John Milton’s career as a writer of prose and poetry spans three distinct eras: Stuart England; the Civil War (1642-1648) and Interregnum, including the Commonwealth (1649-1653) and Protectorate (1654-1660); and the Restoration. When Elizabeth I, the so-called Virgin Queen and the last of the Tudors, died, James VI, King of Scots, was enthroned as Britain’s king. Titled James I, he inaugurated the House of Stuart. His son and successor, Charles I, continued as monarch until he lost the Civil War to the Parliamentarians, was tried on charges of high treason, and was beheaded on 30 January 1649. For eleven years thereafter England was governed by the military commander and later Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell, who was succeeded by his son, Richard. By 1660 the people, no longer supportive of the Protectorate, welcomed the Restoration, the return of the House of Stuart in the person of Charles II, son of the late king.
Milton’s chief polemical prose was written in the decades of the 1640s and 1650s, during the strife between the Church of England and various reformist groups such as the Puritans and between the monarch and Parliament. Designated the antiepiscopal or antiprelatical tracts and the antimonarchical or political tracts, these works advocate a freedom of conscience and a high degree of civil liberty for humankind against the various forms of tyranny and oppression, both ecclesiastical and governmental. In line with his libertarian outlook, Milton wrote Areopagitica (1644), often cited as one of the most compelling arguments on the freedom of the press. In March 1649 Milton was appointed secretary for foreign tongues to the Council of State. In that capacity his service to the government, chiefly in the field of foreign policy, is documented by official correspondence, the Letters of State, first published in 1694. In that capacity, moreover, he was a vigorous defender of Cromwell’s government. One of his assignments was to counteract the erosion of public support of the Commonwealth, a situation caused by the publication of the Eikon Basilike (1649) or King’s Book, which had widespread distribution after Charles I’s execution. Believed to have been written by the king himself—though composed chiefly by an episcopal divine, Dr. John Gauden, who later became a bishop—the work sought to win public sympathy by creating the image of the monarch as a martyred saint. Eikonoklastes (1649), or Imagebreaker, is Milton’s refutation, a personal attack on Charles I which likened him to William Shakespeare‘s duke of Gloucester (afterward Richard III), a consummate hypocrite. As a result Milton entered into controversy with Claude de Saumaise, a French scholar residing in Holland and the polemicist who wrote on behalf of Charles I’s son in exile in France.
The symptoms of failing eyesight did not deter Milton , who from an early age read by candlelight until midnight or later, even while experiencing severe headaches. By 1652 he was totally blind. The exact cause is unknown. Up to the Restoration he continued to write in defense of the Protectorate. After Charles II was crowned Milton was dismissed from governmental service, apprehended, and imprisoned. Payment of fines and the intercession of friends and family, including Andrew Marvell, Sir William Davenant, and perhaps Christopher Milton, his younger brother and a Royalist lawyer, brought about Milton’s release. In the troubled period at and after the Restoration he was forced to depart his home which he had occupied for eight years in Petty-France, Westminster. He took up residence elsewhere, including the house of a friend in Bartholomew Close; eventually, he settled in a home at Artillery Walk toward Bunhill Fields. On or about 8 November 1674, when he was almost sixty-six years old, Milton died of complications from gout.
While Milton’s impact as a prose writer was profound, of equal or greater importance is his poetry. He referred to his prose works as the achievements of his “left hand.” In 1645 he published his first volume of poetry, Poems of Mr. John Milton , Both English and Latin, much of which was written before he was twenty years old. The volume manifests a rising poet, one who has planned his emergence and projected his development in numerous ways: mastery of ancient and modern languages—Greek, Latin, Hebrew, Italian; awareness of various traditions in literature; and avowed inclination toward the vocation of poet. The poems in the 1645 edition run the gamut of various genres: psalm paraphrase, sonnet, canzone, masque, pastoral elegy, verse letter, English ode, epigram, obituary poem, companion poem, and occasional verse. Ranging from religious to political in subject matter, serious to mock-serious in tone, and traditional to innovative in the use of verse forms, the poems in this volume disclose a self-conscious author whose maturation is undertaken with certain models in mind, notably Virgil from classical antiquity and Edmund Spenser in the English Renaissance.
