Reading John Milton
How to Persist in Troubled Times
Stephen B. Dobranski



WHEN JOHN MILTON WAS TEN, his parents had him sit for a portrait. It is the earliest known record of the author’s existence after his baptism. He wrote in the front of his family Bible that he was born at 6:30 in the morning on Friday, 9 December 1608; parish records show that he was baptized eleven days later in the church of All Hallows, in Bread Street, in the heart of London, not far from the tenement, the Spread Eagle, where he most likely entered the world.

The painting of Milton at age ten is small—it measures only 20 × 16 inches—but the canvas reveals a good deal about the young poet. He looks pale and earnest, a little timid, with fine, almost feminine features. His hair is auburn, and he wears it closely cropped, a style suggesting an early religious zeal, perhaps a youthful call to pursue a higher moral purpose. Short hair at that time was mostly associated with Puritans, a wide-ranging group of devout Protestants who were not formally organized—there was no “Puritan Church”—but who generally agreed on the need for doctrinal and clerical reform. They advocated personal interpretation of the scripture and opposed the English church’s emphasis on ceremony, two positions that Milton would later espouse.

FIGURE 1. Portrait of John Milton (at age ten)

Source: Robert J. Wickenheiser Collection of John Milton, Irvin Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, University of South Carolina Libraries, Columbia, S.C.

Yet, the hairstyle in the painting was probably not of Milton’s choosing. According to his widow, his tutor had cut it short.1 This was most likely Thomas Young, the devout Presbyterian who taught Milton for about a two-year period, beginning in 1618, before Milton began at St. Paul’s grammar school.

Milton’s clothes in the portrait were also probably not his choice. He wears aristocratic attire: a gold-trimmed doublet with a collar of lace frill. Many of the prosperous merchants who lived in the same parish as Milton’s family had boys who were the first in their families to attend Cambridge or Oxford, and Milton’s parents clearly had lofty aspirations for their child at a young age. Milton’s clothes—almost a costume—are not the outfit of a mere Scrivener’s son. The reputed artist, Cornelius Jansen, would also not have come cheaply; he went on to paint James I, his children, and various aristocrats at the courts of both James and Charles I.

Milton had an older sister, Anne, and his younger brother Christopher was born seven years after him. But his parents, Sara and John Milton, had lost a child in infancy in their first years of marriage, and before John turned seven, they suffered the infant deaths of two more girls, Sara and Tabitha. Maybe the couple was investing so much in young John, their first boy, because they had already lost so much. Or, if the couple had great expectations for their middle child, perhaps Milton’s musician father had begun to glimpse his son’s creative potential. Milton wrote that his family and friends expected him early on to become a priest, but he had a good singing voice, and around this same time, at age ten, he had started to write his first poetry. Perhaps his parents already realized that this would not be just a painting of a boy; it was a portrait of an artist.

And what an artist he would become. To many, Milton’s Paradise Lost is the greatest single poem ever written in English, and Milton himself is arguably the greatest poet of all time, in any language. Alfred, Lord Tennyson praised Milton as that “mighty-mouthed inventor of harmonies,” the “God-gifted organ voice of England.”2 Ralph Waldo Emerson said that Milton was “the sublimest bard of all, . . . born for the exaltation of mankind,” and Margaret Fuller, a pioneer for women’s rights who first encountered Milton at age fourteen, concluded more simply that he was “absolutely the greatest of human beings.”3

For the music of his verse, the breadth of his learning, and the force of his convictions—Milton is unrivaled. He wrote grand, soaring poems about heroic subjects, penned deeply felt lyrics about personal loss and ambition, and created vast, complex mythologies in a bold attempt to supplement the world’s religions and surpass antiquity’s greatest epics.

And yet, despite Milton’s undisputed brilliance, despite the enormity of his poetic achievement, few readers today would describe themselves as his fans. The Milton who emerges from the several excellent biographies that have been published in the past fifty years sometimes seems more remote than relevant, a dour and devout scholar, tailor-made for a scholarly monograph or graduate seminar but removed from our cares and concerns. Readers today, if they think of him at all, may imagine a blind, sullen pedant, warming himself by the fire, while his three daughters sit at a distance, hunched over a table and ready to take down his verses.

