1608 December 9. Born into the family of John Milton Sr., and his wife Sara, at the family home, “The Spreadeagle,” Bread St., London. The large house is within several blocks of St. Paul’s Cathedral and in a well-to-do mercantile neighborhood. John Milton Sr. is a prosperous scrivener-legal aide, real-estate agent, notary, preparer of documents, money-lender; he is also active as a composer of liturgical music.
1615 November 24. Brother Christopher born.
1618 Portrait painted by Cornelius Janssen (Leo Miller, Milton’s Portraits 7-9). Milton is tutored at home by Thomas Young, a Scottish Presbyterian who will come to be identified with the Puritan movement. Young will present Milton with a Hebrew Bible and will trade Latin and Greek verses with him.
1620 (?) Enters St. Paul’s School, under the high master Alexander Gill. After Milton’s death, his brother Christopher told John Aubrey “When he [John] went to Schoole, when he was very young he studied very hard and sate-up very late, commonly till 12 or one a clock at night, & his father ordered the mayde to sitt-up for him, and in those years composed many Copies of Verses: which might well become a riper age” (Darbishire 2, 10). After the age of twelve, the young Milton “rarely retired to bed from my studies until midnight” (Columbia 8.119). His best friend at St. Paul’s is Charles Diodati, son of a prominent Protestant Italian doctor. Charles will matriculate at Trinity College, Oxford, February 7, 1623. Milton is also instituting a long-term friendship with Alexander Gill the younger, an under-usher at St. Paul’s and about ten years older than Milton.
1625 February 12. Admitted to Christ’s College, Cambridge, under the tutor William Chappell.
1626 Dispute with Chappell causes him to be sent home to London or “rusticated” temporarily. While in London, Milton informs Charles Diodati that he is seeing classical comedies and tragedies performed. When he returns to Cambridge, he is put under the tutor Nathaniel Tovey.
1627 June 11. Lends his future father-in-law, Richard Powell, £500.
1629 Expresses dissatisfaction with the curriculum at Cambridge in his first Prolusion: Milton avows that possibly half his audience of fellow students “bear[s] malice” toward him (French 1:150). Portrait painted (?). Milton sees, and later derides, dramatic performances at Cambridge.
December 25. “On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity” composed before dawn.
1630 Charles Diodati attends the University of Geneva, Switzerland. Edward King, the subject of Milton’s “Lycidas,” is given a fellowship at Christ’s College.
1631 February. Christopher Milton matriculates at Christ’s College, under Milton’s tutor Nathaniel Tovey.
July 3. Takes M. A. cum laude at Cambridge. He has evidently been on much better terms with fellow students, since his poems on the death of Hobson indicate convivial behavior (Parker I: 94) and his last college exercise, the Oratorio pro Arte (“oration on behalf of art”), discusses, among other things, the value of worthy and congenial friendship.
Retires to family homes at Hammersmith, near London, and at Horton, in Buckinghamshire, to study for five years, at his father’s expense, occasionally visiting London “for the purposes of learning something new in mathematics or music, in which I then delighted” (Columbia 8.120).
November. Christopher Milton admitted to Inner Temple, London, to study law.
1634 September 29. Comus performed as part of the ceremonies honoring the installation of Thomas Egerton, the Lord President of Wales, at Ludlow Castle, on the border of England and Wales. Sir Henry Wotton, Provost of Eton College, will be given a copy of the masque to read.
Trades Greek and Latin verses with Alexander Gill the younger.
1637 Comus is published, anonymously at first, with the aid of the court composer Henry Lawes, who has written the music.
April 3. Mother Sara dies and is buried at Horton.
September 2. Writes to Charles Diodati that he is finishing an intense and “great period of my studies” (French 1:343).
November. “Lycidas” is written (Edward King, Milton’s fellow pupil at Christ’s College, in whose memory the poem was written, had drowned August 10).
1638 “Lycidas” is published in the Cambridge memorial volume for Edward King, Justa Edwardo King Naufrago (“In memory of Edward King, shipwrecked”).
