400 Years with John Milton

December 9, 2008 is the 400th anniversary of English poet John Milton’s birthday. Born in 1608, Milton wrote the epic poem Paradise Lost and had an enormous impact on English literature. Explore some of Milton’s work firsthand, read a biography of this influential man, or check out some fiction inspired by him.

By John Milton

Paradise Lost book jacket

John Milton’s epic poem, Paradise Lost, is considered by many to be the greatest in the English language. Originally published in 1667, this poem depicts the biblical story of the war between God and Satan and the fall of Adam and Eve.

Part of the Everyman Library Pocket Poets series, Milton: Poems contains a concise selection of his work, including sonnets and parts of Comus and Samson Agonistes.

At over 600 pages, The Portable Milton edited by Douglas Bush reprints a large portion of Milton’s work. It contains his epics Paradise Lost, Paradise Regained, and Samson Agonistes, as well as sonnets, prose works, and early poems.

About Milton & his work

 Poet, Pamphleteer, and Patriot book jacket

A recent biography by Anna Beer, Milton: Poet, Pamphleteer, and Patriot, examines Milton’s complete life from his childhood to his politics and writing. Beer also discusses his personal life, which included three marriages, and places this monumental literary figure in historical and cultural context.

Eden Renewed: The Public and Private Life of John Milton by Peter Levi draws on earlier scholarship to discuss Milton’s life and extensive writings with an opinionated and entertaining style.

For a concise examination of Milton’s work, try John Milton: A Short Introduction by Roy Flannagan. This brief book is organized chronologically and covers Milton’s major works of poetry and prose.

Fiction inspired by Milton

Sporting with Amaryllis book jacket

Peter Ackroyd imagines a history for John Milton that could have happened (but didn’t) in the novel, Milton in America. Milton – blind and middle-aged – flees England to go to America in 1660. The ship crashes and Milton ends up in Puritan colony where over time he becomes more intolerant and repressive, leading to war.

Novelist Paul West creates a fictional and allegorical tale of John Milton as a young man and student at Cambridge in Sporting with Amaryllis. On holiday, Milton meets a woman who becomes his muse, sexually and creatively, affecting him for the rest of his life.

His Dark Materials, a trilogy of fantasy novels by Philip Pullman that includes The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife, and The Amber Spyglass, is in part a retelling and reinterpretation of Paradise Lost by Milton. Two children wander between parallel universes that are populated with daemons, witches, armored bears, and angels and engage in an epic battle.