English Literature
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John Milton

John Milton

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The Life and Impact of John Milton

John Milton was a celebrated English poet known for his renowned works, including 'Paradise Lost,' and his influential political writings. Despite being blind, Milton's poetry and political views left a lasting impact during a turbulent era in history.

Early Years and Education

Milton was born on December 9, 1608, in London. He received his education at St. Paul's School and was privately tutored by Thomas Young, a Presbyterian who likely influenced Milton's political and religious beliefs. After completing his education, he attended Christ's College at the University of Cambridge, where he earned his Bachelor of Arts in 1629 and Master of Arts in 1632. During this time, he wrote notable poems such as 'Elegia Prima' (1626), 'L'Allegro' (1645), and 'Il Penseroso' (1645/6).

Milton had a vast knowledge of ten languages, including Latin, Greek, Italian, Hebrew, French, and Spanish. He kept a Commonplace Book to record his extensive readings.

Travels and Influences

After completing his university education, Milton traveled extensively in Europe. During a visit to Florence, he met Galileo, who was under house arrest. Although the details of their meeting are unknown, it is believed that Galileo's ideas influenced Milton's depiction of the universe in 'Paradise Lost.' Upon hearing news of the Civil War in England, Milton returned to London in 1639.

Personal Life

In 1642, Milton married 17-year-old Mary Powell. However, the marriage was unhappy, and the couple separated for many years. During this time, Milton wrote the 'Divorce Tracts,' advocating for the morality of divorce due to irreconcilable differences. In 1645, he published his first volume of poetry, 'Poems of Mr John Milton, Both English and Latin,' which included some of his teenage compositions. After reuniting with Mary, they had four children together. She passed away in 1652, and Milton remarried Katherine Woodcock in 1656. She also passed away in 1658, shortly after giving birth to their child. Milton's sonnet 'Methought I Saw My Late Espoused Saint' (1658) is believed to be about Katherine. Milton's final marriage was to Elizabeth Mynshull in 1663, which lasted until his death in 1674 at the age of 65.

Political Career

In addition to his poetry, Milton was a prominent political figure during and after the English Civil War. He wrote against corruption in the English clergy in 'Of Reformation' (1641-42) and advocated for freedom of the press in 'Areopagitica' (1644). He also defended the execution of Charles I in his works 'Eikonoklastes' (1649), 'Defensio pro-Populo Anglicano' (1652), and 'Defensio Secunda' (1654).

When Charles II rose to the throne in 1660, Milton's involvement in the Civil War led to his imprisonment. He was initially sentenced to execution but was ultimately released due to the influence of his wealthy family and friends. Despite his complete blindness, Milton continued to write and produced some of his most acclaimed works, including 'Paradise Lost' (1667), 'Paradise Regain'd' (1671), and 'Samson Agonistes' (1671).

Death and Legacy

John Milton passed away in 1674 in England at the age of 65. The cause of death is uncertain, with some sources attributing it to gout complications while others cite consumption. He was laid to rest at St Giles-without-Cripplegate, Fore Street, London.

Notable Works

Milton's most renowned work is the epic poem 'Paradise Lost' (1667), which retells the story of Adam and Eve in blank verse. He also wrote other notable works, including 'Paradise Regain'd' (1671) and 'Samson Agonistes' (1671).

Exploring Themes in Milton's Paradise Lost

Paradise Lost by John Milton is a timeless classic that chronicles Satan's rebellion against Heaven and his cunning plot to tempt Eve and Adam into eating from the forbidden Tree of Knowledge. What makes Milton's accomplishment even more impressive is that he wrote the epic poem while he was blind, dictating it to his aides or daughters.

Order vs Chaos

In Paradise Lost, Milton underscores the importance of hierarchy both in the order of Heaven and on Earth. At the pinnacle of this hierarchy is God, the supreme ruler over all beings. Disobeying Him is considered the ultimate transgression, and Satan's mission in the poem is to disrupt this order and sow chaos on Earth.

John Milton, a staunch advocate for religious hierarchy, holds revolutionary beliefs that challenge traditional ideas. His support for the execution of Charles I, who believed in the divine right to rule, raises the question of reconciling this ideological inconsistency.

