St Paul's From Bread Street.
Was John Milton a great poet? How are such things decided? Milton lived at a time of social upheaval. Things valued by society in one time in his life became things to be despised at other times. All the while Milton stayed himself. In his most famous work Paradise Lost, Milton was to write of the angel Abdiel who holds out against a rebellion mounted by many of the angels of heaven against God:
Among innumerable false unmoved,
Unshaken, unseduced, unterrified
His loyalty he kept, (Book 5. 898 - 900)
Opinions change and differ. Times change and new judgments are made. Milton wrote about these things, and looked for something that remains true through it all.
John Milton was born into a puritan family living in the City of London on 9th December 1608. John Milton senior was a scrivener, a job that was part financial advisor, part money lender. This work paid well and the Milton family home was in a prosperous area on the east side of Bread Street near Cheapside, close to St Paul's Cathedral. Young John quickly developed an interest in literature and the Church, and felt himself destined for great things in these areas. He was a bright boy, and was pushed on by his father, who organised private tutors, before enrolling him at one of the best grammar schools in the country, St Paul's. Milton worked hard, and wrote that "from my twelfth year scarcely ever did I leave my studies before midnight". St Paul's school stood in a corner of the cathedral churchyard, and Milton may have heard sermons by John Donne, who was dean of St Paul's 1621 - 1631.
Christ's College, Cambridge
All this study led to entry to Christ's College, Cambridge in 1625. His father chose this college because of its strong puritan links. Many residents of Christ's had been in trouble during Elizabeth I's reign for their puritan beliefs. Milton would have risen at 5am for breakfast, followed by tutorials and study. He may have listened to George Herbert, who was the university's public orator. Young Milton's enquiring mind rebelled against what he saw as a programme of dull and pointless study. Endless philosophical twaddle centred on Aristotle did nothing for Milton. He wanted poetry to be taught, along with natural sciences of all kinds, geography, astronomy and moral philosophy. This kind of restless mind was not ultimately suited for a career in the Church. So when Milton graduated in 1632 he decided to become a poet, and went to live with his parents in Hammersmith. His parents must have felt as any parent would when their son returns home from university and announces that he wants to be a poet. No one in the seventeenth century could hope for a career in poetry. It would be impossible to make a living. The years that followed were aimless, marked by doubt and worry about what to do in life. Milton felt he was meant to be a poet. It wasn't his fault that the world didn't seem to have a place for such a person.
The Walks at Grays Inn
So the would-be poet muddled his way through the 1630s. He did some travelling in Europe, met Galileo, earned money working as a private tutor, and settled in London, close to St Paul's, in St Bride's Churchyard. Meanwhile England was heading towards Civil War. Charles I suspended the Short Parliament on April 13th 1640, setting himself on a remorseless collision course with Parliament. While the crisis deepened Milton moved out of the City, to a house just beyond Aldgate. He would return every three or four weeks for what he called a "Gaudy Day," a day of fun with two friends from the law college at Gray's Inn. Unlike many of the more dour puritans, Milton believed that people needed some recreation to set against endless work. Ironically the Walks at Gray's Inn would become something of a centre for the new enjoyment of life when puritan power came to an end following the restoration of the monarchy in 1660.
