Today the Puritan poet John Milton sold for ten pounds the copyright of his epic poem Paradise Lost. This lament, written after Cromwell had died expresses the disillusionment of the idealistic Puritan John Milton using the figures of Adam. Eve, Satan, Raphael, Michael, God and Jesus. At the end of Cromwell's Commonwealth, and the restoration of the monarchy, the impoverished and embittered Milton, today sold the copyright to his great poem. It has had a profound impact on writers, artists and illustrators, and, in the twentieth century, filmmakers. In today's podcast we look at the context of when he wrote this, and explore his own life and faith.
Composed in blank verse, Paradise Lost is widely considered to be one of the most influential works of English literature ever written. Milton, shared the extreme Christian Puritanical views of Oliver Cromwell and with the parliamentary victory in the Civil War, Milton used his pen in defence of the republican principles represented by the Commonwealth. He was particularly passionate about the right of the people to hold their rulers to account, and sanctioned the execution of King Charles (see pod of Jan 30). A very popular book portraying the King as an innocent Christian martyr had been published (possibly an autobiography) and Milton published a riposte tried to break this powerful image of Charles I. As the radical commonwealth of England was trying to establish international credibility, after the regicide of Charles, many European monarchies were shocked by the execution of the King. Milton was ordered to write a defence of the English people by the Council of State. Milton worked more slowly and carefully than usual, given the European audience and the English Republic's desire to establish diplomatic and cultural legitimacy. Milton's burgeoning political reputation got him appointed Secretary for Foreign Tongues to compose the English Republic's foreign correspondence in Latin and other languages, He also was called upon to produce propaganda for the regime and to serve as a censor.
Cromwell's death in 1658 caused the English Republic to collapse into feuding military and political factions. Milton, however, stubbornly clung to the beliefs that had originally inspired him to write for the Commonwealth. He became embittered, damning the English people for backsliding from the cause of liberty. Upon the Restoration of the monarchy, fearing for his life, he went into hiding, while a warrant was issued for his arrest and his writings were burnt. He re-emerged after a general pardon was issued, but was nevertheless arrested and briefly imprisoned before influential friends intervened. He spent the remaining decade of his life living quietly in London, only retiring to a cottage in Chalfont St. Giles during the Great Plague of London.
In his mid-fourties, Milton had become totally blind; the cause of his blindness is debated, but glaucoma is most likely. His blindness forced him to dictate his work to assistants who copied them out for him. His magnus opus, Paradise Lost, mourns the end of the godly Commonwealth. The Garden of Eden allegorically reflecting Milton's view of England's recent Fall from Grace, while Samson's blindness and captivity—mirroring Milton's own lost sight—may be a metaphor for England's blind acceptance of Charles II as king. It has been argued that the poem reflected his personal despair at the failure of the Revolution yet also affirmed an ultimate optimism in human potential. On 27 April 1667, Milton sold the publication rights for Paradise Lost to publisher Samuel Simmons for £5 (equivalent to approximately $1000). A further £5 to be paid if and when each print run sold out of between 1,300 and 1,500 copies. The first run sold out in eighteen months.
Milton was neither a clergyman nor a theologian; however, theology, and particularly Calvinism, formed the background from which he created his greatest thoughts. His grandfather, Richard "the Ranger" Milton had been Roman Catholic but in his treatise, Of Reformation, Milton expressed his dislike for Catholicism and episcopacy, presenting Rome as a modern Babylon, and bishops as Egyptian taskmasters. These analogies conform to Milton's puritanical preference for Old Testament imagery, often presenting England, rescued from the trappings of a worldly monarchy, as an elect nation akin to the Old Testament Israel, and Oliver Cromwell, as a latter-day Moses. In terms of public worship, Milton found the Quakers most congenial but he never went to any religious services in his later years. Writing in English and Latin, he achieved international renown within his lifetime and later poets such as William Blake, William Wordsworth and Thomas Hardy revered him.