Exploring Creation and the Universe

Milton's works, particularly Paradise Lost, also reveal his fascination with materialism. He portrays angels with human anatomy and depicts space and chaos as raw materials used by God to create worlds. He even depicts Hell as a physical place, albeit difficult to access. This raises the intriguing question of whether or not God himself is also made of material substance.

Materialism is the belief that everything, including the spiritual, is made of material substance.

The Concept of Free Will

In Paradise Lost, God is portrayed as all-knowing, having foreseen the fall of man in Genesis. However, he also grants his creatures free will, giving them the choice to obey or rebel against his will. This raises questions about God's omnibenevolence and how it aligns with his plan.

Though God does not directly control Eve and Adam's actions, he allows Satan to tempt them and escape Hell. This raises the question of whether or not God truly embodies omnibenevolence. Does Milton successfully address this issue in Paradise Lost?

"So Heav'nly love shall outdo Hellish hate, Giving to death, and dying to redeem, So dearly to redeem what Hellish hate So easily destroyed, and still destroys In those who, when they may, accept not grace." - Book 3

This quote from God highlights his plan to bring good out of the fall of man. It emphasizes that even though Satan may achieve temporary victories, love will ultimately prevail.

"A mind not to be changed by place or time. The mind is its own place, and in itself Can make a heav'n of hell, a hell of heav'n." - Book 1

This quote, stated early on in the poem, reflects Milton's belief that true Hell is a state of mind. While Hell may be a physical place, the real punishment comes from one's own hatred and refusal to repent.

"Did I request thee, Maker, from my clay To mould me man? Did I solicit thee From darkness to promote me?" - Book 10

This quote, spoken by Adam after the fall of man, questions why God would put humanity on Earth if he knew they would suffer. Interestingly, this quote is also featured as an epigraph on the cover of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein.

"Lycidas"

Considered one of Milton's finest poems, "Lycidas" is a pastoral elegy written in 1637 to honor the death of his friend and fellow student, Edward King. The poem is highly allegorical, with Lycidas symbolizing King and the narrator representing Milton himself.

'Lycidas': An Exploration of Grief, Church Corruption, and Hope

In his poem 'Lycidas', Milton follows the tradition of memorializing a lost loved one through pastoral poetry, a practice that dates back to ancient cultures and continues into the early Renaissance. The elegy delves into themes of grief, memory, and loss as the narrator mourns the death of King. Initially cursing God for the untimely passing, the speaker reminisces about shared experiences at Christ's College, portraying King as a fellow shepherd and using imagery of 'satyrs' and 'fauns' to represent their classmates. However, the poem ends on a note of acceptance and hope, with the narrator envisioning Lycidas in heaven and speaking of a future resurrection.

Criticism of the Clergy and the Corrupt Church

'Lycidas' also serves as a commentary on the clergy and their corruption. Milton suggests that King, who was meant to join the clergy, would have contrasted the usual 'depraved, materialistic, and selfish' ministers and bishops of the Church of England (Mark Womack). The speaker condemns the 'foul contagion' of the clergy and portrays them as ignorant, incompetent, and harmful - even incapable of holding a sheep-hook properly. This emphasizes the tragic loss of King's potential future in the Church and sheds light on Milton's perspective of the Church as deeply corrupt.

The Serene Sunset and the Promise of Renewal in John Milton's 'Lycidas'

"And now the Sun had stretched out all the hills, And now was dropped into the Western bay; At last he rose, and twitched his Mantle blue: To morrow to fresh Woods, and Pastures new.'" (citation needed)

This concluding quote from 'Lycidas' paints a peaceful and picturesque evening with the sun setting over the hills. The ending of the poem exudes a sense of harmony and the assurance of rebirth - just like the Sun will rise again the next morning, the speaker believes that Lycidas too will live again. This powerful message of hope resonates with readers even centuries after its publication.

'For Lycidas, your sorrow is not in vain, Though sunk beneath the watery floor; Just like the day-star in the ocean bed, He too shall rise and shine, his beams anew, Adorned with gold, in the sky's forehead. Though Lycidas has fallen low, he shall ascend high, By the grace of the one who walked on waves.' (citation needed)

Despite its elegiac form, this quote conveys a hopeful outlook. While the beginning of the poem mourns Lycidas' untimely death, this passage suggests that he is not truly gone, but rather destined to be reborn, much like the Sun each dawn.

