John Milton

John Milton, English poet, portrait gallery

John Milton

(9th December, 1608 – 8th November 1674) 

THAT sanctity which settles on the memory of a great man, ought upon a double motive to be vigilantly sustained by his countrymen; first, out of gratitude to him, as one column of the national grandeur; secondly, with a practical purpose of transmitting unimpaired to posterity the benefit of ennobling models. High standards of excellence are among the happiest distinctions by which the modern ages of the world have an advantage over earlier, and we are all interested by duty as well as policy in preserving them inviolate. To the benefit of this principle, none amongst the great men of England is better entitled than Milton, whether as respects his transcendent merit, or the harshness with which his memory has been treated.

Early Years

John Milton was born in London on the 9th day of December, 1608. His father, in early life, had suffered for conscience' sake, having been disinherited upon his abjuring the popish faith. He pursued the laborious profession of a scrivener, and having realised, an ample fortune, retired into the country to enjoy it. Educated at Oxford, he gave his son the best education that the age afforded. At first, young Milton had the benefit of a private tutor : from him he was removed to St. Paul's School ; next he proceeded to Christ's College, Cambridge, and finally, after several years' preparation by extensive reading, he pursued a course of continental travel. It is to be observed, that his tutor, Thomas Young, was a Puritan, and there is reason to believe that Puritan politics prevailed among the fellows of his college. This must not be forgotten in speculating on Milton's public life, and his inexorable hostility to the established government in church and state;for it will thus appear probable, that he was at no time withdrawn from the influence of Puritan connections.

Quits Uni

In 1632, having taken the degree of M.A., Milton finally quitted the University, leaving behind him a very brilliant reputation, and a general good will in his own college. His father had now retired from London, and lived upon, his own estate .at: Horton, in Buckinghamshire. In this, rural solitude, Milton passed the next five years, resorting to London only at rare intervals, for the purchase of books or music. His time was chiefly occupied with the study of Greek and Roman, and, no doubt, also of Italian literature. But that lie was not negligent of composition, and that he applied himself with great zeal to, the culture of his native literature, we. have a splendid record in his Comus,' which, upon the strongest presumptions, is ascribed to this period of his life. In the same neighbourhood, and within the same five years, it is believed that he produced also the Arcades, and the Lycidas, together with L'Allegro, and II Penseroso.


In 1637 Milton's mother died, and in the following year he commenced his travels. The state of Europe confined his choice of ground to France and Italy. The former excited in him but little interest. After a short stay at Paris he pursued the direct route to. Nice, where he embarked for Genoa, and thence proceeded to Pisa, Florence, Rome, and Naples. He originally meant to extend his tour to Sicily and Greece ; but the news of the first Scotch war, having now reached him, agitated his mind with too much patriotic sympathy to allow of his embarking on a scheme of such uncertain duration. Yet his homeward movements were not remarkable for expedition. He had already spent two months in Florence,  and as many in Rome, yet he devoted the same space of time to each of them on his return. From Florence he proceeded to Lucca, and thence, by Bologna and Ferrara, to Venice ; Where he remained one month, and then pursued his homeward route through Verona, Milan, and Geneva.

Sir Henry Wotton had recommended, as the rule of his conduct, a celebrated Italian proverb, inculcating the policy of reserve and dissimulation. From a practised diplomatist, this advice was characteristic; but it did not suit the frankness of Milton's manners, nor the nobleness of his mind. He has himself stated to us his own rule of conduct, which was to move no questions of controversy, yet not to evade them when pressed upon him by others. Upon this principle he acted, not without some offence to his associates, nor wholly without  danger to himself. But the offence, doubtless, was, blended with respect ; the danger was passed; and he returned home with all his purposes fulfilled. He had conversed with Galileo ; he had seen whatever was most interesting in the monuments of Roman grandeur, or the triumphs of Italian art; and he could report with truth, that in spite of his religion, every where undissembled; he had been honoured by the attentions of the great, and by the compliments of the learned.