April (?) 1638
early 1639 Tours Western Europe, passing quickly through France, then concentrating on Florence, Siena, Rome, Venice, Milan, and Naples, and returning by way of Geneva. Milton meets Hugo Grotius, the famous Dutch legal scholar and poet, possibly in May, 1638, in Paris.
1638 Well received at meetings of the Academia Svogliati in Florence, where he reads his own Latin verse. Presumably Milton goes to Vallombrosa, a monastery near Florence. He also probably visits Galileo, then under house arrest by the Inquisition in Florence. He attends an operatic performance at the palace of Cardinal Francesco Barberini, nephew to the Pope, in Rome, and visits the Vatican Library. He meets the biographer of Torquato Tasso, Giovanni Batista, Marquis of Manso, in Naples. Milton will write “Mansus” in his honor.
A planned trip to Greece is canceled, apparently because of rumors of impending civil war in England. Milton learns of Charles Diodati’s death (Charles was buried in London August 27), possibly while visiting Giovanni Diodati, theologian and uncle of Charles, in Geneva.
1639-1640 Settles in London, instituting a kind of private secondary school or academy, at first with his nephews Edward and John Phillips, later with aristocratic children as well.
Charles I invades Scotland (1639). The Long Parliament is convened (1640).
1640 June 30. Repossesses Richard Powell’s lands in Wheatly for non-payment of debt.
1641 May. Of Reformation published.
June or July. Of Prelatical Episcopacy published.
July. Animadversions published.
1642 Milton was intimately familiar with classical drama, and the poems ‘On Shakespeare’ and ‘L’Allegro’ show his admiration for contemporary drama. However, he was no playwright. In his early twenties, he wrote two entertainments: ‘Arcades’ and the masque now known as Comus. While they were written for performance, they are not dramatic in the way we’d think of, for example, a Shakespeare play being. Entertainments were performed in aristocratic homes or at the royal court, usually by members of a noble family, for a private audience. They involved great spectacle – lavish costumes and scenery, music and dancing – but the exercise was a symbolic expression of social order, often presenting moral values, not a dramatic exploration of story or character. Comus has a more developed story than many masques (which, like Milton’s epic, centres around temptation), but is also highly philosophical and discursive in its presentation. In the years after Paradise Lost was published, Milton also wrote a tragedy in the Greek style, Samson Agonistes, but in his introduction he made it clear that it was never intended for the stage.
By 1642, Milton had written a detailed outline for a play, a tragedy, called Adam Unparadised. The outline has much in common with Paradise Lost and is considered a stage in the development of Milton’s thinking on the great epic. However, when Milton came to compose Paradise Lost in the late 1650s, he had abandoned the idea of presenting the story as a play. There are a number of reasons why this might have been. In the Renaissance there were strict rules about the presentation of religious subjects in the theatre: you could not speak God’s name or represent him in person on the stage, neither could you act out Biblical scenes. Also, in 1642, after much Puritan protest against their licentiousness, the theatres were closed, and not re-opened until the Restoration of the monarchy in 1660. If we compare the outline of the play to the epic, we see that in Adam Unparadised the focus was much more on the human story and less on the celestial or demonic. It is possible that having decided against writing a play Milton then expanded his subject, but he could also have abandoned the dramatic mode on realizing that he couldn’t fit these larger sequences into a play.
1642 February. The Reason for Church Government published.
May (?). Marries Mary Powell. She leaves him about a month later, to return to the Powell family household near Oxford, and does not return. The Powell family declare on the side of the Royalists.
August. The Civil War begins.
October. Milton’s brother Christopher begins service on the side of the Royalists while in residence in the city of Reading (Parker 1: 231). Royalist army maintains its headquarters in Oxford. Battle of Edgehill October 23.
1643 August 1. Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce published.
1644 February 2. Second, augmented edition of Doctrine and Discipline published.
June 5. Of Education published.
