In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section John Milton

  • Introduction
  • Pedagogy
  • Editions
  • General Studies of Milton’s Life and Works
  • Studies of Milton’s Prose Works

British and Irish Literature John Milton
P.J. Klemp
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 August 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846719-0145


A plaque near John Milton’s birthplace in London describes two of his life’s main missions: he was a “poet and statesman.” Although Milton (b. 1608–d. 1674), proud throughout his life of his identity as a Londoner and an Englishman, is regarded as England’s finest writer of nondramatic verse, the plaque pays a more accurate tribute to the full reach of his life and writings, including what Gordon Campbell and Thomas N. Corns call his “career as a public servant” (Campbell and Corns 2008, cited under General Studies of Milton’s Life and Works). We know far more about Milton’s life than about virtually any other English author before 1700. He contributes to this carefully orchestrated documentation through the autobiographical portraits in his writings, his employment as the revolutionary government’s Secretary for Foreign Tongues, and his publication of tracts that elicit contemporaries’ comments because of his unconventional views about religious sects, polygamy, regicide, divorce, and the church hierarchy. He envisions his poetic and political career as having a structure, which E. M. W. Tillyard characterizes as being defined by “the three well-marked epochs of Milton’s life”: an early period of writing shorter poems in many genres; two decades of using “my left hand” to write polemical prose, much of it for the revolutionary government; and finally the post-Restoration period, when he writes Paradise Lost, Paradise Regained, and Samson Agonistes. (see Tillyard 1966, cited under General Studies of Milton’s Life and Works) This tripartite structure suggests how seriously Milton takes his description of the poet-prophet-priest figure as someone who “ought himself to be true poem.” Following his undergraduate years at Cambridge University, a trip to the Continent in 1638–1639 clarifies his sense of his identity and purpose. Returning home to a nation whose religious and civil fabric is fraying, Milton, living up to the image of a slow starter that he creates in “How soon hath time,” sees his seven-and-thirtieth year arrive before publishing the volume of Poems (1645), which is divided into halves, giving ample, if belated, evidence of his talent as a writer of English and Latin verse, with some Italian sprinkled in. Also writing prose in English and Latin, Milton explains that that form motivates his work as a statesman “only by the conviction of duty and the feeling of patriotism, a disinterested passion for the extension of civil and religious liberty.” Later, he adds domestic happiness to the “species of liberty” that he promotes. Even as his blindness becomes complete in his mid-forties, and even as the Revolution collapses a decade later, he does not lose hope in his complementary careers as poet and statesman. Dictated, not written, as the Restoration looms and then becomes a reality, Paradise Lost, Paradise Regained, and Samson Agonistes join the rest of Milton’s poetry and prose to make him a well-known figure during his lifetime and beyond.

Reference Works

Few English authors have received as much attention as Milton in terms of reference works. Indeed, his readers can consult scholarly tools that are frequently of high quality, being both thorough and reliable, and of staggering quantity, with scholars contributing some one hundred books and essays on Milton every year since the end of the 19th century. Dedicated to identifying some of those resources, this section of the bibliography is intended to guide readers who are searching for, say, an essay or book that deals with Milton and his writings or for information about his words, life, and influence.

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