The New International Encyclopædia/Milton, John
MILTON, John (1608-74). An English poet. He was born in Bread Street, London, December 9, 1608. His father, also named John Milton, belonged to a Roman Catholic family of yeomen living in Oxfordshire. The elder John Milton was converted to Protestantism while a student at Oxford, and as a result was promptly disinherited by his father, Richard Milton. The poet's father settled in London, where he prospered as a scrivener. The younger John Milton received instruction from his father in music; was taught by a private tutor; and was sent to Saint Paul's School (about 1620), where he learned Latin, Greek, French, Italian, and some Hebrew, and read English literature. Spenser's Faerie Queene and Sylvester's translation of Du Bartas, which came into his hands at this time, exerted much influence on the formation of his style. In February, 1625, he proceeded to Christ's College, Cambridge. He was of less than the middle height, yet well made, with light brown or auburn hair. In bearing he was courteous and stately, though sometimes sarcastic. Owing to a misunderstanding with his first tutor, he was rusticated for a short time in 1626, but he returned and completed the course, graduating B.A. in 1629 and M.A. in 1632. From childhood Milton had been destined for the Church, but the policy of Laud led him first to postpone taking orders and then to abandon all thought of it. He retired to his father's estate at Horton, Buckinghamshire, where he passed nearly six years (1632-38) in reading the classics and writing at intervals his choicest poems. Believing that he had it in him to write something that would live, he set out for Italy in April, 1638, wishing to fit himself still more for his future work. Probably at Bologna, which he visited in 1639, Milton wrote in excellent Italian five sonnets and a canzone wherein he expresses love for a beautiful lady of Bologna. For some time he stayed in Florence, where he visited in prison the blind Galileo. Thence he went on to Rome and Naples. As he was about to pass over to Sicily and from there to Greece, news reached him of ‘the civil commotions in England.’ He turned homeward, reaching England toward the end of July, 1639. He took a house in Aldersgate Street, London, where he received as pupils two nephews, children of an elder sister, and occupied his leisure with plans for future poems. From these pursuits he was drawn into ecclesiastical controversies, writing pamphlet after pamphlet. In June, 1643, he married, after a brief courtship, Mary Powell, then only seventeen years old, the daughter of an Oxfordshire squire and Royalist. After a month the bride returned to her father's house. In the summer of 1645 they were reconciled, and he moved to the Barbican, a more commodious house for the increasing number of his pupils. She died in 1652, after bearing four children, of whom the one son died in infancy. A fortnight after the execution of Charles I. (January 30, 1649), Milton issued a memorable defense of the deed, and this led to other pamphlets which gave him European fame as controversialist. On the establishment of the Commonwealth Milton was appointed Latin secretary to the Council of State (March 15, 1649). For this office, involving the duty of turning into Latin all foreign dispatches, he was eminently fitted. In 1652 he lost his eyesight, already long impaired, but with the aid of assistants—one of whom was Andrew Marvell—he performed the duties of his post till the abdication of Richard Cromwell (1659). In the meantime (November, 1656) he had married a Catharine Woodcock, who died in February, 1658. She was honored by one of Milton's most beautiful sonnets (xxiii.). The Restoration put an end to his active career. In 1661 he settled in Jewin Street, Aldersgate, from which he removed two years later to a house in Artillery Walk, Bunhill Fields, his last residence. Here he fulfilled the literary task he had long ago planned and since begun. To the annoyance of his daughters, he married a third wife, thirty years his junior, named Elizabeth Minshull. His relations with these daughters were most unhappy. Brought up in ignorance, they revolted from the service that he demanded of them—reading to him Latin, Greek, and Hebrew, which of course they could not understand. Toward the end Milton stood aloof from religious sects and never went to religious services. He died November 8, 1674, and was buried in Saint Giles's, Cripplegate.
Milton's literary career is clearly divided by the outbreak of the Civil War and by the Restoration into three periods: (1) 1626-40; (2) 1640-60; (3) 1660-74.
First Period. Milton began writing English and Latin verse while a schoolboy. The earliest extant specimens of these exercises are paraphrases of the 114th and 136th Psalms, composed at the age of fifteen. Other early poems are a group of graceful Latin elegies and sylvæ (1626-29); On the Death of a Fair Infant (1626); At a Vacation Exercise (1628); Hymn on the Nativity (1629); At a Solemn Music (1630); On Shakespeare; and sonnets To the Nightingale and On Arriving at the Age of Twenty-three. The Latin verses are undoubtedly the best ever written by an Englishman, and the last five of the English poems display high poetical genius. While at Horton, Milton composed four absolutely perfect poems: the two descriptive lyrics, L'Allegro and Il Penseroso (1634); Comus, a masque performed at Ludlow Castle on Michaelmas night, 1634, in honor of Lord Bridgewater's appointment to the wardenship of the Welsh marches; and Lycidas, a pastoral elegy in memory of his college friend Edward King, drowned on his passage to Ireland (August 10, 1637). Of these poems, which by themselves would place Milton among the great names in English literature, only a few had been published. The lines on Shakespeare appeared in the second folio of the dramatist's works (1632); Henry Lawes, who composed the music for Comus, published the masque anonymously (London, 1637), and Lucidas formed one in a collection of memorial poems (Cambridge, 1638). To this period belong six sonnets in Italian and Milton's two finest Latin poems: Mansus (1638), addressed to the Marquis of Manso, the friend of Tasso, who in his old age hospitably received Milton at Naples; and Epitaphium Damonis, an elegy on the death of his college friend Charles Diodati.