This book sets out to see beyond Milton’s academic standing—to correct the popular misperception of a censorious purist—and reveal the ongoing power of his writings, their intelligence and emotional depth as well as their impact and prescience. The intended audience is general readers who care about language and literature but who might be reluctant to read a seventeenth-century British poet who mostly seems enmeshed in arcane philosophical debates. I want to show how, some 400 years later, Milton’s poetry and prose remain vital and inspiring. His richly imagined scenes, complex and compelling characters, beautifully expressed principles and beliefs—all of these qualities help Milton to transcend the period in which he lived.

But instead of following the well-trod path of a strict chronology or a greatest-hits overview, this book traces some of the major themes in Milton’s life and writings—fundamental human concerns—that help us to see the author anew and to discover his continuing relevance. Each of the ten chapters focuses on a central theme that he explored—language, loss, injustice, suffering, liberty, pride, forgiveness, temptation, doubt, and fortitude.

The larger story that these ten chapters tells is about grit as much as great writing. Milton’s unyielding commitment to the pursuit of truth and religious freedom—sometimes at great personal cost—set him apart from his contemporaries, and he repeatedly turned to words, in both poetry and prose, as the best way of fighting for these ideals. Plato was one of the first writers to suggest that courage is not an absence of uncertainty or fear but instead a refusal to relent; it is the will to press forward with an awareness of life’s hazards and hardships.4 This is the quality that Milton celebrated in his writings and that, at key moments in his own life, he personally evinced. He could be arrogant and acrimonious, and was as prone to weakness and error as any of us, and yet he distinguished himself by his decision to “bear up and steer / Right onward,” as he put it in a sonnet on his blindness, and by his insistent depiction of characters struggling to do the same.5

The defining event of Milton’s lifetime was the British civil wars and the execution of King Charles I. In 1642, when Milton was thirty-three, the nation became embroiled in an eleven-year political and religious conflict that ultimately killed some 62,000 soldiers, likely a larger proportion of the nation’s population than died in World War I.6 The civil wars were fought over the king’s efforts to curb Parliament’s authority, and in particular his attempt to limit religious freedom and enforce a uniform practice of worship across England, Wales, Ireland, and Scotland. Milton so believed in the revolution and its military-leader-turned-statesman, Oliver Cromwell, that he sacrificed his sight, ignoring doctors’ warnings, putting aside his pain, and writing tirelessly in defense of the rebellion against the king. When, in January 1649, Charles I was tried, found guilty of high treason, and publicly beheaded, his supporters wept openly. Some, hearing news of the king’s death, fell to their knees in the street. Milton instead thought that justice had been served. He began working for the new government and soon moved into sumptuous new lodgings in the Palace of Whitehall, formerly occupied by the king.

Reports of the death of monarchy were greatly exaggerated, however, and on 29 May 1660 Charles II donned a cloak with gold lace to lead a grand, military procession through the streets of London as he reclaimed the throne that his father had held before him. It is this later period that is especially important for Milton—after the revolution failed, after the return of a king, when Milton went to prison and then witnessed the capture and execution of many of his friends. That in 1649 he had published a tract in support of deposing and punishing the monarch was sufficient grounds for his execution or life imprisonment; “compassing or imagining the King’s death” remained a capital offense.7 With the restoration of monarchy, he had to go into hiding, and his three young daughters had to be taken away, probably to live with their grandmother.8 The social author temporarily found himself isolated, shut up in an anonymous house in the London parish of Bartholomew Close—“fall’n on evil days,” as he describes his predicament in Paradise Lost, blind and afraid, in danger and in darkness.9 He must have listened anxiously as supporters of the newly restored king celebrated, firing guns, lighting bonfires, and singing and shouting in the streets.

