John Milton was an English poet and intellectual who served as a civil servant for the Commonwealth of England under its Council of State and later under Oliver Cromwell. He was born in Bread street, Cheapside, London. His father was a money scrivener, an occupation that combined the duties of the modern banker and lawyer. As a child, John Milton attended St. Paul’s School, and in his lifetime he learned Latin, Greek, Italian, Hebrew, French, and Spanish. He attended Christ’s College, Cambridge, graduating in 1629 with a Bachelor of Arts degree, and 1632 with a Master of Arts.
After Cambridge, Milton spent six years living with his family in Buckinghamshire and studying independently. During his period of private study, Milton composed a number of poems, including “On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity,” “On Shakespeare,” “L’Allegro,” “Il Penseroso,” and the pastoral elegy “Lycidas.” In May of 1638, Milton began a 13-month tour of France and Italy, during which he met many important intellectuals and influential people, including the astronomer Galileo, who appears in Milton’s tract against censorship, “Areopagitica.” Milton was a Puritan who believed in the authority of the Bible, and opposed religious institutions like the Church of England, and the monarchy, with which it was entwined. He wrote pamphlets on radical topics like freedom of the press, supported Oliver Cromwell in the English Civil War, and was probably present at the beheading of Charles I. Milton wrote official publications for Cromwell’s government.
It was during these years that Milton married for the first time. In 1642, when he was 34, he married 17-year-old Mary Powell. The two separated for several years, during which time Milton wrote The Divorce Tracts, a series of publications advocating for the availability of divorce. The couple reunited and had four children before Mary died in 1652. It was also in 1652 that Milton became totally blind. In 1656, he married Katherine Woodcock.
In 1667, he published Paradise Lost in 10 volumes. It is considered his greatest work and the greatest epic poem written in English. The free-verse poem tells the story of how Satan tempted Adam and Eve, and their expulsion from the Garden of Eden. In 1671, he published Paradise Regained, in which Jesus overcomes Satan’s temptations, and Samson Agonistes, in which Samson first succumbs to temptation and then redeems himself. A revised, 12-volume version of Paradise Lost was published in 1674.
Many of his works have religious, political, and personal themes. For example, instances of imagery of light and darkness and good and evil can be found in several works, including the annotated examples given in the section below. Milton came to face his own battle with inevitable darkness as he began to lose his sight. In order to keep writing, he employed assistants. One of the most well known of his assistants is fellow writer Andrew Marvell. When the monarchy was restored in England in 1660, Milton was imprisoned, but later pardoned. He spent the rest of his life writing.
John Milton died in England in November 1674. There is a monument dedicated to him in Poet’s Corner in Westminster Abbey in London.