Religion and Culture

Milton was born in London in 1608 to a wife of a father holding the Puritan stand. This position caused a rift with his Catholic grandfather, who was a deliberate no-show in Queen Elizabeth's Anglican Church. This purifying spirit in John's household, that refused to believe that the Queen had reformed the Church from "popery" and back to the undiluted sources, was balanced by the Renaissance spirit that looked to Classic sources. Fortunately for Milton, the Puritan movement had not evolved to its ignorant severe anti-worldly state that earned the ugly connotation known today. Young John was instead surrounded by literature, art and music, and attended St. Paul's School in London. In 1625 he came to Christ's College in Cambridge where in his seven years there developed his learned base by immersion in every type of penned material he could discover and began to pen his own works as well.

Poetic Declarations of Independence

Milton's first major poem was composed at Cambridge in 1629, On the Morning of Christ's Nativity, and some other poems demonstrated enough independence of thought, a character he consistently maintained, that he clashed with a tutor that had him expelled in 1626. He was able to return finally, getting a replacement teacher, but left there in 1632 for Horton, Buckinghamshire to join his retired father for six joyous years delving into his intellectual and aesthetic pursuits with the goal of meeting what he deemed his great poetic destiny. He had an ongoing vision that was propped by pursuing perfection. His exhaling excellence at Horton produced:

  • L'Allegro (1631)


    ...Come, and trip it, as you go,
    On the light fantastic toe;
    And in thy right hand lead with thee
    The mountain-nymph, sweet Liberty;
    And, if I give the honor due,
    Mirth, admit me of thy crew,
    To live with her, and live with thee....
  • Il Penseroso (1631)


           Hence, vain deluding Joys,
              The brood of Folly without father bred!
           How little you bested,             
               Or fill the fixéd mind with all your toys!

  • Comus (1634)
  • Lycidas (1637)


        The hungry sheep look up, and are not fed,
        But, swoln with wind and the rank mist they draw,
         Rot inwardly, and foul contagion spread:
         Besides what the grim wolf with privy paw
         Daily devours space, and nothing said.

And, during this blessed time he wrote many of his "minor" poems.

Italian Re-Renaissance

It was only fitting that Milton, considered the last English Renaissance man -- more interested in emulation of Iliad's Homer than Scotland's Bruce, would travel to Italy in 1638. Here, amongst cultured acquaintances was where his Protestant individuality would become polished with humanism. He would receive further molding: news of King Charles I's invasion of Scotland reached him in his travels and spurred a patriotic fervor that would prompt his return to England to help in 1639. On his way back he stopped in Florence where he met the blind aged science pioneer and master, Galileo, under house arrest by the Inquisition.

Schoolmaster to Secretary

Milton chose to take up a profession that would enable him to use his best talents in the battle for freedom, that of a schoolmaster. By 1641 he was writing controversial pamphlets calling for the end of Bishopric succession, while trying to keep himself honest from some of the Puritan excesses. In 1642 a year in which Puritans closed theaters, Charles I was under fire because the Civil War started to build he started his masterpiece, Paradise Lost and wrote many of his famous sonnets, e.g., VIII relating the invading King's army at London :

Lift not thy spear against the Muses' bower:
     The great Emathian conqueror bid

During the next couple of years later Milton writes: contentions for facilitated divorce in 1643 (perhaps despaired from his miserable marriage that year, but still in line with his love of liberty), tracts promoting liberal education, On Education (1644), and an impassioned well thought fortress in words for free speech, Areopagitica:

Give me the liberty to know,
to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience,
above all liberties.

In 1649 the year that Oliver Cromwell's Model Army victoriously delivered the Puritan Protestant Revolution and Charles I's head on a plate, Milton wrote Tenure of Kings and Magistrates and was appointed in this Glorious Commonwealth to be Latin Secretary.

MAY, 1652

On the Proposal of Certain Ministers
at the Committee for Propagation of the Gospel

    Cromwell, our chief of men, who through a cloud
      Not of war only, but detractions rude,
      Guided by faith and matchless fortitude,
      To peace and truth thy glorious way hast plowed
      And on the neck of crownéd Fortune proud
        Hast reared God's trophies, and his work pursued.
      While Darwen stream, with blood of Scots imbued,
   And Dunbar field, resounds thy praises loud,
    And Worchester's laureate wreath: yet much remains
       To conquer still; Peace hath her victories
      No less renowned than War: new foes arise,
    Threatening to bind our souls with secular chains.
      Help us to save free conscience from the paw
     Of hireling wolves, whose Gospel is their maw.


