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SONNET II. ON HIS HAVING ARRIVED AT THE AGE OF TWENTY-THREE.
Milton wrote this Sonnet at or about the moment when Time had "stolen on his wing" the "three-and-twentieth year" of his life; and that was on the 9th of December 1631. He was then at Cambridge, a B. A. of three years' standing, and was looking forward to his degree of M.A., and the close of his Cambridge career, in a few months. But the occurrence of the draft of the Sonnet among the Cambridge MSS. adds other illustrative particulars. It occurs there as an insertion into the first of two drafts, in Milton's hand, of a prose letter of some length, which he sent from Horton, or meant to send, to a friend. This friend, whose name we do not know, had remonstrated with Milton on the aimless course of merely studious life he was then leading, and on the impropriety of his continuing it instead of dedicating his talents to the Church or some other active profession. Milton's reply is a courteous acknowledgment of the interest shown by the friend in his behalf, with a defence of his conduct, and a statement of his reasons for being in no hurry to enter the Church. Though all ordinary motives conspired to urge him into that or some other profession, yet a "sacred reverence and religious advisement," a principle of "not taking thought of being late, so it gave advantage to be more fit," had hitherto held him back. "That you may see," he adds, "that I am something suspicious of myself, and do take notice of a certain belatedness in me, I am the bolder to send you some of my nightward thoughts some little while ago, because they come in not altogether unfitly, made up in a Petrarchian stanza, which I told you of." Here, accordingly, follows the Sonnet.
SONNETS III. VII. ; FIVE ITALIAN SONNETS, WITH AN ACCOMPANYING CANZONE.
These Italian pieces, which precede Sonnet II. in Milton's own editions, form a little group by themselves. They relate the story of Milton's love for some Italian lady, beautiful, black-eyed, dark-haired, accomplished, and fascinating by
her grace and her powers of singing. Altogether there is an Italian air about the Sonnets; they breathe of Italy. They have been referred, therefore, by common consent, to the time of Milton's Italian journey (1638-9). Some time and somewhere during that journey, it is supposed, he met the foreign beauty who captivated him. Warton imagines that she may have been the celebrated singer Leonora, whom Milton heard at Rome, and to whom he addressed three pieces of complimentary Latin verse. There is no real ground for the fancy. The lady, whoever she was, is described in the first Sonnet as a native of the Vale of the Reno, in the north of the Papal States between Bologna and Ferrara. Now Milton visited this part of Italy in 1639, or towards the end of his tour, when, after having returned from Naples, and paid second visits, of two months each, to Rome and Florence, he passed through Bologna and Ferrara on his way to Venice and homewards. But the lady, though a Bolognese, may have been met in Venice, or perhaps even in Florence or Rome, before Milton had passed through Bologna. Nay, after all, may not the Italian Sonnets and Canzone have been written in England before the Italian journey, and even a good while before it? May not Milton, some time after he had left Cambridge, have met, in English society, the Bolognese beauty who charmed him? May not his attempts in Italian have been a tribute to her foreign loveliness, and to the sweetness of the language as heard from her lips? In the second of the Sonnets and in the Canzone there are expressions which might be construed in favour of this hypothesis. On the whole, however, it is not so likely as the former. Either way, it has to be added, Italian critics do not find the Italian idiom of the pieces quite perfect.
SONNET VIII. : "WHEN THE ASSAULT WAS INTENDED TO THE CITY."
This Sonnet, the first of those which refer to English public affairs, was written in November 1642, and probably on Saturday the 12th of that month. The Civil War had then begun; and Milton, already known as a vehement AntiEpiscopal pamphleteer and Parliamentarian, was living, with two young nephews whom he was educating, in his house in
Aldersgate Street, a suburban thoroughfare just beyond one of the city gates of London. After some of the first actions of the war, including the indecisive Battle of Edgehill (Oct. 23), the King's army, advancing out of the Midlands, with the King and Prince Rupert present in it, had come as near to London as Hounslow and Brentford, and was threatening a farther march to crush the Londoners and the Parliament at once. They were at their nearest on Saturday the 12th of November; and all that day and the next there was immense excitement in London in expectation of an assault,―chains put up across streets, houses barred, etc. It was not till the evening of the 13th that the citizens were reassured by the retreat of the King's army, which had been checked from a closer advance by a rapid march-out of the London Trained Bands under Essex and Skippon. Milton, we are to fancy, had shared the common alarm. His was one of the houses which, if the Cavaliers had been let loose, it would have given them particular pleasure to sack. Knowing this, the only precaution he takes is, half in jest and yet perhaps with some anxiety, to write a Sonnet addressed to the imaginary Royalist Captain, Colonel, or Knight, who may command the Aldersgate Street sackingparty. "On his dore when ye citty expected an assault" is the original heading of the Sonnet in the copy of it, by an amanuensis, among the Cambridge MSS., as if the Sonnet had actually been pasted or nailed upon the outside of Milton's door. This title was afterwards deleted by Milton himself, and the other title substituted in his own hand; but the Sonnet appeared without any title at all in the editions of 1645 and 1673.
