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Have you ever ventured into the Octagon, which used to be the Queen Mary library, for meetings or lectures and has your eye started wandering around the room? In doing so your gaze may have rested on several busts clinging to the edge of life on the balcony, looking down on us. This week the focus is on John Milton. A series by Special Collections Information Assistant Anne Marie McHarg.

Bust of Milton in the Octagon

Bust of Milton by Francis Verheyden commissioned by the People's Palace c. 1888.

His Early Life

John Milton was born 9 December 1608 in Bread Street, in the City of London. His father, John Milton senior, had six children and only three survived into adulthood: Anne, older sister to John and Christopher, a younger brother. John Milton senior was noted for his skill as scrivener and was a renowned composer. This had a great influence on his eldest son, giving him a lifelong passion for music. As his father prospered he was able to give John private tuition.

Thomas Young was a Scottish Presbyterian minister and theologian, resident in England and a member of the Westminster Assembly, and is known to have been the tutor to John Milton from the age of about ten. The influence of Thomas Young served as the poet's introduction to religious radicalism and the political turbulence of his day. At the age of fifteen Milton translated Psalm 114 into Homeric Greek and wrote a hymn based on Psalm 136.

The author of Brief Lives, John Aubrey, had said of him, quoting Christopher, Milton's younger brother: "When he was young, he studied very hard and sat up very late, commonly till twelve or one o'clock at night". Aubrey adds, "his complexion exceeding faire—he was so faire that they called him the Lady of Christ's College" in reference to his long hair and sensitive manner.

John Milton was educated at St Pauls School. While he was there he was eager to learn and expand his knowledge and learning Latin, Greek and the classical languages left an imprint on both his poetry and prose. 9 April 1625 Milton matriculated at Christ College, Cambridge. He graduated in 1629 ranking fourth of 24 honours graduates that year at Cambridge. He received his B.A. degree in March 1629 and his M.A. in July 1632. From an early age Milton knew that he wanted to be a great writer and poet. To do this was to be a learned man and also a good one. His parents and tutors had other ideas thinking Milton was more suited to ministry; in a latter prose he had said he had refused to be a “subscribe slave” in a church governed by prelacy. This has not been confirmed.

The family moved to a village called Horton near Windsor where he continued to give himself the liberal education which Cambridge had failed to do. With this self-study he sought to digest the mass history, literature, and ancient and modern philosophy, to gain insight into all the arts and affairs needed by the citizen-poet who would be more than a cleric, a teacher and leader.  Milton would very often travel up to London visiting many book sellers in search of the latest mathematics and music scores. On his twenty fourth birthday he wrote “How soon has time” a rather sober sonnet. This was for Milton an important landmark in the early development of the sober sonnet.

Grand Tour 1638-39

In 1638-39, a year after his mother had died, he travelled to Italy. He sojourned in Florence, Rome and Naples. This Grand Tour of Europe was to expand his literary knowledge and to become a cultivated and learned young scholar and poet. While travelling in Paris he met the famed Dutch legal scholar and theologian Hugo Grotius. The Dutchman’s influence found its way into Milton’s political writings.

Leaving Paris, he continued through France and then travelled through Italy with his first stop in Florence. Milton met a number of learned men of the day there. One such person was Galileo, who had around this time had been arrested by the inquisition for his heliocentric views of the solar system. For Milton to meet such a scientific mind as Galileo and to talk all things science when he had had a lifelong fascination with science and scientific discovery, was the icing on the cake.  When he was writing Paradise Lost, in book VIII, he mentions Galileo’s telescope and talks about planetary motion.  

A year later in 1639 Milton had to cut short his Grand tour of Europe because of news of unrest in Britain and the prospect of civil war. Upon his return, with financial help from his father, Milton gave private tutoring to the children of the well to do, including his own nephews and nieces, as a private schoolmaster. Through this experience he wrote a short tract on Education in 1644 urging a reform of the national universities.  


In 1642 he married his first wife, sixteen-year-old Mary Powell, the daughter of a royalist squire in Oxfordshire. She bore him four children. It was not a happy marriage and did not last long; she died in childbirth in 1652. Four years after the death of his first wife he married his second wife, Katherine Woodcock, whom he married in 1656 in St Margaret's Westminster. Again, his marriage was short lived and barely two years later had his second wife died, also from complications during birth.

In 1663 he married for the third time and it was third time lucky. On the 24 February Milton married Elizabeth Mynshull or Minshull, the niece of Thomas, a wealthy apothecary and philanthropist in Manchester; in spite of the thirty-one-year age gap between them, the marriage appears to have been very happy. The marriage took place at St Mary Aldermary in the City of London. Their marriage lasted more than twelve years until Milton's death. A plaque on the wall of Mynshull's House in Manchester describes Elizabeth as Milton's "3rd and Best wife". Samuel Johnson, however, claims that Mynshull was "a domestic companion and attendant" and that Milton's nephew Edward Phillips relates that Mynshull "oppressed his children in his lifetime, and cheated them at his death”.