July 2. Battle of Marston Moor (turning point in the War).
August 6. The Judgement of Martin Bucer Concerning Divorce published.
November 23. Areopagitica published.
1645 March 4. Tetrachordon and Colasterion published.
Poems of Mr. John Milton, Both English and Latin…1645 registered for publication.
Makes plans to marry the daughter of a Dr. Davis, “a very Handsome and Witty Gentlewoman” (Darbishire 66). Mary Powell returns.
June 14. Battle of Naseby (end of Charles I’s hopes to achieve a military settlement).
1646 The entire Powell family, having been ejected from Oxford as Royalist when the forces of King Charles were no longer in ascendancy there, moves in with Milton.
January 2. Poems…1645 published.
July 29. Daughter Anne born.
1647 January 1. Father-in-law Richard Powell dies.
March. John Milton, Sr. dies, leaving a “moderate estate” (Darbishire 32-33) including the Bread St. house.
April 21. Writes to his Italian friend Carlo Dati, lamenting that he is surrounded by uncongenial people (Yale 2: 762-73).
The Milton family, after the Powell relatives have returned to Oxford, moves from the larger house in the Barbican to a smaller one in High Holborn, near Lincoln’s Inn Fields, a quiet neighborhood.
1648 October 25. Daughter Mary born.
1649 January 30. Public execution of King Charles I: “Milton was probably there” (Parker 1:345).
February 13. Tenure of Kings and Magistrates published.
March. Invited to become Secretary for the Foreign Tongues (a post dealing with diplomatic correspondence, usually in Latin) by the Council of State. Milton was appointed Secretary March 15, at £288 per year, and ordered to answer Eikon Basilike, the book supposedly written by Charles I on the eve of his execution, which depicts the King’s image (icon) as that of a martyr.
May 11. Salmasius’s Defensio Regia (“defense of kingship”) appears.
May 16. Observations on the Articles of Peace published.
October 6. Eikonoklastes (“breaker of icons”) published.
November 19. Given lodgings for official work at Scotland Yard.
1650 Ordered by Council of State to answer Salmasius.
1651 February 24. Defensio pro populo Anglicano (“defense of the English people,” to vindicate the actions of the English on the Continent) published.
March 16. Son John born.
Milton family moves to “a pretty Garden-house in Petty-France in Westminster … opening into St. James’s Park” (Darbishire 71).
1652 February. Becomes totally blind towards the end of the month, most likely as the result of glaucoma.
May 2. Daughter Deborah born.
May 5. Wife Mary dies, probably from complications following childbirth.
June 16 (?). Son John dies under somewhat mysterious circumstances (may have been neglected by a nurse; see Parker, Milton 1: 412).
August. Pierre du Moulin’s regii Sanguinis Clamor (“the outcry of the King’s blood”) published, in reply to Milton’s Defensio. Milton is ordered to reply to it by the Council of State.
1653 February 20. Writes a letter recommending that Andrew Marvell, because of his abilities as translator and scholar, become his assistant.
September 3. Salmasius dies.
1654 May 30. Defensio Secunda published.
1655 Franciscus Junius publishes Caedmonis monachi paraphrasis poetica Genesios ac praecipuarum sacrae paginae historiarum, abhinc annos M.LXX. Anglo-Saxonice conscripta, et nunc primum edita
“The poetical paraphrase by the monk Caedmon of Genesis and the other principal pages of sacred history, composed in Anglo-Saxon 1070 years ago, and now edited for the first time”.
The first edition of the important poetical codex now designated Bodleian Library MS Junius 11. While it is no longer believed that Caedmon wrote the poems it contains, it is still commonly known as the Caedmon manuscript.
1655 Allowed to use the services of an amanuesis to take dictation for him in Secretaryship; translation duties limited. Milton resumes private scholarship, preparing a Latin dictionary and Greek lexicon; possibly he works on De Doctrina Christiana (“On Christia Doctrine”), his summary of his own theological beliefs; possibly works on Paradise Lost. Salary reduced from £288 to £150, but that becomes a pension for life.
