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John Milton

John Milton

John Milton (1608-1674) was an English poet and political critic, celebrated for his epic poem Paradise Lost (1667). In it he deals with the biblical account of Creation and the place of humankind in time. Total blindness late in life forced Milton to write this poem and others through dictation.

Milton was a devout Puritan with a deep inter­est in the Bible. His writing often deals with reli­gious themes. His masterwork, Paradise Lost, is an immense poem in 12 books. It describes God’s Creation of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden and their subsequent fall and expulsion. The poem describes the biblical story of Creation of the earth and the universe as well as of hell and the emergence of the devil (Lucifer). The devil is given a promi­nent role in Milton’s poem, characterized as an overly ambitious angel banished from heaven. The timeless struggle between God and the devil, or good versus evil, is a major theme in the poem. Eve notoriously yields to the devil’s temptations, result­ing in the loss of paradise for humanity. Milton also argues for the doctrines of predestination and salvation.

John Milton was born in London on December 9, 1608. He attended Christ’s College, Cambridge, from which he graduated with a master of arts degree in 1632. He demonstrated an interest and ability in writing poetry while a student. Following graduation from college, Milton retreated to his family’s summer home in Horton and devoted six years to private study and poetry. His works from this period include Comus (1634), a masque, and Lycidas (1637), written to commemorate the death of a close friend. In 1638 Milton left Horton to take a tour of Europe, meeting the astronomer Galileo Galilei in Florence. He returned to England during the civil war to write political pamphlets defending the Puritan cause. These include The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates (1649), which argues that the people have the right to remove a tyrant from power. The Puritans won the civil war, and King Charles I was beheaded.

Milton was married three times. The unhappi­ness of his first marriage led him to write The Doctrine of Discipline and Divorce (1643). He wrote Areopagitica the following year in defense of the freedom of speech. The government of Oliver Cromwell appointed Milton to the post of secretary of foreign tongues, where he oversaw the translation of dispatches into Latin. In 1652 Milton suffered a permanent loss of his eyesight. Thereafter his work had to be dictated to an assis­tant. In spite of this challenge, Milton’s final years were highly productive. He published Samson Agonistes and Paradise Regained in 1671. Paradise Regained deals with the future of humankind. These and Milton’s other works have had a lasting impact on world literature and have influenced artists and writers for more than 400 years.

James P. Bonanno

See also Alighieri, Dante; Bible and Time; Genesis, Book of; God as Creator; Last Judgment; Poetry; Satan and Time

Further Readings

Levi, P. (1997). Eden renewed: The public and private life of John Milton. New York: St. Martin’s Press.

Lewalski, B. K. (2000). The life of John Milton: A critical biography. Oxford, UK: Blackwell.

Parker, W. R. (1968). Milton: A biography. Oxford, UK: Clarendon Press.

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