John Milton was born in London on December 9, 1608. His father, in early life, had suffered for conscience sake, having been disinherited upon his abjuring the Catholic faith. He pursued the laborious profession of a scrivener, and having realized an ample fortune, retired into the country to enjoy it. Educated at Oxford, he gave his son the best education that the age afforded. At first young Milton had the benefit of a private tutor; from him he was removed to St. Paul's school; next he proceeded to Christ's College, Cambridge; and finally, after several years preparation by extensive reading, he pursued a course of continental travel. It is to be observed that his tutor, Thomas Young, was a Puritan, and there is reason to believe that Puritan politics prevailed among the fellows of his college.
This must not be forgotten in speculating on Milton's public life, and his inexorable hostility to the established government in church and state; for it will thus appear probable that he was at no time withdrawn from the influence of Puritan connections.
In 1632, having taken the degree of M.A., Milton finally quitted the University, leaving behind him a very brilliant reputation, and a general good-will in his own college. His father had now retired from London, and lived upon his own estate at Horton, in Buckinghamshire. In this rural solitude Milton passed the next five years, resorting to London only at rare intervals, for the purchase of books or music. His time was chiefly occupied with the study of Greek and Roman, and, no doubt, also of Italian literature. But that he was not negligent of composition, and that he applied himself with great zeal to the culture of his native literature, we have a splendid record in his "Comus," which, upon the strongest presumptions, is ascribed to this period of his life. In the same neighborhood, and within the same five years, it is believed that he produced also the "Arcades," and the "Lycidas," together with "L'Allegro," and "Il Penseroso."
In 1637 Milton's mother died, and in the following year he commenced his travels. The state of Europe confined his choice of ground to France and Italy. The former excited in him but little interest. After a short stay at Paris he pursued the direct route to Nice, where he embarked for Genoa, and thence proceeded to Pisa, Florence, Rome, and Naples.
Sir Henry Wotton had recommended, as the rule of his conduct, a celebrated Italian proverb, inculcating the policy of reserve and dissimulation. From a practised diplomatist, this advice was characteristic; but it did not suit the frankness of Milton's manners, nor the nobleness of his mind. He has himself stated to us his own rule of conduct, which was to move no questions of controversy, yet not to evade them when pressed upon him by others. Upon this principle he acted, not without some offence to his associates, nor wholly without danger to himself. But the offence, doubtless, was blended with respect; the danger was passed; and he returned home with all his purposes fulfilled. He had conversed with Galileo; he had seen whatever was most interesting in the monuments of Roman grandeur, or the triumphs of Italian art; and he could report with truth that, in spite of his religion, everywhere undissembled, he had been honored by the attentions of the great, and by the compliments of the learned.
After fifteen months of absence, Milton found himself again in London at a crisis of unusual interest. The king was on the eve of his second expedition against the Scotch; and we may suppose Milton to have been watching the course of events with profound anxiety, not without some anticipation of the patriotic labor which awaited him. Meantime he occupied himself with the education of his sister's two sons, and soon after, by way of obtaining an honorable maintenance, increased the number of his pupils.
In 1641 he conducted his defence of ecclesiastical liberty, in a series of attacks upon episcopacy. These are written in a bitter spirit of abusive hostility, for which we seek an insufficient apology in his exclusive converse with a party which held bishops in abhorrence, and in the low personal respectability of a large portion of the episcopal bench.
At Whitsuntide, in the year 1643, having reached his thirty-fifth year, he married Mary Powell, a young lady of good extraction in the county of Oxford. In 1644 he wrote his "Areopagitica, a speech for the liberty of unlicensed printing." This we are to consider in the light of an oral pleading, or regular oration, for he tells us expressly [Def. 2] that he wrote it "ad justæ orationis modum." It is the finest specimen extant of generous scorn. And very remarkable it is, that Milton, who broke the ground on this great theme, has exhausted the arguments which bear upon it. He opened the subject: he closed it. And were there no other monument of his patriotism and his genius, for this alone he would deserve to be held in perpetual veneration. In the following year, 1645, was published the first collection of his early poems; with his sanction, undoubtedly, but probably not upon his suggestion. The times were too full of anxiety to allow of much encouragement to polite literature; at no period were there fewer readers of poetry. And for himself in particular, with the exception of a few sonnets, it is probable that he composed as little as others read, for the next ten years; so great were his political exertions.
Oliver Cromwell visits Milton.
