John Milton

Authors' note: Milton is a special poet because he falls into both the "Biographies, Works, and Criticism" category as well as the "Literary Biography" category. We decided to place him here because we spent two class days discussing him.

Literary Biography

John Milton (1608-1674): was born in Bread Street, London to a prosperous family. He was the second child of John and Sara Milton. His father was a scrivener, a person who writes wills and deeds and is something like a legal secretary. He also wrote church music occasionally which likely influenced Milton’s life-long love of music. At age twelve he attended St. Paul’s School where he received a classical education.

In 1620 he entered Christ’s College in Cambridge where he was known for being hardworking but very argumentative. He was unhappy at school. He felt disliked by his peers and unsatisfied with the curriculum. He also suffered from bad eyesight throughout his life, which caused him frequent headaches. He was once suspended from a dispute with one of his professors. It was during his time at Cambridge that he wrote his first poetry. In 1629 he wrote "On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity".

After graduating from Cambridge cum laude he returned to Horton Berkshire and began his literary career. "On Shakespeare" was published in his Second Folio in 1632. During this time he also wrote L'Allegro and Il Penseroso and his masques, "Arcades" and "Comus" (published anonomously). In 1647 both his mother and friend Edward King died. He wrote the elegy "Lycidas" in his friend’s memory.

In 1638 he began his tour of Europe. In Paris he met the famous scholar, Hugo Grotius, and in Rome he likely met Galileo while he was under house arrest during the inquisition. He also stayed at the home of Cardinal Barberin and visited the Vatican library, during his time in Rome. He encountered Giovanni Batista in Naples and wrote Mansus in dedication to him. After hearing of the death of his close friend, Charles Diodati, he returned to London and wrote Epitaphium Damonis.

Upon settling in London, he assumed the role of a tutor and wrote several pamphlets on the political and religious movements of the time. He attacked the concept of the Church of England and episcopacy, his particular target being the Arch Bishop of Canterbury.

In 1643 he married sixteen year-old Mary Powell (he was 34) who proved impossible to live with and returned home a month later. This prompted him to write a series of pamphlets arguing the legality and morality of divorce. These were ill received by the parliament and clergy and earned him the nickname “Milton the Divorcer”. In response to the efforts to censure his work he published Aeropagitica, an oration arguing the freedom of press.

Mary Powell returned to Milton and together they had two daughters. During this time also, both Milton’s father and his father in law died. It is possible that Milton witnessed the execution of Charles I in 1649, an event that may have inspired "Tenure of Kings and Magistrates". In the next several years, Milton published a number of works defending the republican principals of the Commonwealth. He was appointed to the position of Secretary of Foreign Tongues by the Cromwellian government.

In1652 he went blind and in 1654 wrote "On His Blindness" or "When I Consider How My Light is Spent".

When Oliver Cromwell died, Milton had to go into hiding for fear of the followers of King Charles II. He was imprisoned for writing Eikonoklastes and Defensio pro populo Anglicano but was soon released.

Milton remarried and spent the rest of his life working on his masterpiece Paradise Lost, among other works (such as the History of England), and died in 1674.

Literary Works

“Most of Milton's poems from before the Civil War breathe not only the vitality of youth but also contentment with the England he inhabits. In no poems more than "L'Allegro" and "Il Penseroso" does this contentment show itself. He wrote them probably near the end of his college career at Cambridge, when he was an important figure there, and in them he describes the joys first of the cheerful, and then of the thoughtful, man.” – E.M.W. Tillyard

Milton is most known for his epic Paradise Lost which tells the story of mankind's temptation and expulsion from the Garden of Eden. It was originally published in 1664, then again in a second edition in 1674. The work is divided up into twelve parts. Milton is famed for his radical use of blank verse in this work, a style that went on to influence a great many later poets.

