John Milton

9 December 1608—8 November 1674



John Milton, in The Works of John Milton (1851).

ENGLAND’S GREAT EPIC POET was born appropriately in the very heart of old London. The house in which he first saw the light was but three doors south of Cheapside in Bread Street, at the sign of the Spread Eagle, almost under the eaves of old Bow Church. He was born December 9, 1608. His father was a scrivener, of good repute, and well-to-do in his worldly estate. John was the third of six children, three of whom died in infancy—an elder sister and a younger brother, Christopher, surviving. He was a boy of fine promise, and the pride of the house. Every advantage of education was given him—a tutor at home, and a place in St. Paul’s school from 1620 to 1625. A taste for poetry and music was inherited from his father, who was himself a musical composer. In Ravenscroft’s Psalter, 1621, John Milton, senior, appears as the harmonizer of the good old psalm tunes, York and Norwich. It is not strange, therefore, that, with an organ in the house, in almost constant use by the father, the boy should have obtained considerable culture in this direction. His version of the 136th Psalm, beginning with “Let us, with a gladsome mind, / Praise the Lord, for he is kind,” dates back to 1624, when he was only fifteen years of age.

He entered Christ’s College, Cambridge, as a pensioner, February 12, 1625. He was admitted to the degree of A.B., in January, 1629, and continued his residence at Cambridge until July, 1632, when he graduated A.M. His celebrated ode, “On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity,” was composed for Christmas, 1629. It contains the well-known hymn, beginning with

It was the winter wild,
While the heaven-born child,
All meanly wrapped, in the rude manger lies.

During this period he cultivated, also, and became skilled in the art of writing Latin poetry. Previous to his leaving Cambridge, he had written enough poetry, both English and Latin, to form a considerable volume, and had developed a purpose to devote himself to the pursuit of Literature. His father had designed him for the Church, but Laud’s intolerance turned him away from the pulpit. Nearly six years were now passed at Horton, Buckinghamshire, a quiet agricultural hamlet, whither his father had retired on giving up business. Here the poet perfected himself in the Latin and Greek Classics, and cultivated, in the midst of the lovely scenery of the neighborhood, his acquaintance with the Muse. Here he wrote his “Sonnet to the Nightingale,” “L’Allegro,” “Il Penseroso,” “Arcades,” “Comus,” and “Lycidas.”

In April, 1638, he visited the Continent, travelling through Italy to Naples; and, having received much attention from scholars abroad, returned home in the summer of 1639. Attaching himself to the Puritan party in politics, he took up his abode in London, and opened a school in Aldersgate Street. With the meeting of Parliament, in 1640, began the great struggle for popular rights. Milton, for the next twenty years, gave himself to the cause of Liberty. In 1641, he published his treatise, “Of Reformation, Touching Church Discipline in England”—a vigorous assault on Episcopacy. This was followed, in 1642, by two other pamphlets on the same topic—“Of Prelatical Episcopacy,” and the “Reason of Church Government urged against Prelaty.” His marriage to Mary, the eldest daughter of Richard Powell, of Forest Hill, near Shotone, Oxfordshire, occurred in June, 1643, after a very short courtship. It proved very uncongenial, his wife, at the end of four weeks, going back to her father’s house, and for two years refusing to return to her husband. This sore disappointment led Milton to publish several pamphlets on the subject of Divorce, for which he was severely censured. His treatise “Of Education,” and his “Areopagitica, a Speech for the Liberty of Unlicensed Printing,” appeared in 1644; and a volume of his “Poems” followed in 1645, with the return of his wife, to whom he now became reconciled. About this time he began to write his “History of Britain.”

After the execution of Charles I., January 30, 1649, he justified the act in his “Tenure of Kings and Magistrates,” and was appointed Secretary for Foreign Tongues—or Latin Secretary of State. In answer to the “Eikon Basilike; or a Portraiture of his Sacred Majesty in his Solitude and his Sufferings,” he published, the same year, his “Iconoclastes, or the Image-Breaker.” His “Defensio Populi Anglicani” (1651) was written in reply to the “Defensio Regis” of Salmasius at Leyden; and for this a thousand pounds were voted to him by a grateful Parliament. His “Defensio secunda pro populo Anglicano,” in response to Peter du Moulin, appeared in 1654. His eyesight, which had for years been seriously affected by his incessant studies, quite failed him in 1653; and the year after, his wife died, leaving three little daughters—one only a few days old. Needing more than ever, in his blindness, the companionship of a good wife, he married, in 1656, Catherine, a daughter of Captain Woodcock, of Hackney. She died in less than fifteen months, greatly to his grief, as expressed in an admirable sonnet to her memory.

He now resumed the “History of Britain,” and made large preparation for a new Latin Dictionary (never completed)—still retaining, until the Restoration, his position as Latin Secretary. He, also, from and after 1655, occupied himself, at intervals, with the plan and structure of “The Paradise Lost.” Immediately after the Restoration, he was removed from office, and obliged to seek concealment. Though prosecuted as an enemy to the King, and for a while under arrest, he obtained pardon, and devoted his remaining days to literature. Having taken a house in Jewin Street, near Aldersgate Street, he occupied himself with the completion of his great epic poem. In 1663, he married, at the recommendation of his friend, Dr. Paget, as his third wife, Elizabeth Minshul, the daughter of a Cheshire gentleman. Soon after, he removed, for the last time, to a house in the Artillery Walk, leading to Bunhill Fields, where, in 1665, he completed his immortal poem. The same year, the Plague raged in London, and he found refuge at St. Giles Chalfont, Buckinghamshire, in a house taken for him by his friend, Thomas Ellwood.

