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Infidels, Freethinkers, Humanists, and Unbelievers
Milton, John (1608-1674)
"If a man believes things only because his pastor says so, or the assembly so determines, without knowing other reason, though his belief be true, yet the very truth he holds becomes his heresy."

-- John Milton


John Milton was an English poet, best-known for his epic poem Paradise Lost.

Life
John Milton's eponymous father moved to London around 1583 having been disinherited by his devout Catholic father Richard Milton, a wealthy landowner in Oxfordshire, on account of revealing his Protestantism. Around 1600, the poet's father married Sara Jeffrey (1572 – 1637), and the poet was born on December 9, 1608, in Cheapside, London, England.

Milton was educated at St Paul's School, London. He was originally destined for a ministerial career, but his independent spirit led him to give this up. He matriculated at Christ's College, Cambridge in 1625 and studied there for seven years before he graduated as Master of Arts cum laude on July 3, 1632. At Cambridge, Milton tutored the American theologian Roger Williams in Hebrew, in exchange for lessons in Dutch.

There is evidence to suggest that Milton’s experiences at Cambridge were not altogether positive and were later to contribute to his views on education. On graduating from Christ's College, Milton undertook six years of self-directed private study in both the ancient and modern disciplines of theology, philosophy, history, politics, literature and science, in preparation for his prospective poetical career. As a result of such intensive study, Milton is considered to be among the most learned of all English poets. In a Latin poem, possibly composed in the mid-1630s, Milton thanks his father for supporting him during this period.

After completing this private study in early 1638, Milton embarked on a tour of France and Italy in May of the same year, meeting with the Italian astronomer Galileo Galilei during his journeys. This was cut short 13 months later by what he later termed 'sad tidings' of civil war in England. In June 1642, Milton married 16 year-old Mary Powell. A month later, she visited her family and did not return.

Over the next three years, Milton published a series of pamphlets arguing for the legality and morality of divorce, the first entitled The Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce, in which he attacked the English marriage law as it had been taken over almost unchanged from medieval Catholicism, sanctioning divorce on the grounds of incompatibility or childlessness only. In 1645, Mary finally returned. In 1646, her family, having been ejected from Oxford for supporting Charles I in the Civil War, moved in with the couple. They had 4 children: Anne, Mary, John, and Deborah. Mary died on May 5, 1652, from complications following Deborah's birth on May 2, which may have affected Milton deeply, as evidenced by his 23rd sonnet.

In June, John died at age 15 months; his three daughters all survived to adulthood. On November 12, 1656, Milton married Katherine Woodcock. She died on February 3, 1658, less than 4 months after giving birth to their daughter, Katherine, who died on March 17. On February 24, 1663, Milton married Elizabeth Minshull, who cared for him until his death on November 8, 1674.

Career
Milton spent years devoted almost entirely to prose work in the service of the Puritan and Parliamentary cause. The onset of glaucoma, exacerbated by his incessant labours setting the typeface for numerous controversial pamphlets, eventuated in blindness, forcing him, from 1654, to dictate his verse and prose to an amanuensis.

Milton wrote propaganda for the English Republic in the early 1650s, including the Eikonoklastes, which attempts to justify the execution of Charles I. When he was caught and arrested in October 1659 he was not summarily executed: several influential people had spoken on his behalf, including the poet Andrew Marvell, a former assistant.

Milton then lived in retirement, devoting himself once more to poetical work, and publishing Paradise Lost in 1667, the epic by which he attained universal fame (blind and impoverished, he sold the publishing rights to this work on April 27 that year for £10), to be followed by Paradise Regained, together with Samson Agonistes, a drama on the Greek model, in 1671.

Milton penned Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained through dictation because of his blindness. This required him to store vast portions of the poems in his memory for oral recitation—all the more remarkable considering how much planning such complex works would require, even on paper, yet Milton did the organizing without such tactile aids.

Despite the comprehensive scope of Milton's intellectual enquiry, crucial influences upon Milton’s literary work can be easily found and include the Biblical books of Genesis, Job, and Psalms, as well as Homer, Virgil, and Lucan. Milton’s favourite historian was Sallust; however, though Milton's work often betrays his classical and biblical influences, allusions to Spenser, Sidney, Donne, and Shakespeare also are detectable; some commentators have suggested that Milton also sought to undermine the tropes and style of cavalier poets such as John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester and Sir John Suckling in the conversations of Adam and Eve.

Milton's literary career cast such a formidable shadow over English poetry in the 18th and 19th centuries that he was often judged favourably against all other English poets, including Shakespeare. We can point to Lucy Hutchinson's epic poem about the fall of Humanity, Order and Disorder (1679), and John Dryden's The State of Innocence and the Fall of Man: an Opera (1677) as evidence of an immediate cultural influence.

The unparalleled scope of Paradise Lost, his masterpiece, sees Milton justifying the ways of God to men, and the poem also depicts the creation of the universe, earth, and humanity; conveys the origin of sin, death, and evil; imagines events in Hell, the Kingdom of Heaven, the garden of Eden, and the sacred history of Israel; engages with political ideas of tyranny, liberty and justice; and defends theological positions on predestination, free will, and salvation.

Milton's influence on the literature of the Romantic era was profound.7 John Keats found the yoke of Milton's style debilitating; he exclaimed that "Miltonic verse cannot be written but in an artful or rather artist's humour." Keats felt that Paradise Lost was a "beautiful and grand curiosity," but his own unfinished attempt at epic poetry, Hyperion, is said to have suffered from Keats's failed attempt to cultivate a distinct epic voice.

The Victorian age witnessed a continuation of Milton's influence; George Eliot and Thomas Hardy being particularly inspired by Milton's poetry and biography. By contrast, the 20th century, owing primarily to the critical efforts of T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, witnessed a reduction in Milton's stature. Aside from his importance to literary history, Milton's career has impacted upon the modern world in other ways.

Milton coined many familiar modern words; in Paradise Lost readers were confronted by neologisms like dreary, pandæmonium, acclaim, rebuff, self-esteem, unaided, impassive, enslaved, jubilant, serried, solaced, and satanic. In terms of politics, Milton's Areopagitica and republican writings were consulted during the drafting of the Constitution of the United States of America. More recently, there has been renewed interest in the poet's greatest work following the publication of Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy, which is heavily based on Paradise Lost.

The John Milton Society for the Blind was founded in 1928 by Helen Keller to develop an interdenominational ministry that would bring spiritual guidance and religious literature to deaf and blind persons.

Trivia
1. A 1668 edition of Paradise Lost, reported to be Milton's personal copy, is now housed in the archives of the University of Western Ontario.
2. John Milton was born on Bread Street, the same road where The Myrmaid Tavern was located, where William Shakespeare and Ben Jonson were often seen drinking.

 
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