August 8. Defensio Pro Se (“defence of himself”) published.
1656 November 12. Marries Katherine Woodcock.
1657 October 19. Daughter Katherine born.
1658 Milton began composition of Paradise Lost. He had first planned the work as early as 1640, intending to write a tragedy titled Adam Unparadised. By 1652 he had become completely blind, probably due to glaucoma. Blindness forced him to compose orally, rendering him entirely reliant upon amanuenses (casual copyists among his friends and family circle) to whom he gave dictation. He composed the poem mostly at night or in the early morning, committing his composition to memory until someone was available to write down his words. He revised as his text was read back to him, so that a day’s work amounted to twenty lines of verse. According to contemporary accounts, when dictating, the poet “sat leaning backward obliquely in an easy chair, with his leg flung over the elbow of it” or “composed lying in bed in the morning.” The only surviving manuscript of Paradise Lost is this 33-page fair copy, written in secretary script by a professional scribe, who probably transcribed patchwork pages of text Milton had dictated to several different amanuenses. This fair copy was corrected by at least five different hands under Milton’s personal direction and became the printer’s copy, used to set the type for the first edition of the book.
1658 February 3. Katherine Woodcock dies.
March 17. Daughter Katherine dies.
September 3. Oliver Cromwell dies.
1659 February 16 (?). A Treatise of Civil Power published.
March 3. Ready and Easy Way To Establish a Free Commonwealth published in its first edition.
Goes into hiding at a friend’s house in Bartholomew Close to escape possible retaliation from Charles II’s loyalists “where he liv’d till the Act of Oblivion [the act pardoning most of those who had abjured Charles I] came forth” (Darbishire 74).
June 16. Parliament looks into the possibility of having Milton arrested.
June 27. The hangman of London burns Defensio pro populo Anglicano and Eikonoklastes publicly.
August. The Likeliest Means to Remove Hirelings out of the Church published.
August (?). Takes a house in Holborn, near Red Lion Fields. Milton moves from there shortly to a house in Jewin Street, in September, in fear for his life (Darbishire 74-75).
October (?). Arrested and imprisoned.
December 15. Released by order of Parliament. On December 17, Andrew Marvell protests in Parliament that Milton’s jail fees (£150) were excessive.
1660 May 30. Restoration of King Charles II.
Revised edition of the Ready and Easy Way.
1662 Begins tutoring Thomas Ellwood, a young Quaker who would mention the circumstances of the publication of Paradise Lost and Paradise Regain’d in his own autobiography.
June (?). Sonnet to Sir Henry Vane published. Vane executed June 14, after eloquently defending the sovereignty of parliament.
1663 February 24. Marries Elizabeth Minshull. Problems arise in the family before and after the marriage. His daughter Mary is said to have wished him dead rather than married, and several of his daughters are said to have conspired to sell some of his books “to the dunghill women” (Parker 1: 586).
The family moves from Jewin Street to “a House in the artillery-walk [a miltiary marching ground] leading to Bunhill Fields.” “here he finisht his noble Poem, and publisht it in the year 1666” (Darbishire 75).
1665 Thomas Ellwood acts as agent, securing a house for Milton in Chalfont St. Giles, Buckinghamshire, to avoid a visitation of the plague in London. (“Milton’s Cottage,” the only residence in which Milton lived that has been preserved, is now open to the public.)
1666 The poet’s father’s house in Bread Street is among those destroyed in the Great Fire of London, which also burns most of the printing houses.
In 1667 John Milton published Paradise Lost, perhaps the greatest long poem in the English language. It was recognised as an extraordinary achievement shortly after it appeared, and has, in the three hundred and fifty years that people have been reading and thinking about it, provoked a great deal of critical debate. Despite its current canonical status, a favourable reception for Paradise Lost in the late seventeenth century was no foregone conclusion, and its reputation has fluctuated surprisingly ever since.
