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  More than 5000 entries on the history, culture and life of Britain (published in 1993 by Macmillan, now out of print)

More than 5000 entries on the history, culture and life of Britain (published in 1993 by Macmillan, now out of print)
John Milton

The greatest epic poet in the English language, whose life and work fall into three distinct sections. In the first, up to 1640, he was the brilliant Cambridge scholar, known as 'the Lady of Christ's' (his college) because he was so fastidious. While still at the university, he wrote three medium-length poems revealing his precocious skills – On the Morning of Christ's Nativity (1629) and the contrasted pair in praise of the merry and the contemplative, L'Allegro and Il Penseroso (1631). Comus, a masque, was written for performance at Ludlow Castle in Shropshire in 1634, and *Lycidas was published in 1638.

After leaving Cambridge, Milton spent his time reading and travelling. But this changed abruptly in the second period of his life (1640–60), when the great issues of the day diverted his energies into a stream of polemical prose pamphlets in the cause of parliament, puritanism and liberty. The best known are Eikonoklastes (1649), defending the regicides against the powerful impact of *Eikon Basilike; and Areopagitica (1644), his great argument for freedom of the press, provoked by parliament imposing a censorship no less strenuous than the king's. From 1649 Milton had an active role in government, as Latin secretary to *Cromwell's council; he was responsible for foreign corrrespondence, Latin being the international language.

A succession of personal tragedies had meanwhile darkened his life. In 1642 an unsuitable marriage, to a woman half his age, was rapidly followed by her abandoning him and returning home; in response he published four controversial pamphlets (1643–5) advocating divorce. His wife later returned and they had three daughters before she died in 1652. By then his long-failing eyesight had entirely gone, prompting the stoical sonnet On His Blindness which begins 'When I consider how my light is spent' and ends 'They also serve who only stand and wait'. A second marriage, in 1656, lasted only two years before his wife died.

The final phase began in 1660 with the *Restoration. Milton's political record meant that his life was now in danger, but he was allowed to retire unmolested; and in retirement he produced his greatest works. His daughters, now young adults, read to him and took their turns with others in writing down the soaring blank verse which he carried in his head, usually composed during the previous night. He had begun dictating *Paradise Lost in 1658; it was complete by 1663.

In that year Milton married for the third time, and in 1665 he and his family fled from London's *Great Plague to settle in a cottage at Chalfont St Giles in Buckinghamshire, today a museum. Their cottage economy survived not without family friction but almost without money (the publication of Paradise Lost brought only £10). But the work continued. Paradise Regained and *Samson Agonistes were published together in 1671, just three years before his death.

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