Wednesday, June 22, 2011

John Milton

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How is John Milton’ life reflected in his works?

John Milton was born on December th 1608 (Tillyard 7) into a world that was increasingly ceding to the economic, political and religious pressures of Puritan England (Hill ). Before his birth, the Anglican Church had split into three opposing sects the high Anglicans, moderate Anglicans, and Puritan or Presbyterians who all fought for religious supremacy in England (Gardner). Because of the Reformation Milton’s family found itself divided. After converting to Protestantism Milton’s father, John senior, was disinherited and consequently forced to try his luck in London (Hill, ). Yet despite his disinheritance, John prospered as a moneylender (Tillyard, ). John senior’s financial position allowed him to give his three children one of the best educations at St Paul’s Cathedral School (Nicolson 5). Although many of us forget our primary education, Milton’s time at St Paul’s remained ever-present throughout his life. His memories, love and detailed knowledge of the Cathedral come to life in ‘Jesus in the Temple of Echoes’ in Paradise Regained and entire poems like Il Penseroso (Nicolson 8)

But let my due feet never fail

To walk the studious cloister’s pail,

Custom Essays on John Milton

And love the high embowed roof,

With antique pillars massy proof,

And storied windows richly dight,

Casting a dim religious light.

As Milton grew, the education he was receiving at St Paul’s no longer satisfied his developing mind and so Thomas Young was heired as a tutor. Through him, Milton he learnt the modern languages of French, Italian and Hebrew as well as the required Ancient Greek and Latin (Tillyard 7). Unlike his father’s relationship with his father, Milton remained very close to his family. The importance of John senior to Milton as he is today cannot be underestimated. It was Milton senior who despite his desire to have his eldest son become a lawyer or clergyman (Tillyard ), allowed his son to pursue his fondness of poetry, a profession as unprofitable then as it is now (Hill 4). The kindness of his father and tutelage of Thomas Young, were greatly appreciated by the young Milton who later went on to dedicate the Latin poem Ad Patrem in their honour (Tillyard 8) “Thou never bad’st me treat ”,”But wishing to enrich me more, to fill / My mind with treasure, led’st me far away (Nicolson 0).

Milton’s gifts from childhood stood him out as someone of exception (B, 105). At a very early age, Milton’s literary prowess emerged in such works as his paraphrases of the Biblical Psalms. Written at the age of fourteen, they were the first expression of what we now called ‘Milton’s grand style’. “He with his thunder-clasping hand / Smote the first born of Egypt Land” (Tillyard ).

Milton began college at the age of sixteen in February 165 (Tillyard 1). Christ’s College Cambridge was nothing like the sheltered environment of St Paul’s. His higher education at Cambridge was an extremely experimental period for him. Rarely did two of his pieces bear the same style or prose (Tillyard 1-4).

The first of Milton’s notable pieces produced during his university years was At a Vacation Exercise one of the few works in English at a time when most of his writing was in Latin. The piece contains the first known use of ‘Miltonic verse’ in which a continuous rhyme is kept with ‘Miltonic sublimity’. The piece also proves to us that Milton was well aware of the developments in contemporary English verse (0), but perhaps more important to us is that it is the first of Milton’s long English poems (Tillyard 1-1);

Such where the deep transported mind may soare

Above the wheeling poles, and at Heavns dore

Look in, and see each blissful Deitie

How he before the thunderous throne doth lie,

Listening to what unshorn Apollo sings

To th touch of golden wires, while Hebe brings

Immortal Nectar to her Kingly Sire

After graduating as a Bachelor of Arts in 16, Milton would write a poem that would dwarf all of his previous works. A revelation on the dawn of Christmas Day had led him to the composition of a nativity ode (Carey 6). On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity contains some of the first examples of the ‘Miltonic Style’ including the first great ‘silent’ ending (Bush 64)

But see, the Virgin blest

Hath laid her babe to rest.

Time is our tedious song should here have ending;

Heaven’s youngest-teemed star

Hath fixed her polished car

Her sleeping Lord with handmaid lamp attending;

And all about the courtly stable

Bright-harnessed angels sit in order serviceable.

