John Milton’s masque, Comus, is performed for the Earl of Bridgewater, who had been named lord president of Wales and the Marches. The drama was the 25-year-old Milton’s first stab at the themes of the struggle between good and evil, which he explored in his masterpiece Paradise Lost.
The indulged son of a prosperous London businessman, Milton excelled at languages in grammar school and at Christ’s College, Cambridge, where he took a bachelor’s degree and then a master’s. He decided to continue his education on his own, spending six years reading every major work of literature in several languages. He published Comus in 1637, several years after its first performance. The same year, he published an elegy for a college classmate, Lycidas. In 1638, he went abroad to continue his studies.
In 1642, Milton married 17-year-old Mary Powell, but she left him a few weeks later. Milton wrote a series of pamphlets arguing for the legalization of divorce based on incompatibility. The idea, however mild it seems today, was scandalous at the time, and Milton experienced a vehement backlash.
Milton’s wife returned to him in 1645, and the pair had three daughters. However, he continued to spout controversial views. He supported the execution of Charles I, he railed against the control of the church by bishops, and he upheld the institution of Cromwell’s Commonwealth, of which he became secretary of foreign languages.
In 1651, he lost his sight but fulfilled his government duties with the help of assistants, including poet Andrew Marvell. His wife died the following year. He remarried in 1656, but his second wife died in childbirth. Four years later, the Commonwealth was overthrown, and Milton went to jail. The blind man lost his position and property, but was saved from a lifetime in prison by the intervention of loyal friends.
Milton remarried in 1663. Blind, impoverished, and jobless, he began to dictate his poem Paradise Lost to his family. When the poem was ready for publication, he sold it for 10 pounds. Once printed, the poem was immediately hailed as a masterpiece of the English language. In 1671, he wrote Paradise Regained, followed by Samson Agonistes. He died in 1674.