Like the illustrious literary forebears with whom he invites comparison, Milton used his poetry to address issues of religion and politics, the central concerns also of his prose. Placing himself in a line of poets whose art was an outlet for their public voice and using, like them, the pastoral poem to present an outlook on politics, Milton aimed to promote an enlightened commonwealth, not unlike the polis of Greek antiquity or the cultured city-states in Renaissance Italy. When one considers that the 1645 volume was published when Milton was approximately thirty-seven years old, though some of the poems were written as early as his fifteenth year, it is evident that he sought to draw attention to his unfolding poetic career despite its interruption by governmental service. Perhaps he also sought to highlight the relationship of his poetry to his prose and to call attention to his aspiration, evident in several works in the 1645 volume, to become an epic poet. Thus, the poems in the volume were composed in Stuart England but published after the onset of the English Civil War. Furthermore, Milton may have begun to compose one or more of his mature works—Paradise Lost, Paradise Regained, and Samson Agonistes—in the 1640s, but they were completed and revised much later and not published until after the Restoration.
This literary genius whose fame and influence are second to none, and on whose life and works more commentary is written than on any author except Shakespeare, was born at 6:30 in the morning on 9 December 1608. His parents were John Milton , Sr., and Sara Jeffrey Milton , and the place of birth was the family home, marked with the sign of the spread eagle, on Bread Street, London. Three days later, at the parish church of All Hallows, also on Bread Street, he was baptized into the Protestant faith of the Church of England. Other children of John and Sara who survived infancy included Anne, their oldest child, and Christopher, seven years younger than John. At least three others died shortly after birth, in infancy or in early childhood. Edward Phillips, Anne’s son by her first husband, was tutored by Milton and later wrote a biography of his renowned uncle, which was published in Milton’s Letters of State (1694). Christopher, in contrast to his older brother on all counts, became a Roman Catholic, a Royalist, and a lawyer.
Milton’s father was born in 1562 in Oxfordshire; his father, Richard, was a Catholic who decried the Reformation. When John Milton, Sr., expressed sympathy for what his father viewed as Protestant heresy, their disagreements resulted in the son’s disinheritance. He left home and traveled to London, where he became a scrivener and a professional composer responsible for more than twenty musical pieces. As a scrivener he performed services comparable to a present-day attorney’s assistant, law stationer, and notary. Among the documents that a scrivener executed were wills, leases, deeds, and marriage agreements. Through such endeavors and by his practice of money lending, the elder Milton accumulated a handsome estate, which enabled him to provide a splendid formal education for his son John and to maintain him during several years of private study. In “Ad Patrem” (To His Father), a Latin poem composed probably in 1637-1638, Milton celebrated his “revered father.” He compares his father’s talent at musical composition, harmonizing sounds to numbers and modulating the voices of singers, to his own dedication to the muses and to his developing artistry as a poet. The father’s “generosities” and “kindnesses” enabled the young man to study Greek, Latin, Hebrew, French, and Italian.”
Little is known of Sara Jeffrey, but in Pro Propulo Anglicano Defensio Secunda (The Second Defense of the People of England, 1654) Milton refers to the “esteem” in which his mother was held and to her reputation for almsgiving in their neighborhood. John Aubrey, in biographical notes made in 1681-1682, recorded that she had weak eyesight, which may have contributed to her son’s similar problems. She died on 3 April 1637, not long before her son John departed for his European journey. Her husband died on 14 March 1647.”
In the years 1618-1620 Milton was tutored in the family home. One of his tutors was Thomas Young, who became chaplain to the English merchants in Hamburg during the 1620s. Though he departed England when Milton was approximately eleven years old, Young’s impression on the young pupil was long standing. Two of Milton’s familiar letters, as well as “Elegia quarta” (Elegy IV), are addressed to Young. (The term elegy in the titles of seven of Milton’s Latin poems designates the classical prosody in which they were written, couplets consisting of a verse of dactylic hexameter followed by a verse of pentameter; elegy, when used to describe poems of sorrow or lamentation, refers to Milton’s meditations on the deaths of particular persons.) Also dedicated to Young is Of Reformation (1641), a prose tract; and the “TY” of the acronym SMECTYMNUUS in the title of Milton’s antiprelatical tract of 1641 identifies Young as one of the five ministers whose stand against church government by bishops was admired by Milton.”
From 1620 until 1625 Milton attended St. Paul’s School, within close walking distance of his home and within view of the cathedral, where almost certainly he heard the sermons of Dr. John Donne, who served as dean from 1621 until 1631. The school had been founded in the preceding century by John Colet, and the chief master when Milton attended was Alexander Gill the Elder. His son, also named Alexander and an instructor at the school, did not teach Milton . Some of Milton’s familiar letters are addressed to the elder and the younger Gills, with whom he maintained contact, chiefly to express gratitude for their commitment to learning and to communicate to them his unfolding plans and aspirations. During his years at St. Paul’s, Milton befriended Charles Diodati, who became his closest companion in boyhood and to whom he wrote “Elegia prima” (Elegy I) and “Elegia sexta” (Elegy VI). They maintained their friendship even though Diodati attended Oxford while Milton was at Cambridge.”