In 1649, soon after King Charles was put to death, the Council of State resolved to use the Latin tongue in their international concerns, instead of French. The office of Latin Secretary, therefore, was created, and bestowed upon Milton. His hours from henceforth must have been pretty well occupied by official labors. He was one of the most prominent men in his party, a close friend to Cromwell, who frequently visited him; and his advice was sought on all questions of importance. Yet at this time he undertook a service to the state, more invidious, and perhaps more perilous, than any in which his politics ever involved him. On the very day of the king's execution, and even below the scaffold, had been sold the earliest copies of a work admirably fitted to shake the new government, and for the sensation which it produced at the time, and the lasting controversy which it has engendered, one of the most remarkable known in literary history. This was the "Eikon Basilike, or Royal Image," professing to be a series of meditations drawn up by the late king, on the leading events from the very beginning of the national troubles. Appearing at this critical moment, and co-operating with the strong reaction of the public mind, already effected in the king's favor by his violent death, this book produced an impression absolutely unparalleled in any age. Fifty thousand copies, it is asserted, were sold within one year; and a posthumous power was thus given to the king's name by one little book, which exceeded, in alarm to his enemies, all that his armies could accomplish in his lifetime. No remedy could meet the evil in degree. As the only one that seemed fitted to it in kind, Milton drew up a running commentary upon each separate head of the original; and as that had been entitled the king's image, he gave to his own the title of "Eikonoclastes, or Image-breaker," "the famous surname of many Greek emperors, who broke all superstitious images in pieces."
This work was drawn up with the usual polemic ability of Milton; but by its very plan and purpose it threw upon him difficulties which no ability could meet. It had that inevitable disadvantage which belongs to all ministerial and secondary works: the order and choice of topics being all determined by the "Eikon," Milton, for the first time, wore an air of constraint and servility, following a leader and obeying his motions, as an engraver is controlled by the designer, or a translator by the original. It is plain, from the pains he took to exonerate himself from such a reproach, that he felt his task to be an invidious one. The majesty of grief, expressing itself with Christian meekness, and appealing as it were, from the grave to the consciences of men, could not be violated without a recoil of angry feeling, ruinous to the effect of any logic or rhetoric the most persuasive. The affliction of a great prince, his solitude, his rigorous imprisonment, his constancy to some purposes which were not selfish, his dignity of demeanor in the midst of his heavy trials, and his truly Christian fortitude in his final sufferings—these formed a rhetoric which made its way to all hearts. Against such influences the eloquence of Greece would have been vain. The nation was spellbound; and a majority of its population neither could nor would be disenchanted.
Milton was ere long called to plead the same great cause of liberty upon an ampler stage, and before a more equitable audience; to plead not on behalf of his party against the Presbyterians and Royalists, but on behalf of his country against the insults of a hired Frenchman, and at the bar of the whole Christian world. Charles II. had resolved to state his father's case to all Europe. This was natural, for very few people on the continent knew what cause had brought his father to the block, or why he himself was a vagrant exile from his throne. For his advocate he selected Claudius Salmasius, and that was most injudicious. Salmasius betrayed in his work entire ignorance of everything, whether historical or constitutional, which belonged to the case.
Having such an antagonist, inferior to him in all possible qualifications, whether of nature, of art, of situation, it may be supposed that Milton's triumph was absolute. He was now thoroughly indemnified for the poor success of his "Eikonoclastes." In that instance he had the mortification of knowing that all England read and wept over the king's book, while his own reply was scarcely heard of. But here the tables were turned; the very friends of Salmasius complained that while his defence was rarely inquired after, the answer to it, "Defensio pro Populo Anglicano," was the subject of conversation from one end of Europe to the other. It was burned publicly at Paris and Toulouse; and, by way of special annoyance to Salmasius, who lived in Holland, was translated into Dutch.
In 1651 Milton's first wife died, after she had given him three daughters. In that year he had already lost the use of one eye, and was warned by the physicians that if he persisted in his task of replying to Salmasius he would probably lose the other. The warning was soon accomplished, according to the common account, in 1654; but upon collating his letter to Phalaris the Athenian, with his own pathetic statement in the "Defensio Secunda," we are disposed to date it from 1652. In 1655 he resigned his office of secretary, in which he had latterly been obliged to use an assistant.
