Milton, John (1608-1674)
John Milton was one of the iconic figures of English literature. He is most familiar for his epic poem Paradise Lost and, in particular, his depiction of Satan. However, his legacy extends far beyond that one monumental work and indeed beyond poetry: He was a forceful and courageous writer on matters political and theological. In the turmoil preceding the English Civil War, he lent intellectual support to the republican cause and, upon the establishment of the Commonwealth, was employed to write tracts defending Oliver Cromwell’s actions, in particular his execution of the king. Following the Restoration of the monarchy, he was threatened with hanging and briefly jailed before influential friends secured his release. The remainder of his life was spent in the construction of his great epics.
True to his Puritan upbringing, Milton took as his central theme the inviolability of the individual conscience—a precept that, when applied to his personal affairs, often brought him strife. As early as his university days, a clash with a tutor forced him to leave Cambridge for a short time; he also abandoned his intended goal of entering the clergy because “tyranny had invaded the church” through the bishops who governed it. A visit to Rome saw him nearly jailed after he ran afoul of the Jesuits for speaking freely of religious dissent. When his first wife deserted him soon after their honeymoon, Milton took the opportunity to call for a liberalization of the divorce laws in his Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce.
Pulpits around the country thundered with condemnations of Milton’s no-fault divorce doctrine; preachers before the Houses of Parliament advocated official censure. The Stationers’ Company of London, representing the city’s publishers, complained that the pamphlet had been published in violation of the recently passed “Printing Ordinance,” which required all publications to be approved by government censors and licensed by the Stationers. Milton responded with his Areopagitica, a searing attack on censorship addressed directly to Parliament and written, he said, “in order to deliver the press from the restraints with which it was encumbered … that the power of determining what was true and what was false, what ought to be published and what to be suppressed, might no longer be entrusted to a few illiterate and illiberal individuals.” Milton did not favor complete freedom of the press—he would in particular disallow “popery,” a stance he was encouraged to employ in his stint as a censor in the Commonwealth—but his statement gave much-needed support to the ideal of religious tolerance at a time when England risked throwing off Episcopacy only to replace it with an equally tyrannical Presbyterian order.
This threat was underlined by the alliance of Royalist and Presbyterian forces in the Second Civil War, brought about through a secret treaty between King Charles and the Scots. But that alliance was smashed by Oliver Cromwell’s men, one of whom was praised for his valor in Milton’s “Sonnet to [Thomas] Fairfax.” Following the trial and execution of the king, Milton, who since reconciling with his wife had kept apart from public discourse, returned to the fray with his Tenure of Kings and Magistrates, “proving that it is lawful, and hath been held so in all ages … to call to account a Tyrant or wicked King, and, after due conviction, to depose and put him to death.” At times, Milton’s language often anticipates that of the American revolutionaries. “The power of Kings and Magistrates,” he wrote,
is nothing else but what is only derivative, transferr’d and committed to them in trust from the People, to the Common good of them all, in whom the power yet remaines fundamentally, and cannot be tak’n from them, without a violation of their natural birthright… .
Milton believed that the king served as an agent of the people, that he was charged with protecting them in their persons and property and could be removed by them when and how they deemed fit.
The unlooked-for defense of republicanism to the point of regicide earned Milton Cromwell’s high esteem, as well as a position as secretary of foreign tongues. In this post, he was charged with continuing the defense of Cromwell’s fledgling Commonwealth by banishing the martyr cult then forming around the dead king. He set about the task with vigor, undertaking a series of responses “on behalf of the English people” to continental scholars of varying levels of esteem. But as Milton was propounding the virtues of republican government, Cromwell was transforming the powers of the Protector into a dictatorship. Although in one sonnet Milton referred to the Lord Protector as “our chief of men,” privately he grew concerned with the antirepublican implications of such a title, the more so as he saw Cromwell move to revive the House of Lords and, worse, reestablish a state-run, state-controlled Church of England.
Thus, at Cromwell’s death, Milton revised and republished his first defense of the Commonwealth and followed it with a new work emphasizing the importance of separating church and state, in the hope of seeing the nation return to a republican form of government. He even went so far as to advocate, in The Ready and Easy Way to Establish a Free Commonwealth, a federal structure of local governments largely independent of a much-weakened Parliament. However, it soon became apparent that restoration of the monarchy was inevitable, and with it would come a purge of republican sympathizers. As a consequence, Milton was forced into hiding. Although in the end he was arrested, several influential friends managed to remove his name from the list of those marked for death, and he was soon released. In the eyes of many, he emerged “nothing more than an infamous outcast … who had, by too great clemency, been left unhanged,” but he was already hard at work on the poem that would redeem his reputation.
Although it is his Satan that exerts the greatest influence over the modern-day imagination, Milton’s stated purpose in writing Paradise Lost was to “justify the ways of God to men.” Fresh from the bitter setback of Restoration, Milton must have felt he was due some justification of God’s ways; it is hard to escape the image of Adam and Eve banished from Eden as an acknowledgment that England’s revolutionary moment was now past. In his final years, Milton produced a history of England, a Latin grammar, and an anti-Catholic pamphlet. His last great poetic work was Samson Agonistes: a tragic setting of the tale of the Israelite judge whose individual salvation was assured at the moment of his death as his nation lay in ruins about him.
Armitage, David, Armand Himy, and Quentin Skinner, eds. Milton and Republicanism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995.
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Hill, Christopher. Milton and the English Revolution. London: Faber & Faber, 1977.
Hughes, Merritt Y., ed. John Milton: Complete Poems and Major Prose. New York: Prentice Hall, 1957.
Knoppers, Laura, Lunger Semenza, and Gregory M. Colón, eds. Milton in Popular Culture. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006.
Lieb, Michael. Theological Milton: Deity, Discourse and Heresy in the Miltonic Canon. Pittsburgh, PA: Duquesne University Press, 2006.
Parker, William Riley. Milton: A Biography. 2nd ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.
Patrides, C. A. Milton and the Christian Tradition. London: Oxford University Press, 1966.
Originally published .