Three years of concentrated effort in this position led to a blindness that still did not sway Milton's course of official -- Pro Populo Anglicano Defensio (1651) and independent writing; especially concerning his personal quest for the ultimate verse.

A Charles Re-throned, A Paradise Lost

1660 is the date marking the date considered the initiation of Restoration, when Charles II was reinstated as Britain's King, but it was to a disappointed Milton a chance to restore his serious project to the front burner of his artistic engine. He began to finish his Paradise Lost and ironic theme at this juncture. His aggravations and interruptions would not come from the new Royal Regime, but from domestic turmoil. He chose this Paradise Lost theme (finished in 1665 published two years later), followed by Paradise Regained and Samson Agnotistes because he saw this as the grandest scale epic ever -- the whole reason for the Almighty's Creation and the Plan of Salvation. In 1674 he finally received his crown in Glory for his work.

First eight verses of Paradise Lost:

Of man's first disobedience, and the fruit
Of that forbidden tree whose mortal taste
Brought death into the World, and all our woe,
   With loss of Eden, till one Greater Man
   Restore us, and regain the blissful seat,
   Sing, Heavenly Muse, that, on the secret top
   Of Oreb, or of Sinai, didst inspire
   That shepherd who first taught the chosenseed


Source: From Beowulf to Hardy, Robert Shafer; Odyssey Press: NY, 1939

John Milton: A more or less complete chronology

Also known as: A whole bunch of dates I hope you never have to memorize.

  • December 9. Born into the family of John Milton Sr. and his wife, Sara, at the family home, "The Spreadeagle," Bread Street, London. John Milton Sr. is a prosperous scrivener-legal aide, real-estate agent, notary, preparer of documents, money-lender. He is also active as a composer of liturgical music.

  • Milton is tutored at home by Thomas Young, a Scottish Presbyterian who will come to be identified with the Puritan movement. Young will present Milton with a Hebrew Bible and will trade Latin and Greek verses with him.

  • Enters St. Paul's school, under the high master Alexander Gil. After Milton's death, his brother Christopher would tell John Auberey, "When he John went to Schoole, when he was very young he studied very hard and sate-up very late, commonly till 12 or one a clock at night, & his father ordered the mayde to sitt-up for him, and in those years composed many Copies of Verses: which might well become a riper age." After the age of twelve, the young Milton "rarely retired to bed from my studies until midnight." His best friend at St. Paul's is Charles Diodati, son of a prominent Protestant Italian physician. Charles is accepted to Trinity College, Cambridge, February 7, 1623. Milton is also instituting a long-term friendship with Alexander Gil the younger, an under-usher at St. Paul's, about ten years older than he.

  • February 12. Admitted to Christ's College, Cambridge, under the tutor William Chappell.

  • Dispute with Chappell causes him to be sent home ("rusticated") temporarily. While in London, Milton informs Charles Diodati that he is seeing classical comedies and tragedies performed. When he returns to Cambridge, he is put under a new tutor, Nathaniel Tovey.

  • Expresses dissatisfaction with the curriculum at Cambridge in his first Prolusion: claims that possibly half his audience of fellow students bear malice toward him. Sees, and later derides, dramatic performances at Cambridge.
  • December 25. "On the Morning of Christ's Nativity" composed before dawn.

  • Charles Diodati attends the University of Geneva, Switzerland. Edward King, the subject of Milton's "Lycidas" is given a fellowship at Christ's College.

  • Milton's "On Shakespeare" published in the second folio of Shakespeare's works.
  • July 3. Takes M.A. cum laude at Cambridge. He has evidently been on much better terms with fellow students, since his poems on the death of Hobson indicate convivial behavior, and his last college exercise, the Oratio pro Arte discusses, among other things, the value of worthy and congenial friendship.
  • Retires to family homes at Hammersmith, near London, and at Horton, in Buckinghamshire, to study for five years, at his father's expense, occasionally visiting London "for the purposes of learning something new in mathematics or music, in which I tend delighted."

  • September 29. Comus performed as part of the ceremonies honoring the installation of Thomas Egerton, the Lord President of Wales, at Ludlow Castle, on the border of England and Wales. Sir Henry Wotton, Provost of Eton College given a copy of the masque to read.
  • Trades Greek and Latin verses with Alexander Gil the younger.