"L’Allegro" (lively or merry) and "Il’Penseroso" (melancholy) were published simultaneously in 1645 during England’s Civil War. While the exact time of composition is unknown, many scholars assume that Milton wrote these poems shortly after leaving Cambridge. In addition, it is widely believed that the poems should be read together and out loud to appreciate not only their complimentary nature, but the complexity of alliteration, assonance and rhyme present in the poems. “[W]hat one poem twists, the other untwists in an unending cycle of what might be called ‘dissonant companionship’”(Finch and Bowen 18). This means that while they play off each other’s language, the overall theme of either poem is different from the other. They clash and they compliment. Like magnetic poles.

"L’Allegro": is a great example of Milton’s use of heroic couplet. The poem utilizes the style of classic pastoral verse (think "To Penshurst"), in it’s description of England. For example: “While the Plowman neer at hand, / Whistles ore the Furrow'd Land, / And the Milkmaid singeth blithe, / And the Mower whets his sithe, / And every Shepherd tells his tale / Under the Hawthorn in the dale” (63-8). There is a great deal of Greek imagery in "L’Allegro" as opposed to the more-Christian imagery in "L’Penseroso". The last couplet – “These delights, if thou canst give, / Mirth with thee, I mean to live” – pairs directly with the final couplet of "L’Penseroso" (See below).

"Il’Penseroso": contemplates the life of melancholy, which is not necessarily sadness, but scholarly contemplation and reprieve. While Milton makes a great case for this poem’s companion "L’Allegro", the beginning of "L’Penseroso" is much more powerful and direct, after describing fickle and fleeting moments of pleasure he seems to burst: “But hail thou Goddess, sage and holy, / Hail divinest Melancholy, Whose Saintly visage is too bright / To hit the Sense of human sight” (11-4). As stated above, this poem contains much more Christian imagery. See specifically lines 155-66. The final couplet here is similar to "L'Allegro" and reads as follows: “These pleasures Melancholy give, / And I with thee will choose to live”(175-6).

"On Shakespeare" (Italian sonnet): This poem was Milton’s first published poem and first appeared anonymously in the Second Folio of Plays by Shakespeare. It describes Shakespeare’s written works and our tremendous appreciation of them as being greater and longer lasting than a tomb. The poem has been said to have been modeled after one of Shakespeare’s epitaphs.

"How Soon Hath Time" (Italian sonnet): In this poem the speaker remarks on the rapid passage of youth and the slowness of his own inward maturity. He ends by entrusting his destiny to God and accepting His pacing of his life. The poem begins with a frustrated tone but ends optimistically.

"When I Consider How My Light is Spent" (Italian sonnet): In this poem the speaker is frustrated at not being able to serve the will of God with his talents. The volta at line nine switches from this inner turmoil to the resolution that God does not require man’s works but wants only submissive hearts intent on serving. It is highly likely that Milton wrote this poem about his blindness.


1. Image:
2. Jokinen, Anniina. "Life of John Milton." Luminarium.
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5. Mc Calman, . "John Milton." Wikipedia (2011): n. pag. Web. 17 Apr 2011. <>.
6. Greene, . "John Milton's Poetic Style." Wikipedia(2011): n. pag. Web. 17 Apr 2011. <>.
7. Finch, Casey and Peter Bowen. "The Solitary Companionship of L'Allegro and Il Penseroso." Milton Studies 26 (1990): 3-24.
8. Luxon, Thomas H. "" Milton Reading Room. Trustees of Dartmouth College, Jan 2011. Web. 18 Apr 2011. The Milton Reading Room (Thomas H. Luxon and copyrighted by the Trustees of Dartmouth College) / CC BY-ND 3.0.
9. Jokinen , Anniina. "The Works of John Milton." Luminarium. Jokinen Anniina, 07 Jul, 2010 . Web. 18 Apr 2011. <>.
10. British Writers. Ed. Ian Scott-Kilvert. Vol. 2. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1979. From Scribner Writers Series.
11. Poems from: <>.

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