(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.
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probable, that he was at no time withdrawn from the influence of Puritan connections.
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.
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
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
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
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.
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.
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.