Milton, John


b at the Sign of the Spread Eagle in Bread St, Cheapside, London 1608, d St Giles-without-Cripplegate, C London 1674. The son of John senr, a scrivener (secretary/ copyist) and musician, his linguistic and literary gifts blossomed early under his private tutor Thos Young. They then rapidly advanced at St Paul’s Sch, London (where his ‘hymnwriting’ began and virtually ended), and Christ’s Coll Cambridge where he wrote much Latin verse (BA, MA). He wrote his ‘first masterpiece’, the Ode on the Morning of Christ’s Nativity, at the age of 21. From 1632 to 1638 he lived on his father’s estate of Horton, Bucks, where he wrote the constrasting poems L’Allegro and Il Penseroso, the masque Comus and the pastoral and personal elegy Lycidas. Abandoning his plans for Anglican ordination because of what he (and many others) saw as the tyranny of Archbp Laud, he embarked on a dazzling literary, scholarly and political career. After travels in Italy in 1638 he moved to London to teach his widowed sister’s children among others, and in 1641, already a nationally established author, he became a Presbyterian and eventually ‘the fine flower of Puritan humanism’ (Gordon Rupp).

In 1643 he married the teenage royalist Mary Powell, but her early departure, temporary as it proved, influenced his published defence of divorce which in turn led to his split from Presbyterianism. It also provoked Areopagitica (1644), a passionate plea for press freedom and an attack on censorship, because his divorce book was in trouble for its lack of a formal licence. This work of magisterial prose proved highly influential. He now turned to the Independent churches, seeing church divisions as signs of life rather than wounds in the body. In 1645 he and Mary were reconciled; he supported Cromwell’s government from 1649, approved of Charles I’s execution, and accepted a parliamentary position as a ‘Secretary for Foreign Tongues’, drafting Lat letters to foreign governments as well as continuing his literary work, including sonnets in Lat and English. In 1651–52 his advancing blindness became total, and his wife died the following year. Believing that no church should be state-linked or ‘established’, he clashed with Cromwell on that issue and became disillusioned with his leader’s militarism; failing to prevent the return of the monarchy, he was briefly imprisoned at the Restoration.

But from 1658 to 1665 Milton was engaged in writing his 12-book epic Paradise Lost, published in 1667, one of the great poems in (significantly) the English language. Using the classic model established by Homer’s Gk and Virgil’s Lat, and many of their literary devices, he infused the central biblical narrative with his own dramatic and imaginative power, expressed in the sonorous and vividly pictorial language which came to be known as ‘Miltonic’. As with other outstanding Christian authors, notably Jn Bunyan and Wm Cowper (qv), it is necessary to have at least some grasp of and sympathy with the poet’s faith in order to understand his writing. The Christ-centred Paradise Regained and the tragedy Samson Agonistes followed, the latter with poignant reference to the hero’s blindness. His highly individual credal summary appeared posthumously in the less-thanorthodox De Doctrina Christiana. His literary reputation has ebbed and flowed ever since, but he must still be counted one of the finest poets his country has produced; he might have been foreseeing some more recent work in writing that ‘when the vernacular becomes irregular and depraved, there will follow the people’s ruin or their degradation’ (quoted by Charles Cleall, Music and Holiness, 1964). Songs of Praise (1925) used 4 of Milton’s texts as hymns; most hymn-books confine themselves to anything between a half (as here) and two; see notes. His mature poems have the effect of making his ‘hymns’ seem of limited value, but the lyrical quality of even the simpler texts is still apparent. The literature on Milton is appropriately vast; of special interest is C S Lewis’s separately-published Preface to Paradise Lost (1942), not least since ‘given any line in Paradise Lost he could usually continue with the next line’—Derek Brewer. Some of Lewis’s own popular stories for adults and children clearly owe something to Milton. See also the more recent work of Valentine Cunningham and Stanley Fish, among others who have grasped and embraced the ‘Paradise’ plot.

2008 saw many events celebrating the 400th anniversary of the poet’s birth. The Bodleian Library staged an exhibition, ‘Citizen Milton’ and Lance Pierson gave several recitations of ‘Milton in Voice and Verse’. The 16th-cent Grade 1 listed ‘Milton’s Cottage’ in Chalfont St Giles (Bucks) is a permanent memorial housing many treasures. No.911*.

Hymns and songs by Milton, John

Number Hymn Name
911 Praise, O praise our God and King