Esther van Raamsdonk
John Milton (1608–1674)
Born in London in 1608, John Milton is considered one of the greatest poets and polemicists in the English language. From 1625, he studied at Christ’s College, Cambridge, where he was known as ‘the Lady’ on account of his long locks (an epithet similarly awarded to Virgil). A gifted student, he wrote several Latin Elegies, English sonnets, and—possibly—five Italian sonnets during his studies. Amongst these, ‘On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity’ (1629) is most significant, particularly as Milton himself deemed it crucial for his development as a poet, his true calling. Between completing his degree and returning for a Master’s, he devoted five years to his own literary, theological, and legal studies at home. In addition to this secluded scholarship, he undertook a Grand Tour of Europe (1638–9), with especial interest in the classical civilisations and Italy. In this he was supported generously and encouraged by his father, John Milton senior, himself a gifted composer, shareholder in the Blackfriars theatre, and scrivener.
Milton began his flood of publications and compositions in 1634, when commissioned to compose A Maske Presented at Ludlow Castle to celebrate the appointment of John Egerton, earl of Bridgewater, as Lord President of Wales. Soon after, he wrote ‘Lycidas’, mourning the death of Edward King, a fellow of Christ’s College; it is generally regarded as the finest elegy in English. However, he was not limited to literary expression, and contributed strongly to political and social discourse, alongside his work as a tutor. After his marriage to Mary Powell in 1642 broke down (the couple was reconciled in 1645), he published the first in a series of tracts defending divorce where a partnership had broken down spiritually and emotionally; these were debated hotly across Europe. He also argued in Areopagitica in favour of a free press, and supported the establishment of the English Republic in the Tenure of Kings and Magistrates. Partly on the basis of the latter text, Milton was appointed Secretary of Foreign Tongues by Cromwell’s government in 1649 and in this capacity, he was tasked with responding to royalist or anti-royalist propaganda, as well as involvement with foreign policy. His Eikonoklastes is a direct response to Eikon Basilike, (probably) largely composed by Charles I and published immediately after his execution. Milton was also the central figure in a Europe-wide controversy over the Regicide, responding to Claude Salmasius’s De Defensio regia pro Carolo I with his Defensio Prima and sparking thereby a flurry of supporting and condemning tracts.
With the Restoration, Milton’s political commitments made him a wanted man, and it seems he escaped retribution only thanks to the intervention of his friend, the poet and politician Andrew Marvell. By this point Milton had lost his sight, and he retired to focus on the composition of his masterpiece, Paradise Lost (1667). Aided by a scribe, he completed the epic poem that remains a jewel of English poetry, as well as its sequel Paradise Regained and the dramatic poem Samson Agonistes. Each of these contributes to issues crucial at the time—and wrestled with still today—such as the nature of just rulership, Free Will, moral action, and the right to question dogma; throughout his life Milton promoted vigorous discussion and reason as essential to human and social progress. He died in 1674, survived by his third wife, Elizabeth Minshull.
Key Bibliographic Source(s)
Estelle Haan, John Milton: Epistolarum Familiarium Liber Unus and Uncollected Letters (Leuven: Leuven University Press, 2019).
Leo Miller, Milton and the Oldenburg Safeguard (New York: Loewenthal Press, 1985).
John Milton, Joannis Miltonii Angli, Epistolarum Familiarium Liberunus […] (London, 1674).
Phyllis B. Tillyard, Milton: Private Correspondence and Academic Exercises (Cambridge, 1932).
Milton’s surviving corpus of letters is relatively small; it consists of only fifty-nine letters, of which thirty-four letters were sent by Milton himself. The majority of these letters are in Latin and are to a variety of recipients, ranging from diplomats, school friends, Italian poets, and ambassadors. There are three vernacular letters; one of these recipients is unknown and marked mysteriously as ‘an Unnamed Friend’. The majority of the letters to Milton are by Herman Mylius, an agent for the Oldenburg Safeguard. Mylius was the only person who kept a diary about his visits to Milton. For more details about these visits and some of the conversations they had together, see Mylius’s diary, which is available in Leo Miller’s book (for details, please see above).