- Milton, John
- (1608-1674)English poet, political figure, and au-thor of tracts on political and religious issues. Though his life is to-tally contained in the 17th century and so falls chronologically into a post-Renaissance age, his prodigious mastery of Renaissance hu-manistic learning and the Protestant theology of the Reformation has caused him to be conventionally treated as a very late represen-tative of the Renaissance in England. The son of a distinguished mu-sical composer of the same name, he received a superb classical ed-ucation and studied at Christ's College, Cambridge. He published his first poem in 1632. He had intended to enter the clergy, but his strong Puritan sympathies made him unwilling to conform to the Church of England. He published poetry in English, Latin, and Italian and in 1638-1639 travelled on the Continent, meeting many prominent scholars and literary figures and even visiting the aged Galileo Galilei during the astronomer's years of house arrest following his condemnation by the Roman Inquisition.Milton's hostility to the authoritarian tendencies of Archbishop Laud's church and King Charles I's secular administration made him support the Puritan side in the English civil wars that broke out in 1642. In 1649, after the victory of the revolutionaries, he became sec-retary of foreign tongues for the Council of State, the man responsi-ble for correspondence (normally in Latin) with foreign powers. He also emerged as a political pamphleteer, defending the republican government and insisting that the king was not above the law and could be held responsible for unlawful acts. In 1652, however, Mil-ton became totally blind, though he continued his government work with the aid of a secretary.Milton always regarded poetry as his true calling and from an early age aspired to succeed in what literary theory regarded as the highest and noblest form of literature, epic poetry. His collected poems pub-lished in 1645 contained his early lyric and religious poems, includ-ing several sonnets in Italian. His prose works were not limited to po-litical controversy; he also wrote on religion, including a notorious treatise on divorce that gave limited endorsement to legal divorce with the right of remarriage in cases where a marriage had broken down irretrievably. His most admired prose work, however, is Are-opagitica (1644), a defense of intellectual freedom particularly di-rected against the censorship traditionally exercised by the English state over the press.Milton's close association with Oliver Cromwell and the other re-publican leaders who abolished the monarchy and executed King Charles I made it inevitable that he would be one of the few individ-uals not included in the general amnesty promised by the new king, Charles II, when the monarchy was restored in 1660. What saved him from execution was partly the recognition of his greatness as a poet and partly his blindness. Only after the Restoration in 1660, now out of office and out of official favor, did he concentrate on his lifelong ambition of producing the great poetic epic that English literature had lacked. The result was Paradise Lost, not an epic of warlike heroism or a returning hero's wanderings but an epic of the relationship be-tween humanity and God, focused on the sin of Adam and Eve, their eviction by God from the Garden of Eden, and God's promise to send a savior who would redeem humanity. Milton's other major poems were a shorter epic, Paradise Regained, and a poem in dramatic form, Samson Agonistes (both published in 1671). Even while subject to close censorship and operating in a society that now shunned his po-litical and social ideas, Milton in these final epic poems firmly re-stated his commitment to human dignity and human freedom.
Historical Dictionary of Renaissance. Charles G. Nauert. 2004.