John Milton, poet and writer, was born in London on 9 December 1608, a son of John Milton (d.1647) and his wife Sara (Jeffrey). He was educated at St Paul's School and Christ's College, Cambridge. The earlier part of his life was spent in study. His strong Puritan bias led him to support Oliver Cromwell and he became Latin Secretary to the Council of the Commonwealth. He published many controversial writings on political, social and religious subjects. In 1642 he married Mary Powell (four children). His second wife was Katherine Woodcock and his third was Elizabeth Minshull. After the Restoration of Charles II in 1660 Milton went into hiding for a while. Now totally blind he devoted himself to his greatest works Paradise Lost, Paradise Re-gained and Samson Agonistes. He died on the night of 9/10 November 1674 and was buried beside his father in St Giles church, Cripplegate. There is a bust and tablet in that church.
It was not until 1737 that a memorial was finally erected for him in Poets' Corner in Westminster Abbey, on the wall of the eastern aisle, by William Benson. This consists of a mural monument of white and grey marble by the sculptor John Michael Rysbrack, with a bust of the poet and a relief of a lyre, palm branches and a snake with an apple in its mouth. Below the bust is the name MILTON. The bust had been made by Rysbrack some years earlier and had two owners (Thomas Serjeant and Sir Joseph Eyles) before Benson acquired it and had it put within the new surround. The inscription, which actually says more about the donor than the poet, reads:
"In the year of Our Lord Christ one thousand seven hundred thirty and seven this bust of the author of PARADISE LOST was placed here by William Benson Esquire one of the two Auditors of the Imprests to his Majesty King George the second, formerly Surveyor General of the Works to his Majesty King George the first. Rysbrack was the statuary who cut it".
In his 1742 history of the Abbey J.Crull quotes the verses by John Dryden, usually given below Milton's picture in Paradise Lost, which were not inscribed on the monument as people expected they would be: "Three poets, in three distant ages born, Greece, Italy, and England did adorn: the first [Homer] in loftiness of thought surpass'd; the next [Virgil] in majesty; in both the last [Milton]: the force of nature could no further go; to make a third [Milton], she join'd the former two."
Crull goes on to say that he thought Benson (1682-1754) was more interested in perpetuating his own name and the posts he held. He was a son of Sir William Benson, an iron merchant of Swedish descent and was a Member of Parliament. In 1718 he became Surveyor to the King, succeeding Sir Christopher Wren, but the appointment only lasted a year and was called "the most disastrous episode in the whole history of the royal works".
Milton often worshipped in St Margaret's Westminster when he was a civil servant and his wife Katherine and his infant daughter (also Katherine) were buried in the churchyard (no marker). A memorial window, made by Messrs Clayton & Bell, showing scenes from the poet's life, was erected to him there in 1888. Matthew Arnold gave the address at the unveiling and the inscription, with lines by John Greenleaf Whittier, reads:
"To the glory of God and in memory of the immortal poet, John Milton, whose wife and child lie buried here, this window is dedicated by George Childs of Philadelphia MDCCCLXXXVIII. "The new world honours him whose lofty plea for England's freedom make her own more sure, whose song, immortal as its theme, shall be their common freehold while both worlds endure".
A photograph of the monument and window can be purchased from Westminster Abbey Library.
Oxford Dictionary of National Biography 2004
Westminster Abbey:designs for Poets' Corner... by J.Physick in Church Monuments vol.IV, 1989
Michael Rysbrack... by Katherine Eustace, 1982
Milton's Cottage at Chalfont St Giles, Buckinghamshire is open to visitors www.miltonscottage.org
www.historyofparliamentonline.org for Benson
Click on the images to enlarge