Compared to the lives of most of his contemporaries a substantial amount is known about the life of John Milton. This is important, for it has allowed a great deal of critical interpretation of his works to be based on knowledge of his political allegiance or biographical details.
Milton was born in London in 1608 to Sara and John Milton, his father a Calvinistic scrivener and composer, originally of Roman Catholic background. Milton's early education was conducted at home with private tutors; most important among these was Thomas Young, a dissenting Scotsman, to whom his first acknowledged prose tract is dedicated. At some point between 1618 and 1620 Milton first went to St Paul's School, where he remained until he went up to Christ's College, Cambridge in 1625. During the years before Milton went up to Cambridge he was in preparation for the ministry. At St Paul's School Milton would almost certainly have heard sermons given by the Dean of St Paul's Cathedral, the metaphysical poet John Donne.
At Cambridge Milton ran into difficulties with his tutor, and was suspended for a time during 1626. He was known in Cambridge as "The Lady of Christ's", probably a sobriquet on the poet's dissociation from the usual social and athletic pastimes. Milton appears to have been known for his intellectual abilities, and indeed was sought out for them. Milton signed the Subscriptions Book in 1632, indicating not only acceptance of his degree, but also the doctrines of the Church of England. This is interesting as at this time of Milton's life William Laud's control over the Church of England and it official doctrines and rites was beginning to cause a stir among the nation, particularly among the more puritanical elements.
It is possible that Milton was still intent on pursuing a career in the ministry during the early 1630s. However he did not receive preferment, either collegiate or parochial, and perhaps never sought one; it is also possible that Milton no longer intended entering the ministry, or at least that which was developing under William Laud. Nevertheless, by 1637 Milton seemed set to embark on a poetic career.
On April 3rd 1637 Milton's mother died, setting in motion the events that would result in him moving away from home, travelling in France and Italy. In 1638 Milton consulted Sir Henry Wotton, former ambassador in Venice, about a trip to the Continent. Some records have emerged from the trip, but most of the information comes from Milton's own Defensio secunda (1654). Milton travelled throughout Italy, France and to Geneva, meeting many of the intellectuals and theologians of his time. Milton attests in Areopagitica that he visited the aged Galileo imprisoned by the Inquisition in Florence, reinforcing his commitment to the liberty of the English nation. While on his tour, Milton learned of the deaths of his friend Charles Diodati and sister Anne. Milton began teaching, it would seem, to provide for his orphaned nephews the kind of education he himself had received.
Milton became immersed in religious controversy soon after his return from the Continent; taking the anti-Laudian side during the early 1640s. During the period 1645-9 Milton made a retreat to study and tutoring, as well as planning poetic works. Milton emerged in 1649 to defend the Regicide with his first political tract, The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates. Milton's view that sovereign power always resides with the people and can be recalled at any time was the opposite to that expounded in Hobbes' Leviathan (1651), which argued that people surrender their rights and may not resist established authority.
Milton became Secretary for Foreign Tongues to Cromwell's Council of State in 1649. Though Milton did not have any executive powers, he was the apologist of the Commonwealth regime against Royalist attack in, for example, Eikonoclastes (Milton's answer to the Royalist propaganda-piece Eikon Basilike put together from Charles I's papers). Milton moved on to rebuke the Frenchman Claude Salmasius (employed by the exiled Charles II) with Pro Populo Anglicano Defensio (1651), destroying the former's historical arguments. It was during the writing of the Defensio that Milton lost his sight. This was clearly a turning point in his life and writing, since he had to dictate the rest of his works. Another Royalist attack evoked the Defensio Secunda (1654), with all of its attack on Alexander More, is more competent testimony to the achievements of the Revolution and Commonwealth.
Cromwell died on September 3rd 1658, and Milton walked with a group of humble secretaries at the state funeral in November. Around 1657-8 Milton began to compose Paradise Lost, and during the period 1658-60 completed De Doctrina Christiana, his Latin treatise he hoped would become the basis for Protestant unity (although it was not printed until 1825).
