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This section deals with the erudite English poet John Milton and his most famous work ‘Paradise Lost’.
John Milton is called ‘Man of Letters’ who was also a civil servant under Oliver Cromwell for the Commonwealth of England. His works reflect his deep and erudite nature and thoughts about contemporary political situation. It also shows his eminence in Greek, Latin, English and Italian.
John Milton is considered to be “the greatest English author” by William Hayley’s 1796 biography. On 9th December, 1608, Milton was born on Bread street London. His parents were John Milton and Sarah Jeffrey. He begins his education in St. Paul’s School with the course on Greek, Latin languages. Later he took admission in Christ’s College, Cambridge and on 3rd July, 1632, obtained Master of Arts degree. As a student Milton was a hard working student. He was known for his poetic skills and intelligence. There he befriended Edward King and Roger Williams who was Anglo-American dissident and theologian. Later he composed ‘Lycidas’ in memory of Edward King. He was called the “Lady of Christ’s” because of his delicate manner and long hair. In Cambridge he wrote some of his well-known English poems like “On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity”, and others such as “L’Allegro”, and “Il Penseroso”. He undertook six-years of private study of Theology, Philosophy, History, Politics, Literature, and Sciencefrom 1635 at Horton, in Berkshire and continued to write during this period of his study. He wrote ‘Arcades’, ‘Comus’ during this period which were performed in 1632 and 1634.
Milton had been enriched through extensive travelling also. In May 1638, he went to France and Italy and returned in 1639. During this period he met many famous intellectuals like diplomat Henry Wotton, John Scudamore, Hugo Grotius, Galileo. While in Rome, he came across the intellectuals of Roman society and gradually met the English Catholics such as the poet Patrick Cary, theologian Henry Holden, due to a dinner party given by the English College. In 1639, Milton had to return to England due to the Civil War. During that period England was experiencing the problems which had been caused by the Bishop’s Wars which gave birth to a larger political conflict through-out Scotland, Ireland, England and led the country to Civil War. Milton started writing Prose, essays against the Episcopal Polity for the sake of the Puritans and the Parliament. With the essays like ‘Of Reformation touching Church Discipline in England’, ‘Of Prelatical Episcopacy’, ‘The Reason of Church-Government Urged against Prelaty’, he attacked the Archbishop of Canterbury, William Laud, who was also the leader of the High Church party of England. His job as a private schoolmaster and his meeting with the educational reformer Samuel Hartlib enabled him to write an article regarding the reformation of national universities in 1644, entitled ‘Of Education’. In June, 1642, he got married to 16 year old Mary Powell but due to the incompatibilities of the relationship she deserted him and returned to her family which led him to write a series of pamphlets regarding the morality and legality of divorce. In 1643, Milton entered a vicious argument with the authorities regarding those pamphlets which prompted him to write ‘Areopagitica’ on the subject of the freedom of press.
While the Parliament became victorious in the Civil War, Milton wrote defensive essays like ‘The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates’ concerning the Republican principles, represented by the Commonwealth. He was appointed the Secretary of the Foreign Tongues by the Council of State in March 1649 due to his deep knowledge and reputation. The job included writing propaganda also. He wrote ‘Eikonoklastes’ meaning “the image breaker” in October, 1649 as an attack against the ‘EikonBasilike’ which depicted Charles I as a Christian martyr. A month after this, Charles II published an essay to protect the image of monarchy, entitled ‘DefensioRegia pro Carolo Primo’ composed by the famous humanist Claudius Salmasius. As the result of the demand of the Council of State, Milton composed another essay to support the English people, entitled, ‘Defensio pro PopuloAnglicano’ and in 1654 he published another essay on the same subject entitled, ‘DefensioSecunda’ praising the contemporary Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell. Unfortunately Milton became completely bling by 1654 as the result of Glaucoma most probably which led him to seek help for writing, from others like the poet Andrew Marvell. Cromwell’s death in 1658 forced the English Republic to collapse but Milton wasn’t ready to let go of his belief and continued to publish several articles in defence of the Republicans, like ‘A Treatise of Civil Power’, ‘A letter to a Friend, Concerning the Ruptures of the Commonwealth’, ‘The Ready and Easy Way to Establishing a Free Commonwealth’ and so on. In 1660, Milton had to spend his life in hiding as the result of the Restoration but was arrested and imprisoned for a short time period.
In 1663, on 24th February Milton married 24 year old Elizabeth Minshull and spent his remaining days in Chalfont, St. Giles. On 8th November, 1674, he died of kidney failure.
‘Paradise Lost’ is an epic poem divided into 12 books written by 17th century English poet John Milton which describes the story of the ‘Fall of Man’, ‘The Expulsion of Adam and Eve’, ‘The Expulsion of Satan and his follower Angels from Heaven’. This poem in Blank verse written between 1658 to 1664 is considered to be the magnum opus of Milton’s work who was completely blind at that time. Apart from the narrative about Adam and Eve this poem also describes Satan’s rebellion and the building of his army against God in Hell along with his followers like Beelzebub, Mammon and the war between Heaven and Hell. This poem allegorically also ponders upon the issue of Free Will. Each book began with an argument which stated the purpose or the theme like justifying “..the ways of God to Men”. Like an epic Milton began the poem “in medias res” with an invocation to the Muse. The poem begins with Satan’s awakening in hell and his establishing a council in Pandemonium. Gradually Satan tempts Eve to eat the forbidden fruit and disobeying God which led Adam and Eve to be expelled from the Garden of Eden. Satan and his followers gradually were transformed in snakes. The epic ends with Adam and Eve’s expulsion by the archangel Michael who gives them a vision of the birth of Jesus who acts as the saviour of the mankind.
This poem deals with the issues like Marriage, Idolatry, Free Will, Christian values.
Satan’s character has been portrayed as a figure from the Greek tragedies, suffering as a result of his ‘hubris’. His rebellion nevertheless seems to be an attempt to break the pre-existing rules for the sake of his own Free Will which can also be seen as reflection of Milton’s free thinking nature.
Praises for ‘Paradise Lost’ vary from being an excellent work, depicting Milton’s power to astonish, according to Samuel Johnson, to William Blake’s calling him a true poet of Devil’s party. However, ‘Paradise Lost’ is also important as it portrays the casualties of having Free Will against the will of the authority.
‘Paradise Lost’ inspired many literary and art works too which include the illustrations of William Blake, Gustave Dore, John Martin and many more. Modern day painters like Salvador Dali, John Fuseli and so on.
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