John Milton

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John Milton
John Milton signature.svg
Paradise Lost, 1668

John Milton (born December 9, 1608 in London , † November 8, 1674 in Bunhill near London) was an English poet, political thinker and civil servant under Oliver Cromwell . Milton dealt with personal guilt in his poetry and prose works, expressing his pursuit of freedom and self-determination, and addressing the pressing matters and political turmoil of his time. He wrote in English, Latin and Italian and became world famous during his lifetime. The early Enlightenment was influential, but mostly controversial because of his resolute advocacy of a republican system of government . His Areopagitica , created under previous censorship , is one of the most important works for freedom of speech and freedom of the press in history. His best-known work is the epic poem Paradise Lost ( Paradise Lost ). To this day, its influence is visible in Anglo-Saxon literature and culture.

Live and act

Childhood, school and studies

John Milton was born in London in 1608 to the composer John Milton (1562–1647) and his wife Sarah Jeffrey. Because of his conversion to Protestantism , his father had been disinherited by his strict, wealthy, Catholic grandfather.

John Milton 1618

John Milton received his education first in the Puritan parental home, where his father prepared him for a study of literature, then at the school of St Paul's School until he was admitted to Christ's College at Cambridge University in 1624 at the age of 15 .

In 1632 he earned a Master of Arts degree from Cambridge University . At this time he had already studied the ancient classics in detail, wrote poems in English and Latin (e.g. Hymn on the Nativity ) and dealt with history and classical literature.

He did not agree with the methods of teaching in schools and universities. In his opinion, they only amounted to mere mechanical training. He turned down a theology course suggested by his father on the grounds that he would never find himself willing to undertake the slave service to sign the articles of the episcopal church.

Youth works

John Milton 1629

After Milton had received a Bachelor of Arts in 1628 and a Master of Arts in 1632 , he left Cambridge to return to his father, who owned a country estate in Horton, Buckinghamshire . There he could pursue his studies further; he was mainly concerned with Shakespeare and his contemporaries, as well as with Ben Jonson, and then wrote Comus , an allegorical masquerade, as fashionable at the English court since James I. In Comus the victory of chastity over temptation is depicted in a young girl who is swarmed by the exuberant spirits of the night, Comus and his entourage.

In addition, the Arcades , the Elegy Lycidas , a lament for the death of a friend, and the famous poems L'Allegro ("The Merry") and Il Penseroso ("The Thoughtful"), both first published in the Juvenile poems in 1645 , were written. in which Milton's emotional attitude at the time is shown most clearly. In the Allegro he sings of the beauty of literature and the earth, the English forests, hunting and rural festivals. But in Penseroso he rates the happiness of thought, the unity of soul and world in philosophical contemplation, allegory or tragedy and hymn-like chants that lead him to a vision higher .

to travel

Milton was already famous when he set out on a trip to the continent in 1638, shaken by the death of his mother. In Paris he met Hugo Grotius . He then stayed for several years in Italy ( Florence , Rome ), where he studied the Italian epics . In Geneva he visited his best friend Charles Diodati († 1638).

The outbreak of the English Civil War prompted him to return to London. There he was successful in teaching, using different methods than he had experienced himself.

Political treatises

His participation in the political and church-critical movement begins with five journalistic treatises ( Prelatical episcopacy , Reason of church etc., 1641 and 1642), in which Milton turned against the tendencies in the Anglican Church , by tightening the episcopal power to Catholicism again approximate. The Donation of Constantine , which had established the temporal power and wealth of the papal church, called Milton with Dante's words, as "the real can of Pandora ". In these writings, he described Catholicism as a political party that strives for priestly tyranny under the guise of a church. "Teaching and exercising freedom were the theme of his life."


At the age of 35, John Milton married 16-year-old Mary Powel, daughter of a country gentry in Oxfordshire. The marriage, which was burdened by the different life concepts, had four children, Anne (* July 7, 1646), Mary (* October 25, 1648), John (March 16, 1651 - June 1652) and Deborah (* May 2, 1648) 1652). Mary passed away three days after the last delivery. Robert Graves wrote a novel about this marriage ( Wife to Mr. Milton ).