Second Period. For full eighteen years Milton was distracted from poetry by domestic perplexities and the revolutions in Church and State. The separation from his wife led to pamphlets on divorce, of which the most important are The Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce (August 1, 1643), and The Tetrachordon (1645). Against episcopacy he launched, in 1641-42, five tracts, of which the best known is The Reason of Church Government Against Prelaty. In 1644 appeared the valuable letter Of Education and a noble plea for the freedom of the press under the title Areopagitica. The execution of Charles I. and the establishment of the Commonwealth were defended against Continental criticism in The Tenure of Kings and Maqistrates (1649), Eikonoklastes (1649), Pro Populo Anglicano Defensio, and sequels. These tracts, vehement and often scurrilous in style, contain autobiographical passages of interest. Throughout this period Milton wrote almost no verse. He composed, however, at intervals his magnificent sonnets, as On His Blindness, To Fairfax, To Cromwell, and The Massacre in Piedmont; and in 1645 appeared a volume of collected poems in English and Latin. Besides this he wrote some Greek and Latin verse and made a few translations. In 1902 there appeared a valuable work called Nova Solyma: the Ideal City of Zion; or Jerusalem Regained: translated from the Latin by the Rev. Walter Begley, and by him attributed to John Milton. This romance was published in London (1648) with the title Novæ Solymæ Libri Sex. Whether or not the work belongs to Milton, it undoubtedly shows strongly many of his characteristics in thought and style. The romance is written in prose and in verse, and is wholly in Latin. It shows advanced theories on education, it considers love philosophically, and deals with the philosophy of religion, with conversion, salvation, the brotherhood of man, with almsgiving, self-control, angels, the fall of man, and man's eternal fate. It contains some 256 hexameters of a projected epic on the Armada, and there runs through it a vein of adventures with tales of outlaws, robbers, sea-rovers, and fighting on sea. There is an account of a man possessed by the devil, and an allegory of Philomela's Kingdom of Pleasure.
Third Period. The great epic that Milton now composed is the spiritual summary of his life of lost ideals. As early as his return from Italy, he had meditated the production of some great poem. By 1642 his mind was turning toward a mystery play on the loss of paradise. When he resumed the subject in 1658, it took the form of an epic. Paradise Lost, in ten books, completed by 1665, perhaps even by 1663, was first published on August 10, 1667. After several reprints with slight changes, it was enlarged to twelve books (1674). For this poem, of which 1300 copies were sold in eighteen months, Milton received from his publisher in all £10. At the suggestion of Thomas Ellwood, a Quaker friend of the poet, Milton wrote Paradise Regained, which was published with Samson Agonistes, an intense lyrical drama, in 1671. Once Milton was known mainly as the author of Paradise Lost. Since the romantic revival, this epic has been unfavorably compared with the so-called minor poems. The fascinating imaginative style in which the early lyrics were conceived certainly departed from Milton during the civil conflict. But as years went on, his imagination became invested with sublimity. Had Paradise Lost been written in 1642, it would have been a perfect mystery play, as Comus is a perfect masque. Delayed twenty odd years it became a sonorous epic, which, though barren in places, abounds in the noblest English poetry.
Bibliography. For his biography, consult: Phillips's memoir in his Letters of State (1694); Masson, Life of John Milton, Narrated in Connection with the Political, Ecclesiastical, and Literary History of His Time (6 vols. and index, London, 1859-94), an exhaustive work; Pattison in the “English Men of Letters Series” (New York, 1880); Garnett in the “Great Writers Series” (London, 1890); and Masterman and Mullinger, The Age of Milton (ib., 1897). For works, consult: Prose Works, ed. by Saint John, Bohn's Library (5 vols., London, 1848-53); Poetical Works ed. by Masson (Cabinet edition, 3 vols., ib., 1890; Globe ed., 1 vol., ib., 1877, often reprinted); Poetical Works after the Original Texts, i.e. reprints, ed. by Beeching (Oxford, 1900); and Facsimile of Milton's Minor Poems, from manuscripts in Trinity College, Cambridge, ed. by Wright (Cambridge, 1899). For estimate, consult: essays by Dr. Johnson (London, 1779), Macaulay (ib., 1840), Lowell (ib., 1845), and A Short Study, by Trent (New York, 1899); Corson, An Introduction to Works, containing the prose autobiographical pieces (ib., 1899); and the notable Study, by Raleigh (London and New York, 1900). The student will find of much value: Osgood, The Classical Mythology of Milton's English Poems (New York, 1900); and Lockwood, Lexicon to the Poetical Works of John Milton (ib., 1902). A contemporary biography of Milton, discovered in 1889 in a volume of Anthony Wood's papers in the Bodleian Library at Oxford, was edited and published by E. B. Parsons in 1903, under the title, “The Earliest Life of Milton,” in the Colorado College Studies (Colorado Springs, March, 1903).
FROM AN ENGRAVING BY GEORGE VERTUE