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John Milton (1608-1674)

Son of a music composer, Milton was educated at St Paul's School and Christ's College, Cambridge. He began writing poetry at university, where he gained the nickname of "the Lady of Christ's" which he attributed to "a certain niceness of nature". On the Morning of Christ's Nativity, composed the Christmas of the year in which he received his first degree, marked the abandoning of his previous frivolous style. From then on Milton sought to instruct his audience in a style later considered "Miltonic". His central moral belief is in individual responsibility: only when one is allowed choice can one become a moral being.

After Lycidas in 1637, Milton wrote only a few minor poems until twenty years later when he began Paradise Lost. During this period he travelled in Italy, meeting Galileo amongst others. He was also increasingly involved in campaigning for civil, religious and domestic liberties, which prompted his publication of various pamphlets, including his notorious defences of divorce. In the mid 1640s he became aware of his deteriorating vision, which would leave him completely blind by 1652.

In 1649 Milton was employed as Latin Secretary to the Council of State, and was helped in his duties by the poet Marvell. After the Restoration of Charles II in 1660, his publication of the republican The Ready and Easy Way to Establish a Free Commonwealth in the same year resulted in his arrest, at which Marvell intervened on his behalf. Perhaps not surprisingly, Milton chose this time to return to poetry; his late poems being composed in his head and dictated to his daughters, two nephews and various paid and unpaid helpers.

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