On 9 April 1625 Milton , then sixteen years of age, matriculated at Christ’s College, Cambridge, evidently in preparation for the ministry. For seven years he studied assiduously to receive the bachelor of arts degree (1629) and the master of arts degree (1632). With his first tutor at Cambridge, the logician William Chappell, Milton had some sort of disagreement, after which he may have been whipped. Thereafter, in the Lent term of 1626, Milton was rusticated or suspended, a circumstance to which he refers in “Elegia prima.” After his return to Cambridge later that year and for the remainder of his years there he was tutored by Nathaniel Tovey. At Cambridge Milton was known as “The Lady of Christ’s,” to which he refers in his sixth prolusion, an oratorical performance and academic exercise that he presented in 1628. While the reasons for the sobriquet are uncertain, one suspects that Milton’s appearance seemed feminine to some onlookers. In fact, this theory is supported by a portrait of Milton commissioned by his father when the future poet was ten years old. The delicate features, pink-and-white complexion, and auburn hair, not to mention the black doublet with gold braid and the collar with lace frills, project a somewhat feminine image. Another portrait, painted while he was a student at Cambridge, shows a handsome youth, appearing somewhat younger than his twenty-one years. His long hair falls to the white ruff collar that he wears over a black doublet. His dark brown hair has a reddish cast to it, and his complexion is fair. Apart from his appearance, Milton may have been called “The Lady of Christ’s” because his commitment to study caused him to withdraw from the more typical male activities of athletics and socializing.”
By 1632 Milton had completed a sizable body of poetry. At St. Paul’s he had translated and paraphrased Psalms 114 and 136 from Greek into English. Throughout his Cambridge years he composed many of the poems in the 1645 volume: the seven Latin elegies (three verse letters, two funeral tributes, a celebration of spring, and an acknowledgment of the power of Cupid), other Latin verse, seven prolusions, six or seven sonnets (some in Italian), and numerous poems in English. The works in English include “On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity,” “The Passion,” “On Shakespeare,” the Hobson poems, “L’Allegro,” and “Il Penseroso.”
The circumstances of composition of Milton’s Nativity poem, classified as an ode, are recounted in “Elegia sexta,” a verse letter written to Diodati in early 1630. To his close friend Milton confided that the poem was composed at dawn on Christmas day in December 1629. In “Elegia sexta” Milton summarizes the poem, which, he says, sings of the “heaven-descended King, the bringer of peace, and the blessed times promised in the sacred books.” Likewise, the Christ child “and his stabling under a mean roof” are contrasted with the “gods that were suddenly destroyed in their own shrines” (translation by Merritt Y. Hughes). “On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity” is divided into two sections, the induction and the hymn. The induction is composed of four stanzas in rime royal, a seven-line stanza of iambic pentameter; the hymn consists of twenty-seven stanzas, each eight lines long, combining features of rime royal and the Spenserian stanza. The poem develops thematic opposition between the pagan gods—associated with darkness, dissonance, and bestiality—and Christ—associated with light, harmony, and the union of divine and human natures.”
In addition to the contrasting themes, the poem addresses two of the major paradoxes or mysteries of Christianity: the Virgin Birth and the two natures of Christ. By using oxymoron or succinct paradox—”wedded Maid, and Virgin Mother”—to describe Mary, the poet suggests the mystery of the Virgin Birth, whereby Mary retains her purity and chastity despite impregnation by the godhead. To describe the combination of two natures in Christ, the poet resorts to biblical allusion, particularly Paul’s letter to the Philippians (2:6-11), which recounts how the Son emptied himself of his godhead in order to take on humanity. Paul states that the Son having assumed the form of a servant or slave was obedient unto death on the cross. In the Nativity poem Milton indicates that the Son, while customarily enthroned “in Trinal Unity,” has “laid aside” his majesty to undergo suffering. By such biblical allusion Milton interrelates the Incarnation and Redemption. Paradoxically, Milton affirms that the heroism of the Son is attributable to his voluntary humiliation, so that, in effect, his triumph over the pagan gods is anticlimactic. Significantly, in a poem about the birth of the Savior, Milton foreshadows the death of Jesus, the consummate gesture of voluntary humiliation. The manger is described as a place of self-sacrifice, where the light from the star overhead and the metaphoric reference to the fires of immolation converge: “secret altar touched with hallowed fire.”
