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John Milton - Biography

John Milton was a very important English poet, author of the monumental Paradise Lost (1667), which was to have a major influence on literature in his country, and especially on the romantic poets. He was born in 1608 on Cheapside street in London. Born into a cultured religious bourgeois family, Milton is intended to take holy orders, but a trip to Italy after his mother’s death together with reading the Italian poets Torquato Tasso (1544 - 1595) and Dante (1265 - 1321) would make him want to become a writer.

After studying at Cambridge he decides against all odds to abandon the all-ready mapped out career in either the church or even at university in order to be able to dedicate himself to the art of writing. Some say today that already then Milton would have a sense he would leave the world the gift of his oeuvre. In any case, at this point he would retire instead to the family home, and would spend a lot of his time reading Greek and Latin classics, as well as studying political and religious history. It is then also he would start writing his first poems. Milton would also write a series of political pamphlets. Some would be against the church, both the Catholic and the Protestant, always as a fierce advocate of the freedom of worship. Others would for the freedom of the press and for the right to divorce.

Milton is the author of dramas such as Samson Agonistes (1671) as well as lyrical sonnets, of which the finest were in fact inspired the the death of his second wife. Altogether John Milton would write twenty- three sonnets. In a very real sense therefore these can be considered as exceptions. He uses such moments to express his thoughts and feelings on specific events, historical or personal. In his lifetime, moreover, he was mainly known for his political pamphlets. As a poet during the age of Shakespeare, he was born less than a decade after the death of this one. Milton might have been less appealing than such a master of the English language but he was nonetheless destined to become one of the best writers England would ever know.

Having sided with the parliamentarians against the monarchists, Milton would begin a political career with responsibilities comparable to that today of an undersecretary of state for foreign affairs. However the restoration of the monarchy in 1660 will mean that he is both fined and imprisoned in the famous still standing today Tower of London. Eventually pardoned, Milton would from then on lead a rather retired life devoted entirely to writing until his death in 1674.

Paradise Lost was first published in 1667 even though it had been written almost 10 years before. Milton was actually getting blind by the time he started work on it. To help him with his writing he would get assistants, and most famously the English metaphysical poet Andrew Marvell (1621 - 1678). It would take some time, but his epic poem Paradise Lost would be critically received even abroad where, for instance, the famous French poet and critic Charles Baudelaire (1821 - 1867) would praise it highly.

A kind of theological treaty through poetry on the origin of man, the work gets its inspiration as much from the Bible for its content as from Virgil’s (70 - 19 BC) twelve-book Latin epic poem Aeneid for its form. Originally published in ten parts, the book would be written in blank verses. A second edition embellished with minor revisions would follow in 1674. Indeed this time it would be reorganized in twelve parts in order to be reminiscent of Virgil’s famous work. More specifically, the poem deals with the Christian view on the origin of man, and refers to the temptation of Adam and Eve by Satan as well as their eventual expulsion from the Garden of Eden.

Paradise Lost tells the story of Lucifer, the fallen angel, who has just been defeated by the armies of God. With his army Lucifer is preparing to resume attacks against heaven when he hears of a prophecy. That a new species of creatures is about to be created by heaven. He then decides to go alone on an expedition to heaven and finds the new world. After having easily fooled an angel by changing his appearance he gets into heaven and finds Adam and Eve.

God finds out about this but since he created man free, he decides to do nothing. His son, however, finds this rather cruel and begs his father to take upon himself the sins of men, to which God essentially agrees. After doubting a little Satan puts together a plan in order to undermine both God and man. Indeed, having learned that God forbade humans to eat the fruit of the tree of knowledge he tries to get into Eve’s dream and tempt her but unintentionally will also awaken Adam who will hunt him away.

At this point God sends an angel in order to inform them of their enemy so that they would not be able to have any excuse if something bad were to happen. Later Satan will go at it again and take advantage of the fact that Eve will be away from Adam for the harvest and taking the form of a serpent he tempts her again. This time he will succeed and have her eat the forbidden fruit. Subsequently Even will tell Adam all about it, suggesting even that he tastes it too, which he finally will agree to out of love for Eve.

As soon as God is informed of this, he will send his son to tell them what the sentence is: they shall be cast out of heaven. The son will take pity on them. In spite of this, Adam realizes what he has lost and together with Eve they feel deep despair. God will then send an angel again to show Adam what the future of his descendants would be until the great flood. Adam would somehow feel reassured and will let himself be taken out of paradise with Eve by the angel named Michael. A flaming sword will fall right behind them as they left and little angels will from now on guard the entrance to heaven, which is now prohibited.

The poem begins strong as follows:

Of Man's first disobedience, and the fruit
of that forbidden tree, whose mortal taste
brought death into the world, and all our woe
(with loss of Eden, till one greater Man
restore us, and regain the blissful seat)

Some of the famous verses from Paradise Lost include:

The mind is its own place, and in itself
Can make a heav’n of hell, a hell of heav’n.

The context of this passage is that of Satan not yet really considering revenge. At that point he is instead deciding to make the most of the situation. This is confirmed only a few lines later when he makes the very famous utterance:

Better to reign in hell, than serve in heav’n.

The following quote is from a point in the work when God is talking with his son and angels about the fact that since angels and man were given free will, it would have been meant changing their nature to have intervened and prevented their sin:

The first sort by their own suggestions fell,
Self-tempted, self-depraved: man falls deceived
By the other first: man therefore shall find grace,
The other none

Finally, let us consider the following quote where Milton tells us about Eve having been deceived:

Greedily she engorged without restraint,
And knew not eating death;

It interesting to note that even though Paradise Lost was to become considered as a major influential work, it did not meet immediate success when it was first published in 1667. It was not until 1688, a little over ten years after Milton’s death that the poem would start to be widely recognized. Perhaps such late recognition has partly to do with the fact that by the time of his death Milton was not only broke, but he had been alienated out of intellectual life in his own country. In 1670 he would publish his controversial The History of Britain, and in 1671 Paradise Regained, dealing with the temptation of Christ. Milton would die in London on November 8 1674. The same year would appear the second edition of Paradise Lost.

John Milton was an English Poet. (December 9, 1608 – November 8, 1674)