John Milton (1608-1674) was British Renaissance poet who is best known for his lengthy poetic work, Paradise Lost and its sequel Paradise Regained. He was a Protestant in a very Catholic world, making him an interesting critic of Catholicism in the 1600s. He was fortunately born in England, where Protestantism was widely accepted.
Milton’s educational career was extensive. His father at first intended him to enter the ministry, but he was not satisfied with this decision. He instead vehemently pursued advanced education, graduating with a master's degree from Christ College in 1632. He then spent at least another five years in private study, covering a huge range of topics from literature, to politics, to science. Because of his studies, many call him one of the most educated of the English poets.
He was married three times. In 1642 he married Mary Powell, who at 16 was 17 years his junior. The marriage was not an immediate success. Mary moved back to her family’s home a month after the marriage, and remained there for four years. However, her family’s political beliefs forced the whole family to seek shelter with Milton, prompting his and Mary’s reconciliation. He was sincerely attached to his wife, and her death after the birth of their fourth child in 1652, deeply affected him.
He remarried four years later, to Katherine Woodcock, who only lived two years beyond the marriage. He remarried again in 1663, to Elizabeth Minshull. Minshull survived him and cared for him as he became increasingly ill and finally blind from glaucoma.
Many of Milton’s early works are prose writings in support of the Protestant church, and Puritan goals. However, his first marriage made him an opponent of Protestant laws regarding divorce. He also wrote tracts to criticize the educational system. His work Eikonoklastes, is an argument justifying he execution of Charles I. The work was considered so politically subversive that he was arrested. However, he avoided execution and was released in 1659, after many pleas by his influential associates.
He retired and began to seriously write verse work. He had previously published a few poetic endeavors, like his sonnets. Yet the two works Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained in the 1660s and 1670s would be his legacy to literature. By this time he was blind and needed to dictate his work. The dictation process is a testament to his fantastic ability to memorize and store information.
Paradise Lost is an epic work of poetry, similar in structure to Homer’s Odyssey with ten books detailing the fall of Satan, and the fall of humans as they are exiled from paradise after being tempted by Satan in the form of a the serpent. Many really enjoy Satan as a character, and find him quite attractive and interesting. Some critics suggest that he deliberately made Satan likeable to make his point that evil is seductive.
Paradise Lost was an influential work that was studied by the Romantic Poets, who frequently tried to emulate the work. The Modernists, like T.S. Eliot, did not care for Milton. Modernist opinions are responsible for his falling from favor in the study of literature in the 20th and 21st centuries.
Paradise Regained is the continuation of Lost, where Satan attempts to tempt Christ and succeed with him as he had with Eve. Christ’s refusal to accept any of Satan’s temptations is the reconciliation of humans to God, and a very serious Christian argument regarding the path to heaven. The verse work is considered an excellent piece, but many feel it does not approach the mastery of Lost.
Samson Agonistes was published along with Regained and many feel it is Milton’s discussion of his blindness. Samson is made to toil in physical pain and he frequently refers to being intellectually or spiritually blind.
Milton's last works were a few published poems and some tracts on the developing US government, in which he was deeply interested, since the US had become a haven for the Puritans. He died in 1674, but he would be later honored in the 1920s, when Helen Keller established the John Milton Society for the Blind, which helped to bring Christian materials to the blind, and converted many biblical and spiritual writings to Braille form.