Study Guide

John Milton

John Milton Introduction

It was 1638, and 29-year-old John Milton was feeling like pretty hot stuff. The son of an English law clerk had graduated with honors from Cambridge, spent five years reading and writing poetry, and had just arrived in Italy for a long tour of Europe. The more people read his poetry, the more compliments he got on his talent and promise. Milton took their praise to heart and decided that he was going to become one of the Great English Poets. You're welcome, English readers.

It took thirty years for Milton's prediction to come true. By the time it did, life had dealt John Milton enough blows to shake his youthful confidence. Twice widowed, imprisoned once, politically outcast, and completely blind, Milton had lost everything dear to him. But like St. Augustine, who found grace only after he hit bottom, Milton found divine inspiration when all else was gone. His 1667 epic Paradise Lost, the story of Satan's fall from grace and the epic battle between good and evil, established Milton as a poet for the ages. The poet and critic John Dryden is said to have remarked upon reading Paradise Lost, "This man cuts us all out, and the ancients too."

John Milton Trivia

Areopagitica, Milton's tract in favor of a free press, was a key resource in the crafting of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

Milton met the astronomer Galileo during his post-university tour of Europe.

Milton wrote poetry in Latin and Italian as well as in English.

Some scholars have argued that the light sabers used in Star Wars are actually a play on the "flaming swords" Milton describes in Paradise Lost. George Lucas has yet to weigh in.

Four hundred years after his death, Milton is still causing political controversy. On the first anniversary of the 9/11 attacks in the United States, Milton scholar John Carey published a controversial op-ed arguing that Milton's poem "Samson Agonistes" was sympathetic to terrorism and should perhaps be removed from libraries.

Milton's daughters were so opposed to his third marriage to Elizabeth Minshull that Mary Milton allegedly claimed that she'd rather have her father die than go through with the marriage.

John Milton Resources

Books

John Milton, Paradise Lost (1667)
Paradise Lost was Milton's masterpiece, written over a period of years and after its author had gone completely blind. The result is one of the most exquisite works in the English language. It's an epic battle of good versus evil, God versus Satan - and guess who wins?

John Milton, Areopagitica (1644)
When publishers tried to censor one of Milton's famous "Divorce Tracts," Milton responded with Areopagitica. Milton's impassioned defense of a free press is one of the most eloquent arguments made in favor of that right. It was a basis for the First Amendment guarantee to free speech in the U.S. Constitution.

John Milton, The Complete Poems
Though he's best known for his Paradise Lost epic and long political screeds, his poems beautifully showcase Milton's poetic gifts. Short poems, such as "On His Blindness," show his ability to create lovely images. And the masque Comus is an early preview of his gift for epic storytelling.

Stanley Fish, Surprised by Sin (1967)
This controversial book addressed a debate raging among Milton scholars: In Paradise Lost, is Milton on God's side or Satan's? Rather than take sides, Fish argues that Paradise Lost is not about the man who wrote it, but about the people who read it. He argues that the devil is a metaphor for fallen sinners everywhere - and that means all of us.

Gordon Campbell and Thomas N. Corns, John Milton: Life, Work and Thought (2008)
The 400th anniversary of Milton's book saw a spate of articles, exhibitions, and books about the great poet. This biography is a thorough, engaging introduction to Milton's life. Campbell and Corns are the editors of the Oxford Milton, the massive, authoritative anthology of the poet's work.

Anna Beer, Milton: Poet, Pamphleteer and Patriot (2008)
It's hard to come up with scintillating personal details about anyone who lived four centuries ago, let alone someone who guarded his personal life as closely as John Milton did. Milton scholar Anna Beer does a good job of bringing to life this complex poet.

Music

Joseph Haydn, The Creation
Famed Austrian composer Joseph Haydn spent years setting the lyrics of Milton's Paradise Lost, the Biblical Psalms, and the Book of Genesis to this musical movement. The result is a stirring piece of work that evokes ancient struggles between good and evil.

George Frideric Handel, L'Allegro
Handel created this oratorio (an arrangement for both a symphony and choir) based on two Milton poems, "L'Allegro" (The Happy Man) and "Il Penseroso" (The Pensive Man).

Krzysztof Penderecki, Paradise Lost
Penderecki, a Polish-born composer, is a devout Catholic. He called his opera a Sacra Rappresentazione - sacred interpretation - of Milton's poem. The opera first premiered in 1978 in Chicago.

Eric Whitacre, Paradise Lost: Shadows and Wings
Electronica composer Eric Whitacre created this opera, very loosely based on the plot of Milton's poem.

Anvil, "666"
The aging Canadian metalheads and extremely unlikely Milton fans Anvil rip off a line from Paradise Lost in their song "666." "I'd rather be a king below than a servant above," the rockers sing. Unfortunately for Anvil, neither scenario seems to have worked out since their 1980s glory days.