Not to be overlooked is Milton’s use of mythological allusions to dramatize the effect of Christ’s coming. Thus, the Christ child is characterized as triumphant over his pagan adversaries, one of whom, Typhon, is “huge ending in snaky twine.” Typhon, the hundred-headed serpent and a leader of the Titans, rebelled against Zeus, who cast a thunderbolt against him. After his downfall he was incarcerated under Mount Aetna and tormented by the active volcano. Such myths were typically related to the Hebraic-Christian tradition in numerous ways: in illustrated Renaissance dictionaries and encyclopedias, editions of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, and other lexicons known to Milton . Indeed, early biographers report that Milton himself was planning a similar compilation and interpretation of myths, though this work was never completed. Traditionally, Typhon, his revolt against Zeus, and his subsequent punishment are analogues of Satan’s rivalry of the godhead, of his downfall thereafter, and of his everlasting torment in the fires of Hell. Thus, the triumph in the Nativity poem looks backward to the War in Heaven while anticipating the final conquest over Satan foretold in the Apocalypse. The appearance of Typhon as a multiheaded serpent is further correlated by Renaissance commentators with the biblical figure of Leviathan, the dragonlike monster associated with Satan in interpretations of the Hebraic and Christian scriptures. At the same time, the Christ child is likened to the infant Hercules, who overcame the serpent that attacked him in his cradle. The foregoing examples typify how Milton’s erudition and literary imagination enabled him to pursue and synthesize a wide range of mythological and biblical allusions.”
Illustrated Renaissance lexicons, along with manuals of painting, which guided artists and authors in the use and significance of visual details, may be employed to interpret other allegorical figures in the Nativity poem. Thus, at the birth of the Savior, the poem recounts how “meek-eyed Peace” descends, “crowned with Olive green,” moved by “Turtle wing,” and “waving wide her myrtle wand.” Such visual details suggest the peace and harmony between the godhead and humankind when the dove returned with the olive branch after the Deluge and when the Holy Spirit, figured as a dove, descended at the baptism of the Lord.”
A dominant feature of the Nativity poem is the frequent reference to pagan gods, many of whom are included in the epic catalogue in book 1 of Paradise Lost (1667). One such figure is Osiris, whose shrine in the Nativity poem is described: “with Timbrel’d Anthems dark / the sable-stoled Sorcerers bear his worshipt Ark.” This description suggests a funeral procession, thereby dramatizing the causal relationship between the birth of Christ and the death of the pagan gods. Additionally, the phrase “worshipt Ark” calls attention to the ark of the Covenant, associated with the tablets of law from the Old Dispensation. Christ, however, rewrites the law in the hearts of humankind, a process to which Milton’s poem alludes. The Chosen People of the Old Dispensation thus anticipate the faithful Christian community centered on Jesus. The poem presents the first such community when the holy family, shepherds, angels, and narrator unite in their adoration of the Christ child. The narrator endeavors to join his voice to the chorus of angels so that his sacred song and devotional lyrics are harmonized with theirs. He also informs us of the imminent arrival of the Magi, who will enlarge the community of worshipers and chorus of praise. Characteristically, the poem highlights unity and harmony between humankind and the godhead, earth and Heaven, the Old and New Dispensations.”
What also emerges from the Nativity poem is an overriding awareness of Christian history, which is both linear and cyclical. As time unfolded, Old Testament events were fulfilled in Christ’s temporal ministry. Thereafter, the faithful community looks toward the Second Coming. Along this linear disposition of time there are recurrent foreshadowings and cyclical enactments of triumphs over God’s adversaries. Like the Apocalypse, the Nativity poem foresees that the ultimate defeat of Satan, having been prefigured in numerous ways, will be one of the climactic events of Christian or providential history.”
Despite its early date of composition, the Nativity poem foreshadows many features of Milton’s major works: the allusions to mythology and their assimilation to the Hebraic-Christian tradition, the conflict between the godhead and numerous adversaries, the emphasis on voluntary humiliation as a form of Christian heroism, the paramount importance of the redemptive ministry of the Son, and the Christian view of history.”
Probably intended as a companion piece to the Nativity poem, “The Passion” was written at Easter in 1630. Only eight stanzas in rime royal were composed, presumably as the induction. Appended to the unfinished work is a note indicating that the author found the subject “to be above the years he had, when he wrote it, and nothing satisfied with what was begun, left it unfinished.” The eight stanzas clarify Milton’s unfulfilled intent: to dramatize more fully the humiliation of the Son, “sovereign Priest” who “Poor fleshly Tabernacle entered.”