His “Paradise Lost” was published by Samuel Simmons, London, 1667, and met with a slow sale—the first edition of 1,500 copies not having been disposed of in less than three years. He had submitted the manuscript, at Chalfont, in 1665, to Ellwood, who, referring to the title, pleasantly remarked, “Thou hast said much of ‘Paradise Lost’; but what hast thou to say of ‘Paradise Found’?” Acting on this hint, Milton wrought out his “Paradise Regained,” which, with his “Samson Agonistes,” was published in 1671. His “History of Britain” had been published the year before. In his last years, in addition to his total blindness, he suffered greatly from the gout, which finally resulted in his death, November 8, 1674. His remains were deposited by the side of his father’s, in St. Giles’ Church, Cripplegate. His wife survived him; also, his three daughters.

It seems scarcely credible—but such is the fact—that Milton received only ten pounds from the sale of his great epic; and the copyright was sold by his widow, seven years after his death, for eight pounds. In the latter part of the year 1823, Mr. Lemon discovered, in the Old State Paper Office, Middle Treasury Gallery, Whitehall, a Latin Manuscript of 735 pages, with the title, “Joannis Miltoni Angli De Doctrina Christiana, Ex Sacris duntaxat Libris petita, Disquisitionum Libri Duo Posthumi.” It was translated by Charles R. Sumner, the late Bishop of Winchester, published (1825) in two volumes, and republished in Boston, Mass., the same year, with the title, “A Treatise of Christian Doctrine.” In 1648, Milton composed versions of nine of the Psalms, quite literal and faithful. His “Hymn on the Nativity,” composed a few days after completing his twenty-first year, contains twenty-seven double stanzas.

by Edwin Hatfield
Poets of the Church (1884)


Featured Hymns:

Let us with a gladsome mind (Psalm 136)

Collections of Hymns and Poems:

Poems Both English and Latin (1645): PDF

Nine of the Psalms Done into Metre [Pss. 80-88] (1648)

[Pss. 1-8] (1653)

Poems, &c Upon Several Occasions (1673): PDF

Manuscripts:

William Aldis Wright, Facsimile of the Manuscript of Milton’s Minor Poems (Cambridge: University Press, 1899): HathiTrust

Edmund Gosse, “The Milton Manuscripts at Trinity,” Atlantic Monthly, vol. 85 (1900), pp. 586-593: Archive.org

John Milton, Poems Reproduced in Facsimile from the Manuscript in Trinity College, Cambridge with a Transcript (Menston: Scolar Press, 1972): WorldCat

Index of English Literary Manuscripts: Vol. 2, 1625–1700 (London: Mansell, 1993): WorldCat

Peter McCullough, “Arthur Young, Jr’s 1792 Transcript of Milton’s Trinity Manuscript,” English Manuscript Studies, vol. 5 (1995), pp. 85-106.

Editions:

The Poetical Works of Mr. John Milton (1695)

Poetical Works of John Milton (1836): PDF

The Poetical Works of John Milton, with a Life of the Poet, ed. David Masson, 3 vols. (1864): HathiTrust

The Poems of John Milton, ed. John Carey and Alastair Fowler (London and Harlow: Longman, 1968).

The Complete Poetry and Essential Prose of John Milton, ed. Wm. Kerrigan et al (Modern Library, 2007): Amazon

Related Resources:

David Masson, The Life of John Milton, 7 vols. (Cambridge: MacMillan, 1859–1894): HathiTrust

Josiah Miller, “John Milton,” Singers and Songs of the Church (London : Longmans, Green & Co., 1869), pp. 72-76: Archive.org

Edwin Hatfield, “John Milton,” Poets of the Church (NY: Anson D.F. Randolph, 1884), pp. 430-434: Archive.org

John Julian, “John Milton,” A Dictionary of Hymnology (London: J. Murray, 1892), p. 737: Google Books

Joseph Milton French, The Life Records of John Milton, 5 vols. (New York: Gordian Press, 1966): WorldCat

John Shawcross, A Bibliography for the Years 1624-1700 (Binghamton, NY: Medieval & Renaissance Texts & Studies, 1984): WorldCat | Addenda (1990): WorldCat

Barbara Kiefer Lewalski, The Life of John Milton, rev. ed. (Oxford: Blackwell, 2003): Amazon

Gordon Campbell and Thomas N. Corns, John Milton: Life, Work, and Thought (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008): Amazon

Neil Forsyth, John Milton: A Biography (2009): Amazon

Anna Beer, Milton: Poet, Pamphleteer, and Patriot (2009): Amazon

John Milton, Hymnary.org:
https://hymnary.org/person/Milton_J

J.R. Watson, “John Milton,” Canterbury Dictionary of Hymnology:
http://www.hymnology.co.uk/j/john-milton

Gordon Campbell, “John Milton,” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography:
https://doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/18800


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