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Milton - Not Just Another Pretty Face

Just about everyone has heard of Shakespeare but did you know that John Milton is second in line for being the most significant English author after Shakespeare? He is best known for his epic poem, Paradise Lost, which he finished after being released from prison in 1660. He did live an interesting life.

John was born on December 9, 1608 in London – Cheapside to be exact. You might think this wasn’t a very savory neighborhood but it is, in fact, the historic and modern financial center of London. Oh those British do love a good irony, don’t they? Anyway, John’s Dad was a musician and this gave John the opportunity to meet many artsy folks, setting the stage for his love of all things poetic. He started out being trained as an Anglican priest but, instead, decided to get married three times and do some writing. He and his first wife, Mary Powell, were married when she was just 16. It wasn’t really a marriage made in heaven as she decided she didn’t care too much for the stodgy 35 year old and went home after just a month. John, ever pragmatic, started writing pamphlets in support of divorce. This didn’t go over very well with the authorities and John clashed with them because of his opinions. He wasn’t happy about this censorship and retaliated by writing Areopagitica; A speech of Mr. John Milton for the Liberty of Unlicenc'd Printing, to the Parlament of England. In addition to his poems, you can see that John’s titles were also epic. An interesting tidbit is that Milton had met Galileo during an earlier trip through Europe and decided to include him in this writing. So, you see, John Milton and Freddie Mercury have something in common. (More on Queen and six degrees of separation in future posts…)

Back to Milton’s marriages: Apparently Mary finally returned to John because it is documented that the couple had four children. This all occurred before Mary turned 26 when she died from complications during the birth of the fourth child. Four years later, John married Katherine Woodcock. She died two years later, also after giving birth to a child – also named Katherine. In 1663, John was married for the last time to Elizabeth Mynshull who was 31 years his junior. She, wisely, did not have any children thereby outliving John who died in 1674 at the age of 65.

So when the English Civil War ended in 1651, Oliver Cromwell appointed himself Lord Protector, a rather lofty title. Milton, who had been loyal to Cromwell, was named Secretary for Foreign Tongues (or in English – Minister of Foreign Languages). A mere 6 years on the job, Cromwell, Lord Protector, wasn't able to protect himself - was ousted and lost his head. Milton’s head was spared but he was arrested. When he was finally released two years later, he was placed on house arrest at his country estate. By this time, Milton had been totally blind for almost 6 years. He continued to write but had to dictate his work to amanuenses (or as we say today, secretaries). During his years at the estate, he completed what is considered his greatest work, Paradise Lost. Goodreads summarizes: "Paradise Lost is one of the greatest epic poems in the English language. It tells the story of the Fall of Man, a tale of immense drama and excitement, of rebellion and treachery, of innocence pitted against corruption, in which God and Satan fight a bitter battle for control of mankind's destiny. The struggle rages across three worlds - heaven, hell, and earth - as Satan and his band of rebel angels plot their revenge against God. At the center of the conflict are Adam and Eve, who are motivated by all too human temptations but whose ultimate downfall is unyielding love. " Wow, that's a lot of ground to cover - no wonder it doesn't rhyme.

It is said that Milton suffered from gout and some believe this is what he finally succumbed to in 1674. Others believe he died of consumption. Either way, it sounds painful and nasty. While Milton didn’t seem to care much for his fellow poet, John Donne, in the end, it is Donne’s “Death Be Not Proud” that sums up Milton’s life - and death - well:

"Death be not proud, though some have called thee Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so; For those whom thou think'st thou dost overthrow Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me. From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be, Much pleasure; then from thee much more must flow, And soonest our best men with thee do go, Rest of their bones, and soul's delivery..."

...and it rhymes...

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