John Milton was born on December 9, 1608, around the time Shakespeare began writing his romance plays (Cymbeline, The Winter's Tale, The Tempest) and John Smith established his colony at Jamestown. Milton's father was a scrivener and, perhaps more importantly, a devout Puritan, who had been disinherited by his Roman Catholic family when he turned Protestant. In April 1625, just after the accession of Charles I, he matriculated at Christ's College, Cambridge. During these years, Milton considered entering the ministry, but his poetic ambitions always seemed to take precedence over his ministerial aspirations.
Milton composed his early verse in Latin, in the fashion of a classically educated person. As soon as his third year at Cambridge, however, he expressed his desire to abandon such fashionable poetry in order to write in his native tongue. Unlike the learned classicists of his day, who imitated Greek and Latin versification, Milton sought to rehabilitate the English poetic tradition by establishing it as an extension or flowering of the classical tradition. He saw himself as a poet whose lineage extended, through the Romans, back to the Greeks. Like Homer and Virgil before him, Milton would be the epic poet of the English nation.
The poetic vocation to which Milton was heir is both nationalistic and religious in character. The epic poet chronicles the religious history of a people; he plays the role of prophet-historian. Hence, as Milton wrote in a letter to Charles Diodati, "the bard is sacred to the gods; he is their priest, and both his heart and lips mysteriously breathe the indwelling Jove." A sense of religiosity and patriotism drive Milton's work. On the one hand, he felt that he could best serve God by following his vocation as a poet. His poetry would, on the other hand, serve England by putting before it noble and religious ideas in the highest poetic form. In other words, Milton sought to write poetry which, if not directly or overtly didactic, would serve to teach delightfully. The body of work emerging from these twin impulses - one religious, the other political -witnesses his development as (or into) a Christian poet and a national bard. Finally, it is in Paradise Lost that Milton harmonizes his two voices as a poet and becomes the Christian singer, as it were, of epic English poems.
It should be noted, then, that in Paradise Lost Milton was not only justifying God's ways to humans in general; he was justifying His ways to the English people between 1640 and 1660. That is, he was telling them why they had failed to establish the good society by deposing the king, and why they had welcomed back the monarchy. Like Adam and Eve, they had failed through their own weaknesses, their own lack of faith, their own passions and greed, their own sin. God was not to blame for humanity's expulsion from Eden, nor was He to blame for the trials and corruption that befell England during the time of the Commonwealth under Oliver Cromwell. The failure of the Puritan revolution was tantamount, for Milton, to the people's failure to govern themselves according to the will of God, rather than of a royal despot. England had had the opportunity to become an instrument of God's plan, but ultimately failed to realize itself as the New Israel. Paradise Lost was more than a work of art. Indeed, it was a moral and political treatise, a poetic explanation for the course that English history had taken.
Milton began Paradise Lost in 1658 and finished in 1667. He wrote very little of the poem in his own hand, for he was blind throughout much of the project. Instead, Milton would dictate the poem to an amanuensis, who would read it back to him so that he could make necessary revisions. Milton's daughters later described their father being like a cow ready for milking, pacing about his room until the amanuensis arrived to "unburden" him of the verse he had stored in his mind.
Milton claimed to have dreamed much of Paradise Lost through the nighttime agency of angelic muses. Besides lending itself to mythologization, his blindness accounts for at least one troubling aspect of the poem: its occasional inconsistencies of plot. Because he could not read the poem back to himself, Milton had to rely on his memory of previous events in the narrative, which sometimes proved faulty.
Putting its infrequent (and certainly minor) plot defects aside, Paradise Lost is nothing short of a poetic masterpiece. Along with Shakespeare's plays, Milton's Paradise Lost is the most influential poem in English literature as well as being a basis for or prooftext of modern poetic theory.