645 but died in 1652 after she had borne him three daughters. He married Catharine Woodcock in 1656, and she died two years later. She is the subject of one of his most famous sonnets, beginning, “Methought I saw my late espoused saint.” In 1663 he married Elizabeth Minshull, who survived him. Milton supported the Commonwealth to the very end. After the Restoration (1660) he was forced into hiding for a time, and some of his books were burned. He was included in the general amnesty, however, and lived quietly thereafter.

Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained

For many years Milton had planned to write an epic poem, and he probably started his work on Paradise Lost before the Restoration. The blank-verse poem in ten books appeared in 1667; a second edition, in which Milton reorganized the original ten books into twelve, appeared in 1674. It was greatly admired by Milton's contemporaries and has since then been considered the greatest epic poem in the English language. In telling the story of Satan's rebellion against God and the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, Milton attempted to account for the evil in this world and, in his own words, to “justify the ways of God to man.”

Paradise Regained, a second blank-verse poem in four books, describes how Jesus, a greater individual than Adam, overcame the temptations of Satan. In both works, Milton's characterizations of Satan, Adam, Eve, and Jesus are penetrating and moving. Indeed, his portrayal of Satan is so compelling that many 19th-century critics maintained that he rather than Adam was the hero of Paradise Lost. In these two great works Milton's language is dignified and ornate, replete with biblical and classical allusions, allegorical representations, metaphors, puns, and rhetorical flourishes. Samson Agonistes, a poetic drama modeled on classical Greek tragedy but with biblical subject matter, appeared together with Paradise Regained in 1671.

Other Works

Milton's theology, although in the Protestant tradition, is extremely unorthodox and individual on many points; it is set forth in the Latin pamphlet De doctrina Christiana [on Christian doctrine]. Unpublished during Milton's lifetime, this work was discovered and published in 1825. Milton also wrote 18 sonnets in English and 5 in Italian, which generally follow the Petrarchan style and are accepted as among the greatest ever written.


See his complete works (ed. by F. A. Patterson, 20 vol., 1931–40); collections by F. A. Patterson (rev. ed. 1933), D. Bush (1965), and J. T. Shawcross (1971); variorum commentary on the poems (M. Y. Hughes, general editor; Vol. I, 1970; Vol. II, in 3 parts, 1972); Yale edition of his prose works (Vol. I-VI, 1953–73); biographies by W. A. Raleigh (1900, repr. 1967), J. H. Hanford (1949), W. R. Parker (2 vol., 1968, rev. ed. 1996), E. Wagenknecht (1971), B. K. Lewalski (2001), and G. Campbell and T. N. Corns (2008); studies by M. Nicolson (1963), D. Bush (1964), E. M. W. Tillyard (3 studies: 1938, repr. 1963; 1951, repr. 1960; and rev. ed. 1965), D. Daiches (1957, repr. 1966), J. M. Steadman (1967 and 1968), A. D. Ferry (1963 and 1969), J. T. Shawcross (1966, 1967, and 1970), F. Kermode (1960, repr. 1971), C. A. Patrides (1971), J. D. Simmonds, ed. (1969 and 1971), and A. Beer (2008).

See also J. H. Hanford and V. G. Taffe, A Milton Handbook (1970); L. Potter, A Preface to Milton (1972); J. Broadbent, ed., John Milton: Introductions (1973); M. Lieb and J. T. Shawcross, ed., Achievements of the Left Hand (1974).

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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Milton, John


Born Dec. 9, 1608, in London; died there Nov. 8, 1674. English poet; political figure; thinker.

Milton was the son of a scrivener who was close to Puritan circles. In 1632 he graduated from Cambridge University with a master of arts degree. Even his early works, including philosophical writings and English and Latin poetry, reflected his acquaintance with the thought of philosophers such as F. Bacon and revealed his familiarity with Puritan poetry (for example, “L’Allegro” and “II Penseroso,” a lyric diptych; and the dramatic poem Comus, an allegory of the struggle between chastity and vice). In 1638 he published the elegy “Lycidas,” which contained many allusions to the religious and political struggle in England. From 1638 to 1639 he lived in Italy, but in 1639 he returned to England to express his opposition to the Anglican Church. The fight against the church was the prelude to the struggle against the monarchy.

