The seventeenth century was a time for many discoveries across different fields. In the field of literature, one of the greatest English epics in history was written—Paradise Lost by British poet John Milton.
Milton was born in 1608 in London. Coming from a middle-class family, he was able to study various languages—such as Latin, Greek, Italian, Hebrew, French, and Spanish—at St. Paul’s School. At the age of seventeen, he started attending Christ’s College in Cambridge, where he graduated four years later with a bachelor’s degree. He also received a master’s degree at the same school in 1632. Originally, he had pursued the master’s degree in preparation to enter the priesthood, but once he had finished, he instead went into a six-year private study to become a poet.
Religion, science, philosophy, politics, history, and literature were only a few of the subjects that Milton studied in addition to languages such as Italian and Old Dutch. Within these six years, Milton composed his first few poems: “On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity,” “On Shakespeare,” “L’Allegro,” “Il Penseroso,” and “Lycidas,” the last poem an elegy for Edward King. Through the clever use of allegory and metaphor, Milton praises King and, at the same time, recalls his life. Many have called “Lycidas” a “perfect piece of pure literature” because of its complex structure and dynamic coherence.
After his private study, he went on a tour of France and Italy that lasted a little over a year. There, he met other innovators, influencers, and intellectuals, including the astronomer Galileo. In 1642, he married Powell, who would sadly pass away in 1652 after having four children with Milton.
Milton became active in speaking for certain causes during the English Civil War by creating pamphlets. The causes he advocated for included press freedom, populism, sanctioned regicide, and the morality of divorce. Milton later served as secretary for foreign languages in Oliver Cromwell’s government and composed statements that defended the commonwealth. Around this time, Milton started losing his eyesight and was completely blind by 1651. However, he still continued both his work and his poetry.
In 1660, Milton was arrested as a defender of the commonwealth after Charles II was restored to the throne. After a few years, he was fined and set free and lived the rest of his life in London. During the latter years of his life, he was able to pen minor works, including Art of Logic and The History of Britain.
In 1667, Milton published his now-classic epic poem Paradise Lost. The first version consisted of ten books, with over ten thousand lines of verse. The epic poem, written in blank verse, is about how Satan tempted Adam and Eve to taste the forbidden fruit and how they were exiled from Eden. The poem contains theological themes and political commentary and has been the cause of many debates since its publication. The epic inspired many other long poems, including Alexander Pope’s The Rape of the Lock, William Wordsworth’s The Prelude, and John Keats’s Endymion. According to Milton himself, the purpose of the epic was to “justify the ways of God to men.”
Paradise Lost was followed in 1671 by Paradise Regained, which deals with the temptation of Christ as it appears in the Gospel of Luke. One of the concepts presented in Paradise Regained is the idea of reversals, which is evident from the title itself. Throughout the poem, antonyms are often found close to each other. Moreover, by the end, the “brief epic” hopes to regain everything that was lost the first time around.
In 1674, Milton died of kidney failure. He was buried in the church of St. Giles-without-Cripplegate in London. In 1973, a sculpture by John Bacon the elder was added to his grave.
Many great writers became popular after Milton’s lifetime, but his name has never been forgotten. Historians have always considered Milton to be at the same level as Shakespeare in terms of literary quality. As early as 1695, other writers started studying his work and offered annotations and commentary. In the Victorian age, many poets influenced by Milton emerged. These included the likes of George Eliot and Thomas Hardy. Milton is undeniably one of the greatest poets of the seventeenth century.
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