After fifteen months of absence, Milton found himself again in London at a crisis of unusual interest The King was on the eve of his second expedition against the Scotch ; and we may suppose Milton to have been watching the course of events with profound anxiety, not without some anticipation of the patriotic labour which awaited him. Meantime he occupied himself with the education of his sister's two sons, and soon after, by way of obtaining an honourable maintenance, increased the number of his pupils.

Dr. Johnson, himself at one period of his life a schoolmaster, on this occasion indulges in a sneer which is too injurious to be neglected. " Let not our veneration for Milton," says he, " forbid us to look with some degree of merriment on great promises and small performance : on the man who hastens home because his countrymen are contending for their liberty ; and when he reaches the scene of action, vapours away his patriotism in a private boarding-school." It is not true that Milton had made " great promises," or any promises at all. But if he had made the greatest, his exertions for the next sixteen years nobly redeemed them. In what way did Dr. Johnson expect that his patriotism should be expressed ? As a soldier ? Milton has himself urged his bodily weakness and intellectual strength, as reasons for following a line of duty for which he was better fitted. Was he influenced in his choice by fear of military dangers or hardships? Far from it : " for I did not," he says, " shun those evils, without engaging to render to my fellow-citizens services much more useful, and attended with no less of danger." What services were those ? We shall state them in his own words, anticipated from an after period. " When I observed that there are in all three modes of liberty—first, ecclesiastical liberty ; secondly, civil liberty ; thirdly, domestic : having myself already treated of the first, and noticing that the magistrate was taking steps in behalf 'of the second, I concluded that the third, that is to say, domestic, or household liberty, remained to .me as my peculiar province. And whereas this again is capable of a threefold division, accordingly as it regards the interests of conjugal life in the first place, or those of education in the second, or finally the freedom of speech, and the right of giving full publication to sound opinions, I took it upon myself to defend all three, the first by. my Doctrine and Discipline, of Divorce, the second, by my Tractate upon Education, the thirds by my Areopagitica."

In 1641 he conducted his defence of ecclesiastical liberty, in a series of attacks upon episcopacy. These are written in a bitter spirit of abusive hostility, for which we seek an insufficient apology in his exclusive converse with a party which held bishops in abhorrence, and in the low personal respectability of a large portion of the episcopal bench.

Rocky Marriage

At Whitsuntide, in the year 1645, having reached his 35th year, he married. Mary Powel, a young lady of good extraction in the county of Oxford. One month after, he allowed his wife to visit her family. This permission, in, itself somewhat singular, the lady abused ; for when summoned back to, her home, she refused to return. Upon this provocation, Milton set himself seriously to consider the extent of the obligations imposed by the nuptial vow; and, soon came to the conclusion, that in point of conscience it was not less dissoluble for hopeless incompatibility of temper than for positive adultery, and that human laws, in as far as they opposed this principle, called for reformation. These views he laid before the public in  his Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce. In treating this question, he had relied entirely upon the force of argument, not aware that he had the countenance of any great authorities ; but finding soon afterwards that some of the early reformers, Bucer and P. Martyr, had taken the same view as himself, he drew up an account of their comments on this subject. Hence arose the second of his tracts on Divorce. Meantime, as it was certain that many would abide by what they; supposed to be the positive language of Scripture, in opposition to all authority whatsoever, he thought it advisable to write a third tract on the proper interpretation of the chief passages in Scripture, which refer to this point. A fourth tract, by way of answer to the different writers who had opposed his opinions, terminated the series.

Meantime the lady, whose rash conduct had provoked her husband into these speculations, saw reason to repent of her indiscretion, and finding that Milton held her desertion to have cancelled all claims upon his justice, wisely resolved upon making her appeal to his generosity. This appeal was not made in vain : in a single interview at the house of a common friend, where she had contrived to surprise him, and suddenly to throw herself at his feet, he granted her a full forgiveness : and so little did he allow himself to remember her misconduct, or that of her family, in having countenanced her desertion, that soon afterwards, when they were, involved in the general ruin of the royal cause, he received  the whole of them into his house, and exerted his political influence very freely in their behalf. Fully to appreciate this behaviour, we must recollect that Milton was not rich, and that no part of his wife's marriage portion (£1000) was ever paid to him.


