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English writer John Milton used both his poetry and prose to address issues of religion and politics. Placing himself in a line of poets whose art was an outlet for their public voice and using the pastoral poem to present an outlook on politics, Milton aimed to promote an enlightened commonwealth, not unlike the polis of Greek antiquity or the cultured city-states in Renaissance Italy. Because of its length, complexity, and consummate artistry, his epic poem Paradise Lost (1667) is considered Milton’s masterpiece.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Gifted Young Student
Milton was born in London on December 9, 1608, to John Milton Sr. and Sara Jeffrey Milton. Milton’s father was a prosperous scrivener (scribe), while his mother was a gentlewoman known for her charitable works. From an early age he was immersed in literary and intellectual activity. Milton had a superior education that stressed the classics, music, and foreign languages. A highly gifted student, Milton demonstrated a faculty for language, learning Greek, Latin, Hebrew, French, and Italian while still quite young. Milton’s young intellect was also nurtured by a private tutor, Thomas Young. Milton entered Christ’s College at Cambridge University in 1625.
Though Milton’s father had been raised in a staunchly Catholic family, he renounced the Catholic faith and became a Protestant. Milton was raised in a Protestant environment. In England at this time, religious tensions were high. King Charles I took the throne in 1625 and was widely believed to have Catholic leanings— even marrying a Catholic woman, Henrietta Maria of France—though the British monarchy was entrenched in Protestant beliefs. Charles I also faced conflict with the rising middle class, which was primarily Puritan (a Protestant sect), and which sought to make parliament superior to the king. Charles I believed firmly in the divine right of kings (that is, a monarch has a right to rule from the will of God, not from a temporal authority). This tension grew heated over the next two decades.
First Important Poems
At first unpopular, Milton eventually made a name for himself as a rhetorician and public speaker. While at Cambridge he probably wrote “L’Allegro,” ”Il Penseroso,” and ”On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity,” three of his earliest great poems in English. Upon graduating in 1632, Milton devoted himself to intense study and writing. To this period scholars assign the composition of some of Milton’s finest nonepic poems, including “Lycidas” (1638).
The purpose of ”Lycidas” was twofold: to honor the late Edward King, a former schoolmate at Christ’s College, and to denounce incompetent clergy—a perennial concern of Milton’s. The poem also reveals Milton’s own philosophical ambitions—later undertaken in Paradise Lost—to justify God’s ways to humanity. Many critics consider ”Lycidas” the finest short poem in the English language.
Created on Commission
Milton also wrote his first extended work, Comus, in 1637 on commission. The play is in the Elizabethan court masque tradition. Here, in exchanges between two young brothers, a lady, and the tempter Comus, Milton explored the merits of ”moral discipline” and the dangers of sexual license.
In May 1638, Milton embarked on a long journey through Italy. The experience, which he described in Second Defence of the People of England (1654), brought him into contact with the leading men of letters in Florence, Rome, and Naples. Upon his return to England, Milton wrote the Italy-inspired Damon (1640).
The English Civil War
With the advent of English Civil War, Milton’s life changed utterly as his attentions shifted from private to public concerns. The English Civil War was a result of the discontent between Charles I and his subjects. Beginning in 1642, armed conflict broke out between the antiroyalist Puritans and Scots and the royalists, who supported the monarchy, and who included the Welsh. Abruptly Milton left off writing poetry for prose, pouring out pamphlets during the early 1640s in which he opposed what he considered rampant episcopal tyranny. He declared his Puritan allegiance in tracts in which he argued the need to purge the Church of England of all vestiges of Roman Catholicism and restore the simplicity of the apostolic (that is, early) church.
During this period, Milton also published The Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce, Restor’d to the Good of Both Sexes from the Bondage of Canon Law (1643), in which he maintained that incompatibility is a valid reason for divorce. This work was presumably inspired by his hasty marriage in 1642 to his first wife, Mary Powell, who left him shortly after the wedding but returned to him three years later. After bearing four children, she died in 1652 from childbirth complications, and Milton married Katherine Woodcock in 1658. She died in 1658 after giving birth to their daughter, who also died. Milton married for the last time in 1663 to twenty-four-year-old Betty Minshull.
