The poet John Milton (1608-1674) has long been recognized as a figure of monumental importance in the history of English Literature. He was one of the most ambitious of all our writers, seeking quite consciously to become an English Virgil, and planning an epic poem from youth. He achieved this in Paradise Lost, universally recognized as the greatest complete epic in English literature. His thoroughly scholarly education was directed towards this ambition: published poems survive in Latin, Italian and Greek; he also knew French and Hebrew. He spent more than five years in a heavy programme of private reading after his BA; he makes frightening recommendations for a reading list of Latin and Greek authors in his Of Education (1644), as well as setting students to master Italian, Hebrew, Syriac and Chaldean (Aramaic).
His (non-poetic) life was dominated by the times in which he lived. From his graduation as BA early in 1629, when he signed three Church of England articles of religion, he became increasingly disenchanted with the established church. He held the Protestant belief that every man was his own priest; he was against formalism, ceremony, ritual and 'Romanism' in general. In the times leading up to the Civil War, he wrote pamphlets (or tracts) against the idea of bishops; in favour of divorce; against censorship (his Areopagitica used to be a basic text in English lessons in school upper forms); in support of the Commonwealth, and specifically the execution of Charles I, and finally, before the Restoration in 1660, against the return of the Stuarts. He served the Commonwealth and later Protectorate as Secretary for Foreign Tongues, whose basic duty was translation, though he contributed more to defending the Commonwealth than that. He was fortunate to escape execution at the Restoration, although he spent some time in prison, and suffered severe financial loss.
In 1642, Milton married Mary Powell, then 17; the couple were estranged after a month, Mary leaving for three years. By 1648, Milton had lost the sight in his left eye; Mary died in childbirth in 1652, the year in which he lost the sight in his second eye. In 1656, he married Katherine Woodcock, who died, also of perinatal complications, in 1658. His third marriage was in 1663, to Elizabeth Minshull (1638-1727: she outlived her husband by more than half a century). Milton had in all five children. With Mary Powell he had four children: Anne (b. 1646), Mary (b. 1648), John (1651-1652) and Deborah (b. 1652). With Katherine Woodcock he had Katherine (1657-58).
- The adjective miltonic is used to describe the style of Milton's verse, particularly that of his epics. It shows his education, being characterized by high levels of learned vocabulary, long sentences, and a syntax that owes much to the dead languages. Driven by their example, he does not use rhyme in his epics, calling his metre "English heroic verse without rime [sic]". His general effect is dignified and stately, reflecting the high seriousness of his themes.
- Miltonian is best reserved for readers, admirers and imitators of John Milton.
The text of most of Milton's writings is available online. See Milton's Works.
- Oddly enough, Milton's grandfather was a Roman Catholic, devout enough to have been excommunicated and fined; he disinherited his son, the poet's father, for embracing Protestantism. The poet's brother, Christopher Milton (1615-1693), was royalist enough to have been knighted after the Restoration, and may have converted to Catholicism.