His thoughts now settled upon the subject of education, which it must not be forgotten that he connected systematically with domestic liberty. In 1644 he published his essay on this great theme, in the form of a letter to his friend Hartlib, himself a. person of no slight consideration. In the same year he wrote his Areopagitica, a speech for the liberty of unlicensed printing. This we are to consider in the light of an oral pleading, or regular oration, for he tells us expressly [Def.2.] that he wrote it '‘ ad just orationis modum." It is the finest specimen extant of generous scorn. And very remarkable it is, that Milton, who broke the ground on this great theme, has exhausted the arguments which bear upon it. He opened the subject he closed it. And were there no other monument of his patriotism and his genius, for this alone he would deserve to be held in perpetual veneration. In the following year, 1645, was published'' the first collection of his early poems: with his sanction, undoubtedly, but probably not upon his suggestion. The times were too full of anxiety to allow of much encouragement to polite literature : at no period were there fewer readers of poetry. And for himself in particular, with the exception of a few-sonnets, it is probable that he composed as little as others read, for the next ten years : so great were his political exertions.

King Charles I Executed

Early in 1649 the king was put to death: For a full view of the state of parties which led to this Memorable event, we must refer the reader to the history of the times. That act was done by the Independent party, to which Milton belonged, and was precipitated by the intrigues of the Presbyterians, who were making common cause with the king, to ensure the overthrow of the Independents. The lamentations and outcries of the Presbyterians were long and loud. Under colour of a generous sympathy with the unhappy prince, they mourned for their own political extinction, and the triumph of their enemies. This Milton well knew, and to expose the selfishness of their clamours, as well as to disarm their appeals to the popular feeling, he now published his Tenure of Kings and Magistrates. In the first part of this, he addresses himself to the general question of tyrannicide, justifying it, first, by arguments of general reason, and secondly, by the authority of the reformers. But in the latter part he argues the case personally, contending that the Presbyterians at least were not entitled to condemn the king's death, who, in levying war, and doing battle against the king's person, had done so much that tended to no other result. " If then," is his argument, " in these proceedings against their king, they may not finish, by the usual course of justice, what they have begun, they could not lawfully begin at all." The argument seems inconclusive, even as addressed ad hominem the struggle bore the character of a war between independent parties, rather than a judicial inquiry, and in war the life of a prisoner becomes sacred.

At this time the Council of State had resolved no longer to employ the language of a rival people in their international, concerns, but to use the Latin tongue as a neutral and indifferent instrument. The office of Latin Secretary, therefore, was created, and bestowed upon Milton. His hours from henceforth must have been pretty well occupied by official labours. Yet at this time he undertook a service to the state, more invidious, and perhaps more perilous, than any in which his politics ever involved him. On the very day of the king's execution, and even below the scaffold, had been sold the earliest copies of a work, admirably fitted to shake the new government, and for the sensation which it produced at the time, and the lasting controversy which it has engendered, one of the most remarkable known in literary history. This was the Eikon Basilike, or Royal Image,' professing to be a series of meditations drawn up by the late king, on the leading events from the very beginning of the national troubles. Appearing at this critical moment, and co-operating with the strong reaction of the public mind, already effected in the king's favour by his violent death, this book produced an impression absolutely unparalleled in any age. Fifty thousand copies, it is asserted, were sold within one year ; and a posthumous power was thus given to the king's name by one little book, which exceeded, in alarm to his enemies, all that his armies could accomplish in his life-time. No remedy could meet the evil in degree. As the only one that seemed fitted to it in kind, Milton drew up a running commentary upon each separate head of the original : and as that had been entitled the king's image, he gave to his own the title of  Eikonoclastes, or Image-breaker,' " the famous surname of many Greek emperors, who broke all superstitious images in pieces."

