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THE AUTHOR AND HIS TIMES
Americans tend to forget that they weren't the first to have a revolution. The English had theirs more than 130 years before the Thirteen Colonies rebelled. The English revolution consisted of a bloody Civil War from 1642 to 1649, the beheading of King Charles I in January 1649, and ten years of Puritan republican rule; it ended finally with the restoration of the monarchy under King Charles II in 1660.
These events aren't merely the background to John Milton's life: they were his life. We usually think of the war as a conflict between the Cavaliers and the Roundheads. John Milton was a Roundhead. The Cavaliers, or Royalists, supported the king and tended toward Catholicism. They believed in an aristocracy that had the right to special privileges, both in politics and in religion. The Roundheads, or Puritans, believed in a wider distribution of political and economic power and the right of every man to enjoy direct access to God.
Milton was so strongly committed to the Puritan cause that he accepted a government position under Oliver Cromwell, who ruled as Lord Protector from 1649 to 1658. Milton was a radical Christian individualist who objected strongly and vocally to all kinds of organized religions which, he believed, put barriers between man and God.
Milton was therefore a rebel because he identified himself with a revolutionary cause. Paradise Lost, his masterpiece, is about rebellion and its consequences.
One way of looking at the poem is to see it as Milton's working out of his own position. Although many readers have thought that Milton is really Satan, he probably saw himself as Abdiel, the angel who refuses to go along with Satan. Milton was arrogant in his belief that he understood the truth and had a duty to explain it for everyone's good.
The revolution he lived through changed every aspect of English life. When he was born in 1608, Shakespeare was still alive and Queen Elizabeth was only five years dead. Her influence was still felt. She had been an absolute monarch who regarded Parliament as a necessary evil in order to get money for her projects. When Milton died in 1674, Charles II reigned as constitutional monarch without any real power except that granted to him by Parliament.
Milton's circumstances changed drastically during his life. His family was reasonably well-to-do. They lived in London, which was Milton's home for most of his life. His father was a scrivener, a sort of combined notary and banker, who was wealthy enough to afford private tutors for his son, then schooling at St. Paul's and Christ's College, Cambridge University. Perhaps just as important for Milton's development was the fact that his father was a musician and composer. One of the most attractive features of Milton's poetry is its marvelous musical qualities.
Since Milton had a small private income, he did not seek a profession when he left Cambridge, but stayed at home writing poetry and increasing his already amazing stock of knowledge. Some people have said that Milton was one of the most learned men England has ever known. He wrote poetry in Latin, Greek, and Italian, and read almost all the literature surviving from the Greek and Roman periods. He even read the Bible in Hebrew.
Just before the religious and political quarrels in England came to a head, Milton went abroad for fifteen months, meeting and talking with learned and famous men all over Europe. He met Galileo and looked through his telescope, a fact Milton mentions more than once in Paradise Lost.
When he returned, he put his learning and considerable rhetorical force at the service of the Puritan cause. He wrote a series of scorching political and religious pamphlets: he condemned bishops, not only the Catholic ones but those of the Protestant Church of England; defended the liberty of the press against censorship; even advocated divorce. Many of the controversies in which he engaged with heat and passion we find difficult to sympathize with now, but Milton championed them with vigor and made himself not only well known but also well hated.