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Paradise Lost by John Milton - Barron's Booknotes
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The Civil War deeply affected his personal relations. His brother Christopher adhered to the Royalist side. Milton married into a Royalist family in 1642. He was swept off his feet by a fun-loving seventeen-year- old, Mary Powell, whose family was originally the source of Milton's private income (they had bought property from Milton's father). The Powells kept Mary away from Milton, in Oxford where King Charles I made his headquarters, and did not let her travel to London to live with her husband until 1645.

By that time Milton had been extremely vocal publicly on the subject of divorce (he even advocated polygamy at one time) and had had an affair with a Miss Davies. His was a lively household, for he looked after and educated his dead sister's three sons. (One of them became Milton's biographer and the source of most of what we know about Milton's life.) He took his duties as schoolmaster very seriously; the boys were beaten if they did not learn their Latin and Greek grammar. The civil disturbances flowed in and out of the house as Milton's pamphlets provoked angry opposition and his supporters cried for more.



Only six weeks after King Charles I's head rolled from his body (Milton's friend Marvell wrote a famous ode on the occasion), Milton became Latin secretary to Oliver Cromwell. It was his duty to compose all the government's diplomatic correspondence in Latin, a job probably concerned as much with public relations as with accurate translation.

By this time Milton was blind, probably as a result of a cyst or tumor of the pituitary gland. For the rest of his life he depended on others to read to him and to write at his dictation. Because he was not a patient man-he had the arrogance of a person conscious of his talents-reading and writing for him was not easy. His daughters objected to the tyranny he showed in demanding their time and then complaining when they read incorrectly.

Mary died in 1652, leaving a blind man with three young daughters, the eldest mentally retarded. Milton married again in 1657, but his second wife, whom he called in a famous sonnet his "espoused saint," lived only fifteen months and died after giving birth to a daughter, who also died. Milton married a third time, to a woman who looked after him for the rest of his life and managed to bring order to a household full of quarreling daughters, relatives, and visitors to the famous writer.

In 1658, Oliver Cromwell had died, leaving England in the incompetent hands of his son, Richard. The passions that had caused the Civil War had cooled, and the king's son was asked to return, but on the conditions which brought about the English constitutional monarchy.

The coming of Charles II meant the end of Milton's government job. For a time he was in danger of his life and had to be hidden by friends-one of his pamphlets had argued strongly in defense of Charles I's beheading. Milton retired from public life and devoted himself to the composition of Paradise Lost. By the time he had finished dictating it to whoever got up early in the morning, two other events had disturbed Milton's never very tranquil life. In 1665 he was forced by the Great Plague to leave London and live in a Buckinghamshire village. A year later, in the Great Fire in 1666, Milton lost the last piece of property he owned. He lived the last few years of his life in considerable poverty, quite unlike the comfort of his first pampered years in his father's house.

Paradise Lost (1667) is the culmination of his life's work. His early poems, the exquisite "L'Allegro," "Il Penseroso," "Lycidas," the masque Comus, and the sonnets would all secure him a place among the finest English poets. But it is Paradise Lost which makes it impossible for you to ignore Milton. He wrote Paradise Regained afterward, but it has nothing like the stature of Paradise Lost. (It is not, as you might think, about Christ's sacrifice, but about his three-day temptation in the desert by Satan.) Milton's final work, Samson Agonistes, is a Greek drama as impressive as Paradise Lost in everything except size.

Milton died in 1674, just after the second edition of Paradise Lost appeared. The poem was for that time a modest best seller. It sold 1,300 copies in the first eighteen months and earned Milton a total of ten pounds. By the end of the seventeenth century, the book had gone through six editions, including one published in 1678 with large engraved illustrations. It has never lost its status as a classic, and it has never stopped being a source of controversy. People love or hate Paradise Lost, for as many reasons as it has readers. The poem has retained its interest because it deals with subjects that will always concern us-good, evil, freedom, responsibility. And because, like any great work of literature, it's exciting to read.

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