John Milton was born in December of 1608 in Cheapside, London, England. His parents, John Milton and Sarah Jeffery, met when John Milton senior moved to London after being disinherited from his father for reading a Protestant bible. Once married, he found work as a scrivener, a writer of legal documents. This job brought the family an amount of financial stability that allowed him to afford a tutor for his son.
As a young man, Milton began attending St. Paul’s School around 1620. Milton became close with Charles Diodati, a fellow student, and someone who would remain a dear friend through the early years of his life. Milton was educated in Greek, Latin, and Italian while at school. He also learned the basics of sonnet writing. His first two compositions were completed around age 15 and are in the form of psalms.
He went on to attend Christ’s College, Cambridge in 1625, with the intent of (most likely) becoming a minister. Only a year into his studio he was temporarily expelled for fighting with one of his instructors. He graduated in 1629 with a Bachelors of Arts Degree. He went on to acquire his Master of Arts in 1632. In the intervening years he had married, to a woman named, Mary Powell. Together they had four children. After graduation, he decided not to enter the ministry due to a dissatisfaction with the Church of England, as well as the conflict of his more radical inclinations.
Milton returned to live with his family in Hammersmith, London, where he continued to study under his own direction. He read many ancient and modern texts that discussed all manner of subjects. The family was forced to relocated only three years later though due to the outbreak of the plague. It was also during this time period that Milton wrote his pieces, ‘Arcades,’ ‘Lycidas,’ and ‘Comus.’ A few years later, Milton left England to travel around Europe for just over a year.
After Milton’s return, he learned that his childhood friend, Diodati, had died. Milton composed the elegy, ‘Epitaphium Damonis,’ or ‘Damon’s Epitaph’ for his friend. He also began to write pieces of prose which spoke out against episcopacy, or the hierarchical establishment of the church, in which bishops are the local authorities.
In the early 1640s, Milton became a schoolmaster, and continued to write tracts attacking the leaders of the Church of England, the educational system, and divorce (after experiencing some unhappy times with his wife). He received a hostile response to the later of these works and wrote, Areopagitica; A speech of Mr. John Milton for the Liberty of Unlicenc’d Printing, to the Parlament of England, a much celebrated work regarding censorship.
Milton collected his poems together in a volume titled, 1645 Poems. This was the only collection of his poetic works to have been published up until this point. As time progressed, so too did the focus of Milton’s political and social discourse. He turned his pen to the subject of the rights of people to hold their rules to account. These works lead to his appointment as the Secretary for Foreign Tongues in 1649. This same year he published, ‘Eikonoslastes,’ a work in defence of regicide, or the killing of a monarch.
His reputation was solidified over the next years as he wrote the popular, ‘In Defense,’ which spoke on the rights of the English people. This was followed by a second defence, which praised Oliver Cromwell, who was now Lord Protector, Milton also became the subject of a number of rebuttals from the crown.
In 1654, Milton’s health took a turn for the worse as he became totally blind. The cause is unknown, but it was likely a glaucoma. This development mean that he had to speak his prose allowed to someone trusted to transcribe his words. Fellow poet, Andrew Marvell, was given this task. The work, ‘On His Blindless,’ dates from this period.
Milton began writing his most famous work, Paradise Lost, in 1658. It was sold for publication in 1667 for £5, or approximately £770 today. He married for the second time in 1656, but his wife died 15 months later with the bird of their child. The poet married one final time in 1663.
Paradise Lost’ was followed by ‘Paradise Regained’ and ‘Samson Agonistes’ in 1671. Milton continued working on ‘Paradise Lost’ until his death in 1674. It is not completely clear what caused his death, but it was likely the result of either gout or renal failure. He is buried in London in Giles Cripplegate Church.