Despite the poem having a flawless consistency in verse, the qualities of the poem were widely criticised and attracted little praise during Milton’s life (Tillyard 5). Yet we may see the poem as an announcement of Milton coming to age not only physically, as it was written shortly after his 1st birthday, but also in his mastery of conception, image and rhyme (B 105).

After taking his Master of Arts degree in 16, Milton gave himself the open education which Cambridge had not afforded him (B 105). Despite the quantity of work produced in his seven years at Cambridge, Milton saw the curriculum as being barren (B 104). However, whether he enjoyed them or not, Milton’s years at Cambridge were crucially important in shaping the man he later became.

Milton spent six years at his father’s home studying history, geography and astronomy; subjects he felt would allow him to better understand man and the universe (Tillyard 15). During this period, Milton produced what are now seen as two of his greatest works Comus and Lycidas (66-86). Comus is Milton’s first dramatizing of the conflict between good and evil, and may be considered as being a forerunner of his great piece Paradise Lost.

To cast the fashion of uncertain evils;

For grant they be so, while they rest unknown,

What need a man forestall his date of grief,

And run to meet what he would most avoid?

Or if they be but false alarms of Fear,

How bitter is such self-delusion?

In 168 Milton left England for Italy (Tillyard 86) where he hoped the Italian philosophic and intellectual freedoms would considerably enrich his intellectual development (Hill 55). During the fifteen months he spent visiting such towns as Rome and Florence (Tillyard 86-101), Milton, by now a middle-aged Englishman with little published work to his name, was unexpectedly greeted by many of Italy’s leading academics and intellectuals (Hill 5) such as Galileo, the only one of Milton’s contemporaries to be mentioned in Paradise Lost (54). Although Milton would liked to have continued his journey to Sicily and then onto Greece, the approaching civil war in England called him back (5)

On his return from Italy, Milton began an “era of pamphleting” (Nicolson 10). During the nineteen years form 1641-1660, he circulated a number of public issues (Gardner) that ranged from marriage to the conduct of kings (Nicolson 10-1). These writings were a turning point in Milton’s life when poetry ceased to be his prime devotion and politics became his obsession (Muir 81).

In Italy, Milton had become obsessed with the idea of writing a complete history of Britain. When he began The History, soon after his return, he praised the English people as being the chosen race (Hill 160). As the writing progressed, he increasingly felt that the English people’s love of money was greater than their love of the public good (161). By the time he had finished The History, the book reflected Milton’s pessimism towards not only the English people but also the Church and the government (165).

Milton’s pamphlets transformed him from an unknown poet to a leading advocate of the Reformation. During this period he acted first as an apologist for the execution of Charles I, then as Secretary for Foreign Tongues, then as official propagandist of the Puritan Revolution and finally as an opponent to the Restoration (Muir 81). At first Milton believed in the revolution and Cromwell, but would later have second thoughts (Hooker). This came in some measure from the fact that some considered him as an heretic, but mostly because they seemed to be more concerned by their pockets than by the opinions of the minorities (Muir 81). In his History of Britain Milton remarks

“Then was justice delayed, and soon after denied; spight and favour determined all hence faction, thence treachery, both at home and in the field everywhere wrong and oppression foul and dishonest things committed daily, or maintained, in secret, or in open”.

Milton’s views on religion were the most radical and openly criticised of his pamphleting days (Gardner). Milton took the Presbyterian anti-bishops stance to its extreme calling for the abolition of all religious representatives’ including priests. The corruption he saw in the Catholic Church was the fuel of his resentment (Gardner) and in his Reasons of Church and Government he stated that “if England missed her chance of winning freedom it would be by no fault of his” (Hill 55). In Lycidas, Milton compares the Catholics to hungry wolves leaping into a sheeps pen, an image similar to his depiction of Satan leaping over the wall of Paradise in Paradise Lost.