Milton's last major pamphlet The Readie and Easie Way to Establish a Free Commonwealth (1660) demonstrated the poet's courage and commitment to the republican cause. From February 1660 the Restoration was increasingly probable, and the tract appeared first in that month (and enlarged in April). This was a month before Charles II's triumphal entry into London. Abuse of, and danger to, Milton was at its peak in 1660. On the anniversary of Charles I's execution, the remains of Cromwell, Ireton, and Bradshaw were exhumed, dragged to Tyburn and decapitated, their heads impaled on poles at Westminster. Some Cromwellians were executed (e.g. Sir Henry Vane, Milton's friend, in 1662), others were imprisoned or escaped to exile. Milton was protected by friends during 1660 and in Parliament (certainly and notably by Andrew Marvell) who ensured his name was not excluded from the Act of Pardon. The poet was however arrested and imprisoned for several months (see the invocation to Book VII of Paradise Lost).
Milton's later life under a Stuart monarchy was productive. Paradise Lost was finished by 1665, published in 1667, and revised in 1674 for the second edition. A second edition of his Poems appeared in 1673, and Paradise Regained and Samson Agonistes, were published either 1670 or 1671. Milton died around November 9th 1674, a month before reaching 66.
The Historical Context of Milton's Work
John Milton lived and participated in an age that experienced radical upheavals in the principal areas of public life. Soon enough these spilled out to affect the population at large. Thus the course of English history during the seventeenth century is of direct relevance to Paradise Lost. For a competent reading of Milton's epic it is vital to have some understanding of the political, religious and cultural polarities of Caroline England, the course of the Republic under Oliver Cromwell, and the Restoration of the Stuarts with Charles II in 1660. Without reference to the major structural changes that took place in church and state during these years many of the allusions in the text will be overlooked or misconstrued, and perhaps the central meaning of Milton's purpose will fail to resonate.
In 1642 England became embroiled in civil war, and the last of Charles I's three kingdoms was to collapse. The King had lost control of government in Scotland in 1638-9 when his attempt to impose religious uniformity on the kirk in Scotland seriously backfired. Ireland fell into rebellion in 1641. The reasons why England, and Charles' other kingdoms, collapsed into a state of dysfunction have been hotly debated by historians for decades, and it beyond the scope of this introductory discussion to become embroiled in this historiographical debate.
The early Stuarts (James VI and I and Charles I) inherited a governmental system that was in many ways incapable of supporting the expectations the country had of its monarchy. Elizabeth I's reign was very superficial. Behind the cult of 'Gloriana' (see Spenser's The Faerie Queene etc.), victory over the Spanish Armada, campaigns for the Protestant cause in the United Provinces, stood a governmental system with huge structural defects.
Changes in the Church of England were of central importance to the events that led up to the outbreak of the English Civil War. At the turn of the seventeenth century England was in many ways hampered by the problem of an incomplete Reformation. There existed under Elizabeth an uneasy coexistence of Catholics, Anglicans, and more extreme Protestants, the loosely defined grouping of Puritans. The importance of religion and religious issues to contemporaries should never be underestimated. Religion was an issue that, although at times manipulated by statesmen as a pretext for more secular ambitions, managed to cause wars across early modern Europe. To a great extent, events in England followed this same path.
With the Hampton Court Conference (1604), James I had managed to achieve a state of equilibrium in which the confessional strands were accommodated or at least temporarily appeased. This was perhaps James' principal achievement as king of England; Charles I and William Laud destroyed this within a matter of years.
Supreme Head of the Church of England, Charles, with his archbishop William Laud, pursued an ecclesiastical policy that has been labelled 'Arminian' or 'Laudian'. Essentially the Caroline church was marked by a greater emphasis on ritual in administering the sacraments, and hence the Laudian clergy, steeped in ritual, took on greater pomp. Furthermore, the judicial abuses of the ecclesiastical courts were most unpopular, particularly the case of Prynne, Burton and Bastwick.
