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AMONG English men of letters there is none whose life and work stand in more intimate relation with the history of his times than those of Milton. Not only was he for a long period immersed in political controversy and public business, but there are few of his important works which do not become more significant in the light of contemporary events, and in turn help the understanding of these events themselves. It is evidence of this intimate relation, that the periods into which his life naturally falls coincide with the periods into which English history in the seventeenth century divides itself. The first of these extends from Milton's birth to his return from Italy, and corresponds with that period in the reigns of James I and Charles I during which the religious and political differences which culminated in the Civil War were working up to a climax. The second ends with his retirement into private life in 1660, and coincides with the period of the Civil War and the Commonwealth. The third closes with his death in 1674, and falls within the period of the Restoration.
John Milton was born in Bread Street, London, on the ninth of December, 1608. He was the son of John Milton, a prosperous scrivener (i. e., attorney and law-stationer), a man of good family and considerable culture, especially devoted to music. In the education of the future poet the elder Milton was exceptionally generous. From childhood he destined him for the Church, and the preparation begun at home was continued at St. Paul's School and at Cambridge. We have abundant evidence that the boy was from the first a quick and diligent student, and the late study to which he was addicted from childhood was the beginning of that injury to his eyes which ended in blindness. He entered Christ's College, Cambridge, in 1625, took the degree of B. A. in 1629, and that of M. A. in 1632, when he left the University after seven years' residence. But the development of affairs in the English Church had overturned his plans, and the interference of Laud with freedom of thought and preaching among the clergy led Milton "to prefer a blameless silence before the sacred office of speaking bought with servitude and forswearing.” So he retired
to his father's house at Horton in Buckinghamshire, and devoted the next six years to quiet study and the composition of a few poems.
In 1638 Milton set out on a journey to Italy. After some days in Paris, he passed on by way of Nice to Genoa, Leghorn, Pisa, and Florence, in which last city he spent about two months in the society of wits and men of letters. After two months more spent in Rome, he visited Naples, and had intended to cross to Sicily and go thence to Greece, when rumors of civil war in England led him to turn his face homeward, “inasmuch,” he says, "as I thought it base to be traveling at my ease for intellectual culture while my countrymen at home were fighting for liberty." His writings produced abroad were all in Italian or Latin, and seem to have brought him considerable distinction among the Italian men of letters whom he met.
Yet Milton did not plunge rashly into the political conflict. After he returned from the Continent, the household at Horton was broken up, and he went to London to resume his studies, and decide on the form and subject of his great poem. Part of his time was occupied in teaching his two nephews, and afterward he took under his care a small number of youths, sons of his friends. In 1643 he married Mary Powell, the daughter of an Oxfordshire Royalist. In about a month she left him and remained away for two years, at the end of which time she sought and obtained a reconciliation. She died in 1653 or 1654, leaving him three little daughters.
The main occupation of his first years in London was controversy. Liberty was Milton's deepest passion, and in liberty we sum up the theme of his prose writings. There are "three species of liberty," he says, "which are essential to the happiness of social life-religious, domestic, and civil,” and for all three he fought. His most important prose works may, indeed, be roughly classed under these heads: under religious, his pamphlets against Episcopacy; under domestic, his works on Education, Divorce, and the Freedom of the Press; under civil, his controversial writings on the overthrow of the monarchy. In all of these he strove for freedom and toleration; and when England became a Republic, he became officially associated with the new government as Secretary of Foreign Tongues, in which capacity he not only conducted its foreign correspondence, but also acted as its literary adviser and champion in the controversies by pamphlet that arose in connection with the execution of the King and the theory of the Commonwealth. It was in the midst of these activities that a great calamity overtook him. The defence of the late King had been undertaken by the famous Dutch Latinist Salmasius in a “Defenisio Regis," and to Milton fell the task of replying to it. His eyesight, weakened even in childhood by overstudy, was now failing fast, and he was warned by physicians that it would go altogether if he persisted in this work. But to Milton the fight he had entered on was no mere matter of professional employment as it was to his opponent, and he deliberately sacrificed what remained of him of light in the service of the cause to which he was devoted. The reply was a most effective one, but it left Milton hopelessly blind. With the aid of an assistant, however, he retained his office through the Protectorate of Cromwell, until the eve of the Restoration.
Oliver Cromwell died in 1658, his son Richard succeeded him for a short time, and in 1660 Charles II was restored to the throne. To the last Milton fought with tremendous earnestness against this catastrophe. For, to him, it was indeed a catastrophe. The return of the Stuarts meant to him not only great personal danger, but, what was far more important, it meant the overthrow of all that he had for twenty years spent himself to uphold. It meant the setting up in government, in religion, and in society, of ideals and institutions that he could not but regard as the extreme of reaction and national degradation. Almost by a miracle he escaped personal violence, but he was of necessity forced into obscure retirement; and there, reduced in fortune, blind, and broken-hearted, he devoted himself to the production of “Paradise Lost” and “Paradise Regained.” The great schemes which in his early manhood he had planned and dreamed over had for years been laid aside; but now at last he had a mournful leisure, and with magnificent fortitude he availed himself of the opportunity.
"Paradise Lost” had been begun even before the King's return; in 1665 it was finished, and in 1667 the first edition appeared. “Paradise Regained" and "Samson Agonistes" were published in 1071.
In 1657 Milton's second wife, Catherine Woodcock, had died. For about seven years after, he lived alone with his three daugh