John Milton's 400th
Before he died in 1674, John Milton had survived the plague, the death of children and two wives, civil war, blindness, imprisonment in the Tower of London, the loss of all his money in a financial disaster and the Great Fire of London. Despite all these travails, he wrote some of the greatest English poetry and a great defence of freedom.
Milton was born on Friday 9 December 1608 in the house at the sign of the Spread Eagle, Bread Street, London. His father was a scrivener and composer, and hired a tutor for him. He must have been a brilliant boy. He became fluent in Greek, Hebrew, French, and Italian and wrote poems in Latin when he was still a teenager.
Death and poetry
He studied at Cambridge, between bouts of the plague, and wrote a number of poems as memorials to men who had died, including the scholar and divine Lancelot Andrewes and the octogenarian coachman, Thomas Hobson, who had driven students between London and Cambridge at high speeds -
Here lieth one who did most truly prove, / That he could never die while he could move. . .(The University Carrier)
After Milton left Cambridge he lived with his parents and started his own course of study, recording ideas and lines of reading in a commonplace book. (It's now in the British Library). It is difficult to imagine he was very happy.
He was deeply shocked by the death of Edward King, a fellow of Christ's College who drowned off the coast of Anglesey. Milton struggled to put into words his feelings. The result was ‘Lycidas’, a poem weighted with classical freight, but a consolation to many who have struggled to articulate - and thus to bear - their grief at the death of a friend.
‘Lycidas’ concludes by affirming that when grieving has finished, life must go on - ‘Tomorrow to fresh woods and pastures new’. Milton took his own advice and headed to Italy.
Visiting the Italian scientist Galileo and Italian poets, he was gone for fifteen months. He returned to England because, "I thought it base that I should travel abroad at my ease for the cultivation of my mind while my fellow citizens at home were fighting for liberty". The English Civil War had begun and Milton felt passionately about the issues at stake. However, it has to be admitted, he did not rush home.
Rebel and pamphleteer
But once he had arrived, he plunged into writing and publishing fire and brimstone attacks on bishops of the English church. Milton believed that bishops were too ready to feather their own nests. He preferred "independent congregationalism, which had taken root in the puritan colonies of America and had been re-exported to England" (Oxford DNB). It was a courageous stand. At the time the Star Chamber was sentencing anti-episcopal thinkers to torture and mutilation on the scaffold.
Milton also became a vocal supporter of more liberal divorce laws, possibly because his marriage in 1642 to a seventeen-year-old had experienced a bumpy start. A few months after their wedding, his wife left him and went back home. In 1643 Milton published a pamphlet arguing that the traditional grounds for divorce were insufficient, and that a man should be able to divorce his wife if their marriage had become spiritually and emotionally barren. In an interesting twist, partly because they were not allowed to divorce, the Miltons reconciled and overcame their emotional divisions. But his pamphlet excited the authorities. Parliament decided to stamp out unregistered books, including Milton's.
This attempt to stifle Milton inspired Areopagitica (1644), a great and eloquent defence of the right to publish. It will help to inspire Americans to establish freedom of speech in the U.S. Bill of Rights a century later.
The English Civil War had a long lead time. The quarrel between King and Parliament began in the 1620s. Pitched battles began in 1642 and did not end until 1651. One might have thought that everyone would be preoccupied with the news - the retreats, advances, defeats - but perhaps luckily for those living at the time, the BBC and Fox News were not broadcasting round the clock. In the middle of the Civil War, the Miltons were raising two daughters and Milton was working on a history of Britain, publishing his early poems and, as noted, defending freedom.
Milton wasn't indifferent to the war. He wrote poetry about it and he entered the service of the new English republic as a writer and translator. In 1649, he argued that the people have a right to call kings to account and, if a sovereign refused to give justice to his people and defend their liberties, to depose him.
Blindness and vision
Milton had lost the sight of his left eye a few years earlier. In 1652 he became permanently blind in both eyes and his wife Mary died after giving birth to their daughter Deborah. "Milton was left, alone and blind, to care for four young children; six weeks later, his only son, John, died" (Oxford DNB).
It was now, widowed and blind, that Milton returned to writing poetry.
On His Blindness
. . ."Doth God exact day-labour, light denied?"
I fondly ask. But Patience, to prevent
That murmur, soon replies: "God doth not need
Either man's work or his own gifts: who best
Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best. His state
Is kingly; thousands at his bidding speed
And post o'er land and ocean without rest:
They also serve who only stand and wait."
Milton remarried, but within a year his second wife and infant daughter died. Shortly afterwards, in 1658, Milton began to dictate Paradise Lost, an epic poem in 12 books which tells the story of Adam and Eve, who enjoy free will but make terrible mistakes, partly because of their inability to truly love each other. Lucifer, the self-tormented, blindly willful angel, rebels against God, and leads Adam and Eve to their separation from God until Christ brings redemptive love.
There are a host of angels and spirits as well - all of them speaking in blank verse - lines with rhythm but without rhyme. It is a colossal creation, which affected generations. Some today find it remote. Dr Johnson remarked, 'None ever wished it longer than it is.' Still others are excited by its science fiction.
And yet it is beautiful -
Now came still Evening on, and Twilight gray
Had in her sober livery all things clad;
Silence accompanied; for beast and bird,
They to their grassy couch, these to their nests
Were slunk, all but the wakeful nightingale.
She all night long her amorous descant sung:
Silence was pleased. Now glowed the firmament
With living sapphires; Hesperus, that led
The starry host, rode brightest, till the Moon,
Rising in clouded majesty, at length
Apparent queen, unveiled her peerless light,
And o'er the dark her silver mantle threw.
Paradise Lost is full of jewels.
After all his polemics, some of them quite negative about people of other faiths, Milton published a treatise that is the result of his thinking about free will. In 1659, he defended freedom of conscience, declaring that it is not lawful for any power on earth to compel men and women in matters of religion. His stand helped to create freedom of religion in Britain and America, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.
That is something to be thankful for on this, the 400th anniversary of his birth.