Just as it is generally assumed that religion and politics do not make for particularly pleasant dinner table conversation, it is generally assumed that they do not make for particularly pleasant poetry either. John Milton (b. 1608) sundered both assumptions in his masterful work Paradise Lost. It is explicitly political and inescapably religious. Indeed, it is a prime example of the unapologetic theological dogmatism of the zealously partisan seventeenth century. And yet, it is magnificent poetry. Its beauty and grace are undeniable. Its majestic cadence, lofty vision, and soaring images have earned Milton a place in English letters second only to Shakespeare.
According to Samuel Johnson, Milton’s work is “a treasure of unbounded breadth and depth and height.” Walter Scott agreed saying, it “set the standard against which all future epics might be judged.” It is astonishing that a work of such universal acclaim should come from the pen of an author as controversial as Milton who lived in a time as controversial as the seventeenth century.
A bloody Civil War was waged in what was once merry England from 1642 to 1648. That calamitous time was followed by the regicide of King Charles I in 1649, ten years of rule under Oliver Cromwell from 1649–1659, and finally by the restoration of the Stuart monarchy in 1660. These events were not merely the background to John Milton’s life; they were his life. He was an active, passionate, and crucial player in those revolutionary events. And his poetry is indelibly marked by his activism and devotion.
The Civil War is generally characterized in the history books as a conflict between the Cavaliers and the Roundheads. The Cavaliers supported the king and believed in a continuation of the old feudal aristocracy that had a right to divinely appointed privileges, both in politics and in religion. The Roundheads on the other hand, called for a wider distribution of political and economic power, the decentralization of authority, and a distinctly republican form of accountability. Milton was an adamant Roundhead — and thus, a compatriot of Owen, Bunyan, Pym, and many of the members of the Westminster Assembly. Milton was so vitally connected to the Puritan cause that he accepted Cromwell’s invitation to join the government of the Protectorate.
Milton was raised in a reasonably well-to-do household. He enjoyed the privilege of an excellent education at the elite Saint Paul’s Academy and afterward, at Christ’s College, Cambridge University. Since he had a small private income, he did not seek a profession when he left Cambridge, but he stayed at home writing poetry and increasing his already startling store of knowledge. Some critics have argued that Milton was one of the most learned men England has ever produced. Indeed, he wrote poetry in Latin, Greek, Hebrew, and Italian, and read almost all the literature surviving from the Greek and Roman periods in addition to the best of all the major literary traditions of Christendom. Just before the religious and political quarrels in England came to a head, he had the opportunity to travel abroad for fifteen months, meeting and talking with learned men all over Europe. He even met Galileo and looked through his telescope, a fact Milton mentions more than once in Paradise Lost.
When he returned home, he committed his vast learning and considerable rhetorical skills to the Puritan cause. He wrote a series of scorching political and religious pamphlets condemning both Catholic prelates and Anglican bishops, defending the liberty of the press against censorship, calling for insurrection against all manner of political tyrants as a matter of Christian duty, advocating a development of the arts as a tool of cultural renewal, and reprimanding his more timid peers for their reticence to apply biblical principles to social problems. Milton championed one controversy after another with great vigor — and, in the process, he made himself not only well known but also well hated.
Shortly after Milton took his position under Cromwell, the poet succumbed to blindness, and for the rest of his life he depended on others to read to him and to write at his dictation. His wife died in 1652, leaving the blind man with three young daughters. Milton married again in 1657, but his second wife died fifteen months later after giving birth to a daughter, who also perished. Milton married yet a third time, to a woman who looked after him for the rest of his life and managed to bring order to a household full of quarreling children, relatives, and visitors to the famous writer.
The restoration of the Stuart monarch in 1660 not only meant the end of Milton’s government endowment, it meant that he was actually in danger of his life. For a time he even had to be hidden by friends. It was then that he devoted himself to the composition of Paradise Lost. Though the Great Plague in 1665 and the Great Fire in 1666 interrupted his work, the epic was finally completed in 1667.
Milton died just over six years later in 1674. During his life, Paradise Lost sold well enough to earn Milton a total of about ten pounds. But by the end of the seventeenth century, the book had gone through six editions. Since then it has never lost its status as a classic, and it has never stopped being a source of controversy. Milton would not have had it any other way.