With the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, Milton was out in the cold: as a staunch republican, a supporter of Cromwell and an apologist for the regicide, he was lucky to escape execution for treason. His unorthodox views on various sensitive subjects, including divorce (he was in favour) were well known: Milton was an active writer of political pamphlets as well as a poet, and he had many influential enemies. England in 1667 was reeling from the events of the previous year, when plague and fire had swept the capital, causing a devastation many people thought was divinely inspired; a biblical epic from a blind, grim old controversialist was by no means certain of being sympathetically received, as the poet’s wish that his poem might ‘fit audience find, though few’ (VII.31) perhaps recognises. In spite of this unwelcoming climate, when Paradise Lost appeared, it was hailed as a work of genius, even by Milton’s political opponents. The audience was not few, but was it fit?
1668 Paradise Lost reissued with a new title page, the arguments, and other preliminary matter.
1669 June. Accidence Commenced Grammar published.
1670 Milton’s portrait painted in pastels, then engraved, by William Faithorne.
November (?). History of Britain published, with the Faithorne engraving as frontispiece.
1671 Paradise Regain’d and Samson Agonistes published together. The date of composition of Samson Agonistes is still in dispute.
From the start, this epic poem attracted a number of disobedient readers. One of the first major responses was an adaptation for the stage by John Dryden, The State of Innocence (1671). He sought and received Milton’s permission to put Paradise Lost into rhyme (unconvinced, presumably, by the comments on the ‘troublesome and modern bondage of rhyming’ in the note on the verse), and his version outsold the original until the end of the seventeenth century. Dryden’s political affiliation (he was a royalist) prompted him to play on a crux in Milton’s poem: Satan, who disdains servitude and tries to overturn his monarch, becomes in Dryden’s rewriting an unmistakeable portrait of Oliver Cromwell, the king-killer. He also believed that the fallen angel, and not Adam, was the hero (in the sense of his structural position as the protagonist of the epic), and weighted his adaptation accordingly.
This was not an isolated instance of wishful interpretation. Contemporary readers who thought there was a whiff of sulphur about the unrepentant republican poet were not surprised to find these sentiments in the mouth of the arch-fiend; and there were those who believed that Milton was in fact disowning his previous stance by associating it with Satan. Neither reading does justice to the complexity of Paradise Lost, but this does identify what was to become a recurrent theme in later responses to the poem: the contested interpretation of Satan, its eloquent anti-hero.
1672 May (?). Art of Logic published.
1673 May (?). Of True Religion published.
November (?). Poems, &c. upon Several Occasions …1675 published.
1674 May. Epistolae Familiares (“familiar letters” or “letters to friends”) and Prolusiones (“prolusions,” college exercises) published.
July 6 (?). Second edition of Paradise Lost published, in twelve books, with commendatory poems by “S.B.” and Andrew Marvell.
November. Dies “in a fit of the gout, but with so little pain or emotion that the time of his expiring was not perceived by those in the room” (French 5: 96) at some time between November 8 and November 10.
November 12. Buried near his father in the church of St. Giles, Cripplegate.
Darbishire, Helen, ed. The Early Lives of Milton. London: Constable, 1932.
French, J. Milton. The Life Records of John Milton. 5 vols. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers UP, 1949-58. New York: Gordian P, 1966.
Lindenbaum, Peter. “The Poet in the Marketplace: Milton and Samuel Simmons.” Paper delivered at the Fourth International Milton Symposium, University of British Columbia, Vancouver 4-10 August, 1991.
Miller, Leo. Milton’s Portraits. Special issue of Milton Quarterly (1976).
Parker, William Riley. Milton: A Biography. 2 vols. Oxford: Clarendon, 1968.
Patterson, Frank A., gen. ed. The Works of John Milton. 18 vols. New York: Columbia UP, 1931-38.
Wolfe, Don M., gen ed. Complete Prose Works of John Milton. 8 vols. in 10 Haven, CT: Yale UP, 1953-82.