On November 12, 1656, Milton married Katherine Woodcock. She died on February 3, 1658 after giving birth to a daughter (Katherine) four months earlier, but who also died on March 17 after the death of her mother.

John Milton married a third time on February 24, 1663. The marriage to Elizabeth Mynshull (* 1638) lasted until Milton's death and was, according to John Aubrey , happy despite the age difference.

Between 1643 and 1645, Milton wrote four papers on divorce . He did not want to leave the decision about the separation of a marriage to the courts, but to the man's conscience . About the same time Milton, busy raising the children of some friends, was writing a book on education in which he called for free, truly classical, youth education .

The Areopagitica

In the meantime the Presbyterians had gained the upper hand in the " long parliament "; but they showed the same intolerance as the fallen bishops and decided in 1643 that a license had to be obtained for the printing of every writing. Milton then addressed the Areopagitica (1644) to parliament , with which he became one of the pioneers of freedom of the press .

For the next four years (1645 to 1649) Milton worked on a "History of England in the Anglo-Saxon Era". When the Republican Party came to power, the ruling committee of Parliament appointed him secretary to the Council of State for Latin copies.

The debate surrounding the execution of Charles I.

In this important and influential position, which he held during the entire duration of the republic, he published in 1649 the work The tenure of kings and magistrates , an unconditional justification for the execution of Charles I on the basis of natural law, which had begun before the king's death .

In return, the bishop wrote of Exeter Scripture Eikon basilike, the effigy of His sacred majesty in his loneliness and anguish . The anonymously published book, which he gave for a posthumous work by the king, was soon distributed in 47 editions throughout the country and became very popular. Milton responded with his writing Eikonoklastes (" Iconoclasts "), in which he revealed the author's name and scourged the monarch 's breach of the oath. This public misconduct is more important than private virtues.

Thereupon the learned Claudius Salmasius wrote the Defensio regia , which Milton responded to in 1651 with the Defensio pro populo anglicano , a pamphlet commissioned by the Republican Council of State. In it he defends freedom as an innate right of peoples and gives the nation the right to punish a treacherous tyrant. This book found widespread use as a Puritan political manifesto. In Paris and Toulouse the pamphlet was burned by the executioner , while the republican parliament rewarded the author with £ 1,000 . Milton cites as precedents for the execution of Karl Stuart's Osiris , Saul , David and the uprising of the Schmalkaldic League against Charles V ; The main focus of his argument lies in his natural law doctrine, according to which freedom is innate in man.

His eyesight, which had deteriorated early on, was now completely extinguished.

Some smaller pamphlets for a free republic Upon the model of common Wealth , Ready and easy Way to establish a free common Wealth followed.


Milton's political writings served the politics of Cromwell , whose hope was to "tie the entire Protestant name together in fraternal unity" and to oppose this collective power to the House of Habsburg . After the fall of the Republic and the restoration of the Stuarts , Milton faced severe persecution from the royalists and Presbyterians. On June 16, 1660, the Defensio was publicly burned by the executioner, and it was only thanks to the intercession of influential friends that the already arrested poet was released.

Milton now withdrew into private life. His first wife died in 1652. On November 12, 1656 he married Katharine Woodcock, who also died a little later. The third marriage that the 50-year-old blind man and three children entered into after being persuaded by his friends, was just as unhappy as the first. In addition, his fortune was lost in the civil war and his house was destroyed in the great fire of London in 1666 .

Milton dictates Paradise Lost to his daughters , painting by Eugène Ferdinand Victor Delacroix (around 1826)

Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained

Milton devoted himself again to poetry and realized his youth plan to create a great epic. For his most famous work Paradise Lost ( Paradise Lost ) he found only in 1667, two years after its completion, a publisher. This important work of religious poetry, which deals with the struggle between heaven and hell, God and the devil, has had a considerable influence on literature and other areas of culture up to the present day. An example of this is the 1997 film On behalf of the Devil. John Milton succeeded so well in portraying the figure of Satan in comparison to the relatively pale, sober elaboration of the Person of God that the poet William Blake made John Milton ignorant as a “partisan of Satan "Referred to:" he was a true poet and of the Devil's party without knowing it "(in: The Marriage of Heaven and Hell , 1793). The contemporary founders of " Satanism " invoked Milton . In the 18th century, Paradise Lost was reprinted almost twice as many as Shakespeare's plays. For the German-speaking world, the famous translation by Johann Jakob Bodmer (1732) is of particular importance; Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock's The Messiah is almost unthinkable without the example of Paradise Lost . In the 20th century, John Milton (or his poetry) was both sharply attacked ( TS Eliot 1936, later relativized) and euphorically defended ( CS Lewis 1942, for example ).

Milton later wrote Paradise Regained , which is about the temptation of Christ in the desert, but it reached far fewer readers. One of his last works is the tragedy Samson Agonistes (1671), written in Greek , which served as the basis for Handel's oratorio Samson . Finally he published a few more prose writings, but they remained meaningless.

Until his death, Milton worked, with the help of secretaries, on his last Latin work, De Doctrina Christiana , subtitled A Polemic on Christian Doctrine, written solely from the scriptures . In the preface, he stated, “Most of the writers who have addressed this subject ... have only added marginal notes, briefly referring to chapter and verse, to the important biblical justification of all they teach. I have, however, endeavored to fill my pages abundantly with countless quotations from all parts of the scriptures. ”And so Milton actually quotes directly or indirectly from the Bible over 9,000 times.

He died in poverty on November 8, 1674 in Bunhill near London and was buried in the church of St Giles-without-Cripplegate ; In 1737 a memorial was erected to him in Westminster Abbey .

The Irish freethinker of the early Enlightenment John Toland published the complete edition of his works, including a biography, in London in 1699, which in turn gave rise to hostility.

Reception history

For the reception of Milton's literary work, see above ( Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained ). Milton's life and thought were deeply shaped by the at times highly dramatic political, denominational and social conflicts in England in the 17th century. His writings intervene in these struggles and seek to steer them in what he believes is the right direction. In Milton “all tolerance motives of the time are embodied in great unity. For him, freedom of conscience was the original Christian and Protestant principle and the basis of all civil liberties. That is why he called for a complete separation of church and state beyond Cromwell. ”In the 18th century, the radical Whigs (Commonwealthmen) party invoked in particular Milton's and John Locke's liberal theories of the state . Although the party had few supporters in England, its views were extremely popular in the North American colonies. The American settlers were encouraged by the radical Whig ideology to break away from the motherland, of which they felt "enslaved", and to declare it independent. This gave Milton's political thinking posthumously a world-historical dimension.

Milton is considered to be one of the forerunners of modern vegetarianism ; A book on the subject states: “How much influence vegetarianism really had within the revolutionary movements of the time is difficult to determine. It is of course known that the author of Paradise Lost , the 'great revolutionary poet John Milton, pioneer of leftist Puritanism', was a vegetarian - Let herbs to them a bloodless basquet give, he wrote in one of his earliest writings - unfortunately but many of the radicals from this time died in anonymity ”.

About an episode from Milton's life Gaspare Spontini wrote an Opéra comique named after Milton as "Fait historique" in 1804 .

Overview of the works


  • John Milton: Poetical Works. Edited by Douglas Bush, London 1966 (Oxford University Press).
  • John Milton: Paradise Lost. Works, English - German (contains: 1. The lost paradise 2. The regained paradise 3. The fiefdom of kings and authorities (earlier versions: “The claim to rule ...”) 4. Areopagitica 5. Samson. 6. Others Poems), trans. by Bernhard Schuhmann, Alexander Schmidt, Immanuel Schmidt, Hermann Ulrich u. a. Zweiausendeins Frankfurt & Buch 2000, Affoltern (Wunderkammer license, Neu-Isenburg) 2008, ISBN 978-3-86150-706-2 .
  • Elfriede Walesca Tielsch (Ed. & Introduction): JM and the origin of modern liberalism. Study edition Gerstenberg, Hildesheim 1980, ISBN 3-8067-0819-3 (contains: Areopagitica; The claim to rule ...; JM's defense of the people of England (= "Pro populo anglicano defensio" 1651); The straight and easy way to constitution ...; Von true religion, heresy, schism, tolerance (= "Of true religion ..." 1673). Also list: The main political-religious works (chronological, 4 pages); curriculum vitae (3 pages); literature (5 pages) Wilhelm Bernhardi 1874–1879 (with note from the translator)).