"The famished sheep look up, yet not well-fed, Swollen with wind and mist, they rot inside; Spreading foul contagion, they are led, By the silent wolf, who daily devours in stride; The two-handed engine at the door remains, Ready to strike and strike again no more." (citation needed)

This particular verse is widely quoted to showcase Milton's scathing criticism of the Church's corruption in 'Lycidas'. The 'sheep' symbolize the Christians, who suffer from hunger due to the neglect and inadequate guidance of the corrupt clergy. The 'rot' and 'foul contagion' represent the spread of sin, while the 'silent wolf' represents the Catholic Church, which Milton held in low regard. This powerful quote highlights the vulnerability of Christians and the dire need for better leadership within the Church.

Discovering John Milton's Outstanding Literary Works

Areopagitica: A Bold Condemnation of Censorship

In 1644, Milton published Areopagitica, a passionate and forceful defense of freedom of speech, in response to the 1643 Licensing Order, which he vehemently opposed. This polemical text openly denounces censorship and advocates for the liberty of unlicensed printing.

"The Licensing Order was a decree that mandated, 'no book, pamphlet, or paper shall be published unless first approved and licensed by such.'" (citation needed)

Areopagitica continues to be a powerful commentary on the liberty of expression and is referenced and studied extensively even today.

The Lasting Impact of John Milton on English Literature

John Milton's 'Areopagitica' has been used to interpret significant laws, including the First Amendment of the United States Constitution, and has been quoted in various American cases concerning censorship, such as New York Times v Sullivan. It is a highly influential political text that showcases Milton's prowess as a political writer.

Religion and Censorship: True to its theme, Milton did not register 'Areopagitica' under the new Licensing Order before publishing it. He argues that censorship of books infringes upon people's free will to discern between good and evil and is a direct violation of God's will. He draws parallels between the Catholic religion and the practice of censorship, referencing the Spanish Inquisition and the Council of Trent, and shifts the responsibility to Parliament.

"He who kills a man, kills a reasonable creature, God's image, but he who destroys a good book, kills reason itself, kills the image of God in the eye."

The Truth: Milton asserts that censorship leads to the suppression of knowledge and, consequently, the truth. It takes away the subjectivity of truth, making it easier to spread falsehoods and propaganda. He warns against the suppression of truth, as it will only create further discord among the people of England and diminish their understanding of the world.

"Not to tolerate Popery and open superstition, which, while it eradicates all religions and civil rights, must itself be eradicated, provided every charitable and compassionate measure is taken to reform and reclaim the weak and misled ones."

John Milton: An Icon of English Literature

John Milton's influence and legacy in English literature cannot be overstated. His radical beliefs and writings challenged the norms of his time, making him a revolutionary figure and cementing his reputation as a poet throughout the centuries. In particular, his portrayal of Satan in 'Paradise Lost' has captured the imagination of many renowned authors, including William Blake, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Mary Shelley, and Lord Byron. His works continue to inspire modern writers, with 'Paradise Lost' even being referenced in Philip Pullman's popular 'His Dark Materials' trilogy.

John Milton (1608-1674) was a well-rounded figure, serving as a writer, philosopher, and civil servant. A devout Puritan, he wrote extensively on political and religious matters, as seen in his famous works such as 'Aeropagitica' and 'Lycidas'. In addition, he also held the position of Secretary for Foreign Tongues under Oliver Cromwell's government, further cementing his influential role in British society.

Throughout his life, Milton was married three times and faced political and personal turmoil, including his temporary exile after Charles II's ascension to the throne. But even in death, he remained a figure of interest. Milton's final resting place is located at St Giles-without-Cripplegate in London, where visitors can pay their respects to this literary giant.

His most famous work, 'Paradise Lost', has been considered his masterpiece and continues to be a widely studied and praised epic poem. It is a testament to Milton's mastery of language and his deep understanding of complex themes such as good versus evil and the fall of humankind. The poem also serves as a tribute to William Shakespeare, whom Milton greatly admired and even wrote a poem about.

While some may attempt to diminish Milton's contributions, his legacy lives on through his enduring literary works and his impact on political and religious discourse. John Milton remains a celebrated and influential figure in English literature, second only to Shakespeare. As he famously wrote, "A good book is the precious life-blood of a master spirit," and his works continue to live on, inspiring and educating generations to come.

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