The theology of Jacobus Arminius had been derided at the Synod of Dort (1618), and thus in England the more Calvinistic and Puritan sections of society were hostile to the doctrine of free will. However, the Laudian church was not strictly Arminian, and it was the drive for uniformity in worship, with what was perceived as crypto-Catholic ritual and the doctrinal superiority of the sacraments over the power of individual contact with God (i.e. the Lutheran doctrine of Sola fide), that caused most outrage.
The Stuarts have been infamous throughout subsequent history for their extravagance. Though it would be misleading to attempt to dispel this image of luxury at the Jacobean and Caroline courts entirely, it must be quantified. Relatively, James I's expenditure was equal to that of Henry VII and less than Henry VIII's had been. What did cause great frustration and wariness was the fear of crypto-Catholicism at the court and 'popish plots' engineered through the court, and the continued isolation of the king and a small group of aristocrats and favourites.
There existed something of an ideological division between king and Parliament under the early Stuarts. James I is notorious for standing before Parliament and asserting the 'doctrine' of the 'Divine Right of Kingship', antagonising members of the Commons who interpreted the relationship of the Crown and Parliament as one of cooperation for the good of the 'common weal'. However, the extent of this should not be overestimated, as James's abilities as a king should not be undervalued. Before ascending to the English crown in 1603 on the death of Elizabeth, James (VI) had learned his statecraft as king of Scotland for over thirty years.
Nevertheless, after a period of eleven years in which Charles I ruled without recourse to Parliament and continued arbitrary methods of government, taxation and ecclesiastical policy, when Parliament was eventually summoned (the Short Parliament of 1640, and the Long Parliament from 1641) relations between king and Parliament had collapsed. War was never inevitable, but relations grew increasingly bad, a combination of the King's obstinacy to negotiate religious and political-constitutional compromise, Parliament scoring propaganda points by exposing the dubious, duplicitous, and underhanded methods of the King, and attacking his chief ministers Laud and Strafford. War became increasingly possible during 1642, especially during the summer, because the King had left London to raise money and support in the counties, leaving Parliament in control of the capital. Attempts at peace negotiation failed and war broke out.
Parliament managed to win the first of the civil wars even though the Crown had superior resources at the beginning and wasted valuable tactical opportunities early on. After a period of stalemate, Parliament developed the more sophisticated governmental machinery and reorganised its military structure, with the formation of the New Model Army. After the first civil war the situation become more complicated, with the emergence of religious and political radicalism, the politicisation of the Army, the intervention of the Scottish Covenanters, discord within the Parliamentary cause, and the continued duplicity of Charles I. Attempts at compromise failed, and it is possible that Cromwell engineered the fall of Charles with his attempted escape from Carisbroke Castle.
To ensure the trial of the King, Pride's Purge of Parliament was executed in December 1648. After a trial of dubious legality, in January 1649 Charles I was beheaded outside the Banqueting House at Whitehall.
Over the next two months a significantly reduced Parliament, after executing its king abolishing the House of Lords and the episcopacy, declared England a republic.
The composition of the poem was probably begun around 1657-8, and completed by the summer of 1665 when Milton gave the manuscript to his friend Thomas Ellwood to read. Milton's contract with the printer Samuel Simmons is dated to 27th April 1667. There were two editions of the poem in Milton's lifetime, both printed by Simmons. It was first published in 1667 in ten books, the first edition (1,300 copies) being exhausted. In revised versions of 1668-9 Milton added the preface and prose 'argument'. In the second edition of 1674 Milton divided books VII and X to make the poem twelve books, and the argument divided the prefix individual books.
Very little is known of the order, time and manner in which each of the different parts of the poem were composed. Early on in his adult life, Milton appears to have shown interest in composing an epic. Before visiting the Continent Milton declared his intentions to write an Arthurian epic. However on his return from Italy Milton composed a list of over a hundred biblical and historical subjects for dramas, and four on Adam and Eve. Trinity College Cambridge has these four drafts, perhaps written as early as the 1640s, of an outline for a tragedy on 'Paradise Lost'. This is of interest, as these drafts present the final poem as we know it in certain respects as a tragedy.