AMONG English men of letters there is none whose life and work stand in more intimate relation with the history of his times than those of Milton. Not only was he for a long period immersed in political controversy and public business, but there are few of his important works which do not become more significant in the light of contemporary events, and in turn help the understanding of these events themselves. It is evidence of this intimate relation, that the periods into which his life naturally falls coincide with the periods into which English history in the seventeenth century divides itself. The first of these extends from Miltons birth to his return from Italy, and corresponds with that period in the reigns of James I and Charles I during which the religious and political differences which culminated in the Civil War were working up to a climax. The second ends with his retirement into private life, in 1660, and coincides with the period of the Civil War and the Commonwealth. The third closes with his death in 1674, and falls within the period of the Restoration.
John Milton was born in Bread Street, London, on the ninth of December, 1608. He was the son of John Milton, a prosperous scrivener (i. e., attorney and law-stationer), a man of good family and considerable culture, especially devoted to music. In the education of the future poet the elder Milton was exceptionally generous. From childhood he destined him for the Church, and the preparation begun at home was continued at St. Pauls School and at Cambridge. We have abundant evidence that the boy was from the first a quick and diligent student, and the late study to which he was addicted from childhood was the beginning of that injury to his eyes which ended in blindness. He entered Christs College, Cambridge, in 1625, took the degree of B. A. in 1629, and that of M. A. in 1632, when he left the University after seven years residence. But the development of affairs in the English Church had overturned his plans, and the interference of Laud with freedom of thought and preaching among the clergy led Milton to prefer a blameless silence before the sacred office of speaking bought with servitude and forswearing. So he retired to his fathers house at Horton in Buckinghamshire, and devoted the next six years to quiet study and the composition of a few poems.
In 1638 Milton set out on a journey to Italy. After some days in Paris, he passed on by way of Nice to Genoa, Leghorn, Pisa, and Florence, in which last city he spent about two months in the society of wits and men of letters. After two months more spent in Rome, he visited Naples, and had intended to cross to Sicily and go thence to Greece, when rumors of civil war in England led him to turn his face homeward, inasmuch, he says, as I thought it base to be traveling at my ease for intellectual culture while my countrymen at home were fighting for liberty. His writings produced abroad were all in Italian or Latin, and seem to have brought him considerable distinction among the Italian men of letters whom he met.
Yet Milton did not plunge rashly into the political conflict. After he returned from the Continent, the household at Horton was broken up, and he went to London to resume his studies, and decide on the form and subject of his great poem. Part of his time was occupied in teaching his two nephews, and afterward he took under his care a small number of youths, sons of his friends. In 1643 he married Mary Powell, the daughter of an Oxfordshire Royalist. In about a months he left him and remained away for two years, at the end of which time she sought and obtained a reconciliation. She died in 1653 or 1654, leaving him three little daughters.
The main occupation of his first years in London was controversy. Liberty was Miltons deepest passion, and in liberty we sum up the theme of his prose writings. There are three species of liberty, he says, which are essential to the happiness of social lifereligious, domestic, and civil, and for all three he fought. His most important prose works may, indeed, be roughly classed under these heads: under religious, his pamphlets against Episcopacy; under domestic, his works on Education, Divorce, and the Freedom of the Press; under civil, his controversial writings on the overthrow of the monarchy. In all of these he strove for freedom and toleration; and when England became a Republic, he became officially associated with the new government as Secretary of Foreign Tongues, in which capacity he not only conducted its foreign correspondence, but also acted as its literary adviser and champion in the controversies by pamphlet that arose in connection with the execution of the King and the theory of the Commonwealth. It was in the midst of these activities that a great calamity overtook him. The defence of the late King had been undertaken by the famous Dutch Latinist Salmasius in a Defensio Regis, and to Milton fell the task of replying to it. His eyesight, weakened even in childhood by overstudy, was now failing fast, and he was warned by physicians that it would go altogether if he persisted in this work. But to Milton the fight he had entered on was no mere matter of professional employment as it was to his opponent, and he deliberately sacrificed what remained to him of light in the service of the cause to which he was devoted. The reply was a most effective one, but it left Milton hopelessly blind. With the aid of an assistant, however, he retained his office through the Protectorate of Cromwell, until the eve of the Restoration.
Oliver Cromwell died in 1658, his son Richard succeeded him for a short time, and in 1660 Charles II was restored to the throne. To the last Milton fought with tremendous earnestness against this catastrophe. For, to him, it was indeed a catastrophe. The return of the Stuarts meant to him not only great personal danger, but, what was far more important, it meant the overthrow of all that he had for twenty years spent himself to uphold. It meant the setting up in government, in religion, and in society, of ideals and institutions that he could not but regard as the extreme of reaction and national degradation. Almost by a miracle he escaped personal violence, but he was of necessity forced into obscure retirement; and there, reduced in fortune, blind, and broken-hearted, he devoted himself to the production of Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained. The great schemes which in his early manhood he had planned and dreamed over had for years been laid aside; but now at last he had a mournful leisure, and with magnificent fortitude he availed himself of the opportunity.
In 1657 Miltons second wife, Catherine Woodcock, had died. For about seven years after, he lived alone with his three daughters, whom he trained to read to him not merely in English, but in Latin, Greek, Italian, French, Spanish, and Hebrew, though they did not understand a word of what they read. What little we know of their relations to their father is not pleasant. They seem to have been rebellious and undutiful, though doubtless there was much provocation. In 1663 Milton took a third wife, Elizabeth Minshull, who did much to give ease and comfort to his last years, and who long survived him.
The retirement in which he lived during this third period, when public affairs seemed to him to have gone all wrong, was not absolutely solitary. The harshness that appears in his controversial writings, and the somewhat unsympathetic austerity that seems to be indicated by his relations with his first wife and his children, are to be counterbalanced in our minds by the impression of companionableness that we derive from the picture of the old blind poet, sought out by many who not merely admired his greatness, but found pleasure in his society, and counted it a privilege to talk with him and read to him. Stern and sad he could hardly fail to be, but his old age was peaceful and not bitter. He died on November 8, 1674, and was buried in the Church of St. Giles, Cripplegate, London.
In spite of Miltons association with the Puritan party in the political struggles of his time, the common habit of referring to him as the Puritan Poet is seriously misleading. The Puritans of the generation of Miltons father were indeed often men of culture and love of the arts, but the Puritans of the Civil War, the Puritans whom we think of to-day in our ordinary use of the term, were, in general, men who had not only no interest in art, but who regarded beauty itself as a temptation of the evil one. Even a slight study of Miltons works will convince the reader that to this class Milton could never have belonged. Side by side with his love of liberty and his enthusiasm for moral purityqualities in which even then the Puritans had no monopolyMilton was passionately devoted to beauty; and the reason why his work survives to-day is not because part of it expresses the Puritan theology, but because of its artistic qualitiesabove all because it is at once more faultless and more nobly sustained in music than that of any other English poet.