John "The Lady" Milton (1608-1674)

John Milton was born 9 December 1608 in Cheapside1 under the sign of the Spread Eagle2. His father, John Milton, Senior, was a fairly well-known composer who contributed to a collection of madrigals in honor of Queen Elizabeth3. The elder John had been disinherited by his wealthy Roman Catholic family when he decided to go with the flow and turn Protestant. He had the last laugh, though; he managed to become wealthy all on his own. So the younger John had a good education4, both because the money was there and because John, Sr. thought his son showed great promise. John was the second of the three children who survived past infancy. He had an older sister named Anne and a younger brother named Christopher, who would eventually become a Royalist, a Catholic, and a lawyer; three things which John would eventually grow to hate5.

John wrote seven or eight poems in Latin while in school6, but never at this time seriously considered a career in writing. He read a great deal even beyond his schoolwork as preparation for a career in the Church or perhaps politics. Unfortunately, his eyesight, bad since childhood, was made even worse by all this study, and he frequently suffered terrible headaches7. After finishing his formal schooling, he took a tour of the Continent, as many well-off young men did at that time8. During this tour and upon his return to England, John was planning out poetic epics and tragedies that he wanted to write, as writing began to interest him more and more. In 1640, he began a campaign of pamphlets against the authority of the bishops, which many people at that time resented.

In 1642, John married a woman named Mary Powell. She was 17. John was 34. She was from a Royalist family. John was a staunch supporter of Parliament over royalty9. She was almost completely uneducated. John was, obviously, extremely well-educated. It was as good a match as you might think. One month after the ceremony, Mary went to visit her family and stayed there10.

The English Civil War (Royalists versus Parliamentarians) began in 1643. Shortly therafter, Mary returned with a lot of bankrupt relatives in tow11. John forgave her and took all of them back; so he had a whole crowd of people to support. John dove headfirst into politics, and wrote pamphlets defending the execution of Charles I by the victorious Parliamentarians. In 1646, he published a collection of poems, but politics was still his main occupation. Besides the pamphlets, he became Secretary for Foreign Tongues under the new Commonwealth and their official propagandist. He always felt that the Commonwealth failed to reach its full potential and disapproved of Oliver Cromwell's dictatorial ways after declaring himself Lord Protector of the Commonwealth. Still, he worked away loyally, finally finishing the destruction of his eyesight in 165112. His wife died in May 1652, shortly after giving birth to the couple's third daughter, Deborah13.

John remarried in 1656 and had another daughter in 1657, but both wife and daughter died in 1658. During this brief second marriage, John began work on Paradise Lost, and Andrew Marvell began working for John as a secretary. Andrew was always a loyal friend to John, particularly when the Restoration hit and Charles II took the throne. John might easily have been hanged for his many services to the Commonwealth, but Andrew and several other people of influence spoke out on John's behalf. The newly-crowned king decided that sparing the elderly, blind poet would be viewed as a grand, magnanimous gesture, and anyway, a lot of Royalists really liked the sonnets John had written14. He was still imprisoned for a time, though, and later was in fear of his life15. What with this, the Great Fire of London and the Plague, Paradise Lost wasn't published until 1667. It was quite the hit, though none of John's other works reached widespread popularity in his lifetime16.

Paradise Regain'd and Samson Agonistes were published in 1671, and John spent most of the rest of his life getting as many manuscripts ready for publication as possible. He suffered greatly from gout, though I'm sure his third wife was of great help in his work17. He had a pretty strange schedule, actually. He woke at four every morning and listened to his assistant (who was somebody other than Andrew by then) read the Bible to him, in the original Hebrew, of course. Then there was some time for contemplation18, followed at 7 a.m. by equal portions writing and reading with his assistant. After dinner he would walk in his garden for a few hours, and at 8 p.m. there would be either poetry reading or organ playing. He was in bed by nine and ready for it to start all over again.

He died, very peacefully, on 8 November 1674. He probably would've liked to know that both his poems and his political treatises would eventually achieve popularity, but of course, no one then had the slightest clue that the American colonists would latch onto some of Milton's political ideas when planning out their revolution. He's often referred to as the second greatest English poet, which always seemed to me to be a classic example of damning with faint praise. Still, it's better than being forgotten, like the kid who comes in second in the National Spelling Bee.

Muir, Kenneth. John Milton. London: Longmans, Green, and Co. Ltd., 1965.

  1. Cheapside is, even today, pretty much just what the name implies.

  2. That's what the book said, anyway. I really hope it refers to the sign at an inn.

  3. This will become ironic later on.

  4. In later years, John was to have very firm ideas on the proper education of boys, ideas which very plainly indicated that he had no clue what most small boys were really like.

  5. The brothers managed to stay on good terms in spite of this. Impressive, huh?

  6. His classmates nicknamed him 'The Lady' because of his extreme concern with his appearance. I just didn't want you to think I'd made up that nickname up there.

  7. His reading also gave him a reasonable, open mind. He held the (then absolutely shocking) opinion that divorce should be allowed in cases of desertion or religious differences.

  8. In Italy, John visited with Galileo, then old, ill, and blind, but still under the ever-watchful eye of the Inquisition, who apparently thought he might make a last-ditch attack on the Pope or something.

  9. I told you all those madrigals would be ironic.

  10. There was some mention made of the fact that her family owed money to his family and that this marriage was somehow supposed to make that right. I prefer not to think about the possible mercenary aspects of their relationship.

  11. The Powells had figured out that Charles I's cause was lost, but not before they'd given him a lot of money.

  12. The Royalists said he'd been struck blind for defaming the memory of Charles the Martyr. Actually, he probably had glaucoma.

  13. Their son, John III, died when he was barely over a year old. Deborah was later very helpful to her father in his blindness. The two older daughters were named Anne and Mary, though if this was King Lear, they'd be named Goneril and Regan. Okay, okay, they weren't really that bad. But they did, later in their lives, sell some of their father's books without his knowledge, and actively encourage the family servants to embezzle money.

  14. Most of John's contemporaries thought that the sonnet form had been done to death and nothing new could be accomplished with it. They were wrong.

  15. A particularly radical group of Royalists calling themselves the Sons of Belial had issued some rather nasty threats against him.

  16. Yes, that's pretty much a rule for authors.

  17. He'd married Elizabeth Minshull in 1663, when she was 24 and he was 55. Wow.

  18. And possibly breakfast, though I could find no precise information on that.

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