This work was drawn up with the usual polemic ability of Milton ; but by its very plan and purpose, it threw him upon difficulties which no ability could meet and had that inevitable disadvantage which belongs to all ministerial and secondary works : the order and choice of topics being all determined by the Eikon, Milton, for the first time, wore an air of constraint and servility, following a leader and obeying his motions, as an engraver is controlled by the designer, or a translator by his original. It is plain, from the pains he tookto exonerate himself from such a reproach, that he felt his task to be an invidious one. The majesty of grief, expressing itself with Christian meekness, and appealing, as it were from the grave, to the consciences of men, could not be violated without a recoil of angry feeling, ruinous to the effect of any logic, or rhetoric the most persuasive. The affliction of a great prince, his solitude, his rigorous imprisonment, his constancy to some purposes which were not selfish, his dignity of demeanour in the midst of his heavy trials, and his truly Christian fortitude in his final sufferings—these formed a rhetoric which made its way to all hearts. Against such influences the eloquence of Greece would have been vain. The nation was spell-bound ; and a majority of its population neither could or would be disenchanted.

Milton was ere long called to plead the same great cause of liberty upon an ampler stage, and before a more equitable audience ; to plead not on behalf of his party against the Presbyterians and Royalists, but on behalf of his country against the insults of a hired Frenchman, and at the bar of the whole Christian world. Charles II. had resolved to state his father's case to all Europe. This was natural, for very few people on the continent knew what cause had brought his father to the block, or why he himself was a vagrant exile from his throne. For his advocate he selected Claudius Salmasius, and that was most injudicious. This man, eminent among the scholars of the day, had some brilliant accomplishments, which were useless in such a service, while in those which were really indispensable, he was singularly deficient. He was ignorant of the world, wanting in temper and self-command, conspicuously unfurnished with eloquence, or the accomplishments of a good writer, and not so much as master of a pure Latin style. Even as a scholar, he was very unequal ; he had committed more important blunders than any man of his age, and being generally hated, had been more frequently exposed than others to the harsh chastisements of men inferior to himself in learning. Yet the most remarkable deficiency of all which Salmasius betrayed, was in his entire ignorance, whether historical or constitutional, of every thing which belonged to the case.

Defensio pro Populo Anglicano

Having such an antagonist, inferior to him in all possible qualifications, whether of nature, of art, of situation, it may be supposed that Milton's triumph was absolute. He was now thoroughly demnified for the poor success of his Eikonoclastes.' In that instance he had the mortification of knowing that all England read and wept over the king's book, whilst his own reply was scarcely heard of But here the tables were turned : the very friends of Salmasius complained, that while his defence was rarely inquired after, the answer to it, Defensio pro Populo Anglicano,' was the subject of conversation from one end of Europe to the other. It was burnt publicly at Paris and Toulouse : and by way of special annoyance to Salmasius, who lived in Holland, was translated into Dutch.

Salmasius died in 1653, before he could accomplish an answer that satisfied himself : and the fragment which he left behind him was not published, until it was no longer safe for Milton to rejoin. Meantime others pressed forward against Milton in the same controversy, of whom some were neglected, one was resigned to the pen of his nephew, Philips, and one answered diffusely by himself. This was Du Moulin, or, as Milton persisted in believing, Morus, a reformed minister then resident in Holland, and at one time a friend of Salmasius. For two years after the publication of this man's book (Regii Sanguinis Clamor) Milton received multiplied assurances from Holland that Morus was its true author. This was not wonderful. Morus had corrected the press, had adopted the principles and passions of the book, and perhaps at first had not been displeased to find himself reputed the author. In reply, Milton published his Defensio Secunda pro Populo Anglicano,' seasoned in every page with some stinging allusions to Morus. All the circumstances of his early life are recalled, and some were such as the grave divine would willingly have concealed from the public eye. He endeavoured to avert too late the storm of wit and satire about to burst on him, by denying the work, and even revealing the author's real name : but Milton resolutely refused to make the slightest alteration. The true reason of this probably was that the work was written so exclusively against Morus, full of personal scandal, and puns and gibes upon his name, which in Greek signifies foolish, that it would have been useless as an answer to any other person. In Milton's conduct on this occasion, there is a want both of charity and candour. Personally; however, Morus had little ground for complaint : he had bearded the lion by submitting to be reputed the author of a work not his own. Morus replied, and Milton closed the controversy by a defence of himself, in 1655.