In 1644, Milton published Areopagitica, often cited as one of the most compelling arguments for the freedom of the press. During the next few years Milton worked on his History of Britain (1670). With Puritan leader Oliver Cromwell’s execution of King Charles I in 1649, however, Milton entered the political fray with The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates (1649), an assertion of the right of a people to depose or execute a ruling tyrant. This view was a complete about-face for Milton, who had written as a good monarchist in his early antiprelatical, or anticlergy, works.
Continued Focus on Affairs of State
After the execution of Charles I, Cromwell declared England a Commonwealth and himself ruler. Milton accepted an invitation to become Cromwell’s Latin secretary for foreign affairs and soon wrote a number of tracts on church and state issues, including A Defence of the People of England (1651) and Second Defence of the People of England (1654), two reviews praising the achievements of Cromwell’s government. Cromwell ruled until his death in 1658 and was briefly succeeded by his son Richard, until Charles II, the eldest son of the executed king, was crowned in 1660. After the restoration of the monarchy, Milton was dismissed from governmental service, arrested, and imprisoned. Payment of fines and the intercession of friends and family, including Andrew Marvell, Sir William Davenant, and perhaps Christopher Milton, his younger brother and a royalist lawyer, brought about his release.
Completed Paradise Lost
Completely blind since 1652 (Milton acknowledged that in his youth he rarely quit his books before midnight and attributed his later blindness to excessive reading by candlelight), Milton increasingly devoted his time to poetry. Helpers, assisted sometimes by Milton’s two nephews and his daughter Deborah, were employed to take dictation and read aloud and correct copy. During the writing of Paradise Lost, Milton spent mornings dictating passages he had composed in his head at night.
Paradise Lost was published in 1667, an epic poem recounting the biblical story of humanity’s fall from grace. This work and its sequel, Paradise Regained (1671), are celebrated for their consummate artistry and searching consideration of God’s relationship with the human race. Samson Agonistes (1671), a tragedy, appeared in the same volume as Paradise Regained. In 1673, Milton embraced controversy once again with Of True Religion, a short defense of Protestantism. He died in November 1674, apparently of complications related to gout (a disease created by a buildup of uric acid).
Works in Literary Context
As was common in his time, Milton was educated in the classics and the Bible and drew on such works for inspiration. He was also very much a product of his time, writing about issues related to the English Civil War, the rule of Cromwell, and other events and beliefs of his time. Politics was an important part of Milton’s life, and his works often reflected this.
The Fall of Man
As a classicist, Milton was powerfully aware of his antique antecedents. He had long planned an epic that was to be to England what Homer’s works were to Greece and the Aeneid was to Rome.
Although he contemplated writing about King Arthur for his national poem, he later adopted a biblical subject in Paradise Lost: the Fall of Man as described in the book of Genesis. He begins the poem in media res, in the middle of things, plunging into the action with a description of Satan in hell. The remainder of the poem treats Satan’s deception of Eve in Eden, her deception of Adam, their fall from perfect fellowship with God and with each other, and their banishment from Paradise. Everywhere, the poem is strong in its appeal to the ear, the intellect, and the visual imagination. While the iambic pentameter line is the norm, Milton played with the model, contriving syllables and stresses to complement the sense.
Milton’s high purpose in the poem, to ”justify the ways of God to men,” is ever in the forefront of the action. Critics agree that this challenging objective, made all the more difficult by the complicated issue of divine foreknowledge of the Fall, is effected chiefly by imbuing Adam with a will as well as a mind of his own, enabling him to disobey God and thus mar an omnipotent Creator’s perfect creation. Paradise Regained—more a dramatic poem than an epic—completes the action of Paradise Lost. Shorter and conceptually much simpler than the earlier work, Paradise Regained depicts Christ in the wilderness overcoming Satan the tempter. By this action, Christ proves his fitness as the Son of God, thereby preparing himself for his human, substitutionary role in the Crucifixion.