“On Shakespeare,” Milton’s first published poem, was composed in 1630 and printed in the Second Folio (1632) of Shakespeare’s plays, where it was included with other eulogies and commendatory verses. Milton’s poem, a sixteen-line epigram in heroic couplets, was included perhaps because of the intercession of his friend and eventual collaborator Henry Lawes, a musician and composer, who wrote the music for Milton’s Comus (1637) and probably for the songs of “Arcades” in Milton’s 1645 Poems. Milton celebrates his friend’s musical talent in Sonnet XIII. Milton’s poem echoes a prevalent opinion evident in other commendatory verses—that Shakespeare, the untutored genius with only a grammar-school education, was a natural poet whose “easy numbers flow” in contrast to “slow-endeavoring art.” Perhaps the implied contrast is between the spontaneity of Shakespeare and the more deliberate and learned composition of Ben Jonson. The foregoing contrast is explicit in “L’Allegro,” where Shakespeare’s plays, the products of “fancy’s child” who composes his “native Wood-notes wild,” are contrasted with Jonson’s “learned Sock.” The reference to Jonson calls attention to the sock or low shoe worn by actors during comedy, as well as to the learned imitation of classical dramaturgy practiced by Jonson, who had a university education. Ironically, Jonson’s commendatory poem on Shakespeare, included in the First Folio (1623) and republished in the folios thereafter, is the most renowned of the lot. It cites the excellence and popularity of Shakespeare as a dramatist despite his “small Latin, and less Greek,” an allusion, no doubt, to his lack of education beyond grammar school. More to the point, Jonson used the metonymy of the sock to appraise Shakespearean comedy as nonpareil: “when thy socks were on / Leave thee alone.” Therefore, Milton may have appropriated but adapted the allusion in order to contrast the learned and spontaneous playwrights, respectively Jonson and Shakespeare.”
Central to the poem is Milton’s recognition that an erected monument, possibly even the Stratford burial site with its bust of Shakespeare, is unsuitable to memorialize the playwright’s unique genius. Ultimately, Milton argues that Shakespeare alone can and does create a “livelong Monument”: his readers transfixed by wonder and awe. So long as his works are read, his readers will be immobilized when confronting his transcendent genius. To be sure, the inadequacy of stone or marble monuments to perpetuate one’s memory is one major theme in Shakespeare’s sonnets; a complementary theme is the permanence of literary art despite the mutability and upheaval in the human condition. Milton integrates both themes from Shakespeare’s sonnets into his poem, perhaps to emphasize that the unique achievement of Shakespeare must be memorialized by the words and ideas of none other than the master poet and dramatist himself. Despite his admiration for Shakespeare, Milton in his prose and poetry explicitly referred to the playwright only three times: in Shakespeare “L’Allegro,” and Eikonoklastes. Despite the paucity of explicit reference, commentators have, nonetheless, sought to identify verbal parallels between the works of Shakespeare and Milton . Though such parallels or apparent echoes abound, they are inadequate to establish source or influence. Virtually identical similarities may be adduced between the works of Milton and the writings of other Elizabethans. It seems unlikely that Milton , having prepared himself to be an author of religious and biblical poetry, relied heavily on Shakespeare, whose dramatic works are vastly different in conception and subject matter.”
Two of the most amusing poems of the Cambridge years were written about Thomas Hobson, the coachman who drove the circuit between London and Cambridge from 1564 until shortly before his death on 1 January 1631. Several of Milton’s fellow students also wrote witty verses. In Milton’s first poem, “On the University Carrier,” Death is personified; his attempts to claim Hobson have been thwarted in various ways. Hobson, for instance, is described as a “shifter,” one who has dodged Death. In effect, his perpetual motion made him an evasive adversary until he was forced to discontinue his trips because of the plague; then Death “got him down.” The allusion is to a wrestling match, Hobson having been overthrown. Death is personified, in turn, as a chamberlain, who perceives Hobson as having completed a day’s journey. He escorts the coachman to a sleeping room, then takes away the light. The second poem, “Another on the Same,” is more witty as it elaborates a series of paradoxes. Thus, “an engine moved with wheel and weight” refers at once to Hobson’s coach—the means of his livelihood—and to a timepiece. The circuit of the coachman is likened to movement around the face of a timepiece, motion being equated with time. The assertion that “too much breathing put him out of breath” refers to the interruption of his travel caused by the plague. While idle, in other words, he himself took ill and died. Furthermore, the poem likens his former travel to the waxing and waning of the moon, a reciprocal course of coming and going. These playful poems that treat the topic of death may be contrasted with Milton’s lamentations, such as his funeral tributes, “Elegia secunda” (Elegy II) and “Elegia tertia” (Elegy III), and the later renowned pastoral elegies: “Lycidas,” which memorializes Edward King, and “Epitaphium Damonis” (Damon’s Epitaph), which mourns the loss of Charles Diodati.”
