16 January 2016

Anglican spirituality and poetry:
(3): John Milton (1608-1674)

Oliver Cromwell (left) and John Milton (right) in the central pair of windows in the apse in Emmanuel Church, Cambridge (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

Patrick Comerford

In this tutorial group, we are looking at poets who have had an interesting influence on Anglican piety, prayer, theology and self-understanding. In November, we looked at TS Eliot, and in December we looked at John Betjeman.

This morning we are looking at John Milton (1608-1674), who once considered ordination as an Anglican priest, later became one of the most vocal Puritans, and in his final days he was marginalised even from the successors of the Puritans, the Congregationalists, Presbyterians and Baptists.

Despite that alienation at the end of his life, Milton is celebrated in a stained-glass window in the apse Emmanuel Church, Cambridge, standing alongside Oliver Cromwell and other leading Puritans associated with Cambridge, which makes him, I suppose, the nearest thing to a Puritan saint.

Milton was an English poet and polemicist, and a leading Puritan figure in 17th century England. He wrote in English, but also in Latin, Greek, and Italian, at a time of religious and political upheaval, and is best known for his epic poem Paradise Lost.

Milton’s poetry and prose reflect his deep personal religious beliefs and convictions, his passion for freedom and self-determination, and the political issues of his day.

John Milton was born in Bread Street, London, on 9 December 1608, the son of a composer John Milton (1562-1647), who moved to London around 1583 after being disinherited by his devout Catholic father, Richard Milton, for his Protestant views.

As a child, his private tutor was Thomas Young, a Scottish Presbyterian who introduced him to religious radicalism. Milton then went to Saint Paul’s School, London, and then from 1625 Christ’s College, Cambridge. He graduated BA in 1629, and in preparation for ordination as an Anglican priest he stayed on to receive his MA in 1632.

At Cambridge, Milton earned a reputation for poetic skill and general erudition, but was often alienated from his peers and university life. There he wrote a number of his well-known shorter English poems, including ‘On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity,’ his ‘Epitaph on the admirable Dramatick Poet, W. Shakespeare,’ and his first poems to appear in print, L’Allegro and Il Penseroso.

After receiving his MA in 1632, Milton retired to Hammersmith, and also lived at Horton in Berkshire, where he continued to write poetry and to study. From May 1638 until July or August 1639, he went on a “Grand Tour” of France and Italy.

In Florence, he met the astronomer Galileo, who was under house arrest, in Rome, he dined the English College, and went to the opera with Cardinal Barberini. He also spent time in Geneva, Pisa, Naples, Lucca, Bologna, Ferrara and Venice, before returning through Paris and Calais to England.

Back in England, he began writing prose Puritan tracts against episcopacy, and he vigorously attacked the High Church party and the Archbishop of Canterbury, William Laud.

In 1642, at the age of 35, he married 16-year-old Mary Powell, but after a mere month, she returned to her family and did not return until 1645. Her desertion prompted Milton to publish a series of pamphlets arguing for the legality and morality of divorce, followed by his attacks on press censorship.

Samuel Cooper’s portrait of Oliver Cromwell in the hall at Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

With the parliamentary victory in the English Civil War, Milton defended popular government and the regicide. In 1649, he became Cromwell’s Secretary for Foreign Tongues. In 1652, he published his Latin defence of the English People, Defensio pro Populo Anglicano, also known as the First Defence, and his Sonnet 16 in praise of “Cromwell, our chief of men.”

The English Republic collapsed following Cromwell’s death in 1658, but Milton stubbornly clung to his political and religious beliefs, attacking the concept of a state Church and arguing for a non-monarchical government.

After the Restoration in 1660, Milton, who was then completely blind, was deprived of all public office. Milton went into hiding, a warrant was issued for his arrest and his writings were burnt. He re-emerged after a general pardon was issued, but was arrested and briefly imprisoned.

In 1663, Milton married his third wife, Elizabeth (Betty) Minshull, then aged 24. He spent the rest of his life living quietly in London, only retiring to Milton’s Cottage in Chalfont St Giles during the Great Plague of London.

In these final years, he wrote most of his major works of poetry, and several minor prose works. He died of kidney failure on 8 November 1674 and was buried in the church of Saint Giles Cripplegate, Fore Street, London. When he died, Milton he was impoverished and on the margins of English intellectual life. But he was famous throughout Europe and unrepentant for his political choices.

Milton’s magnum opus, the blank-verse epic poem Paradise Lost was written Milton when he was blind and impoverished Milton between 1658 and 1664. Being blind, he dictated his verse to a series of aides. It has been argued that the poem reflects his personal despair at the failure of the Revolution, yet affirms an ultimate optimism in human potential.

The sequel, Paradise Regained, was published alongside the tragedy Samson Agonistes in 1671. Just before his death in 1674, he also supervised a second edition of Paradise Lost.

Milton’s theology and legacy

Snow blankets the First Court in Christ’s College, Cambridge, where John Milton was a student (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Milton held many unorthodox theological views. He rejected the Trinity in favour of Arianism, believing the Son was subordinate to the Father. He was sympathetic to Socinianism, and in 1650 he was involved in the publication of the Racovian Catechism, based on a non-Trinitarian creed.

