The Literary Age of John Milton: Poetry and Prose

Introduction to the Age of John Milton

literary age of John milton

John Milton was born on December 9, 1608, in London, England. He was an English poet, pamphleteer, and historian, and was considered to be the most significant English author after William Shakespeare. Milton is best known for Paradise Lost, which is widely regarded as the greatest epic poem ever written.
Through his prose works, Milton advocated the abolition of the Church of England and the execution of Charles I. His work and philosophy were not only important through the civil wars and interregnum but also to the American and French revolutions.
In his works on theology, his main ideas were the liberty of conscience, the importance of holy scriptures as a guide in matters of faith and beliefs, and religious toleration toward people who had chosen to opt-out of faith.

Early Life And Education

Milton’s father was a moneylender, and he negotiated with creditors to arrange for loans on behalf of his clients. He and his wife, Sara Jeffrey, had three children: Anne, the oldest, followed by John and Christopher. Milton was privately tutored by Thomas Young, a Scottish Presbyterian, who may have influenced him in religion and politics because they maintained contact in the following years.

He was educated in Latin and Greek there, and in due course acquired proficiency in other languages, especially Italian.

Milton got admitted at Christ’s College, Cambridge, in 1625, to be educated for the ministry, or that it was presumed. In 1629 Milton was awarded a Bachelor of Arts degree, and in 1632 he received a Master of Arts degree. Milton was an excellent student and a teacher’s dream to mentor.

In 1632, after spending seven years at Cambridge, Milton came back to his family home, which is now in Hammersmith, on the outskirts of London. Milton spent approximately six years in self retirement during which he read Greek and Latin authors chiefly and conducted various academic exercises, exploring various texts and languages.

Early Translations And Poems

Works of Milton

In his early youth, Milton wrote letters in Latin verse. These letters, which go through many topics, are called elegies because they employ elegiac metre—a verse form, Classical in origin, that consists of couplets, the first line dactylic hexameter, the second dactylic pentameter. 

Another early poem in Latin is “In Quintum Novembris” (“On the Fifth of November”), which he composed in 1626 at Cambridge. Throughout his career, Milton inveighed against Catholicism, though during his travels in Italy in 1638–39 he developed cordial personal relationships with Catholics. 

On Shakespeare,” was Milton’s first published poem in English. In the 16-line epigram, Milton concludes that no man-made monument is a fitting tribute to Shakespeare’s achievement. According to Milton, Shakespeare himself created the most enduring structure to befit his genius: the readers of the plays. Milton’s most important and famous early poems, Comus and Lycidas are some of the age’s major literary achievements.  

When he returned from abroad in 1639, Milton turned his attention from poetry to prose. His writings entered a controversial arena, with the abolition of the Church of England and the Royalist government. In 1641–42 Milton composed five tracts on the reformation of church government. When he was slowly going blind, Milton then married Katherine Woodcock in 1656.
Their marriage lasted only 15 months: she died within months of the birth of their child. He wedded Elizabeth Minshull in 1663. She remained with him all his life, assisting him with his personal needs, reading from books at his request, and serving as a scribe to record verses that he dictated.
In the era after the Restoration, Milton published his three major poems, though he had begun work on two of them, Paradise Lost and Samson Agonistes, many years earlier.

Milton’s Later Years And Death

After the Restoration and despite threats to himself over the change of the government, Milton continued to advocate freedom of worship and republicanism for England. For a time soon after the succession of Charles II, he was under arrest and threatened for possible execution in his involvement in the regicide and talks and political disturbances against Cromwell’s government.

Influential figures such as Christopher Milton, his brother, Andrew Marvell, and William Davenant,—pleaded on his behalf. The exact date and location of his death remain unknown; some say that he died in London from complications of gout. 

Fame And Reputation

Paradise Lost by John Milton
Paradise Lost by John Milton

Milton’s fame and reputation grew mainly because of  Paradise Lost, which, when first published in 1667, did not gain wide admiration. Paradise Lost is about Adam and Eve–how they came to be created and how they came to lose their place in the Garden of Eden, also called Paradise.

It is Milton’s take on the story that you find in the first pages of Genesis,  which he expanded into a very long, detailed, narrative poem. It also includes the story of the origin of Satan. Originally, he was called Lucifer, an angel in heaven who led his followers in a war against God, and was ultimately sent with them to hell.

Thirst for revenge led him to cause man’s downfall by turning into a serpent and tempting Eve to eat the forbidden fruit. Paradise Lost is one of the greatest epics ever written. Because of Milton’s outspoken and ‘inappropriate’ political and religious views, only his close friends and associates critiqued his epic.

At the end of the 17th century, its admiration grew beyond a small circle. Soon, the translations of Milton’s epic into French, German, and Italian began to circle before mid-century and gained critical appeal and substantial fame.

During the early 19th century, Milton became popular among several major Romantic authors, such as William Blake, Lord Byron, and P.B. Shelley, who in Paradise Lost perceived Satan as a heroic rebel opposing established traditions and God as a tyrant, what is believed to be Milton’s perception.

This possibly mirrored Milton’s views of the unjust government and their oppression of him. In the poem, Milton can be said to identify with Satan because of the numerous similarities in the circumstances that they had faced. 

A major shift in Milton’s reputation occurred in the late 20th century when he came to be viewed as a chronicler of the tensions, conflicts, and upheavals of 17th-century England. By comparing Milton’s work within the social, political, and religious currents of his era, we can vouch for the enduring value and modern-day relevance of his works. Milton was a progressive intellectual for his time, with his views of tolerance and his views of marriage being an alliance of compatibility. 

