Wednesday, September 11, 2013

John Milton (1608-1674)

Childhood (1608-c. 1620)
John Milton was born in London near St. Paul's Cathedral on December 9, 1608, into a middle-class Protestant family. His father was prosperous enough to pay tutors to teach his son.

Education (c. 1620-1639)
John's private lessons prepared him to attend St. Paul's School where he deepened his knowledge of Greek, Latin, and theology. He began to write poetry at this time. John Donne was the leading priest at St. Paul's Cathedral from 1621 until his death in 1631.

John began his studies at Cambridge University in 1625. The poet George Herbert held the post of university orator there from 1620 to 1628. John graduated with honors in 1629. His first published poem was “Epitaph on the admirable Dramatick Poet, W. Shakespeare” (1630), who had died only 14 years before. John continued his studies at Cambridge and received his master's degree in 1632.

With his formal education out of the way, he could begin his proper studies. For the next six years, he studied all the subjects, including literature, theology, and history, he believed he needed to excel as a poet. For this same reason he mastered Hebrew, Greek, Latin, French, Spanish, and Italian.

To complete his education, he toured the Continent for a year beginning in the spring of 1638. In Paris he met Hugo Grotius, a Dutch jurist and advocate of religious tolerance, and visited Notre Dame and the Louvre. In Florence he visited Galileo who was under house arrest. In Rome he alienated Italian acquaintances by complaining bitterly about the Roman Catholic Church. He also conversed, observed life, and studied in Nice, Genoa, Pisa, Naples, Venice, and Geneva before returning to England in the summer of 1639.

Polemics (1639-1649)
John returned to London at a time when great tension existed between rulers and subjects in England, Scotland, and Ireland. These disagreed with one another about the proper form of church organization (to have bishops or not), the proper relationship of state to church, and the proper relationship of king to parliament. These tensions over how best to live as Christians actually exploded into the execution of a king and wars between the three states.

In this context, John supported the Puritans who wanted to reform the organization of the Church of England by replacing bishops with groups of elders. He argued for religious tolerance (except for Catholics and all non-Christians). Thirdly he sided with Parliament in limiting the rule of the king. He published his points of view in a series of vigorously argued pamphlets.

In 1641 he wrote the pamphlet On Reformation. In it he likens the Catholic Church to Babylon, its bishops to Egyptian slave drivers, the English to the people of Israel, and Cromwell to Moses. In preparing this pamphlet, his extensive reading included the commentary on Genesis by John Calvin.

In June 1643 John married. His wife returned to her parents' home a month later and remained there for two years. During that time John published pamphlets legally and morally justifying divorce. More importantly, in them he spoke of the relationship of love and freedom that characterizes the relationship of any man and woman brought together by God.

In 1643 Parliament passed a law requiring every author to obtain a license from the state before publishing anything. State officials unhappy with John's discussion of divorce censored them. In response John published, without their permission, his Areopagitica, the most eloquent defense of freedom of speech and of the press in Olympian history. Parliament ignored it.

Politics (1649-1660)
After Parliamentary leaders won their civil war against the king, they had him executed, took control of the state, and peopled the civil service with their sympathizers. In 1649 they hired John to answer letters from important foreigners, write supportive pamphlets, and, ironically enough, censor publications.

Shortly after the king's beheading, a pamphlet entitled Eikon Basilike (Royal Icon [Portrait]) was published. It was understood to be a diary written by the king in the days preceding his death. Its writer explains the king's behavior, justifies the rule of kings by divine right, and forgives his enemies. It was wildly popular.

Parliament gave John the responsibility of writing the state's response. In 1652 he published Eikonoklastes (Breaker of Icons). In it he sharply criticizes the actual behavior of the king, justifies his execution, and defends representative government as superior to rule by kings. While it became the most widely read of John's pamphlets, it failed to diminish popular admiration and sorrow for the dead king. When the monarchy was restored in 1660, John escaped execution but the new king had all available copies of Eikonoklastes publicly burned.

By 1652 John was totally blind. This forced him to dictate every subsequent letter, pamphlet, and poem.

In 1659 as England's republican government collapsed and both leaders and people clamored for a restoration of the monarchy, a horrified John quickly composed and published a series of pamphlets praising the practice of democracy, recalling the evils of an authoritarian monarchy, and condemning the English people for so carelessly abandoning their hard-won freedom. To no avail.

Poetry (1660-1674)
John started composing his most significant work, Paradise Lost, in 1658. His retirement from politics, like Dante's, allowed him to focus on completing his epic poem. He had the first edition of it published in 1667. Like Homer's Iliad and Odyssey in Greek, Virgil's Aeneid in Latin, and Dante's Divine Comedy in Italian, John's Paradise Lost is the best epic poem written in its language.

He published two other significant works, Paradise Regained and Samson Agonistes, in 1671. He completed a revision of Paradise Lost just before his death.

John died from an illness in London on November 8, 1674.

In 1823, the unfinished manuscript of his personal theology, Christian Doctrine, was discovered and published.

William Wordsworth wrote this homage to John in 1802:

          Milton! thou shouldst be living at this hour:
          England hath need of thee; she is a fen
          Of stagnant waters: altar, sword, and pen
          Fireside, the heroic wealth of hall and bower
          Have forfeited their ancient English dower
          Of inward happiness. We are selfish men;
          Oh! raise us up, return to us again;
          And give us manners, virtue, freedom, power.
          Thy soul was like a Star and dwelt apart;
          Thou hadst a voice whose sound was like the sea;
          Pure as the naked heavens, majestic, free,
          So didst thou travel on life's common way,
          To cheerful godliness; and yet thy heart
          The lowliest duties on herself didst lay.

Copyright © 2013 by Steven Farsaci. All rights reserved.