He had, indeed, about this time some domestic afflictions, which reminded him of the frail tenure on which all human blessings were held, and the necessity that he should now begin to concentrate his mind pon the great works which he meditated. In 1651 his first wife died, after she had given him three daughters. In that year he had already lost the 'use of one eye, and was warned by the physicians that if he persisted in his task of replying to Salmasius, he would probably lose the other. The warning was soon accomplished, according to the common account, in 1654 ; but upon collating his letter to Philaras the Athenian, with his own pathetic statement in the Defensio Secunda, we are disposed to date it from 1652. In 1655 he resigned his office of secretary, in which he had latterly been obliged to use an assistant.

Second Marriage

Some time before this period, he had married his second wife, Catherine Woodcock, to whom it is supposed that he was very tenderly attached. In 1657 she died in child-birth, together with her child, an event which he has recorded in a very beautiful sonnet. This loss, added to his blindness, must have made his home, for some years, desolate and comfortless. Distress, indeed, was now gathering rapidly upon him .The death of Cromwell in the following year, and the imbecile character of his eldest son, held out an invitation to the aspiring intriguers of the day, which they were not slow to improve. It soon became too evident to Milton's discernment, that all things were hurrying forward to restoration of the ejected family. Sensible of the risk, therefore, and without much hope, but obeying the summons of his conscience, lie wrote a short tract on the ready and easy way to establish a free commonwealth, concluding with these noble words, -- Thus much I should perhaps have said, though I were sure I should have spoken only to trees and stones, and had none to cry to, but with the Prophet, Oh earth ! earth ! earth ! to tell the very soil itself what her perverse inhabitants are deaf to. Nay, though what I have spoken should happen [which Thou suffer not, who didst create free, nor. Thou next, who didst redeem us from being servants of men] to be the last words of our expiring liberty." A slighter pamphlet on the same subject, Brief Notes' upon a sermon by one Dr. Griffiths, must be supposed to be written rather with a religious purpose of correcting a false application of sacred texts, than with any great expectation of benefiting his party. Dr. Johnson, with unseemly violence, says, that he kicked when he could strike no longer : more justly it might be said that he held up a solitary hand of protestation on behalf of that cause now in its expiring struggles, which he had maintained when prosperous ; and that he continued to the last one uniform language, though he now believed resistance to be hopeless, and knew it to be full of peril.

That peril was soon realised. In the spring of 1660, the Restoration was accomplished amidst the tumultuous rejoicings of the people. It was certain that the vengeance of government would lose no time in marking its victims ; for some of them in anticipation had already fled. Milton wisely withdrew from the first fury of the persecution, which now descended on his party. He secreted himself in London, and when he returned into the public eye in the winter, found himself no farther punished, than by a general disqualification for the public service, and the disgrace of a public burning inflicted on his Eikonoclastes, and his Defensio pro Populo Anglicano.

Third Marriage and Paradise Lost

Apparently it was not long after this time that he married his third wife, Elizabeth Minshul, a lady of good family in Cheshire. In what year he began the composition of his Paradise Lost, is not certainly known : some have supposed in 1658. There is better ground for fixing the period of its close. During the plague of 166.5 he retired to Chalfont, and at that time Elwood the quaker read the poem in a finished state. The general interruption of business in London occasioned by the plague, and prolonged by the great fire in 1666, explain why the publication was delayed for nearly two years. The contract with the publisher is dated April 26, 1667, and in the course of that year the Paradise Lost was published.

Originally it was printed in ten books: in the second, and subsequent editions, the seventh and tenth books were each divided into two. Milton received only five pounds in the first instance on the publication of the book. His farther profits were regulated by the sale of the three first editions. Each was to consist of fifteen hundred copies, and on the second and third respectively reaching a sale of thirteen hundred, he was to receive a farther sum of five pounds for each ; making a total of fifteen pounds. The receipt for the second sum of five pounds is dated April 26, 1669.