Probably in 1631, toward the end of his stay at Cambridge, Milton composed “L’Allegro“ and “Il Penseroso,” companion poems. They may have been intended as poetic versions or parodies of the prolusions, the academic exercises at Cambridge that sometimes involved oppositional thinking. Clearcut examples include Milton’s Prolusion I (“Whether Day or Night Is the More Excellent”) and Prolusion VII (“Learning Makes Men Happier than Does Ignorance”). The correspondences and contrasts between “L’Allegro” and “Il Penseroso”—in themes, images, structures, and even sounds—are innumerable. Essentially, Milton compares and contrasts two impulses in human nature: the active and contemplative, the social and solitary, the mirthful and melancholic, the cheerful and meditative, the erotic and Platonic. Some commentators have identified Milton with the personality type of “Il Penseroso” and Diodati with that of “L’Allegro.” Though the poems anatomize each personality type and corresponding life-style apart from the other, the overall effect may be to foster the outlook that a binary unit, which achieves a wholesome interaction of opposites, is to be preferred. While it is difficult to assess the autobiographical significance of the companion poems or to develop a serious outlook when Milton himself may have composed them playfully, “L’Allegro” and “Il Penseroso” graphically demonstrate the dialectic that distinguishes much of Milton’s poetry, particularly the dialogues and debates between different characters in various works, including the Lady and Comus in Comus, the younger and elder brothers in the same work, Satan and Abdiel in Paradise Lost, Adam and Eve, Samson and his visitors, and the Christ and the tempter in the wilderness of Paradise Regained (1671).”
Having spent seven years at Cambridge, Milton entered into studious leisure at his parents’ home in Hammersmith (1632-1635) and then at Horton (1635-1638). Perhaps he was caring for his parents in their old age because his sister and brother were unable to do so. Anne had become a widow in 1631 and had two young children. Probably in 1632 she married Thomas Agar, a widower who had one young child. Milton’s younger brother, Christopher, was a student at Christ’s College. The situation with his parents may explain why Milton , after Cambridge, did not accept or seek a preferment in the church. Although he may still have intended to become a minister, it seems likely that the prevailing influence of William Laud, Archbishop of Canterbury, who established and enforced ecclesiastical and religious regulations, deeply affected Milton’s outlook. The most concise but cryptic explanation for his eventual rejection of the ministry as a career is provided by Milton himself, who in one of his prose treatises, The Reason of Church-governement (1642), comments that he was “church-outed.” An undated letter to an unidentified friend, a document surviving in manuscript in the Trinity College Library at Cambridge, sheds further light on Milton’s view of the ministry as a career. Some commentators speculate that Thomas Young is the addressee. Another influential factor in Milton’s decision may have been his long-standing inclination to become a poet, evident in poems written in his Cambridge years and published in the 1645 edition. One of the most self-conscious, though ambiguous, statements concerning Milton’s sense of vocation is Sonnet VII (“How soon hath time”). Unfortunately, it cannot be accurately dated, though 1631-1632 seems likely. In the poem he refers to the rapid passing of time toward his “three and twentieth year.” His “hastening days fly on with full career,” though the direction of movement, toward the ministry or poetry, goes unidentified. In any case, he contends that his process of development toward “inward ripeness” continues under the all-seeing eye of Providence.”
