From his sixteenth year Milton was educated at the university of Cambridge. At the age of twenty four he returned to the beautiful residence of his father, at Horton in Buckinghamshire, where he spent five years in the study of the Greek and Latin classics, and in the composition of his most beautiful minor poetry — the Allegro and Penseroso, Comus and Lycidas. In 1638 he travelled in France and Italy, and after an absence of more than a year, returned to his native country, then agitated by the differences between the king and parliament, and on the eve of the most violent civil commotions. Milton took part with the Puritans and the people of England, and applied his mind to the contest in his controversial writings with a power and vigour that have seldom been equalled.
He was Latin Secretary to Cromwell till the death of the Protector in 1658. At the restoration of Charles II. in 1660, he was obliged to conceal himself, till the publication of the act of oblivion released him from danger. After this period, being retired from all public stations, he devoted himself exclusively to study, and especially to the composition of Paradise Lost, the idea of which he had conceived as early as 1642. It was finished in 1665.
The foundation of Milton's blindness was laid by his imprudent and incessant devotion to study in his earlier years; but this misfortune was immediately occasioned in 1651 by too great intensity of application in the performance of his Defensio Populi Anglicani, or Defence of the People of England.
Milton's life, in connexion with the age in which he lived, forms one of the very finest subjects of biographical and historical study. In the unjust and defective representation of Dr Johnson, his character appears exceedingly unamiable; in reality it was noble and delightful; obscured, indeed, by blemishes, but these not in themselves great, and rather reflected upon him by the circumstances in which he was placed, than growing out of the natural temper and constitution of his mind. His disposition was generous, equable, and cheerful, into whatever occasional harshness it might have been betrayed in the midst of external tumult and discord. And there was an habitual loftiness, a dignity, a virtuous severity in his spirit, and a grandeur in all his conceptions, which invests his general character with the attribute most peculiar to his poetry — that of the sublime.
Milton has diffused the spirit of piety over his writings, and he seems himself to have lived, "As ever in his great Taskmaster's eye." To what degree of eminence or perfection he cultivated the influence of religion in his own bosom it is not in the power of human ignorance to decide. Dr. Johnson observes that "Milton who appears to have had full conviction of the truth of Christianity, and to have regarded the Holy Scriptures with the profoundest veneration, and to have been untainted with any heretical peculiarity of opinion, and to have lived in a confirmed belief of the immediate and occasional agency of Providence, yet grew old without any visible worship. In the distribution of his hours there was no hour of prayer either solitary or with his household; omitting public prayers, he omitted all." Who, but Omniscience, can speak thus? A more humble and charitable judgment would certainly hesitate an assent to this sweeping conclusion in regard to so excellent a man. Indeed, the rash critic himself afterwards adds, "That he lived without prayer can hardly be affirmed; his studies and meditations were a continual prayer."
To remark upon Milton's poetical excellence seems almost needless. Yet it is undoubtedly true that the great masterpiece of his genius is praised where it is not read; and by many, perhaps by most readers, he is even now known and admired only in some of his exquisite minor productions. Paradise Lost must be studied, before its sublimity and beauty can be truly relished. Whatever delightful qualities can be found in his shorter productions, their exceeding richness and melody of language, their sweetness of fancy, their picturesque epithets, their elegance, their paintings of natural scenery, are here combined in an equal or superior degree; while we meet also with a vivid grandeur of description which is sometimes almost terrific, magnificent imagery, intense energy both in thought and expression, perfect conception and delineation of character, genuine pathos, learning, stateliness, moral sublimity, and all in a style elaborate and powerful, a blank verse, though occasionally harsh and inverted, yet superior in harmony and variety to that of every other poet.
If the shorter poetry of Milton be often perused with attention till the mind is imbued with its spirit, the pupil may then come to the study of Paradise Lost, with the greatest benefit and delight.