[[This episode joins Paradise Lost’s author John Milton–from Writer’s Almanac sometime last week (www.writersalmanac.publicradio.org). Don’t give up on that Latin, never know when it might come in handy!]]
It was a tumultuous time, and Milton responded by putting his poetry on hold and becoming a pamphleteer. He believed that the Commonwealth might give way to a new form of democracy, and he became an advocate for greater civil rights and religious liberty. He argued for the right to divorce, and he made one of the first comprehensive arguments for the freedom of the press.
By the time he was in his 40s, Milton had taken a job as a Latin secretary for the government, translating letters into Latin for international correspondence. He was struggling to raise his three daughters, and the eyesight that had been growing steadily worse his whole life had finally failed completely.
And things only got worse for Milton. In 1660, the Commonwealth dissolved, King Charles II was restored to the throne, and all the leaders of the Commonwealth were hanged. That summer, a warrant was issued for Milton’s arrest, but he was kept in hiding by his friends. His pamphlets were publicly burned. He was eventually pardoned, but he became a kind of outcast, and people said that God had struck him blind for his sins against the king.
He was devastated by the restoration of the monarchy, but without a job, he finally had time to devote to his poetry again. So he started writing an epic poem in English that he’d long been thinking about, centered on the biblical story of Adam and Eve and humanity’s fall from grace.
Because of his blindness, he wrote the poem by composing the verses in his head at night, and in the morning he would recite them to anyone near by that would take dictation. And when Paradise Lost appeared in print in 1667, Milton’s contemporaries were astonished. People couldn't believe that a man generally thought of as a washed-up, outcast political hack had written the greatest work of literature in a generation. Milton was 58 years old, and he’d finally become a famous poet.