Milton’s course of study in his leisure is outlined in Prolusion VII, which was influenced by Francis Bacon’s Advancement of Learning (1605). History, poetry, and philosophy (which included natural science) are celebrated as important to individual growth and to civic service. Milton’s Of Education (1644), an eight-page pamphlet written in the early 1640s, elaborates on many of the ideas in Prolusion VII and cites specific authors to be read. Autobiographical statements in various forms emerge from Milton’s period of private study, which enabled him to supplement extensively his education at Cambridge and to read numerous authors of different eras and various cultures. In a 23 November 1637 letter to Charles Diodati, Milton indicated the progress of his study, particularly in the field of classical and medieval history, involving the Greeks, Italians, Franks, and Germans. At this time, moreover, Milton kept two important records of his reading and writing. The “Trinity Manuscript” or “Cambridge Manuscript,” so called because it is kept in the Library of Trinity College, Cambridge, includes works such as “Arcades,” Comus, the English odes, “Lycidas,” “At a Solemn Music,” and other later, but short, poems. Also in the manuscript are sketchy plans and brief outlines of dramas, some of which were eventually transformed and assimilated to Paradise Lost. For some of the poems, the “Trinity Manuscript” includes various drafts and states of revision. The second record kept during this period is the commonplace book (now in the British Library), which lists topics under the threefold Aristotelian framework of ethics, economics, and political life, topics that aroused Milton’s interest and that were later incorporated into his prose works. The entries include direct quotations or summaries, with sources cited, so that one learns not simply what books Milton read but also what editions he used.”
Two important works that Milton wrote during the years of studious leisure include A Maske Presented at Ludlow Castle and “Lycidas.” The masque was first performed on 29 September 1634, as a formal entertainment to celebrate the installation of John Egerton, Earl of Bridgewater, as lord president of Wales. The performance was held in the Great Hall of Ludlow Castle in Shropshire, close to the border of Wales. The composer of the music was Lawes, also the music tutor of the Egerton children. The three children—Alice (fifteen), John (eleven), and Thomas (nine)—enacted the parts of the Lady, the elder brother, and the younger brother. Lawes himself was the Attendant Spirit, named Thyrsis. Other characters include Comus, a tempter, by whose name the masque has been more commonly known, at least since the eighteenth century, and Sabrina, a nymph of the Severn River. Because the earl of Bridgewater had taken up his viceregal position without his family having accompanied him, a reunion was planned. To honor the earl of Bridgewater and to use the occasion of family reunion so that his children could act, sing, and dance under his approving eye are other purposes of the masque.”
While Comus may be examined in relation to masques of the same era, most notably the collaborations of Jonson and Inigo Jones, the remoteness of Ludlow prevented Milton and Lawes from mounting the sort of spectacle with elaborate scenery, complicated machinery, and astounding special effects that Jones and Jonson produced. Nor were trained dancers and singers transported from London. Nevertheless, Comus does have scenery, chiefly for its allegorical significance; singing, especially by individuals, such as the Lady, Sabrina, and Thyrsis; and dancing, both the riotous antimasque of Comus and his revelers and the concluding song and dance of triumph featuring the three children and others referred to as “Country-Dancers,” all under the direction of Lawes in his role as the Attendant Spirit. The three major settings of the masque are the “wild Wood” at the outset, actually a location indoors decorated with some foliage (more imaginatively depicted by vivid language); the palace of Comus, in which the tables are “spread with all dainties”; and the outdoors, near the lord president’s castle and within view of the town of Ludlow. These elements of spectacle are incorporated into a plot severely limited by the circumstances of the celebration and by the fact that only six notable players, three of them children of the earl of Bridgewater, participated.”
Within these limitations Milton wrote a masque—actually, it is more a dramatic entertainment—that develops the theme of temperance and its manifestation in chastity. The theme evolves against the three major settings and by reference to the character of the Lady. From the outset of the masque, the Lady is separated from her two brothers in the “wild Wood,” which suggests the mazes and snares that confuse and entrap unwary humankind. Allegorically, the topography signifies the vulnerability of humankind to misdirection, the result of having pursued intemperate appetites rather than the dictates of right reason, or the consequence of having been deceived by an evil character who professes “friendly ends,” the phrase used by Comus in his plans to entrap the Lady. Misled by Comus, who appears to be a “gentle Shepherd” and innocent villager, the Lady travels to his “stately Palace set out with all manner of deliciousness,” where she, while “set in an enchanted chair,” resists the offer to drink from the tempter’s cup. Thereafter, she sits “in stony fetters fixed and motionless” though continuing to denounce the tempter and his blandishments. Despite her immobility, she affirms the “freedom of my mind.” Her brothers “rush in with Swords drawn,” so that Comus is put to flight; and Sabrina, “a Virgin pure” and “Goddess” of the Severn River, sprinkles drops of water on the breast of the Lady to undo the spell of the enchanter. When liberated, the Lady and her brothers “triumph in victorious dance / Over sensual folly and Intemperance.”
