Citizen Milton
Milton Signature

Bodleian Library Bodleian Library, Oxford
Dec 2007 - Apr 2008

Text by Sharon Achinstein

Site designed by Richard Rowley

1. An Education for Liberty: "To the encrease of learning and civility every where"

John Milton was born in London on December 9th 1608 to a prosperous middle-class family of Puritan leanings, and was by age ten an avid reader and poet. Though his father intended him for the ministry, young Milton saw his destiny lay with social reform and poetry.

Political literacy was the goal of education in the Renaissance. Immersed in classical rhetoric, philosophy, history and literature, and very early on mastering original languages French, Italian, Hebrew, Latin and Greek, Milton took the Ancients as the source of wisdom and political counsel. His ideas of liberty, virtue and artistic engagement derived from his reading in the Classics, and his training at St. Paul's School, London, and then at Christ's College, Cambridge, prepared him for a life of reading, writing and political engagement. Writing a tract on education in 1644 Milton hoped to shape leaders for public life by broadening education to academies in every city and abolishing universities. Milton's curriculum would include languages, literature, law, rhetoric, history, ethics, economics, and physical education, in order to give students "fair opportunities" to reveal their special talents, so they might "mightily redound to the good of this nation."

Portrait Head of John Milton

This plaster of Paris cast is after a work attributed to Edward Pierce, taken from life in 1651.
Ashmolean Museum, Oxford

Euripidis tragoediae quae extant (1602)

The ancient Greek tragedian Euripides was a major influence on Milton's ideals of a politically engaged author. Admiring his gifts for tragedy, especially his defense of the weak and oppressed, Milton quoted Euripides extensively in his work. This Renaissance copy of Euripides' plays, purchased by Milton in 1634 and bearing his autograph signature, shows Milton working through the text as a scholar and philologist. As can be seen from his pen marks, Milton closely engaged with the text, correcting errors introduced by Renaissance editors.

Portrait of John Milton, aged 21, unknown artist
Malone portrait of Milton

[Full size image]
Malone 302

John Milton, 'On Shakespeare' in Mr William Shakespeares comedies, histories, and tragedies (1632)

Latin was the common European language for poetry. However Milton chose to write his major works in his native tongue, seeking glory for British literature. His admiration of Shakespeare comes through in his early work, and in this homage printed in the Second Folio edition of Shakespeare's plays (1632).
Arch. G c.9.

Top image: Milton's autograph signature on flyleaf of Euripidis tragoediae quae extant (1602)