Milton’s later influence derives from both his prose and his poetry. His influence as a political writer was felt in the American, French, and Russian revolutions, when he was cited to justify the opposition to monarchs and absolutists. Among the English Romantics, Milton was extolled as a libertarian and political revolutionary. His refusal to compromise on matters of principle, his blindness, and his punishment after the Restoration caused many admirers to cite him as a model of the spokesperson of truth and of someone who pursued idealism despite adversity.
Milton’s influence on later literature—particularly on eighteenth-century verse—was immense, though his reputation had waned considerably by the Victorian age. By the second half of the twentieth century, however, his works had regained their place in the canon of Western literature.
Works in Critical Context
It would be difficult to overestimate Milton’s importance in English letters. In Paradise Lost, he gave his country its greatest epic, surpassing, most commentators believe, even Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene in the greatness of his achievement in this form. And as the author of ”Lycidas,” “L’Allegro,” and ”Il Penseroso” Milton also established himself as a master of the shorter poem. He helped fuel governmental reform and argued eloquently for major social change. Perhaps most telling of all, he wrote, unlike his nearest English rivals for literary eminence, Geoffrey Chaucer and William Shakespeare, in numerous forms on a tremendous range of issues.
Soon after Milton’s death, Paradise Lost began to draw increased attention and praise from such critics as John Dryden, who considered Milton an epic poet comparable in stature to Homer and Virgil. With the notable exception of Samuel Johnson, who dismissed “Lycidas” as cold and mechanical and Paradise Lost as stylistically flawed, critics throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries upheld Milton’s achievement for various reasons: William Blake and Percy Bysshe Shelley considered Paradise Lost a precursor of Romanticism, ennobling Satan as a tragic rebel; William Wordsworth hailed Milton’s adoption of libertarian ideals; and Ralph Waldo Emerson praised the poet’s infusion of private passion into universal themes.
In the 1920s, a group of critics, led by American poet T. S. Eliot, began to attack what they perceived as the wooden style and structure of Milton’s epic. Eliot, while conceding Milton’s talent, lamented his influence on later poets, who, he argued, often created tortuously labored, rhetorical verse in imitation of the earlier poet. But Milton’s reputation again rose in the 1940s as critics discovered his previously neglected prose, which in its emphasis on freedom had particular resonance in the World War II era. Furthermore, because of the influential scholarship of such essayists as Charles Williams and C. S. Lewis, Milton’s epic poetry was once again regarded as masterly in its breadth and complexity, and today is considered among the finest in human history.
- Bennett, Joan S. Reviewing Liberty: Radical Christian Humanism in Milton’s Great Poems. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1989.
- Blessington, Francis C. Paradise Lost”s and the Classical Epic. London: Routledge, 1979.
- Danielson, Dennis, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Milton. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989.
- Empson, William. Milton’s God. London: Chatto &Windus, 1965.
- Fletcher, Harris F. The Intellectual Development of John Milton. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1956,1962.
- Honigmann, E. A. J. Milton’s Sonnets. New York: St.Martin’s, 1966.
- Thorpe, James. John Milton: The Inner Life. San Marino, Calif.: Huntington Library, 1983.
- Wilson, A. N. The Life of John Milton. New York: Oxford University Press, 1983.
- Boehrer, Bruce. ”Elementary Structures of Kingship: Milton, Regicide, and the Family.” Milton Studies 23 (1987): 97-117.
- Hatten, Charles. ”The Politics of Marital Reform and the Rationalization of Romance in The Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce.” Milton Studies 27 (1991):95-113.
- Sirluck, Ernest. ”Milton s Political Thought: The First Cycle.” Modern Philology 61 (1964): 209-24.
- Via, John A. ”Milton’s Antiprelatical Tracts: The Poet Speaks in Prose.” Milton Studies 5 (1973): 87-127.
- Creamer, Kevin J. T. The Milton-L Home Page. Retrieved March 27, 2008, from http://facultystaff.richmond.edu/~ creamer/milton/. Last updated on February 13, 2008.
- Society of the Friends of Milton’s Cottage. Milton’s Cottage Museum. Retrieved March 27, 2008, from http://www.miltonscottage.org/.
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