Paradise Regained

In 1670 Milton published his History of Britain, from the fabulous period to the Norman conquest. And in the same year he published in one volume Paradise Regained and Samson Agonistes. The Paradise Regained, it has been currently asserted that Milton preferred to Paradise Lost. This is not true ; but he may have been justly offended by the false principles on which some of his friends maintained a reasonable opinion. The Paradise Regained is inferior by the necessity of its subject and design. In the Paradise Lost Milton had a field properly adapted to a poet's purposes : a few hints in Scripture were expanded. Nothing was altered, nothing absolutely added : but that, which was told in the Scriptures in sum, or in its last results, was developed into its whole succession of parts. Thus, for instance, " There was war in Heaven," furnished the matter for a whole book. Now for the latter poem, which part of our Saviour's life was it best to select as that in which Paradise was Regained ? He might have taken the Crucifixion, and here he had a much wider field than in the Temptation ; but then he was subject to this dilemma. If he modified, or in any way altered, the full details of the four Evangelists, he shocked the religious sense of all Christians; yet, the purposes of a poet would often require that he should so modify them. With a fine sense of this difficulty, he chose the narrow basis of the Temptation in the Wilderness, because there the whole had been wrapt up in Scripture in a few brief abstractions. Thus, "He showed him all the kingdoms of the earth," is expanded, without offence to the nicest religious scruple, into that matchless succession of pictures, which bring before us the learned glories of Athens, Rome in her civil grandeur, and the barbaric splendour of Parthia. The actors being only two, the action of Paradise Regained is unavoidably limited. But in respect of composition, it is perhaps more elaborately finished than Paradise Lost.

A Treatise on Christian Doctrine

In 1672 he published in Latin, a new scheme of Logic, on the method of Ramus, in which Dr. Johnson suspects him to have meditated the very eccentric crime of rebellion against the universities. Be that as it may, this little book is in one view not without interest : all scholastic systems of logic confound logic and metaphysics ; and some of Milton's metaphysical doctrines, as the present Bishop of Winchester has noticed, have a reference to the doctrines brought forward in his posthumous Theology. The history of the last-named work is remarkable. That such a treatise had existed, was well known, but it had disappeared, and was supposed to be irrecoverably lost. But in the year 1823, a Latin manuscript was discovered in the State-Paper Office, under circumstances which left little doubt of its being the identical work which Milton was known to have composed ; and this belief was corroborated by internal evidence. By the King's command, it was edited by Mr. Sumner, the present Bishop of Winchester, and separately published in a translation. The title is De Doctrina Christiana, libri duo posthumi —A Treatise on Christian Doctrine, compiled from the Holy Scriptures alone. In elegance of style, and sublimity of occasional passages, it is decidedly inferior to other of his prose works. As a system of theology, probably no denomination of Christians would be inclined to bestow other than a very sparing praise upon it. Still it is well worth the notice of those students, who are qualified to weigh the opinions, and profit by the errors of such a writer, as being composed with Milton's usual originality of thought and inquiry, and as being remarkable for the boldness with which he follows up his arguments to their legitimate conclusion, however startling those conclusions may be.

Death of Milton

What he published after the scheme of logic, is not important enough to merit a separate notice. His end was now approaching. In the summer of 1674 he was still cheerful, and in the possession of his intellectual faculties. But the vigour of his bodily constitution had been silently giving way, through a long course of years, to the ravages of gout. It was at length thoroughly undermined : and about the tenth of November, 1674, he died with tranquillity so profound, that his attendants were unable to determine the exact moment of his decease. He was buried, with unusual marks of honour, in the chancel of St. Giles' at Cripplegate.
The published lives of Milton are very numerous. Among the best and most copious are those prefixed to the editions of Milton's works by Bishop Newton, Todd, and Symmons. An article of considerable length, founded upon the latter, will be found in Rees's Cyclopdia. But the most remarkable is that written by Dr. Johnson in his Lives of the British Poets ;' a production grievously disfigured by prejudice, yet well deserving the student's attentions for its intrinsic merits, as well as for the Felebrity which it has attained.