The suspense, adventure, and dramatic rescue enhance the conflict between the tempter and his prospective victim. Typically, Milton uses classical analogues to cast light on the situation. The Lady is likened to the goddess of chastity, Diana, who frowned at suggestions of lasciviousness and whose role as huntress made her a formidable adversary, one whose virtue was militant, not passive. The Lady is also likened to Minerva, the goddess of wisdom, on whose shield is pictured one of the Gorgons, whose look would turn one to stone. By analogy, the Lady’s disapproving glance casts dread into lustful men. The classical analogues of the enchanter are best explained by his parentage, Bacchus and Circe. His father is the god of wine and revelry; his mother is the sorceress who turned Ulysses’ mariners into swine when they imbibed the drink that she proffered. In fact, the journey of Ulysses and the temptations encountered by him and his men provide a context in which to understand the travel of the Lady through adversity, her endeavor to withstand temptation, and the reunion that she anticipates.”
These classical analogues and others like them call attention to a moral philosophy that contrasts the lower and higher natures of humankind. Degradation or sublimation, respective inclinations toward vice or virtue, are the opposite impulses adumbrated in the masque. Accordingly, Comus’s followers, having yielded to the vice of intemperance, are degraded so that they appear “headed like sundry sorts of wild Beasts.” They were imbruted when, “through fond intemperate thirst,” they drank from Comus’s cup. Their “foul disfigurement” is a defacement of the “express resemblance of the gods” in the human countenance. With his charming rod in the one hand and the glass containing the drink in the other, Comus is indeed akin to his mother, Circe. Like her, he has attracted a rout of followers, whose antimasque revelry, both in song and dance, suggests a Bacchanal, the sensualistic frenzy associated with his father. Before, during, and after her encounter with Comus, the Lady has a “virtuous mind,” and she is accompanied by “a strong siding champion Conscience,” enabling her to see “pure-eyed Faith,” “white-handed Hope,” and the “unblemished form of Chastity.” In this series of three virtues chastity is substituted for charity, which typically appears along with faith and hope. Milton therefore suggests that chastity and charity are interrelated. Chastity is a form of self-love, not vanity but a wholesome sense of self-worth that enables one to value the spirit over the flesh and to affirm the primacy of one’s higher nature. When viewed from this perspective, chastity is the necessary prerequisite to one’s love of God, not to mention one’s neighbor.”
The moral philosophy of Comus
John Milton was born in London in 1608 at the height of the Protestant Reformation in England. His father was a law writer who had achieved some success by the time Milton was born. This prosperity afforded Milton an excellent education, first with private tutoring, then a private school, and finally Cambridge. Milton, a studious boy, excelled in languages and classical studies.
His father had left Roman Catholicism and Milton was raised Protestant, with a heavy tendency toward Puritanism. As a student, he wanted to go into the ministry, but was disillusioned with the scholastic elements of the clergy at Cambridge. Cambridge, however, afforded him time to write poetry. After Cambridge, he continued his studies for seven years in a leisurely life at his father's house. It was here that he wrote some of his first published poems, including "Comus" (1634) and "Lycidas" (1638), both of which he published in 1645.
Milton toured the European continent in 1638-1639 and met many of the great Renaissance minds, including Galileo and Grotius. The beginning of the Puritan Revolution found Milton back in England, fighting for a more humanist and reformed church. For more than twenty years, Milton set aside poetry to write political and religious pamphlets for the cause of Puritanism. For a time, he served as Secretary for Foreign Tongues under Cromwell.
Milton was a mixed product of his time. On the one hand, as a humanist, he fought for religious tolerance and believed that there was something inherently valuable in man. As a Puritan, however, he believed that the Bible was the answer and the guide to all, even if it went against democracy itself. Where the Bible didn't afford an answer, Milton would turn to reason.
Milton himself was married three times, all of which were rather unhappy affairs. He defended divorce in "The Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce" in 1643. With this and other treatises, Milton often came in conflict with the Puritanism he advocated.
At the end of the war, Milton was imprisoned for a short time for his views. In 1660, he emerged blind and disillusioned with the England he saw around him.
Nevertheless, he was yet to write his greatest work. Paradise Lost was published in 1667, followed by Paradise Regained in 1671. Milton's ability to combine his poetry with his polemics in these and other works,was the key to his genius.
The classical influences in his work can be clearly delineated: Homer, Ovid, but especially Virgil. Shakespeare was the leading playwright of his day, and there are some references to his works in Milton's own poetry. The style and structure of the Spencer's "The Faerie Queen," was another influence on Paradise Lost. It was one of only a few books that were owned by the Miltons during John's upbringing.
Milton died from "gout" in 1674 and was buried in the Church of St. Giles in London.