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Milton

Milton, John, was born in Bread Street, Cheapside, on the 9th December, 1608. His father, a scrivener, was a man of enough education to enter into his son's ambition, and it was by his support that the latter was able to adopt a life of study. From the first the lad applied himself industriously to work. While at St. Paul's school he produced his first attempts in poetry, paraphrases of Psalms cxiv. and cxxxvi. From 1625 until 1632 he was at Christ's College, Cambridge, gaining a knowledge of Hebrew, French, and Italian in addition to the ordinary classics. To this period belong many of his Latin poems, and several of his English - notably On the Beath of a Fair Infant, On the Morning of Christ's Nativity, The Passion, and On Shakespeare. On leaving the university he lived for nearly six years at Horton, in Buckinghamshire, whither his father had retired. There he wrote L'Allegro and II Penseroso, Arcades, At a Solemn Music, On Time, and the pastoral masque known since his death as Comus. The two poems To the Nightingale and Upon the Circumcision belong also to the Cambridge or the Horton period. In these early poems Milton, although giving proof of deep religious conviction, still showed himself capable of appreciating the lighter sides of life. His greater work, for which he began consciously to prepare himself, was not to be carried out until years of political and sectarian strife had left their mark upon his character. In 1637 he wrote Lycidas, as his contribution to a volume published at Cambridge in honour of Edward King, who had been drowned in crossing to Ireland. Early in the next year he went to Italy as far as Naples, where he visited Manso, the friend of Tasso. He had intended to see Greece, but the news of the Puritan resistance to the king made him consider it was base for him to be cultivating his intellect abroad at such a time. Accordingly he turned back, but lingered at Rome, Florence, and Venice. The most interesting incident of his tour was his intercourse at Florence with Galileo, then old and blind, the prisoner of the Inquisition, an acquaintance which made a deep impression on his mind. Meanwhile, his closest friend, Charles Diodati, had died, in whose memory he wrote a fine Latin poem, Epitaphium Damonis. In it he mentions, as he had already mentioned in a poem to Manso, that he was meditating an epic on King Arthur, which, however, came to nothing. For the next two or three years he was casting about for a subject on which to make a great effort. There exists a list in his writing of nearly a hundred subjects, among which Paradise Lost is sketched as a tragedy. During this time he lived in Aldersgate teaching his nephews and a few other boys on the system propounded in 1644 in his tractate Of Education. In 1643 his marriage with Mary Powell, the daughter of a strong Royalist, led to a curious episode. His wife, soon after the marriage, went back to her old home, and declined to return to her husband, who at this time published an anonymous pamphlet on divorce, alleging that incompatibility of temper is a ground for separation. In the spring of 1644 he brought out a second edition, adding his name and a dedication to Parliament and the General Assembly. He was charged with having published this without official license, whereupon he printed, unlicensed and unregistered, Areopagitica, an argument addressed to Parliament in favour of freedom of the press. In 1645 he was reconciled to his wife, and in 1646 he brought out a volume of his early poems. After the execution of the king he was made Latin secretary to the Council of State, with the duty of writing letters to foreign courts, and of holding interviews with foreign agents. This post he kept through Cromwell's rule. Meanwhile he was busy in the warfare of pamphlets, deserting poetry for what he considered a call of duty. Amongst his publications were Eiltonoklastes, in answer to the Royalist Eikon Basilike, and a reply to a defence of the king by Salmasius, in which he displayed a ferocity of language only less than that with which he afterwards assailed Morus, to whom he erroneously ascribed the authorship of a similar production. A worthier example of his resentment was the sonnet of 1655 on the massacre of the Vaudois Protestants. His private life during this time was not happy. Working for the state with the knowledge that he was ruining his eyesight, he became blind in 1652, in which year his wife and son died. He lived with his three daughters until 1656, when he married Katharine Woodcock, who died fifteen months later. On the death of Cromwell he sought to stem by his pamphlets the reaction in favour of monarchy, but on the Restoration he was left unharmed. In 1663 he married Elizabeth Minshull. In 1658 he had begun Paradise Lost, which was published in 1667, and followed four years later by Paradise Regained and Samson Agonistes. Between 1669 and 1673 he also published a Latin Grammar, a History of Britain before the Conquest, and a book on logic. He died on the 8th November, 1674, and was buried in St. Giles' Church, Cripplegate. His literary life falls into three strongly marked divisions - first, an early poetic period, ending with his tour abroad; secondly, twenty years, except for the composition of a few sonnets, almost exclusively devoted to prose; and finally, the years in which his epics were composed. In majesty of diction, alike in prose and verse, as well as in strenuousness of moral effort, he is without a rival among English writers.