John Milton lived during the Restoration period (1600-1798), also known as the Age of Enlightenment which occurred just after the Renaissance (1485-1660), in England and was one of the most celebrated poets of the era.
It was Milton’s goal to not just be a poet, but to be a great poet. He achieved this by hiring tutors to continue his education after his schooling had finished. In addition to studying hard to be a poet, Milton wrote and he wrote a lot. John Milton was a prolific poet, creating an extensive body of work from sonnets to a twelve book-spanning epic poem.
What Milton is probably most recognized for is that twelve book epic poem, better known as Paradise Lost. This epic poem recounts the fall of man from the Christian bible from the perspective of none other than Satan himself.
You might also recognize Paradise Lost from how long the opening line is if you read it at all in high school or in college:
Of Mans First Disobedience, and the Fruit
Of that Forbidden Tree, whose mortal tast
Brought Death into the World, and all our woe,
With loss of Eden, till one greater Man
Restore us, and regain the blissful Seat,
Sing Heav’nly Muse, that on the secret top
Of Oreb, or of Sinai, didst inspire
That Shepherd, who first taught the chosen Seed,
In the Beginning how the Heav’ns and Earth
Rose out of Chaos: Or if Sion Hill
Delight thee more, and Siloa’s Brook that flow’d
Fast by the Oracle of God; I thence
Invoke thy aid to my adventrous Song,
That with no middle flight intends to soar
Above th’ Aonian Mount, while it pursues
Things unattempted yet in Prose or Rhime.
And that is, of course, all grammatically correct (ah, the power of proper punctuation).
If you’ve ever sat through a literature course, a course on poetry, or read this blog, that information was probably something you were already aware of. Besides being the beloved author of the epic poem Paradise Lost, Milton was a revolutionary that helped overthrow a king.
King Charles I (1600-1649) was not a king adored by the lords of his kingdom. He had angered Parliament by marrying the Catholic princess Henrietta-Maria of France when his subjects already felt the church had too much influence over his kingdom in addition to pushing England to be involved in conflicts and wars throughout Europe. In the 1630s, King Charles I had so little regard for Parliament that he didn’t call them into session at all. The common people had little reason to love King Charles I either. Before the English Civil War from 1641-1651, the crown had hold over most of the governmental powers of England. Whenever King Charles I needed money to fiance his wars and what not, he’d raise taxes.
The political climate in England was unstable during Milton’s time, and he was aware of it and actively participated in the politics around him. Milton’s first involvement in government affairs came through his critiques of the powers the church held over the state under King Charles I. In 1649, King Charles I was executed for treason against England towards the end of the English Civil War. It was a seemingly new era in England because no monarch replaced King Charles I after his death. In Milton’s work, The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates, he wrote in affirmation of Parliament’s decision to execute the king:
And surely they that shall boast, as we doe, to be a free Nation, and not have in themselves the power to remove, or to abolish any governour supreme, or subordinat, with the government it self upon urgent causes, may please thir fancy with a ridiculous and painted freedom, fit to coz’n babies; but are indeed under tyranny and servitude; as wanting that power, which is the root and source of all liberty, to dispose and œconomize in the Land which God hath giv’n them, as Maisters of Family in thir own house and free inheritance. Without which natural and essential power of a free Nation, though bearing high thir heads, they can in due esteem be thought no better than slaves and vassals born, in the tenure and occupation of another inheriting Lord. Whose government, though not illegal, or intolerable, hangs over them as a Lordly scourge, not as a free government; and therfore to be abrogated. How much more justly then may they fling off tyranny, or tyrants; who being once depos’d can be no more the privat men, as subject to the reach of Justice and arraignment as any other transgressors.
In 1649, England become a commonwealth with a republican form of government and John Milton became the Secretary of Foreign Languages, in part because of his work The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates as well as being able to write in Latin. Oliver Cromwell became the Lord Protector of England in 1653 until his untimely death in 1658. His son Richard tried to succeed but failed, as did the republic. In 1660, Charles II retook the throne and the monarchy of England was restored.
While Milton’s main claim to fame was as a poet, he also wrote several works in prose related to politics like Of Reformation in 1641, The Reason of Church-Government in 1642, the Tenure of Kings and Magistrates in 1649, A Defence of the People of England Part I and Part II in 1651 and 1652 (though, these weren’t published in English until 1692, well after Milton’s death), The Treatise of Civil Power in 1659, and The Readie and Easie Way to Establish a Free Commonwealth in 1660, just to list a few of his many works. In 1652, Milton went completely blind but that didn’t stop him from writing, being politically active, and participating in the formation of England’s Radical Whig Party.
Milton died in 1674, but his political writings, as well as his political perspectives, are still with us and alive today. I invite you to reread the introduction to Paradise Lost. Milton lived in an era of civil war, revolutions, deconstructed and reconstructed monarchies, and a strong church influence on the affairs of the state. Milton’s exploration of the fall of man through the eyes of Satan was not just a unique poetic piece of work, but a revolution of though in and of itself by challenging the narrative of the church and the legitimacy of hierarchies and kingdoms.
Milton’s real-life political exploits, such as his support of Cromwell, can be read throughout Book I and in Book II of Paradise Lost, the great debate can be read as political satire on the debates going on between Milton and his fellow revolutionaries and those not on board. Paradise Lost was started in 1658 and was completed and published in 1667, a few years before the revolution Milton took part of collapsed and the return of the monarchy. While Paradise Lost has many themes, the action going on throughout the story is that of civil war – a subject Milton had not only lived through but had actively participated in when he helped overthrow a monarchy and justified the execution of a king.