  • L'allegro (created around 1632, first printed in 1645)
  • Il penseroso (created around 1632, first printed in 1645)
  • Lycidas (published in 1637, first printed in 1645).


  • Comus (first performance 1634)
  • Samson Agonistes (1671; German Simson the Fighter )



  • Of reformation in England (1641)
  • The doctrine and discipline of divorce (1643)
  • Areopagitica. A speech for the liberty of unlicensed printing, to the Parliament of England (1644)
    • German "Speech for the freedom of the press ", u. a. in: In defense of freedom. Social Philosophical Treatises Translated by Klaus Udo Szudra. Reclam, Leipzig 1987, ISBN 3-379-00190-2 , pp. 7-66. Timeline, epilogue of the translation, note, bibliography (also in general on the English Revol., Including a number of works in Russian); Name and subject register. It also includes:
      • The right of kings and superiors (The Tenure of Kings and magistrates) 1649 (German: in other titles formulations)
      • On State Violence in church affairs (A treatise of civil power in ecclesiastical causes) 1659
      • The straight and easy path to a free Republic (The ready & easie way to establish a free Commonwealth) 1660
  • Of education (1644, dt. From education )
  • Pro populo anglicano defensio, 1651. German: in the anthology Tielsch 1980.

Individual evidence

  1. Robert Schneebeli: The doctrine and discipline of freedom. On the 400th birthday of the poet and state philosopher JM NZZ , December 6, 2008
  2. ^ Heinrich Bornkamm : Tolerance. In the history of Christianity . In: Religion Past and Present . 3. Edition. tape VI . Mohr Siebeck, 2003, ISBN 3-16-149514-4 , Sp. 942 .
  3. ^ Robert Middlekauff: The Glorious Cause. The American Revolution, 1763-1789 . Revised and Expanded Edition. Oxford University Press, 2005, ISBN 0-19-516247-1 , pp. 51-52, 136-138 .
  4. ^ Matthias Rude: Antispeciesism. The liberation of humans and animals in the animal rights movement and the left . Butterfly publishing house, Stuttgart 2013, ISBN 978-3-89657-670-5 , p. 33 .


  • General German real encyclopedia for the educated classes. Conversations Lexicon. 10th edition. FA Brockhaus, Leipzig 1853
  • Max Lamla, Gertraud Lamla: Election idea, suffrage and election practice in the prose writings of John Milton at the time of the English Revolution (1640-1660). Peter Lang, Frankfurt 1981, ISBN 3-8204-6774-2
  • Anna Beer: Milton: poet, pamphleteer and patriot. Bloomsbury, London 2008, ISBN 978-0-7475-8425-4
  • Marco Frenschkowski : Milton, John. In: BBKL , 5, 1993, pp. 1540-1551
  • Philip Pullman: The hell that burns within us . In: FAZ , December 6, 2008
  • Daniela Kohler: The way from Bodmer's Milton translations to Klopstock and a new aesthetic (especially about Klopstock's "Messiah") In: Zürcher Taschenbuch on the year 2008. ISSN  1661-8173 Ed. Society of Zurich History Friends and State Archives. Sihldruck, Zurich 2008
  • Journal: Milton Quarterly (English) Blackwell Publishing. online since 1967
  • Martin Kuester : “Prudent ambiguities”. On the problem of language and meaning in John Milton's work. Scientific publishing house Trier WVT, 1999
  • John Milton . In: Meyers Konversations-Lexikon . 4th edition. Volume 11, Verlag des Bibliographisches Institut, Leipzig / Vienna 1885–1892, pp. 633-635.

Web links

Commons : John Milton  - album with pictures, videos and audio files
Wikisource: John Milton  - Sources and full texts (English)
Wikisource: John Milton  - Sources and full texts