WHY SHOULD WE READ MILTON? Well, why not read about him first? His life story beats the plot of the best scene-stealers written—a privileged life, three wives, civil war, spoiled children, prison time, blindness, and a burning God-given desire to write poetry.
1608. John was born into a devoted Puritan family of some wealth with a home in London and one in the country. His father was an established scrivener and published musician. His mother Sara was known for her benevolence and kindness. They hired tutors and found John excelled at most anything, especially dealing with words and language. He wrote poetry for fun and eventually at age 12 studied at St. Paul's, an elite school in London. In 1625, Milton attended Christ's College, Cambridge, at the old age of 16. However, his good looks interfered with his social skills, and he found his quick temper wasn't a help either. What to do? Argue with your favorite tutor, throw a punch, and get expelled for a time. At least that's one story. Apparently, John was also scornful of the other young men and their carousing, let alone what he felt was inferior curriculum. But in spite of this, Milton's first serious poems were written. Here is one of his simplest written at the age of 15 in the English of his day. No formal sonnet but an easy flow of couplets.
A Paraphrase on Psalm 114
When the blest seed of Terah's faithfull Son,
After long toil their liberty had won,
And past from Pharian fields to Canaan Land,
Led by the strength of the Almighties hand,
Jehovah's wonders were in Israel shown, [ 5 ]
His praise and glory was in Israel known.
That saw the troubl'd Sea, and shivering fled,
And sought to hide his froth-becurled head
Low in the earth, Jordans clear streams recoil,
As a faint host that hath receiv'd the foil. [ 10 ]
The high, huge-bellied Mountains skip like Rams
Amongst their Ews, the little Hills like Lambs.
Why fled the Ocean? And why skipt the Mountains?
Why turned Jordan toward his Crystall Fountains?
Shake earth, and at the presence be agast [ 15 ]
Of him that ever was, and ay shall last,
That glassy flouds from rugged rocks can crush,
And make soft rills from the fiery flint-stones gush.
Once he graduated with his M.A. in 1632, he spent six full years at his family's country home, at their expense, mind you, studying all subjects and writing in preparation for his vocation. He knew he would be a poet.
But we can't all live off of our parents until age 30, so Milton left on a European grand tour for over a year, spending months in Italy, even meeting with Galileo. But the return home to London was disheartening. Not only was England in civil war but Milton had to find work for the first time ever. Does tutoring your own nephews count?
*My thanks to Douglas Bush for his notes and thoughts on Milton's life and to Katherine Fletcher of Christ's College, Cambridge, and her lively biography written for http://darknessvisible.christs.cam.ac.uk/miltons_life.html.