  • Comus published, anonymously at first. The court composer, Henry Lawes, who has written the music, apparently supervises publication.
  • April 3. Mother, Sara, dies. Buried at the Horton parish church.
  • November. "Lycidas" is written. Edward King, Milton's college friend in whose memory the poem was written, had drowned August 10.

  • "Lycidas" is first published at Cambridge in a memorial volume for Edward King, Justa Eduardo King Naufrago.

  • Tours Western Europe, in Paris meeting Hugo Grotius, the famous Dutch legal scholar and poet, possibly in May 1638. He then concentrates on Italy: Florence, Siena, Rome, Venice, Milan, and Naples. Returns by way of Geneva.

  • Well received at meetings of the Academia Svogliati in Florence, where he reads his own Latin verse. Presumably he goes to Vallombrosa, a monastery near Florence, which he will mention in Paradise Lost. Probably visits the atronomer Galileo, then under house arrest by the Inquisition, in Florence. In Rome he attends an operatic performances at the palace of Cardinal Fracesco Barberini, nephew to the Pope. Visits the Vatican Library. While in Naples, Milton meets the biographer of Torqquato Tass, Giovanni Battista, Marquis of Manso. Later, the Latin poem "Mansus" will be written in Manso's honor. A trip to Greece is canceled, apparently because of rumors of impending civil war in England. Milton learns of Charles Diodati's death, possibly while visiting Giovanni Diodati, theologian and uncle of Charles, in Geneva.

  • Settles in London, instituting a kind of private secondary school or academy, at first only with his nephews Edward and John Phillips as his pupiles, but later with aristocratic children as well.
  • Charles I invades Scotland. The Long Parliament is convened.

  • May. Of Reformation published.
  • June. Of Prelatical Episcopacy published.
  • July. Animadversions published.

  • February. The Reason of Church Government published.
  • May. An Apology for Smectymnuus published. (The ty in the name represents Milton's tutor Thomas Young)
  • May. Marries Mary Powell. She leaves him about a month later, to return to the Powell family household in Forest Hill near Oxford, and refuses at first to return. The Powell family declare on the sign of the Royalists.
  • August. Civil War begins in Britain.
  • October. Milton's brother Christopher begins service on the side of the Royalists while in residence in the city of Reading. Royalist army maintains its headquarters in Oxford. Battle of Edgehill October 23.

  • August 1. The Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce first published.

  • February 2. Second, augmented edition of The Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce published.
  • June 5. Of Education published.
  • July 2. Battle of Marston Moor.
  • August 6. The Judgement of Martin Bucer Concerning Divorce published.
  • November 23. Areopagitica published.

  • March 4. Tetrachordon and Colasterion published.
  • Poems of Mr. John Milton, Both English and Latin... registered for publication. Makes plans to marry the daughter of a Dr. Davis. Mary Powell returns.
  • June 14. Battle of Naseby (end of Charles I's hopes to achieve military settlement).

  • The entire Powell family, ejected from Oxford as Royalists when King Charles no longer had ascendancy, moves in with Milton.
  • January 2. Poems...1645 published.
  • July 29. Daughter Anne born.

  • January 1. Father-in-law Richard Powell dies.
  • March. John Milton Sr. dies, leaving a large estate, including the Bread Street house.
  • April 21. Writes to his Italian friend Carlo Dati lamenting that he is surrounded by uncongenial people.
  • The Milton family, after the Powell relatives have returned to Oxford, moves from the larger house in the Barbican to a smaller one in High Holborn, near Lincon's Inn Fields.

  • October 25. Daughter Mary born.

  • January 30. Public Execution of King Charles I.
  • February 13. The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates published.
  • March. Invited to become Secretary for the Foreign Tongues by the Council of State. Milton was appointed Secretary on March 15, at £288 per year, and ordered to answer Eikon Basilike, the book supposedly written by Charles I on the eve of his execution, which depicts the King's image as that of a martyr.
  • May 11. Salmasius's Defensio Regia appears.
  • May 16. Observations on the Articles of Peace published.
  • October 6. Eikonoklastes published.
  • November 19. Given lodgings for official work at Scotland Yard.

  • Ordered by Council of State to answer Salmasius.

