Milton’s Life

Compared to the lives of most of his contemporaries a substantial amount is known about the life of John Milton. This is important, for it has allowed a great deal of critical interpretation of his works to be based on knowledge of his political allegiance or biographical details.

Milton was born in London in 1608 to Sara and John Milton, his father a Calvinistic scrivener and composer, originally of Roman Catholic background. Milton’s early education was conducted at home with private tutors; most important among these was Thomas Young, a dissenting Scotsman, to whom his first acknowledged prose tract is dedicated. At some point between 1618 and 1620 Milton first went to St Paul’s School, where he remained until he went up to Christ’s College, Cambridge in 1625. During the years before Milton went up to Cambridge he was in preparation for the ministry. At St Paul’s School Milton would almost certainly have heard sermons given by the Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral, the metaphysical poet John Donne.

At Cambridge Milton ran into difficulties with his tutor, and was suspended for a time during 1626. He was known in Cambridge as "The Lady of Christ’s", probably a sobriquet on the poet’s dissociation from the usual social and athletic pastimes. Milton appears to have been known for his intellectual abilities, and indeed was sought out for them. Milton signed the Subscriptions Book in 1632, indicating not only acceptance of his degree, but also the doctrines of the Church of England. This is interesting as at this time of Milton’s life William Laud’s control over the Church of England and it official doctrines and rites was beginning to cause a stir among the nation, particularly among the more puritanical elements.

It is possible that Milton was still intent on pursuing a career in the ministry during the early 1630s. However he did not receive preferment, either collegiate or parochial, and perhaps never sought one; it is also possible that Milton no longer intended entering the ministry, or at least that which was developing under William Laud. Nevertheless, by 1637 Milton seemed set to embark on a poetic career.

On April 3rd 1637 Milton’s mother died, setting in motion the events that would result in him moving away from home, travelling in France and Italy. In 1638 Milton consulted Sir Henry Wotton, former ambassador in Venice, about a trip to the Continent. Some records have emerged from the trip, but most of the information comes from Milton’s own Defensio secunda (1654). Milton travelled throughout Italy, France and to Geneva, meeting many of the intellectuals and theologians of his time. Milton attests in Areopagitica that he visited the aged Galileo imprisoned by the Inquisition in Florence, reinforcing his commitment to the liberty of the English nation. While on his tour, Milton learned of the deaths of his friend Charles Diodati and sister Anne. Milton began teaching, it would seem, to provide for his orphaned nephews the kind of education he himself had received.

Milton became immersed in religious controversy soon after his return from the Continent; taking the anti-Laudian side during the early 1640s. During the period 1645-9 Milton made a retreat to study and tutoring, as well as planning poetic works. Milton emerged in 1649 to defend the Regicide with his first political tract, The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates. Milton’s view that sovereign power always resides with the people and can be recalled at any time was the opposite to that expounded in Hobbes’ Leviathan (1651), which argued that people surrender their rights and may not resist established authority.

Milton became Secretary for Foreign Tongues to Cromwell’s Council of State in 1649. Though Milton did not have any executive powers, he was the apologist of the Commonwealth regime against Royalist attack in, for example, Eikonoclastes (Milton’s answer to the Royalist propaganda-piece Eikon Basilike put together from Charles I’s papers). Milton moved on to rebuke the Frenchman Claude Salmasius (employed by the exiled Charles II) with Pro Populo Anglicano Defensio (1651), destroying the former’s historical arguments. It was during the writing of the Defensio that Milton lost his sight. This was clearly a turning point in his life and writing, since he had to dictate the rest of his works. Another Royalist attack evoked the Defensio Secunda (1654), with all of its attack on Alexander More, is more competent testimony to the achievements of the Revolution and Commonwealth.

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