John Milton

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John Milton

Let’s be honest: writers’ lives can be quite dull.

Not Milton’s, however. He was quite the hellraiser. After a quiet start, writing at his family home in Horton, things got a lot more heated when he swapped poetry for politics.

He became Cromwell’s spin doctor, was thrown in the Tower of London, escaped execution, had his books banned (and burned), and fled London during the Great Plague of 1665.

He took refuge at Milton’s Cottage where, by now blind, he finally found some peace and quiet to dictate Paradise Lost – the greatest long poem in the English language.

Even then, Milton didn’t make life easy for himself. At a time when religious dissent could get you executed, he wrote a poem that begins with a war against Heaven.

He set out to “justifie the wayes of God to men” and instead wrote a graphic description of Hell and created Western literature’s first anti-hero in his Satan.

Fortunately for Milton, his contemporaries were won over by his hellish visions and Paradise Lost has never been out of print since it was first published in 1667.

Like the political pamphlets he wrote for Cromwell, it has influenced many of our greatest artists, writers and thinkers and continues to inspire readers today.

Important dates

Milton was born and grew up on Bread Street, London
Milton was appointed Secretary for Foreign Tongues to England’s only republican government
Following the Restoration of the Monarchy, Milton was imprisoned and his books were banned and publicly burned
Milton fled London during the Great Plague and took refuge at Milton’s Cottage, his only surviving residence
Milton published his epic masterpiece, Paradise Lost

Did you know?

  • Did you know that Milton – best known as a poet – was also the spin-doctor for England’s only republican government?  Appointed Cromwell’s Secretary for Foreign Tongues in 1649, his official role was to translate state papers for the revolutionary new regime.  Unofficially, he was also its key propagandist, justifying republican principles – as well as the execution of Charles I – in political pamphlets such as Eikonklastes and Pro Populo Anglicano Defensio.
  • Milton met Galileo (who was by then blind and under house arrest) when he travelled in Europe in 1639.  This extraordinary meeting seems to have made quite an impression on him, as the Italian astronomer is the only contemporary of Milton’s that he mentions in Paradise Lost.
  • Milton was blind when he wrote his best-known work, Paradise Lost.  There was no braille back then, so Milton dictated his work to a series of amanuenses (a posh word for secretary, from the Latin word for hand – implying someone who is close to hand).
  • Milton brought at least 630 new words into the English language?  That’s more than anyone (including Shakespeare, before you ask).  From satanic to self-esteem, pandemonium to padlock, moonstruck to outer space, many of his greatest neologisms can be found in Paradise Lost.
  • Milton wrote one of the first works of science fiction. In Paradise Lost Satan travels outside of time and space to get his revenge on God.  The poem has influenced many of our greatest fantasy writers, including Mary Shelley, C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Philip Pullman and Neil Gaiman.