Some time before this period he had married his second wife, Catherine Woodcock, to whom it is supposed that he was very tenderly attached. In 1657 she died in child-birth, together with her child, an event which he has recorded in a very beautiful sonnet. This loss, added to his blindness, must have made his home, for some years, desolate and comfortless. Distress, indeed, was now gathering rapidly upon him. The death of Cromwell, in the following year, and the imbecile character of his eldest son, held out an invitation to the aspiring intriguers of the day, which they were not slow to improve. It soon became too evident to Milton's discernment that all things were hurrying forward to restoration of the ejected family. Sensible of the risk, therefore, and without much hope, but obeying the summons of his conscience, he wrote a short tract on the ready and easy way to establish a free commonwealth, concluding with these noble words: "Thus much I should perhaps have said, though I were sure I should have spoken only to trees and stones, and had none to cry to, but with the Prophet, Oh earth! earth! earth! to tell the very soil itself what her perverse inhabitants are deaf to. Nay, though what I have spoken should happen [which Thou suffer not, who didst create free, nor Thou next who didst redeem us from being servants of men] to be the last words of our expiring liberty."
What he feared was soon realized. In the spring of 1660 the Restoration was accomplished amid the tumultuous rejoicings of the people. It was certain that the vengeance of government would lose no time in marking its victims; and some of them in anticipation had already fled. Milton wisely withdrew from the first fury of the persecution which now descended on his party. He secreted himself in London, and when he returned to the public eye in the winter, found himself no farther punished than by a general disqualification for the public service, and the disgrace of a public burning inflicted on his "Eikonoclastes," and his "Defensio pro Populo Anglicano."
Apparently it was not long after this time that he married his third wife, Elizabeth Minshul, a lady of good family in Cheshire. In what year he began the composition of his "Paradise Lost" is not certainly known; some have supposed in 1658. There is better ground for fixing the period of its close. During the plague of 1665 he retired to Chalfont, and at that time Elwood, the Quaker, read the poem in a finished state. The general interruption of business in London, occasioned by the plague, and prolonged by the great fire in 1666, explain why the publication was delayed for nearly two years. The contract with the publisher is dated April 26, 1667, and in the course of that year the "Paradise Lost" was published. Originally it was printed in ten books; in the second and subsequent editions, the seventh and tenth books were each divided into two. Milton received only £5 in the first instance on the publication of the book. His farther profits were regulated by the sale of the first three editions. Each was to consist of fifteen hundred copies, and on the second and third, respectively, reaching a sale of thirteen hundred, he was to receive a farther sum of £5 for each, making a total of £15. The receipt for the second sum of £5 is dated April 26, 1669.
In 1670 Milton published his "History of Britain," from the fabulous period of the Norman Conquest. And in the same year he published in one volume "Paradise Regained" and "Samson Agonistes." It has been currently asserted that Milton preferred the "Paradise Regained" to "Paradise Lost." This is not true; but he may have been justly offended by the false principles on which some of his friends maintained a reasonable opinion. The "Paradise Regained" is inferior by the necessity of its subject and design. In the "Paradise Lost" Milton had a field properly adapted to a poet's purposes; a few hints in Scripture were expanded. Nothing was altered, nothing absolutely added; but that which was told in the Scriptures in sum, or in its last results, was developed into its whole succession of parts. Thus, for instance, "There was war in heaven," furnished the matter for a whole book. Now for the latter poem, which part of our Saviour's life was it best to select as that in which paradise was regained? He might have taken the crucifixion, and here he had a much wider field than in the temptation; but then he was subject to this dilemma: if he modified, or in any way altered, the full details of the four evangelists, he shocked the religious sense of all Christians; yet, the purposes of a poet would often require that he should so modify them. With a fine sense of this difficulty, he chose the narrow basis of the temptation in the wilderness, because there the whole had been wrapped up in the Scriptures in a few brief abstractions. Thus "he showed him all the kingdoms of the earth," is expanded, without offence to the nicest religious scruple, into that matchless succession of pictures, which bring before us the learned glories of Athens, Rome in her civil grandeur, and the barbaric splendor of Parthia. The actors being only two, the action of "Paradise Regained" is unavoidably limited. But in respect of composition, it is, perhaps, more elaborately finished than "Paradise Lost."
His subsequent works are not important enough to merit a separate notice. His end was now approaching. In the summer of 1674 he was still cheerful, and in the possession of his intellectual faculties. But the vigor of his bodily constitution had been silently giving way, through a long course of years, to the ravages of gout. It was at length thoroughly undermined; and about November 10, 1674, he died with tranquillity so profound that his attendants were unable to determine the exact moment of his decease. He was buried, with unusual marks of honor, in the chancel of St. Giles at Cripplegate.