But this was also the period of Milton’s greatest literary achievements. If hardship makes the man, then Milton was made in his forties and fifties, after his political ideals were crushed by the Restoration, after losing his sight, and after the deaths of two wives and two children. He continued to defend political liberty and religious toleration, and he went on to write and publish Paradise Lost, his masterpiece. If Dante is the author of the afterlife, and Montaigne the writer of the self, Milton is the poet of resilience. He has more to say about the cost of human frailty, the experience of defeat, and the way to persevere—to go on and rise above—than any other writer in English. He wrote about the fall of Adam and Eve, Satan’s inglorious rebellion, and Samson’s agony among the Philistines. In his writing and in his example, Milton repeatedly suggests how to overcome loss, whether dealing with a failed marriage, the loss of free expression, a crumbling republic, the tragedy of religious violence, or the very first human sin in the Garden of Eden. He is, after all, the author who coined the notion that every “sable cloud” has a “silver lining,” who followed Paradise Lost with Paradise Regained, and who, despite his devout belief in a divine power, focused less on heavenly reward than on each person’s finding answers within.10 Faced with devastating loss, both personal and political, Milton was undeterred, not just enduring but continuing to write, insistently finding a reason to believe—in himself, his country, and a better world.

For readers today, living in an age of almost incessant information—of endless blogs, posts, tweets, and updates—Milton is especially well suited. He was writing during a period of print overload. The London book trade exploded during the middle of the seventeenth century, as more and more books and tracts were published, and politicians, clergy, and laypeople—both before and after the war years—quarreled with and attacked each other in quickly printed ballads, newsbooks, and pamphlets. It was an age when deep political divisions were a constant and when an autocratic style of rule—the king adamantly refused to abide criticism or accept compromise—deepened the nation’s political and religious fractures.

Milton’s commitments speak to our times. He himself was not always above the fray—not above wading into the mire of petty grievances and grudges—but his works repeatedly offer insight and hope for charting a course above the mess of opinions, prejudices, and half-truths to address some of the most pressing concerns and problems of his day and ours: censorship, intolerance, greed, tyranny, and corruption. Of course, the seventeenth century should not be equated with the modern world, and Milton should not be made a spokesperson for any side of our present-day culture wars. Nor should Milton be treated as a hero. Irascible when criticized, sometimes mean to his daughters, preoccupied with his own poetic ambition, and blinkered at times by his biases—he wore his shortcomings on his sleeve. But, instead of being canceled or dismissed for his limitations, John Milton deserves to be read today for his poetry’s extraordinary majesty and subtlety and for his keen understanding. Especially in his mature writings—complex, dynamic poems and vivid, impassioned prose works—he shows us how to remain steadfast in the face of uncertainty, temptation, and the inevitable missteps that come with being human. He shows us how to be dauntless.


1. Aubrey in EL 4.

2. Alfred Tennyson, “Milton (Alcaics),” in Alfred Tennyson, ed. Adam Roberts (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 375.

3. Ralph Waldo Emerson, Journals and Miscellaneous Notebooks of Ralph Waldo Emerson, ed. William H. Gilman et al., 16 vols. (Cambridge: Belknap Press, 1960), II: 107; Margaret Fuller, Papers on Literature and Art (New York: Wiley and Putnam, 1846), I: 36.

4. Plato, Laches, in Plato, 10 vols., trans. W.R.M. Lamb (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1952), IV: 46–83 (191a–201c); and see Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics, trans. H. Rackham (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1947), Book III, sections 6–9.

5. Sonnet 22, lines 8–9. All quotations of Milton’s poetry, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from CPEP.

6. Michael Braddick, God’s Fury, England’s Fire (London and New York: Allen Lane, 2008), xxii, 389.

7. The Parliamentary or Constitutional History of England, ed. William Cobbett et al., 2nd ed., 24 vols. (London, 1761–1763), vol. IV, column 162.

8. Parker, Biography, II: 1089, n43.

9. Paradise Lost, Book 7, line 25.

10. A Masque Presented at Ludlow Castle, lines 221–22.