During the English Bourgeois Revolution of the 17th century Milton was an outstanding publicist and a supporter of the Independents. In defense of the freedom of the press against the censorship law passed by the Long Parliament he wrote the pamphlet Areopagitica (1644; Russian translation, 1907). The book Eikonoklastes (1649), a justification of the conviction and execution of King Charles I as a tyrant, a murderer, and an unmitigated enemy of the English state, opened a debate with the royalist pamphleteers of England and Europe. In the two pamphlets entitled Defense of the People of England (1650 and 1654), Milton emerged as an adherent of 16th-century antityranny theories and a champion of the sovereignty of the English republic. From 1649 to 1652 he held the post of Latin secretary, conducting international state correspondence and working on the semiofficial journal Mercurius Politicus. Repeatedly, he voiced concern about the state of affairs in England, condemning the violation of parliamentary prerogatives, the absence of religious freedom, and the persecution of the democratic movement. In pamphlets written in 1659–60, Milton warned that the triumph of the Restoration would lead to a revival of tyranny. During this period he also translated the psalms and wrote sonnets.

After the restoration of the Stuarts (1660), Eikonoklastes and the pamphlets entitled Defense of the People of England were publicly burned. Avoiding prison and death, Milton led a reclusive life. Although he suffered from blindness, during this period of intense creativity he wrote Paradise Lost (1667) and Paradise Regained (1671), poems inspired by the Bible, and completed The History of Britain (1670). Paradise Lost discusses the lawfulness of rebelling against god. Despite Milton’s contradictory evaluations of his actions, the rebellious Satan is a titanic, profoundly attractive character, as are the people who violated god’s commandment. The poem’s complex, contradictory ideological and artistic variety stem from the struggle within the poet between the humanist and the god-fearing Puritan. Paradise Regained is a weaker poem, even though it contains the idea of struggle.

Milton’s creative work culminated in the brilliant tragedy Samson Agonistes (1671; Russian translation, 1911), which glorified the inexhaustible forces of popular resistance to tyranny. His creative powers evolved from a reliance on Late Renaissance traditions into an independent style that revealed a proclivity for classicism.

Milton’s influence on the development of European poetry can be traced from his own time to the 1830’s. The English poet and thinker was known and highly esteemed in Russia during the 18th and 19th centuries. Milton himself had shown an interest in Russia in the work A Brief History of Moscovia (1682; Russian translation under the title John Milton’s Muscovy, 1875).


The Works, vols. 1–8. New York, 1931–38.
In Russian translation:
Poteriannyi i vozvrashchennyi rai. St. Petersburg, 1899.


Lunacharskii, A. V. Sobr. soch., vol. 4. Moscow, 1964. Page 164.
Istoriia angliiskoi literatury, vol. 1, fasc. 2. Moscow-Leningrad, 1945.
Kon, I. S. “Dzh. Mil’ton kak sotsial’no-politicheskii myslitel’.” Voprosy filosofii, 1959, no. 1.
Samarin, R. M. Tvorchestvo Dzhona Mil’tona. Moscow, 1964.
Hanford, J. Milton Handbook, New York, 1926.
Tillyard, E. M. Milton. London, 1959.
Muir, K. John Milton. London, 1961.
Parker, W. R. Milton: A Biography, vols. 1–2. Oxford, 1968.
Milton Studies …. [Pittsburgh, 1969.] (A continuing publication.)


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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A former fellow of Worcester College, Ricks established himself at Oxford as a scholar of the poet John Milton. He is also known for his love of the lyrics of Bob Dylan, reports The Guardian.
The volume opens with an elegant and substantial essay by Quentin Skinner ("John Milton and the Politics of Slavery") which argues that Milton's political tracts draw extensively upon neo-Roman ideas of liberty and servitude.
This fact was not lost on poet John Milton, who in no less than three occasions in Paradise Lost lashes out at mining as being evil in origin, as demonically-inspired human beings "with impious hands / Rifl'd the bowels of thir mother Earth / For Treasures better hid." [5]
It was not long before the precocious black child was writing and publishing poetry clearly reflecting the influence of such literary giants as Alexander Pope and John Milton.