For John Milton (1608-74) poetry was a vocation, and such is the personal and public importance of his masterpiece Paradise Lost that one can fitly measure the other activities of his life up to its composition according to how they prepared the ground for it or delayed it. Milton’s father was a well-to-do scrivener who gave him a good education and every encouragement to steep himself in literary and musical culture. Before he completed his studies at Cambridge by taking the MA degree in 1632, Milton had already written his first significant poem, the ode ‘On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity’ (1629). ‘L’Allegro’ and ‘Il Penseroso’ followed not long after. For five years Milton lived at Horton in Buckinghamshire, preparing himself mentally and spiritually for his chosen vocation. The masque Comus was written for performance at Ludlow Castle in 1634 and ‘Lycidas’, the elegy for his fellow student, Edward King, in 1637. Milton’s next phase of self-preparation was a tour on the Continent on which he met Italian men of letters.
It was the Civil War that brought him back, and he threw himself into polemical writing on the anti-episcopal front, later on behalf of Cromwell’s government and even in justification of Charles’s execution. Meanwhile sudden marriage in 1642 to Mary Powell, a young girl of sixteen, had been so unsuccessful that Mary returned to her royalist parents within a few weeks and did not come back to her husband until 1645; and Milton had by then written pamphlets in defence of divorce. Distaste for censorship provoked his Areopagitica, a stout defence of the freedom of the press. Milton’s appointment as Latin Secretary in 1649 committed him more officially to the Commonwealth so that when the Restoration came it put an end to his cherished endeavours. His eyesight had completely failed