Back in the early 1640s, however, the idea of enjoying yourself was generally frowned upon as puritan factions in Parliament gained power, and began to threaten royal authority. In August 1642 Charles I was raising his standard outside Nottingham Castle and the Civil War had begun. Milton spent the war in London writing tracts in which he pushed for religious toleration. He had other offbeat views, such as reform rather than banning of recreation, and allowing divorce for married couples who really did not get on. Milton had married Mary Powell in 1642. He was in his thirties, she was seventeen; they did not get on. These views put Milton out of what might be considered mainstream puritan opinion. But the puritans themselves were driven by such divisions that maybe it's wrong to talk of a "mainstream" anyway. As soon as royalist forces were defeated Parliament and its New Model Army found themselves in opposition to each other. The Army wanted wider voting rights, the end of the House of Lords and the monarchy, while Parliament argued against all of these things. In 1648 it was the Army who pushed to put Charles I on trial, while parliamentary moderates, Cromwell amongst them, held out for a settlement with the king. The Army won the day, and Milton may have been in the Great Hall galleries at Westminster during Charles I trial. He may also have been at the king's execution on January 30th 1649 outside Banqueting House in Whitehall. With Parliament's triumph the world was finally coming towards Milton. In March 1649 he was appointed to a post with the new government, as secretary for foreign languages. It was his job to write to foreign governments in impressive Latin. Milton spent his time writing his official letters, and working on treatises defending the new government.
Milton's private life was difficult at this time. His eye sight was fading, and was lost completely by early 1652. His wife Mary died in May of that year, followed six weeks later by the death of his son John. He was to marry again in 1656, but his second wife died after only two years, followed by their infant daughter who was five months old. With the help of secretaries Milton carried on his government work through all these troubles. Even though Oliver Cromwell seemed to be taking on the airs and graces of monarchy Milton continued as a reluctant supporter, since Cromwell seemed more inclined to tolerance than Parliament. Meanwhile, 1656 saw Henry Vane imprisoned in Carisbrooke Castle for challenging Cromwell's personal power, and calling for the sovereignty of Parliament. Meanwhile Milton just kept doing his own thing in his house near St James's Park. There's no doubt that some aspects of what Milton wrote during this period in government would be judged unsympathetically by modern standards. He reflected contemporary prejudice in his insulting views of the Irish, although some commentators let him off by saying that at least he didn't accuse the Irish of cannibalism! But whatever views he had, Milton held them because he felt they were right, not because he was told to have them.
In August 1658 there was a possibility that Cromwell, famous for deposing the monarchy, would himself accept an offer to become king. Before Cromwell could call Parliament, and perhaps accept the crown, an influenza epidemic swept England. Cromwell became ill, recovered a little, and then died on September 3rd 1658. Apart from Milton two other major poets were working in the government at this time, Andrew Marvell and John Dryden. Both wrote complementary funeral odes for Cromwell. Milton wrote nothing.
Milton Dictates To His Daughters - painting by Eugene Delacroix .
On November 13th 1658 Milton probably marched in Cromwell's funeral procession, from Somerset House to Westminster. No doubt he was wary of all the regal display and pomp surrounding the event. Milton, along with his fellow poets Andrew Marvell and John Dryden were all granted money for mourning clothes, and all probably marched. Marvell, as Milton's secretary, would have led him along the route. Milton may have been uneasy about Cromwell, but his passing marked the loss of a world that Milton had worked so hard to support. Oliver Cromwell's son, Richard, soon proved to be an unsuitable leader, and in May 1660 Charles II returned from exile to reclaim the throne. Parliament now started drawing up lists of people who deserved execution. Having been an important part of Cromwell's government there was a strong possibility that Milton would be on the list. Milton was taken from his house by an unidentified friend to what might now be called a safe house in Bartholomew Close in West Smithfield. Here Milton, blind and vulnerable waited to see what would happen. It was months before it became clear that no sentence would be passed. Perhaps friends and admirers pulled strings in the background; perhaps the new government feared the way an execution of a blind and famous scholar would look. Towards the end of 1660 Milton was briefly imprisoned by an overzealous sergeant-at-arms at the House of Commons, but he was released in December, with Andrew Marvell involved in the negotiations. Milton escaped the fate that befell many of his friends. He survived, and was even offered a job in the new government, which he refused. Meanwhile John Dryden became the laureate for the new age.