After the Restoration, he stood apart from all sects, although apparently he found the Quakers most congenial. He never went to any religious services in his later years. When a servant brought back accounts of sermons from nonconformist meetings, Milton became so sarcastic that the man at last gave up his place.

Samuel Johnson praised Paradise Lost as “a poem which ... with respect to design may claim the first place, and with respect to performance, the second, among the productions of the human mind.”

Johnson’s praise is true praise indeed, for the Lichfield writer was a committed Tory and the recipient of royal patronage, and he dismissed Milton for his politics, describing him as an “acrimonious and surly republican.” He wrote

“It appears in all his writings that he had the usual concomitant of great abilities, a lofty and steady confidence in himself, perhaps not without some contempt of others; for scarcely any man ever wrote so much, and praised so few. Of his praise he was very frugal; as he set its value high, and considered his mention of a name as a security against the waste of time, and a certain preservative from oblivion.”

William Blake considered Milton the major English poet. William Hayley called him the “greatest English author” (1796).

Later, Milton had a great impact on the Romantic movement in England, and Wordsworth called upon him to rise from the dead and aid in returning England to its former glory.

John Milton’s ‘On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity’

The Great Gate of Christ’s College, Cambridge, where Milton was a student in 1629 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

John Milton’s poem ‘On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity,’ was written while he was a 21-year-old at Christ’s College, Cambridge. Although it was written in 1629, it was not published until 1645, when it appeared as the first poem in the Poems of Mr John Milton.

Milton wrote this ode in December 1629, having celebrating celebrated his 21st birthday a few days earlier. Earlier that year, he had graduated BA at Cambridge, where he had been an undergraduate at Christ’s College, where I have stayed in the past and where I have preached and lectured.

At the time Milton wrote ‘On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity’ in Cambridge, his Puritan contemporaries were stepping up their opposition to the celebration of Christmas Day. But, with Christmas Day approaching in December 1629, and conscious of both his own birthday and his birth, Milton, who was still at Christ’s College, was moved to write this ode about Christ’s birth.

Although the ode was the first poem in his 1645 collection, this was not the first poem he had written, for he wrote many of his Latin and Greek poems at an earlier time. Yet this ode often serves as an introduction to Milton’s poetry.

This is one of a set of poems that celebrates important Christian events: Christ’s birth, the feast of the Circumcision, and Good Friday. These poems place Milton alongside other English poets of the 17th century, including George Herbert, John Donne and Richard Crashaw. At the same time, however, it also reflects the origins of his opposition to Archbishop William Laud and his supporters within the Church of England.

The poem describes Christ’s Incarnation and his overthrow of earthly and pagan powers, and also connects Christ’s Incarnation with his Crucifixion, for God becomes human in Christ at his Nativity to redeem fallen humanity, and humanity is redeemed in Christ’s sacrifice at the Crucifixion.

Milton also connects the Nativity with the creation of the world, a theme that he expands later in Book VII of Paradise Lost. Like the other two poems of the set, and like other poems at the time, the ode describes a narrator within the poem and experiencing the Nativity.

Thomas Corns says this poem is “Milton’s first manifestation of poetic genius and, qualitatively,” and he puts it among his most significant poetic works – even before Paradise Lost. He also claims that the ode “rises in many ways above the rather commonplace achievements of Milton’s other devotional poems and stands out from the mass of other early Stuart poems about Christmas.”

The first complete setting of this ode was undertaken in 1928 by the Cambridge composer Cyril Rootham, with a setting for soli, chorus, semi-chorus and orchestra. Later, portions of the ode were set by Vaughan Williams in 1954, as part of the text of his Christmas cantata, Hodie.

On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity, John Milton


On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity
This is the month, and this the happy morn
Wherein the Son of Heav’n’s eternal King,
Of wedded Maid, and Virgin Mother born,
Our great redemption from above did bring;
For so the holy sages once did sing,
That he our deadly forfeit should release,
And with his Father work us a perpetual peace.


That glorious Form, that Light unsufferable,
And that far-beaming blaze of Majesty,
Wherewith he wont at Heav’n’s high council-table,
To sit the midst of Trinal Unity,
He laid aside, and here with us to be,
Forsook the courts of everlasting day,
And chose with us a darksome house of mortal clay.


Say Heav’nly Muse, shall not thy sacred vein
Afford a present to the Infant God?
Hast thou no verse, no hymn, or solemn strain,
To welcome him to this his new abode,
Now while the heav’n, by the Sun’s team untrod,
Hath took no print of the approaching light,
And all the spangled host keep watch in squadrons bright?


See how from far upon the eastern road
The star-led wizards haste with odours sweet:
O run, prevent them with thy humble ode,
And lay it lowly at his blessed feet;
Have thou the honour first thy Lord to greet,
And join thy voice unto the angel quire,
From out his secret altar touched with hallowed fire.

(Revd Canon Professor) Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism, Liturgy and Church History, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This essay was prepared as supplemental notes for a presentation in a tutorial group with MTh students on 16 January 2016.

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