Milton, John (1608-1674)

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John Milton (1608-1674) ranks among the greatest poets of the English language. He is best known for the epic poem Paradise Lost (1667), but he also wrote prose works on history, religion, and contemporary politics. Although his academic talents marked him for a career in the Anglican church, Milton turned away from the Church of England at an early age and was a consistent supporter of the Puritan cause. He spent most of his life in academia or as a civil servant working for the Puritan Commonwealth. Many consider him a transitional figure between the Renaissance and the Reformation. 

The essence of Milton's work is the theme of human freedom: It is individual choice and decision that bring value to the life given by God. Milton therefore opposed censorship, arguing in Areopagitica (1644) that freedom of expression is the first condition of morality and virtue; no person can be certain he has found the right way unless he can compare it with the multitude of errors in the world and do battle with falsehood. Milton opposed political as well as religious tyranny. This theme of a testing of good by evil, or knowing good by knowing evil, is the thread that ties all of his works together. The idea is most notably worked out in his epic poems, Paradise Lost, Paradise Regained, and Samson Agonistes. In Paradise Regained, for instance, Christ's triumph over Satan is offered as an example of proper moral aspiration. In Areopagitica the theme is revisited:

"Good and evil we know in the field of this World grow up together almost inseparably; and the knowledge of good is so involved and interwoven with the knowledge of evil, and is in so many cunning resemblances hardly to be discerned. . . . He that can apprehend and consider vice with all her baits and seeming pleasures, and yet abstain, and yet distinguish, and yet prefer that which is truly better, he is the true wayfaring Christian." 1

Milton wrote several of his prose works to support the Commonwealth. In addition, he served in several official capacities during its reign. Unlike many of those associated with Cromwell, his life was spared following the Restoration (1660), either because the authorities did not consider the blind poet dangerous or because of the intercession of his friends. Although Milton had completed most of his prose work by this time, the three epic poems for which he is remembered were written during the last fourteen years of his life.



[1] John Milton, Milton's Prose, in Areopagitica (Oxford University Press, 1937), p. 290. Emphasis added by Pierre Goodrich.


Works by the Author

Areopagitica and Other Political Writings of John Milton, ed. John Alvis (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1999). Available from Liberty Fund's online catalog.

John Milton, "The Readie & Easie Way to Establish a Free Commonwealth" (London, 1660) in The Struggle for Sovereignty: Seventeenth-Century English Political Tracts, ed. Joyce Lee Malcolm 2 vols. (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1999), vol. 1, pp. 505-25.

John Milton, Political Writings, ed. Martin Dzelzainis (Cambridge University Press, 1991).

John Milton, Selected Prose, ed. C.A. Patrides (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1974).

Milton, John. Complete Poetry and Selected Prose. New York: Random House, 1952.

Milton, John. The Poetical Works of John Milton. Edited by H.C. Beeching. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1952.

Milton, John. Milton's Prose. Edited by Malcolm W. Wallace. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1937.

Milton, John. Areopagitica and Other Prose Works. New York: E.P. Dutton & Company, 1927.

Milton, John. The Prose Works of John Milton. Translated by George Burnett. London: John Miller, 1809.

Milton, John. The Works of John Milton. London: Bickers & Bush, 1863.

Works about the Author

John Alvis, "Foreword: Milton's Political Writings," in Areopagitica and Other Political Writings of John Milton, ed. John Alvis (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1999).

David Armitage, Armand Himy, and Quentin Skinner eds., Milton and Republicanism (Cambridge University Press, 1995).

Arthur E. Barker, Milton and the Puritan Dilemma 1641-1660 (University of Toronto Press, 1976).

Martin Dzelzainis, "Introduction" to John Milton, Political Writings, ed. Martin Dzelzainis (Cambridge University Press, 1991), pp. ix-xxxii.

J.M. Evans, Paradise Lost and the Genesis Tradition (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1968).

Robert Thomas Fallon, Captain or Colonel: The Soldier in Milton's Life and Art (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1984).

Sir Charles Firth, "Milton as an Historian" in Essays Historical and Literary (Oxford, 1938), pp. 61-102.

James A. Freeman, Milton and the Martial Muse: Paradise Lost and European Traditions of War (Princeton University Press, 1980).

C.R. Geisst, The Political Thought of John Milton (London: Macmillan, 1984).

John Hackett, Milton and the Idea of Matrimony: A Study of the Divorce Tracts and 'Paradise Lost' New Haven, 1970).

Christopher Hill, Milton and the English Revolution (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1979).

Christopher Hill, The Experience of Defeat: Milton and Some Contemporaries (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1985).

Michael Lieb and John T. Shawcross, eds., Achievements of the Left Hand: Essays on the Prose of John Milton (Amherst: University of Massachussetts Press, 1974).

Herman Ould ed., Freedom of Expression: A Symposium... to Commemorate the Tercentenary of... 'Areopagitica' (1945).

W.R. Parker, Milton: A Biography, 2 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1968).

C.A. Patrides, "Introductions" to John Milton, Selected Prose, ed. C.A. Patrides (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1974).

C.A. Patrides, Milton and the Christian Tradition (Oxford, 1966).

Mary Ann Radzinwicz, Toward "Samson Agonistes": The Growth of Milton's Mind (Princeton University Press, 1978).

Stella P. Revard, The War in Heaven: "Paradise Lost" and the Tradition of Satan's Rebellion (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1980).

Hugh H. Richmond, The Christian Revolutionary: John Milton (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1974).

George F. Sensabaugh, That Grand Whig, Milton (Stanford University Press, 1952).

John M. Steadman, Milton and the Renaissance Hero (Oxford, 1967).

Don M. Wolfe, Milton in the Puritan Revolution (1941).

R. Zaller, "Milton" in Biographical Dictionary of British Radicals in the Seventeenth Century. Vol. II: G-O, ed. Richard L. Greaves and Robert Zaller (Brighton: Harvester Press, 1983) pp. 239-243.



The biographical material about the author originally appeared on The Goodrich Room: Interactive Tour website.

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