The poet John Milton lived from 1608 to 1674, this year being the four hundredth anniversary of his birth (December 9). He was also a controversialist, a Londoner by birth and death, who after education at St. Paul’s School, and Christ’s College, Cambridge, abandoned his intention of ordination in the Church of England because of the ‘tyrrany’ of Archbishop Laud. From his father’s estates in Buckinghamshire he devoted himself to literature. His writing and poetry are very fine, and his fame deserved.
Lycidas was a sharp satire on the corrupt clergy, containing the lines
Enow [enough] of such as, for their bellies sake,
Creep, and intrude, and climb into the fold!
Of other care they little reckoning make
Than how to scramble at the shearers’ feast,
And shove away the worthy hidden guest.
He quotes Hugh Latimer’s famous line later in the poem,
The hungry sheep look up, and are not fed.
He became a Presbyterian and wrote The Reason of Church Government Urged Against Prelacy. He later sharply criticized the Presbyterian members of the Long Parliament, who attempted,
To force our consciences that Christ set free.
And ride us with a Classic Hierarchy,
Taught ye by mere A.S. and Rutherford?
. . . ending his poem,
When they shall read this clearly in your charge:
New Presbyter is but old Priest writ large.
He left a treatise published after his death called De Doctrina Christiana in which he denied the Trinity being co-equal, and Creation ex nihilo, or from nothing, saying that matter is inherent in God.
He was a supporter of the execution of the King, writing a masterly defence of Britain in 1651 which was acclaimed across Europe. He admired Cromwell and accepted the government post of Secretary of Foreign Tongues, but disagreed with Cromwell later over the disestablishment of the Church. ‘Foreign tongues’, by the way, mainly involved Latin, the then language of diplomacy. He was imprisoned under the restored monarchy for a while as he worked all-out to stop the King’s return, having written earlier,
Cromwell, our chief of men, who through a cloud
Not of war only, but detractions rude,
Guided by faith and matchless fortitude,
To peace and truth thy glorious way has ploughed,
And on the neck of crowned Fortune proud
Hast reared God’s trophies, and His work pursued.
. . . and on the earlier execution of the king,
There can be slain
No sacrifice to God more acceptable
Than an unjust and wicked king.
He wrote admirable sonnets which echo down the centuries. One was,
On the Late Massacre in Piedmont
Avenge, O Lord, Thy slaughtered saints, whose bones
Lie scattered on the Alpine mountains cold;
Even them who kept Thy truth so pure of old,
When all our fathers worshipped stocks and stones,
Forget not: in Thy book record their groans
Who were Thy sheep, and in their ancient fold
Slain by the bloody Piemontese, that rolled
Mother with infant down the rocks. Their moans
The vales redoubled to the hills, and they
To heaven. Their martyred blood and ashes sow
O’er all the Italian fields, where still doth sway
The triple Tyrant; that from these may grow
A hundredfold, who having learned Thy way,
Early may fly the Babylonian woe.
He lost his eyesight in 1652 and wrote in a way that has helped thousands since,
On his Blindness
When I consider how my light is spent
Ere half my days in this dark world and wide,
And that one talent which is death to hide
Lodged with me useless, though my soul more bent
To serve therewith my Maker, and present
My true account, lest He returning chide,
‘Doth God extract day-labour, light denied?’
I fondly ask. But Patience, to prevent
That murmur, soon replies, ‘God doth not need
Either man’s work or His own gifts. Who best
Bear His mild yoke, they serve Him best. His state
Is kingly: thousands at His bidding speed,
And post o’er land and ocean without rest;
They also serve who only stand and wait.
The impression this long-haired Puritan leaves on us, is of admiration for the sovereign way God distributes his wonderful gifts, and of the way he sees fit to withdraw the gift of sight at the height of Milton’s great powers. Here is a man who was known of God but, it seems, never brought every thought into captivity to Christ. We could hardly judge another for that if we are honest.
It is not difficult to see why few will pay tribute on this his four hundredth anniversary. Blessed be God who gave us this genius, this individualist, this no-party man.
Taken with permission from the Gospel Magazine, September-October, 2008, of which Mr Malcolm is Editor.
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