SONNET IX. : TO A LADY.
This Sonnet was left untitled by Milton: the title has been supplied by the editors. The date, almost certainly, was 1644; but it is unknown who the lady was.
SONNET X. : "TO THE LADY MARGARET LEY."
This Sonnet must have been written in 1644 or 1645. The lady addressed was Lady Margaret Ley, one of the daughters of James Ley, first Earl of Marlborough, a noble
man of whom there still remained a respectful recollection in England. Born in 1552, he had been eminent as a lawyer before Queen Elizabeth's death; and, after a long career as Knight, Baronet, and Judge, he had been raised by James to the great office of Lord High Treasurer of England in 1624, and, at the same time, to a peerage as Baron Ley of Ley in Devonshire. The higher dignity of the Earldom of Marlborough was conferred on him by Charles in 1626-7, when he was seventy-four years of age. In 1628 he had been removed from the High Treasurership to the less laborious office of President of the Council, ostensibly on account of his old age, but really, it was thought, because he was not sufficiently compliant with the policy of Charles and Buckingham. He died in March 1628-9, immediately after the dissolution of Charles's Third Parliament; and, as the Sonnet hints, his death was believed to have been hastened by political anxiety at that crisis. He left three sons; the eldest of whom, Henry, succeeded him in the Earldom, but, dying in 1638, transmitted it to his son, James Ley, third Earl of Marlborough, who attained to unusual distinction by his services to the King in the Civil War, and by his various abilities. Among the surviving aunts of this young nobleman, and herself probably somewhat past her youth, was the Lady Margaret of the Sonnet. She had married a Captain Hobson, from the Isle of Wight ; and both she and her husband seem to have taken the Parliamentarian side. They resided in London, and Milton had become acquainted with them. His nephew and biographer Phillips expressly says that, after his desertion by his first wife in 1643, Milton "made it his chief diversion now and then of an evening to visit the Lady Margaret Ley," adding, "This lady, being a woman of great wit and ingenuity, had a particular honour for him, and took much delight in his company, as likewise Captain Hobson, her husband, a very accomplished gentleman." Milton's compliment to her in the Sonnet is that she was a true daughter of her liberal father. Her political and religious opinions probably agreed with Milton's. This is the latest of the Sonnets printed in the edition of 1645, and it is there printed without a heading. The heading is from the Cambridge draft.
SONNETS XI. AND XII.: "ON THE DETRACTION WHICH FOLLOWED UPON MY WRITING CERTAIN TReatises," AND "ON THE SAME."
The Treatises in question were Milton's four Treatises on the subject of Divorce, written between his desertion by his first wife in 1643 and her return to him and reconciliation with him in the autumn of 1645: viz. his Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce, which came first and passed through two editions, and his Judgment of Martin Bucer, his Tetrachordon, and his Colasterion, which followed at intervals, in defence of the original publication. As the opinion broached by Milton in these pamphlets was a new and daring one, it shocked people greatly, and especially the Presbyterians, who were then in the ascendant in Parliament, and all-powerful in the Westminster Assembly. Milton's strange doctrine of Divorce was the subject of talk in society; it was attacked through the press; it even brought him into danger with the public authorities. Milton's two Sonnets are his comments, one half jocose, the other contemptuous and indignant, on this execration with which he found himself surrounded. They were written late in 1645 or early in 1646, when the return of his wife and his reconciliation with her had abated his practical and personal interest in the success of his doctrine, and, though he still retained it, he had made up his mind not to argue it farther through the press. Either they were too late for insertion in the First Edition of his Poems (dated 1645, but published Jan. 2, 1645-6), or he judged it best to exclude them. They appeared, however, in the edition of 1673. There are allusions in the Sonnets, and especially in the first, which require explanation in the Notes.
"ON THE NEW FORCERS OF CONSCIENCE UNDER THE LONG PARLIAMENT."
This is, in reality, a continuation or extension of the vein of the two Divorce Sonnets, and must have been written about the same time, or hardly later than 1647. Partly on account of the outcry against Milton's Divorce Pamphlets among the Presbyterians, partly on more general grounds, he had parted company with them, and had attached himself rather to the party, or combination of parties, of which Crom