The hungry Sheep look up, and are not fed,

But swoln with wind, and the rank mist they draw,

Rot inwardly, and foul contagion spread

Besides what the grim Woolf with privy paw

Daily devours apace, and nothing sed,

But that two-handed engine at the door,

Stands ready to smite once, and smite no more

We know that Milton had already at the age of sixteen, aspired to write the great English epic that would rival such works as Homer’s Odyssey and Virgil’s Aeneid (Gardner). However it was not until his return from Italy that he began to consider topics (Bush 01). Although his earlier ideas were mainly of British history such as an Arthurian Epic of The Knights of the Round Table or even an epic of Oliver Cromwell and the English Revolution, the list comprised of nearly a hundred different possibilities (Gardner) � “what king or knight, before the conquest, might be chosen” (Muir 1). However after finishing The History of Britain, Milton no longer felt his people were worthy of such an epic, and so the plan was abandoned for sixteen years (16).

Milton returned to the Epic in the mid-1650s inspired by ‘Man’s first disobedience’ the story of Adam and Eve (Gardner). The poem was probably begun around 1658 and finished in 166. It was first published in 1667 for the price of £5. What makes Paradise Lost even more notable is that it was written after Milton became blind. Night was Milton’s favourite time for composition (Bush 01) and each morning he would dictate to one of his two daughters (Gardner).

Milton wrote Paradise Lost using the ‘English heroic’ measure but followed the Homer and Virgil model of un-rhyming verse as, by this stage in Milton’s poetic development, he saw rhyme as being ‘the invention of a barbarous age’. (Bush 11)

Of Mans First Disobedience, and the Fruit

Of that Forbidden Tree, whose mortal tast

Brought Death into the World, and all our woe,

With loss of Eden, till one greater Man

Restore us, and regain the blissful Seat,

Sing Heavnly Muse, that on the secret top

Of Oreb, or of Sinai, didst inspire

That Shepherd, who first taught the chosen Seed,

In the Beginning how the Heavns and Earth

Rose out of Chaos Or if Sion Hill

Delight thee more, and Siloas Brook that flowd

Fast by the Oracle of God; I thence

Invoke thy aid to my adventrous Song,

That with no middle flight intends to soar

Above th Aonian Mount, while it pursues

Things unattempted yet in Prose or Rhime.

In reading through The History of Britain and Paradise Lost one can almost feel a relationship between the two books. His passion for theology and politics made the theme of the fall of man ideal. His History had outlined man’s greediness, next he sought to explain why man had come so short of his expectations.

There are many passages in Paradise Lost that outline Milton’s personal political and religious views (Muir 17). Richard Hooker even claims that Satan in Paradise Lost is a clear depiction of Oliver Cromwell! At the opening of Book VII Milton depicts the condition of the Restoration; claiming it to have ‘fallen on evil days and encompassed with dangers’ (Muir 17-18)

Standing on Earth, not rapt above the Pole,

More safe I Sing, with mortal voice unchang’d,

To hoarce or mute, though fallen on evil dayes,

On evil dayes though fall’n, and evil tongues;

In darkness, and with dangers compast round,

Despite his blindness Milton produced two more great works Paradise Regained and Samson Agonistes (Tillyard 0, 8). As the name suggests; Paradise Regained was published as a sequel to his great epic. Milton considered Paradise Regained to be his better work, both artistry and in content, however modern readers and Milton scholars claim Paradise Lost to be the greater epic (Gardner)

John Milton died on November 8, 1674 shortly before his 66th birthday (B 107). He stands among the best of the English language’s great authors and poets. The way his writings reflect his own origins and life, and connect to the turbulence of his England makes it impossible to separate Milton’s life from his work. In understanding how the events of Milton’s life have helped to create his ‘grand style’

Works Cited

Bush, Douglas. Milton Poetical Works. London Oxford University Press, 166.

“ “. “John Milton.” Encyclopaedia Britannica. 174 ed.

Carey, John. Literature in Perspective Milton. London Evans Brothers, 16.

Gardner, Patrick. “Paradise Lost.” SparkNotes (00). 1 March 00.


Hill, Christopher. Milton and the English Revolution. London Faber and

Faber, 177.

Hooker, Richard. “John Milton.” The European Enlightenment (16). 1 March

00. http//www.wsu.edu8000/~dee/ENLIGHT/MILTON.HTM

Muir, Kenneth John Milton. London Longmans, 155.

Nicolson, Marjorie. A Reader’s Guide to John Milton. London Thames and

Hudson, 164.

Tillyard, E.M.W. Milton. London Chatto and Windus, 10

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