John Milton is best known for Paradise Lost, widely regarded as the greatest epic poem in English. Together with Paradise Regained, it formed his reputation as one of the greatest English writers. In his prose works he advocated the abolition of the Church of England. His influence extended through the English civil wars and also to the American and French revolutions.
Early Life & Education
John Milton was born in London on December 9, 1608 to John and Sara Milton. He had an older sister Anne, and a younger brother Christopher, and several siblings who died before reaching adulthood. As a child, John Milton attended St. Paul’s School, and in his lifetime he learned Latin, Greek, Italian, Hebrew, French, and Spanish. He attended Christ’s College, Cambridge, graduating in 1629 with a Bachelor of Arts degree, and 1632 with a Master of Arts.
Poetry, Politics, and Personal Life
After Cambridge, Milton spent six years living with his family in Buckinghamshire and studying independently. In that time, he wrote “On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity,” “On Shakespeare,” “L’Allegro,” “Il Penseroso,” and "Lycidas," an elegy in memory of a friend who drowned.
In 1638, John Milton went to Europe, where he probably met the astronomer Galileo, who was under house arrest at the time. He returned to England earlier than he had planned because of the impending civil war there.
Milton was a Puritan who believed in the authority of the Bible, and opposed religious institutions like the Church of England, and the monarchy, with which it was entwined. He wrote pamphlets on radical topics like freedom of the press, supported Oliver Cromwell in the English Civil War, and was probably present at the beheading of Charles I. Milton wrote official publications for Cromwell’s government.
It was during these years that Milton married for the first time. In 1642, when he was 34, he married 17-year-old Mary Powell. The two separated for several years, during which time Milton wrote The Divorce Tracts, a series of publications advocating for the availability of divorce. The couple reunited and had four children before Mary died in 1652. It was also in 1652 that Milton became totally blind. In 1656, he married Katherine Woodcock. She died in 1658.
Near the end of 1659, Milton went to prison because of his role in the fall of Charles I and the rise of the Commonwealth. He was released, probably due to the influence of powerful supporters. The monarchy was reestablished in 1660 with Charles II as king.
After his release from prison, Milton married for the third time, this time to Elizabeth Minsull. In 1667, he published Paradise Lost in 10 volumes. It is considered his greatest work and the greatest epic poem written in English. The free-verse poem tells the story of how Satan tempted Adam and Eve, and their expulsion from the Garden of Eden. In 1671, he published Paradise Regained, in which Jesus overcomes Satan’s temptations, and Samson Agonistes, in which Samson first succumbs to temptation and then redeems himself. A revised, 12-volume version of Paradise Lost was published in 1674.
John Milton died in England in November 1674. There is a monument dedicated to him in Poet’s Corner in Westminster Abbey in London.
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