Paradise Lost
Classical composers aren't the only ones drawn to Milton's epic. The punk/metal scene also contains some hard-core fans of Milton's depiction of the struggle between good and evil. The UK-based band Paradise Lost definitely pays homage to Milton with their name.

Images

John Milton
The poet in full seventeenth-century style.

Milton With Family
Delacroix's painting of Milton reading to his daughters.

Elderly John Milton
An engraving of Milton in his later years.

Paradise Lost
The cover of the 1668 first edition.

Satan Watching the Endearments of Adam and Eve
One of William Blake's illustrations for the 1808 edition of Paradise Lost.

The Temptation and Fall of Eve
Another scene illustrated by William Blake for Paradise Lost.

The Heavenly Hosts
Gustave Dore's illustration for an edition of Paradise Lost, circa 1866.

Movies & TV

Paradise Lost: The Movie (2011?)
Competing Paradise Lost movies? Crazy as it sounds, two separate films on Paradise Lost will be released in the near future, thanks to the strange politics of Hollywood. Paradise Lost: The Movie is the indie version of the epic. Shall we expect a fast-talking, pop culture-referencing God and Satan with a scraggly goatee?

Paradise Lost (2012?)
This is the big-budget, special effects-filled version of Paradise Lost, slated for release after its indie rival. Though this could also be a complete disaster, few showdowns in history are as ripe for CGI interpretation as the battle between God and Satan. We are REALLY excited for the scene when they throw mountains.

Paradise Lost by John Basinger
Actor John Basinger has memorized all twelve books of Paradise Lost. While this alone is an impressive feat, he also has created a one-man show in which he plays all the characters in Milton's poem. The show takes three days to perform, but fortunately this DVD does not take three days to watch.

Paradise Lost: The Lives and Times of John Milton (2007)
This educational video about Milton's life provides an overview of the complicated political times in which he lived - and which shaped his work.

The Devil's Advocate (1997)
Keanu Reeves is a lawyer whose client (Al Pacino) turns out to be the devil. You know what the devil's name is? John Milton! These people are so literary and subtle!

Sabrina (1995)
In this remake of a classic Audrey Hepburn film (also lovely), the title character explains to her love interest that she takes her name from Milton's poem Comus. In the poem, a spirit calls out to a savior to rescue her. Her lover assumes that Sabrina is the name of the helpless virgin spirit; Sabrina, she corrects him, is actually the savior.

Websites

The Milton-L Home Page
This page is the home of Milton-L, a listserv of all-things-Milton that seems to have been around as long as the Internet. This is a site mostly geared toward academics, though you can pick up a lot of interesting tidbits about Milton's life by poking around here.

The John Milton Reading Room
The John Milton Reading Room is like an online library dedicated to Milton's texts. This goes beyond Paradise Lost - it includes selections from his political writings, as well as his Latin poetry. You can also read modern criticism of Milton's poems.

John Milton and 17th Century Culture
The University of South Carolina has put together this incredible online exhibit of Milton's life and times. Using texts from the library's collections, the exhibit walks you through Milton's childhood, political involvement, poetic career, and family life.

A John Milton Chronology
It's hard to keep track of all of the political maneuverings that went on in the background of Milton's life, let alone his many works and marriages. This timeline created by Roy C. Flannagan at Ohio University is a helpful guide to the events of Milton's life.

Luminarium
Milton's entry in this online encyclopedia of medieval literature is illuminating. It has a biography as well as links to quotes, texts, critical essays, and recommended reading on Milton.

Christ's College: Milton's 400th Anniversary Celebration
The year 2008 marked the 400th anniversary of John Milton's birth. Libraries and universities around the world celebrated the milestone with special exhibits. Milton's alma mater Cambridge University put together this website as part of its commemoration of the student the school once suspended.

Video & Audio

Paradise Lost
A reading from Book 4, when Satan enters Paradise.

Satan's Speech
A speech by Satan from Paradise Lost, Book 1, read by the actor Ian Richardson.

Sonnet 23
The poem Milton wrote in honor of his late second wife, read by the actor Ian Richardson.

On His Blindness
Milton's classic poem on his loss of eyesight, read by Sean Barrett.

Lycidas
Retired telecommunications manager Joan Thuebel explains what Lycidas means to her, as part of the Favorite Poem Project.

Milton-L
The august Milton-L page has compiled audio clips of Milton's poetry read aloud.

Butthead Reads Milton
Remember Beavis and Butthead? Here a guy does his impression of Butthead reading John Milton. It's strangely touching.

Primary Sources

Paradise Lost
Milton's classic epic.

Paradise Regained
The sequel to Paradise Lost.

Areopagitica
Milton's tract in defense of a free press.

Comus
The text of Milton's masque in praise of chastity.

Tractate on Education
Milton's polemic in favor of classical education.

The Complete Poems
The complete poems of John Milton.