Milton struggled on, living on little money, having rows with his daughters who did not like a life of scrimping and saving, and serving as their father's secretaries. Delacroix's painting of the daughters taking dictation has the girl in the background looking rather grumpy. Milton was working on Paradise Lost at this time, and while it seemed to have bored the girls, it must have allowed their father some release. In 1663 life became a little easier following a third marriage, to Elizabeth Minshull, a relative of Milton's friend and personal physician Dr Paget. The couple moved to Artillery Walk in London, and this was to remain Milton's home for the rest of his life. There was still much drama to come, however. In 1665 the Great Plague hit London. With cemeteries overflowing, the royal court moved out to Oxford. Daniel Defoe wrote that one of the massive common burial pits lay just beyond Bunhill Fields near Milton's house, a pit into which some "that were infected and near their end, and delirious also, would run... and throw themselves". Milton left London and took refuge in the pretty little village of Chalfont St Giles, north of London. The house where Milton stayed is now known as Milton's Cottage and can be visited. He finished Paradise Lost here. When I think of Milton's Cottage I like to think of the following lines from Book Nine, describing Satan seeing Eden for the first time...
Much he the place admired, the person more
As one long in populous city pent,
Where houses thick and sewers annoy the air,
Forth issuing on a summer's morn to breathe
Among the pleasant villages and farms (Book Nine: 444 - 448)
The Great Fire, by Jan Wyck.
Milton moved back to London early in 1666, and worked on Paradise Regained. Then on September 2nd the Great Fire of London broke out in a baker's shop in Pudding Lane. Samuel Pepys wrote of streets filled with people and loaded carts "ready to run over one another, and removing goods from one burned house to another". There were "showers of fire drops" and "horrid, malicious bloody flame". Milton's household must have packed up all its possessions ready for a quick getaway. Perhaps the as yet unpublished manuscript of Paradise Lost was carefully stowed away. In the event these precautions were unnecessary, the fire did not reach as far as Artillery Walk.
So Paradise Lost survived the fire, and then survived the licensor who decided that a poem as complex as Paradise Lost probably wouldn't be read by many people and would pose little danger to the masses. Milton's great poem about the rebellion of the angels of heaven was published. And whether it is great or not, and whether its wisdom is relevant now, can be answered by Milton's God who creates the universe by allowing limits to be placed on its aimless, chaotic infinity...
My overshadowing spirit and might with thee
I send along, ride forth and bid the deep
Within appointed bounds be heaven and earth ( Book Seven: 165 - 167)
When Adam and Eve eat from the Tree of Knowledge they do not see everything. They were not given the final answer which can be passed down in unchanging perfection from age to age. Seeing everything is to see nothing. X-rays are only useful in showing bones inside the human body because they cannot pass through bone. True knowledge requires limit, perspective. Milton had his limits, but he used his limits wisely, accepting them, and using them to advantage. That is all any of us can do. Times and opinions change. We think in different ways, but thinking will always require limits to set it free. That kind of truth does not change. During Milton's lifetime Galileo may have angered the Catholic Church with his ideas of Earth going round the sun. Galileo was suggesting the kind of change that seemed to turn the universe itself on its head. In contrast Milton sees both new knowledge and the same continuing mystery opening up in Galileo's view of the heavens:
This image is copy right free
As when by night the glass
Of Galileo, less assured, observes
Imagined lands and regions of the
moon (Book Five: 261 - 263)
Perhaps these lines suggest that a telescope shows imagined regions and lands as nothing of the kind, like showing the man in the moon as a simple pattern of light and shadow: or perhaps the glass gives new scope to the imagining new lands and regions.
Milton continued writing to the end of his life, working on Paradise Regained, and Samson Agonistes. In this last work Milton wrote about a flawed hero, and encouraged people to look to themselves rather than heroes, to find their own strength in making a good society work. We might feel ordinary and unequal to the challenge, but limits are the making of people. Don't worry if Paradise Lost seems a bit intimidating. Don't take too much notice of all the footnotes. Read the poem with confidence, and it will have something for you.
Milton died in November 1674 aged sixty six, and was buried at St Giles Cripplegate in London.