John Milton's Background: Planning a Paradise Lost

John Milton is a man who has earned the reputation of being one of the most brilliant and greatest English poets in literature. Milton’s life was filled with revolution, dynamic progression, and especially the controversy that had surrounded his ideas and methods. His name has become a trademark and possibly the core of the English canon (Rogers). His most famous work is Paradise Lost, which is also widely regarded as being one of the greatest pieces of English literature to date. Milton was blessed with an education from which he grew up into a man of epic proportions, wielding a talented tongue of many languages alongside his epic poetic abilities. Milton’s life experiences and studies both intertwined together to influence his creations, ideas, inspirations, and ultimately Paradise Lost. Studying works such as Homer’s Odyssey, The Iliad, and Virgil’s Aeneid had motivated Milton to create his own English epic that would surpass these previous classics. Milton’s plan of creating an epic poem about Arthur and his knights had blossomed into something entirely different. Milton’s epic is a treasure trove of possibly hundreds of different interpretations and underlying themes that scholars and readers still debate about to this day. The inspiration of creating the epic came to Milton at an early age where he saw how he could make it greater than anything ever made. The actual creation of Paradise lost can be dated at the peak of his literary career when he was very old, and although blind during the making of it, he was able to “see” that it encompassed everything that he felt that would make it an immortal and unforgettable epic.

John Milton first saw a new world for the taking in the winter of the year 1608 in London, England. Born into a world illuminated by the minds of people like John Dryden, Francis Bacon, and Shakespeare; was a man who would attempt to open the eyes of those around him through his writings and revolutionary ideas. Milton’s father, who was also named John Milton, had the characteristics of being rebel as he was embracing Protestantism in the shadow of his own father who was a devout Catholic.

John Milton describes his father carefully as a man of ‘supreme integrity in one of several autobiographical passages in his works. Yet he does not refer at all to his grandfather, perhaps because he had been a Roman Catholic and paid fines for Recusancy, the offense of refusing to convert to the Church of England. A family story had it that grandfather Milton found his son reading an English Bible, a sign of his conversion to Protestantism, and disinherited him. Thus John Milton senior became the classic figure of the new capitalist and bourgeois world, a self-made man (Forsyth 16).

Perhaps the young Milton inherited this rebellious nature from his father and influenced him to think outside of the box. Themes of rebellion and revolution echo throughout both Milton’s life and his prose works. Milton’s father was a musician and came to be a savvy business man who then was able to afford an excellent education for the young Milton (Forsyth 16). Milton’s father’s compositions are still sung and performed even today, as with young Milton’s literary masterpieces are studied and enjoyed with the same passion as well. Milton’s father was able to afford the best education and resources for his son, and it paved the way to a new world of stories, ways of thinking, and language.

At around the age of 12, Milton was enrolled at St. Paul’s School and his father even employed private tutors to supplement Milton’s learning. One particular tutor was Thomas Young, who may have influenced Milton greatly in the realms of classical literature, religion, and politics (Forsyth 17). Thomas Young’s impact on the young Milton probably greatly shaped his ideals that could be observed and interpreted in his works. Religion and political themes can be observed in his life experiences and especially in his works. Studying at St. Pauls, Milton was exposed to ancient authors such as Horace, Virgil, and the New Testament in Greek. At the age of 15, Milton enrolled to Christ’s College, Cambridge presumably intending to become a minister, but a year later he was expelled due to a disagreement with a tutor by the name of William Chappell.

The man [William Chappell] seems to have been a popular teacher, but soon, perhaps as early as Milton’s first year […] a serious difference arose between them and Milton was rusticated, that is, sent home for a time. […] Exactly what happened we do not know. It is possible that Milton was disappointed academically by Cambridge since his school, St. Paul’s, had been so a good a place to learn, and his irritation got the better of him. It may have been a theological dispute, since Chappell was, a follower of Arminius and thus a believer in limited free will. At this time Milton was still a strongly Calvinist predestinarian. Such  a conflict would also, and necessarily for the times, be political (Forsyth 24)

This young Milton was showing signs of a man who was breaking the bonds of whatever constraints that he felt held him down in terms of what he believes in. An attitude such as this created the breeding grounds for a brilliant mind in the making. After his yearlong expulsion, he resumed study at Cambridge in logic, ethics, and various languages which then developed his tongue even further as with his knowledge. During his time at Cambridge, Milton wrote much Latin poetry and had created his first masterpiece titled, “Ode on the Morning of Christ’s Nativity” (Teskey xvi). This poem showed traces of Milton using what he had learned from previous authors and applying it and creating his own niche in writing and prose. Such a method would soon grow and evolve all throughout his life into his own unique skill that he would demonstrate mastery of in Paradise Lost.

Milton first thought about writing an epic at a young age, yet he did not even begin to actually write it by the time he was very old and virtually blind. After receiving his Master’s and studying in solitude for about 6 years, 30 year old Milton embarked on a 15 month grand tour of the European continent (Teskey xviii). It was on this journey across the country that Milton had gathered great inspiration and more fodder for his epic that he would only begin to write about two decades later. Milton had mentioned his plans of writing an epic in a Latin poem that he had addressed to a friend named Giovanni Manso, whom he had met in Naples (Teskey xviii). It is not known when exactly when Milton began composing Paradise Lost, but it is supposed that he had started sometime in 1658 around the time his second wife and their child had died (Teskey xxiii). During the political unrest turmoil and the beginning of the Restoration, Milton became arrested and imprisoned because he was a defender of the Commonwealth (Teskey xxv). Soon after his release, Milton devoted his nights and mornings to the composition of Paradise Lost until completing it by 1665 and finally published in 1667 (Teskey xxv-xxvi).

Milton’s power of pamphleteering and persuasion through his use of words may be the character he projects onto Satan, for Satan hold the same degree of influence through persuasive dialogue and eloquent speeches.

Milton was not yet as radical either in politics or in theology as he soon became […] he still recognized the king and thought of his power as shared with the Lords and the Commons. But Parliament, he argued should be the sole agent of church reform. If not, the king would impose his own high-church ceremonial and doctrine through his control of the appointment of bishops. Milton’s pamphlets helped to generate an extraordinary explosion of tract and counter-tract, a war of words such as no European country had ever seen (Forsyth 70).

Although Milton’s personal life experiences have contributed initial inspiration for the epic Paradise Lost, the experiences with the world around Milton have also generated a substantial impact on the epic as well. Milton’s works, including his pamphleteering days, which span from his younger years to his prime, demonstrate a gradual evolution of his ideals, views on the human perspective of life, religious servitude, and the world around him. Ultimately the rebellious nature that resonates through Milton’s growing ideology throughout his life became the very essence of rebellion that shines through Paradise Lost.

Forsyth, Neil. John Milton. Great Britain: Lion Hudson UK 2010. Uploaded Print copy.

Rogers, John "The Poetry of John Milton" 27 Oct 2012

Teskey, Gordon "Paradise Lost" New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2005

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