John Milton: a biography

John Milton: a biography
Neil Forsyth
Lion Publishing, 2008, £10.99, Pbk., 256p., ISBN 9780745953106

This is an excellent account of Milton’s life – the author admits there is plenty of material which is unusual for a poet living in the 17th century. Milton was certainly a man of great principle and a complex character. He lived through very turbulent years in the history of Britain including the Civil War and the Restoration when he had to hide for fear of his life. I hadn’t realised that he was a Civil Servant for Oliver Cromwell when his great knowledge of Latin was put to good use.

Milton was born in 1608, into a wealthy family (his father was a money lender). He studied Latin at school and then at Cambridge University and had a great talent for languages: he had command of Latin, Greek, Hebrew, French, Spanish and Italian. Milton’s father wanted him to go into the Church but Milton resisted this as he was disillusioned with the established Church and remained so for the rest of his life. He followed his main inclination and became a poet. Before setting down properly he undertook a Grand Tour of Europe where he made many friends in intellectual circles.

Neil Forsyth covers many influences on Milton’s poetry – a lot of them from the Latin and Greek classics where I found I got a bit lost but that’s due to my ignorance!

He wasn’t surprisingly influenced much by Shakespeare or Spenser. Milton’s main poetical works are Paradise Lost, Paradise Regained and Samson Agonistes. These were all written towards the end of his life which is all the more impressive when you learn he became completely blind in middle age so had to rely on scribes taking down his words which is perhaps why his poems are so powerful.

Milton was far from being only a poet he also wrote many tracts notably in reply to the Royalist Eikonklastes. He also wrote Areopagitica defending the freedom of the press and about divorce and just a few years ago his arguments were used in the French parliament – Milton believed in the freedom of the individual.

Milton was married three times, his first two wives died in childbirth and two of his children died in infancy so his life was certainly touched with tragedy. I found it sad to learn that his relationship with his three surviving daughters remained distant.

This biography of Milton is not partisan, and is very readable and certainly leaves you with a greater understanding of the man.

Contributed by: Anne MacRitchie, BSc, who works for NHS Grampian as an Information Assistant and serves as CLIS Regional Representative for Scotland.