John Milton (1608-1674) ranks among the greatest poets of the English language. He is best known for the epic poem Paradise Lost (1667), but he also wrote prose works on history, religion, and contemporary politics. Although his academic talents marked him for a career in the Anglican church, Milton turned away from the Church of England at an early age and was a consistent supporter of the Puritan cause. He spent most of his life in academia or as a civil servant working for the Puritan Commonwealth. Many consider him a transitional figure between the Renaissance and the Reformation.
The essence of Milton's work is the theme of human freedom: It is individual choice and decision that bring value to the life given by God. Milton therefore opposed censorship, arguing in Areopagitica (1644) that freedom of expression is the first condition of morality and virtue; no person can be certain he has found the right way unless he can compare it with the multitude of errors in the world and do battle with falsehood. Milton opposed political as well as religious tyranny. This theme of a testing of good by evil, or knowing good by knowing evil, is the thread that ties all of his works together. The idea is most notably worked out in his epic poems, Paradise Lost, Paradise Regained, and Samson Agonistes. In Paradise Regained, for instance, Christ's triumph over Satan is offered as an example of proper moral aspiration. In Areopagitica the theme is revisited:
"Good and evil we know in the field of this World grow up together almost inseparably; and the knowledge of good is so involved and interwoven with the knowledge of evil, and is in so many cunning resemblances hardly to be discerned. . . . He that can apprehend and consider vice with all her baits and seeming pleasures, and yet abstain, and yet distinguish, and yet prefer that which is truly better, he is the true wayfaring Christian." 1
Milton wrote several of his prose works to support the Commonwealth. In addition, he served in several official capacities during its reign. Unlike many of those associated with Cromwell, his life was spared following the Restoration (1660), either because the authorities did not consider the blind poet dangerous or because of the intercession of his friends. Although Milton had completed most of his prose work by this time, the three epic poems for which he is remembered were written during the last fourteen years of his life.
 John Milton, Milton's Prose, in Areopagitica (Oxford University Press, 1937), p. 290. Emphasis added by Pierre Goodrich.
Areopagitica and Other Political Writings of John Milton, ed. John Alvis (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1999). Available from Liberty Fund's online catalog.
John Milton, "The Readie & Easie Way to Establish a Free Commonwealth" (London, 1660) in The Struggle for Sovereignty: Seventeenth-Century English Political Tracts, ed. Joyce Lee Malcolm 2 vols. (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1999), vol. 1, pp. 505-25.
John Milton, Political Writings, ed. Martin Dzelzainis (Cambridge University Press, 1991).
John Milton, Selected Prose, ed. C.A. Patrides (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1974).
Milton, John. Complete Poetry and Selected Prose. New York: Random House, 1952.
Milton, John. The Poetical Works of John Milton. Edited by H.C. Beeching. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1952.
Milton, John. Milton's Prose. Edited by Malcolm W. Wallace. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1937.
Milton, John. Areopagitica and Other Prose Works. New York: E.P. Dutton & Company, 1927.
Milton, John. The Prose Works of John Milton. Translated by George Burnett. London: John Miller, 1809.
Milton, John. The Works of John Milton. London: Bickers & Bush, 1863.
The biographical material about the author originally appeared on The Goodrich Room: Interactive Tour website.
Last modified April 13, 2016