Culture and Recreation


Why is Milton important to English literature?

Except for Shakespeare, the works of John Milton (1608–1674) have been the subject of more commentary than those of any other English writer. Milton is considered one of only a few writers to take their place in “the small circle of great epic writers.” According to Norton Anthology of English Literature, in Milton’s writings “two tremendous intellectual and social movements come to a head.” The movements referred to are the Renaissance and the Reformation. Scholars point to Milton’s use of classical references and the rich tapestry of his works as being Renaissance in nature, while his “earnest and individually minded Christianity” are resonant of the Reformation. For example, in his masterpiece Paradise Lost (1667), Milton, like poets Homer and Virgil before him, takes on humankind’s entire experience: war, love, religion, hell, heaven, and the cosmos. But rather than having Adam triumph over evil through an act of heroism, he “accepts the burden of worldly existence, and triumphs over his guilt by admitting it and repenting it.”

In addition to his famous epics, Milton wrote sonnets and other short poems, including “On Shakespeare,” “L’Allegro,” “Il Penseroso,” and “Lycidas.” His writings also include political discourse, chief of which is the essay Areopagitica (1644). Among the ideas that Milton championed were the limitation of the monarchy, dethroning of bishops, freedom of speech, and the institution of divorce. One commentator mused that “the guarantees of freedom in the United States Constitution owe more to Milton’s Areopagitica than to John Locke.”


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