Biography of John Milton, Author of Paradise Lost

The English author wrote much more than his iconic epic poem

Portrait of John Milton
Portrait of John Milton, poet and author of 'Paradise Lost'.

Stock Montage / Getty Images

John Milton (December 9, 1608 – November 8, 1674) was an English poet and intellectual who wrote during a period of political and religious turmoil. He’s best known for his epic poem Paradise Lost, which depicts the fall of Lucifer and the temptation of mankind.

Fast Facts: John Milton

  • Full Name: John Milton
  • Known For: In addition to his epic poem Paradise Lost, Milton produced a considerable amount of poetry, as well as major prose works defending republican virtues and some degree of religious tolerance during the English Civil War.
  • Occupation: Poet and author
  • Born: December 9, 1608 in London, England
  • Died: November 8, 1674 in London, England
  • Parents: John and Sarah Milton
  • Spouses: Mary Powell (m. 1642-1652), Katherine Woodcock (m. 1656-1658), Elizabeth Mynshull (m. 1663-1674)
  • Children: Anne, Mary, John, Deborah, and Katherine Milton
  • Education: Christ's College, Cambridge

Early Life

Milton was born in London, the eldest son of John Milton, a skillful composer and professional scrivener (a professional who wrote and copied out documents, as literacy was not widespread), and his wife Sarah. Milton’s father was estranged from his own father, since the older generation was Catholic and Milton Sr. had become a Protestant. As a boy, Milton was privately tutored by Thomas Young, a well-educated Presbyterian whose influence was likely the beginning of Milton’s radical religious views.

After leaving private tutoring behind, Milton attended St. Paul’s, where he studied classical Latin and Greek, and eventually Christ’s College, Cambridge. His first known compositions are a pair of psalms written when he was only fifteen years old. Although he had a reputation for being especially studious, he came into conflict with his tutor, Bishop William Chappel. The extent of their conflict is disputed; Milton did leave the college for a time—either as punishment or because of widespread illness—and when he returned, he had a new tutor.

Portrait of John Milton at age 21
Portrait of John Milton at age 21, circa 1731.  Vertue/Getty Images

In 1629, Milton graduated with honors, ranking fourth in his class. He intended to become a priest in the Anglican church, so he stayed at Cambridge to get his master’s degree. Despite spending several years at the university, Milton expressed a fair bit of disdain for university life—its strict, Latin-based curriculum, the behavior of his peers—but did make a few friends, including the poet Edward King and the dissident theologian Roger Williams, better known as the founder of Rhode Island. He spent some of his time writing poetry, including his first published short poem, "Epitaph on the admirable Dramaticke Poet, W. Shakespeare.”

Private Study and European Travel

After acquiring his M.A., Milton spent the next six years in self-guided study and, eventually, travel. He read extensively, both modern and ancient texts, studying literature, theology, philosophy, rhetoric, science, and more, mastering several languages (both ancient and modern) as well. During this time, he continued to write poetry, including two masques commissioned for wealthy patrons, Arcades and Comus.

In May 1638, Milton began traveling through continental Europe. He traveled through France, including a stop in Paris, before moving on to Italy. In July 1683, he arrived in Florence, where he found welcome among the intellectuals and artists of the city. Thanks to his connections and reputation from Florence, he was also welcomed when he arrived in Rome months later. He intended to continue on to Sicily and Greece, but in the summer of 1639, he instead returned to England after the death of a friend and increased tensions.

Engraving of John Milton in black and white
Engraving of John Milton, circa 1887. 221A/Getty Images

Upon returning to England, where religious conflicts were brewing, Milton began writing tracts against episcopacy, a religious hierarchy that places local control in the hands of authorities called bishops. He supported himself as a schoolmaster and wrote tracts advocating for the reform of the university system. In 1642, he married Mary Powell, who, at sixteen, was nineteen years his junior. The marriage was unhappy and she left him for three years; his response was to publish pamphlets arguing for the legality and morality of divorce, which brought him some major criticism. Ultimately, she did return, and they had four children together. Their son died in infancy, but all three daughters lived to adulthood.

Political Posting and Pamphleteer

During the English Civil War, Milton was a pro-republican writer and defended the regicide of Charles I, the right of citizens to hold a monarchy accountable, and the principles of the Commonwealth in multiple books. He was hired by the government as Secretary for Foreign Tongues, ostensibly to compose government correspondence in Latin, but also to act as a propagandist and even a censor.

In 1652, Milton’s defense of the English people, Defensio pro Populo Anglicano, was published in Latin. Two years later, he published a pro-Oliver Cromwell follow-up as a rebuttal to a royalist text that also attacked Milton personally. Although he had published a collection of poems in 1645, his poetry was largely overshadowed at the time by his political and religious tracts.

Engraving of Milton playing piano for Oliver Cromwell
An engraving depicts Milton playing piano for Oliver Cromwell and his family. Stock Montage/Getty Images

That same year, however, Milton became almost entirely blind, mostly likely due to bilateral retinal detachment or glaucoma. He continued to produce both prose and poetry by dictating his words to assistants. He produced one of his most famous sonnets, “When I Consider How My Life Is Spent,” during this era, musing on his loss of sight. In 1656, he married Katherine Woodcock. She died in 1658, months after giving birth to their daughter, who also died.

The Restoration and Final Years

In 1658, Oliver Cromwell died and the English Republic fell into a mess of warring factions. Milton stubbornly defended his ideals of republicanism even as the country shifted back towards a monarchy, denouncing the concept of a church dominated by the government and the very concept of monarchy.

With the Restoration of the monarchy in 1660, Milton was forced into hiding, with a warrant out for his arrest and orders for all his writings to be burned. Eventually, he was pardoned and was able to live out his final years without fear of imprisonment. He remarried once more, to 24-year-old Elizabeth Mynshull, who had a strained relationship with his daughters.

Cover page of the first edition of Paradise Lost
A cover page for the first edition of Paradise Lost, published in 1667. Heritage Images/Getty Images

During this final period of his life, Milton continued writing prose and poetry. The majority was not overtly political, save for a few publications arguing for religious toleration (but only between Protestant denominations, excluding Catholics and non-Christians) and anti-absolute monarchy. Most crucially, he finished Paradise Lost, an epic poem in blank verse narrating the fall of Lucifer and of mankind, in 1664. The poem, considered his magnum opus and one of the masterpieces of the English language, demonstrates his Christian/humanist philosophy and is famous—and, occasionally, controversial—for portraying Lucifer as three-dimensional and even sympathetic.

Milton died of kidney failure on November 8, 1674. He was buried in the church of St Giles-without-Cripplegate in London, after a funeral attended by all of his friends from intellectual circles. His legacy lives on, influencing generations of writers who came after (especially, but not solely, due to Paradise Lost). His poetry is as revered as his prose tracts, and he is often considered, alongside writers such as Shakespeare, to be up for the title of the greatest English writer in history.

Sources

  • Campbell, Gordon and Corns, Thomas. John Milton: Life, Work, and Thought. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008.
  • “John Milton.” Poetry Foundation, https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/john-milton.
  • Lewalski, Barbara K. The Life of John Milton. Oxford: Blackwells Publishers, 2003.