The entire literary period covered by this chapter is dominated by the Civil War. The earlier years are marked by quarrels and alarms which led up to actual hostilities in 1642; the middle of the period is occupied by the spasmodic fighting that lasted till the execution of Charles I in 1649; and the last portion covers the establishment of the Commonwealth, the rise and disappearance of Cromwell, the confusion following upon his death, and the final restoration of the monarchy in 1660.

An Introduction to Milton’s Literary Works

This period is named after Milton because of the phenomenal work done by him which practically defines the style of this literary age. The work of the middle years is composed of few sonnets. These, with others, written at different times, sufficiently show Milton’s command of the Italian form, which he uses throughout.

He gives it a sweep and a sonorous impressiveness that sets him alone beside Wordsworth, who in this respect, is his poetical successor. The best of Milton’s sonnets are ‘On his Blindness’ and ‘On the Late Massacre in Piedmont’.

The greatest work of his produced during this time is ‘Paradise Lost’. It was begun as early as 1658 and issued in 1667. In form, it follows the strict unity of the classical epic; in theme, it deals with the fall of man. It covers the rebellion of Lucifer in heaven, the celestial warfare, and the expulsion of the rebels.

Milton uses blank verse, which it has founded a tradition in English; it has often been imitated and modified but never paralleled. It is instinct with beauty and scholarly care.

Literary Features of John Milton’s works

During this period, the decline from the high Elizabethan standard is apparent in small ways: a) the output of poetry is much smaller and the fashion is toward shorter poems, especially the lyric of a peculiar type. b) There is a marked decay in the exalted poetical fervour of the previous age.

In the new poetry, there is much more of the intellectual play of fancy than of passion. And especially in prose, there is a mature melancholy that one is apt to associate with advancing years, and lastly, c) In prose, there is marked increase inactivity, which is an almost invariable accompaniment of a decline in poetry.

The Civil War divided people into factions and this affected the literature of the time. This age produced Milton, who can be called as one of the greatest poets to have ever walked on this earth. His mastery of the verse and prose associated him with this age so much that it was called ‘The Age of Milton’.

The term, ‘The Metaphysical Poets’ was first coined by Dr. Johnson in this age who applied it to poets such as Crowley and Donne. It denotes the group of poets who came directly or indirectly under Donne’s influence.

Usually lyrical in nature, their work shows a surprising blend of passion and thought, their poems are full of learned imagery and striking conceit and, at their best, reveal great psychological insight and the subtlety of thought.

The development of prose is carried on s and from the previous age. In spite of the hampering effects of the civil strife, the prose output was copious and excellent in kind. There was a notable advance in the sermon; pamphlets were abundant; and history, politics, and philosophy, and miscellaneous kinds were well represented.

Many things combined to oppress drama at this time. Chief among these were the civil disturbances and the strong opposition of the puritans.

Development of Literary Forms

The age of Milton
The age of Milton

Poetry

The Lyric: This period is rich in lyrical poetry of a peculiar kind. The theme is chiefly love or religion. With the exception of some of those of Marvell, most of the love poems are dedicated to ladies of the usual literary convention, such as Althea, Celia, and Phyllis, who both in name and nature resemble the stock characters of the artificial pastoral poetry.

The language addressed to such creations cannot be that of deep and genuine passion; it is rather that of polite compliment, verbal quibble, or courtly jest. This type of lyric is a harming literary exercise, but hardly the inspired searching of the lover’s heart.

The religious lyric is frequently passionately inspired; and we have commented upon the incongruity that frequently disfigures the style.

The Epic

A true epic treats a sublime subject in a grand manner. In some respects, Beowulf can be called an epic but strictly speaking, the English epic does not appear until this age. Milton’s Paradise Lost has the heat and inspiration but the Puritan bias in his nature has led him to the rather unsuitable subject of the fall of man.

It is unsuitable because it is weak in heroic action. Much more appropriate would have been the story of King Arthur, which for a long time he thought of using.

The Ode

In Spenser’s poems, we have seen the irregular ode attain to a high degree of perfection. At this age, we observe the appearance of the Pindaric ode, which would become very popular in the coming generations. The Pindaric ode is bound by stringent rules; its language is ornately artificial, and its diction is mannered and unreal.

Descriptive and Narrative poetry

In this wide class, we may include Milton’s L’allegro and I Penseroso, Herrick’s pastoral poems, and Crashaw’s religious-descriptive pieces. In all these poems, we may observe that there is a tendency to avoid contact with actual wild nature and to seek rather the conventional and bookish literary landscapes familiar in the more artificial classical authors.

Drama

The plays of Massinger sustain the expiring, literary spirit of the great Elizabethans; those of Ford follow the tragical school of Webster and Tourneur. Other playwrights are James Shirley, who wrote some pleasing comedies of London life.

Prose

The Sermon: This period has been called the ‘Golden Age of the English pulpit’. A lot of sermon writing is marked with eloquence, learning, and strong argument. In addition to writers such as Jeremy Taylor and Fuller, there are also good writers such as Robert South, Isaac Barrow, and Richard Baxter.

Philosophical works: On the moral side, there are are the moral works of Sir Thomas Browne; on the political, those of Hobbes; and on the religious side, the books of John Hales. Works of this type show a growing knowledge and advancing scholarship joined sometimes to quaint conceits and artless credulity.

Historical Works

In this class, Clarendon and Fuller’s work stand pre-eminent.

Miscellaneous Prose

In this large and varied group may be included the pamphlets of Milton, Hobbes, Fuller, and many more.

In prose, we see that the principal movement is toward ornate prose, in Browne, Jeremy Taylor, Clarendon, and in the Sottish writer William Drummond of Hawthornden. In the middle style, we have the precision of Hobbes in Leviathan. At the other extreme from the ornate, the miscellaneous writers adopt great simplicity.

Found info useful?