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John Milton
John Milton
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John Milton: Paradise Lost

Despite his numerous personal difficulties, Milton found a sense of peace in his radically changed life. His faith deepened. "In my blindness, I enjoy in no inconsiderable degree the favour of the Deity, who regards me with more tenderness and compassion in proportion as I am able to behold nothing but himself,"11 he wrote. For several years, he had been laboring on an epic poem about the great clash between good and evil, God and the devil, heaven and hell. In 1667, Paradise Lost was published. Readers shuddered when the devil gloated that it was "Better to reign in Hell, then serve in Heav'n,"12 and the walls practically shook at the image of God "in his right hand/ Grasping ten thousand thunders, which he sent/ Before him."13 The book astonished readers for the thundering power and beauty of its verse. The poet and critic John Dryden is said to have remarked, "This man cuts us all out, and the ancients too."14

Readers of Paradise Lost over the centuries have noticed something odd about the book: though Heaven wins at the end, the devil is by far the more interesting character. He gives better speeches than God, suspicious readers noted. Was Milton secretly on the adversary's side? "The reason Milton wrote in fetters when he wrote of Angels & God, and at liberty when of Devils & Hell, is because he was a true Poet and of the Devil's party without knowing it," said the poet William Blake,15 who meant it as a compliment.

Following the positive reception of Paradise Lost, Milton's friend Thomas Elwood is said to have approached him with the question, "Thou hast said much of paradise lost, but what hast thou to say of paradise found?"16 In 1671, Milton published in one volume the poems Paradise Regained, a sequel to Paradise Lost, and Samson Agonistes, a Biblical tragedy. They were his last major works. On 8 November 1674, John Milton died of gout at the age of 65. He was buried in St. Giles Church in the Cripplegate neighborhood of London. A memorial to Milton was placed in the Poet's Corner of Westminster Abbey. He is remembered as a great poet and an enlightened thinker, as aptly expressed in this tribute by William Wordsworth:

"Milton! thou shouldst be living at this hour;
England hath need of thee: she is a fen
Of stagnant waters... We are selfish men;
Oh! raise us up, return to us again;
And give us manners, virtue, freedom, power."17

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