  • February 24. Defensio pro populo Anglicano published, to vindicate the legal English execution fo Charles I throughout western Europe.
  • March 16. Son John born.
  • Milton family moves to a garden house in Westminster.

  • February. Becomes totally blind toward the end of the month, most likely as the result of glaucoma.
  • May 2. Daughter Deborah born.
  • May 5. Wife Mary dies, probably from complications following childbirth.
  • June 16. Son John dies under somewhat mysterious circumstances (may have been neglected by a nurse).
  • August. Pierre du Moulin's Regii Sanguinis Clamor published, in reply to Milton's Defensio. Milton is ordered to reply by the COuncil of State.

  • February 20. Recommends that Andrew Marvell, because of his abilities as translator and scholar, become his assistant.
  • September 3. Salmasius dies.

  • May 30. Defensio Secunda published.

  • Allowed to use the services of an amanuensis to take dictation for him in secretaryship; translation duties limited. Resumes private scholarly work, preparing a Latin dictionary and Greek lexicon; possibly he works on De Doctrina Christiana, a compendium of his own theological beliefs; possibly works on Paradise Lost. Salary reduced from £288 to £150, but that becomes a pension for life.
  • August 8. Defensio Pro Se published.

  • November 12. Marries Katherine Woodcock.

  • October 19. Daughter Katherine born.

  • February 3. Katherine Woodcock dies.
  • March 17. Daughter Katherine dies.
  • September 3. Oliver Cromwell dies.

  • February 16. A Treatise of Civil Power published.
  • March 3. The Readie & Easy Way to Establish a Free Commonwealth published in its first edition.
  • Goes into hiding at a friend's house in Bartholomew Close to escape possible retaliation from Charles II's loyalists.
  • June 16. Parliament looks into the possibility of having Milton arrested.
  • June 27. The hangman of London burns Defensio pro populo Anglicano and Eikonoklastes publicly.
  • August. The Likeliest Means to Remove Hirelings out of the Church published.
  • August. Takes a house in Holborn, near Red Lion Fields. Milton soon moves from there to a house in Jewin Street, in September, in fear for his life.
  • October. Arrested and imprisoned.
  • December 15. Released by order of Parliament. On December 17, Andrew Marvell protests in Parliament that Milton's jail fees (£150) are excessive.

  • Revised edition of The Readie & Easy Way
  • May 30. Restoration of King Charles II.

  • Begins tutoring Thomas Ellwood, a young Quaker who would mention the circumstances of the publication of Paradise Lost and Paradise Regain'd in his own autobiography.
  • June. Sonnet to Sir Henry Vane published. Vane executed June 14, after eloquently defending the soverignty of Parliament.

  • February 24. Marries Elizabeth Minshull. Problems arise in the family before and after the marriage. His daughter mAary is said to have wished him dead rather than married, and several of his daughters are said to have conspired to sell some of his books to the "dunghill women." The The family moves from Jewin Street to a house with a military marching ground leading to Bunhill Fields.

  • Thomas Ellwood acts as agent, securing a house for Milton in Chalfont St. Giles, Buckinghamshire, to avoid the plague in London

  • The poet's father's house in Bread Street is among those destroyed in the Great Fire of London, which also burns most of the printing houses.

  • Paradise Lost published, in ten books. Milton's agreement with the printer Samuel Simmons is the earliest author's contract preserved.

  • Paradise Lost reisued with a new title page, the arguments, and other preliminary matter.

  • June. Accidence Commenced Grammar published.

  • Paradise Regain'd and Samson Agonistes published together. The date of composition of Samson Agonistes is still in dispute.

  • May. The Art of Logic published.

  • May. Of True Religion published.
  • November. Poems, &c upon Several Occasions...1673 published.

  • May. Epistolae Familiares and Prolusiones published.
  • July 6. Second edition of Paradise Lost published, in twelve books, with commendatory poems by "S.B." and Andrew Marvell.
  • November. Dies in a fit of gout, but with little pain or emotion at some time between November 8 and November 10.
  • November 12. Buried near his father in the church of St. Giles, Cripplegate.

    All quotations from Paradise Lost: An Authoritative Text, Backgrounds and Sources, Criticism.

    Milton, John. Paradise Lost: An Authoritative Text, Backgrounds and Sources, Criticism. 2d. ed. Scott Elledge, ed. New York: W. W. Norton & Company. 1975.
    Flannagan, Roy C. Riverside Milton.

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