Civil War & Politics

Milton was at the centre of this turbulent period. Having postponed his early poetic aspirations to support the Republican cause, he served in Cromwell’s government as the Latin Secretary to the Council of the Commonwealth for Foreign Tongues.  During this time, he devoted himself to polemical, theological and historical prose – Milton became the chief polemicist and pamphleteer. These publications were called the Tracts. His most famous work was Areopagitica written in 1644 - much of which remains relevant to readers today through its exploration of personal, religious and political freedom.

In February 1649, less than two weeks after Parliament executed King Charles I, Milton published his major work The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates, in which he defends the right of people to execute a guilty sovereign, whether tyrannical or not. In the work Milton was trying to justify the execution and to defend the government against the Presbyterians who had initially voted for the regicide but later condemned it, and whose practices he believed were a growing threat to freedom.

Title page of Milton's History of Britain

Later in 1670 Milton began to write a large volume work: The History of Britain, that Part especially now called England; from the first traditional Beginning, continued to the Norman Conquest. Collected out of the ancientest and best Authors thereofThe history was first printed at the Rose and Crown in St. Paul's Churchyard.

Ref. PR3570 MIL


Milton was plagued in his later years by failing eyesight and many of his poems were dictated to assistants, one of whom was the poet, Andrew Marvell. By 1654 he was blind. His most famous sonnet on his blindness is presumed to date from this period. The last three lines are particularly well known; they conclude with "they also serve who only stand and wait”.

The Restoration

The English Republic started to collapse into feuding military and political factions after Cromwell’s death in 1658. After the Restoration of the monarch Charles II in 1660 Milton, now blind and politically out of favour, went into hiding for a while. Milton was found and then imprisoned and though later released, he only very narrowly escaped execution.

In 1665 Milton and his wife and daughters fled the outbreak of the Bubonic plague in London, and arrived in Chalfont St Giles where Thomas Ellwood, a close friend and a pupil to Milton, helped to secure a house to live in – Milton referred to it as “That pretty box in St Giles Chaffonte.” Milton found the peace and quiet to complete Paradise Lost and was inspired to write Paradise Regained and Samson Agonistes.

Paradise Lost

Blindness or not, Milton began his masterpiece Paradise Lost in earnest in 1658 and by early 1665 he had finished it. Milton tells how Satan fell from heaven through pride and then persuaded Adam and Eve to turn away from God too. He describes their penitence and how they were shown that, through Christ that God would eventually win man back to him. Completed at Milton’s Cottage, it was published in 1667 and immediately hailed, in the words of the poet John Dryden, as “one of the most sublime poems this age or nation has produced.” Milton established a new style of poetry with a rich and dignified language.

Quotation taken from Everybody’s Boswell (469-70):

It was reported by Boswell that on Sunday 13th June 1784 our philosopher was calm at breakfast. There was something pleasing in our leading a college life, without restraint and with superior elegance, in consequence of our living in the master’s house, and having the company of ladies. Mrs. Kennicott related, in his presence, a lively saying of Dr Johnson to Miss Hannah More, who had expressed a wonder that the poet who had written “Paradise Lost,” should write such poor sonnets: “Milton, Madam, was a genius that could cut a Colossus from a rock, but could not carve heads upon a cherry stone.

We hold several copies of Paradise Lost within our rare books collection:

Illustration of Milton's Paradise Lost by William Blake

Paradise Lost / To which are prefixed, The life of the author; and a criticism on the poem by Samuel Johnson

Paradise Lost / illustrated by William Blake

The Paradise lost of Milton / with illustrations, designed and engraved by John Martin

John Martin engraving for Book One, line 44 [Ref. ND497.M17 MIL]

His Death

John Milton died around the 8-10 November 1674. His body was attended from his house in Bunhill Fields to the small church of St Giles Cripplegate, and was buried beside his father by his learned and great friends in London. His principal well-wishers and admirers probably included Andrew Marvell and John Dryden. A monument and tablet were added in 1793, sculpted by John Bacon the Elder. Milton often worshipped in St Margaret's Westminster when he was a civil servant, as he lived nearby, and his wife Katherine and his infant daughter (also Katherine) were buried in the churchyard, although with no grave markers. Milton’s body was later moved to St Margaret’s. It was to her that he addressed his sonnet beginning "Methought I saw my late espoused Saint...”

It was not until 1737 that a memorial was finally erected for him in Poets' Corner in Westminster Abbey, on the wall of the eastern aisle, by William Benson.

We could have lost our heritage, with Milton Cottage nearly leaving our shores and going by sea to the United States of America in several pieces. It was Queen Victoria who had the foresight to rally the British public to help raise money by open subscription in 1887 to save the cottage. Since this date it has been a museum open to the public.

Milton’s great works left their mark on English literature and enduring recognition for one of the greatest writers the world has ever known. Let me leave you with a quotation from Milton’s Areopagitica:

Books are not absolutely dead things, but do contain a potency of life … as lively, and as vigorously productive, as those fabulous Dragons teeth.

Every Friday our Special Collections librarian Anne-Marie will be introducing you to each of the writers featured in the Octagon in this blog series.



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