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My task, I hear, is done. No call on me
And destitution ;-in a foreign clime,
I have gone through my work of sanctity;
Came; and thus said, as by a voice from Heaven :—
LIFE OF MILTON.
THE POET'S BIRTH-CHARACTER OF THE TIMES-HIS EARLY EDUCATION AND
THE nativity of JOHN MILTON was cast at an epoch when mighty events were brewing in the political institutions of England, and when poetry had been advanced to greater perfection than it has ever since reached, except by his own voice. Spenser had not been dead ten years, and Shakspeare was yet living. In these two all the inexhaustible abundance of poetical thought, imagery, and language was to be found, even if all other fountains had been shut.
It was a stirring time for all minds, in every department. The whole reign of Queen Elizabeth had been full of gallantry, adventure, and great-mindedness;-of all that captivates the imagination, and all that exercises and elevates the understanding and it was as profound in learning as original and brilliant in native faculties of the intellect: but there was the leaven of an unholy and factious spirit mixed with it. The Puritans had been working under-ground and above-ground with incessant industry, intrigue, and talent; nor were the Papists more quiet.
Amid these fermenting elements of discord, grown into a frightful strength under the government of the pusillanimous, indiscreet, and pedantic monarch, James I., was our great poet born on the 9th of December, 1608, in the Parish of Allhallows, Bread Street, London; the son of John Milton, scrivener. His mother's name was Caston, derived, according to the best authority, from a Welsh family.*
Milton's grandfather was under-ranger of the forest of Shotover, near Halton, in Oxfordshire, in which neighbourhood his family was ancient, but had lost their estates in the civil contests of the houses of York and Lancaster. This grandfather was a rigid Papist; and, having disinherited his son for embracing the Protestant faith, though he had educated him at Christ Church, Oxford, this disinherison drove him to the meaner profession of a scrivener.
His father was advanced to more than a middle age when the poet was born, He was eminent for his skill in music.
It is a curious question, how far accidental circumstances operated on the bent and colours of Milton's genius. Probably he was early educated in Puritan principles. His earliest tutor, Young, was a rigid and zealous Puritan; yet there are many traits in his early taste and early poems which make us hesitate as to his boyish attachment to this sect. His ruling love of poetry and classical erudition was not very congenial with it: his love of the theatre, and all feudal and chivalrous magnificence, was alien to it. There are, however, a few passages in his Lycidas concordant with it.
It does not seem to me that there are any traces of these Calvinistic prejudices at the time he visited Italy, unless his friendship to Charles Deodate be a sign of it; which, I think, looking at the poetical addresses to him, it is not. The nature of Milton's lofty temper, which could not endure submission even to college-discipline, is the more probable cause.
As the resistance to monarchical authority grew daily bolder, more obstinate, and more bitter, the chance is that Milton heated his mind, and became more fixed in his native love of liberty and self-government. As he was a reader of the most abstruse books, he entangled himself in the webs of controversy.
* What becomes of the heralds, who always omit what they most ought to tell? Witness the details of pedigree of Spenser and Milton, both of gentilitial descent; and the chief of the former living at that time in great affluence and magnificence at Althorp, allied to all the highest nobility!
When King James died, March 27th, 1625, Milton was yet a boy, aged sixteen. That monarch could impress upon the poet nothing but scorn and hatred his tyranny provoked rebellion; his cowardice encouraged it: his odious and imbecile pedantry was in itself a ground of aversion, to a great mind: and these unlucky aids were added to a flame already strong enough to burst from its bondage. The character of the court was notoriously corrupt and profligate: the favourite Villiers was alone sufficient to rouse all great and good minds against it: the preceding favourite, Carr, had been still worse: there was not only a want of principle, but of talent, in the administration. England had become the laughing-stock of foreign powers: the internal policy was full of vicious abuses: the gentry were discontented; their swords were rusting, and parvenus began to mount over their heads; the order of knighthood was cheapened and prostituted: the Church lost the veneration it had till now possessed; and sects, that had hitherto lurked in holes and corners, arose and displayed themselves openly.
The cruel and infamous sacrifice of the life of the heroic Sir Walter Raleigh had filled the nation with horror and disgust; and Bacon's mixture of glory and littleness had taken from high station half its respect and all its splendour. All the relics of the public men of Queen Elizabeth's lofty reign had gradually disappeared. Buckhurst, Cecil, Egerton, Coke, the great navigators and soldiers; the gallant courtiers of ancient nobility; and all the leading names of commoners, rich in domains as well as in blood,-who carried more respect and influence than most of the best of modern nobility. Percy, the Earl of Northumberland, was immured a prisoner in the Tower: the head of the Howards had not recovered attainder and confiscation: the Veres, Cliffords, Nevills, Staffords, &c., were all impoverished; the Courtenays had lost all their honours: young Essex was oppressed, insulted, and spurned. The sharers of the spoils of Church lands alone of the former century were rich.
This state of things encouraged those political opinions which Milton's tutor, Young, had probably instilled into him: but his acquaintance with the Countess of Derby at Harefield, and the Earl of Bridgewater, her son-in-law, must be supposed to have counteracted them for a time.
There can be little doubt that the poet's travels to Italy increased this counteraction. Milton left England in 1638, in his thirtieth year; was presented to Grotius, at Paris, by Lord Scudamore, the English ambassador; proceeded to Nice, embarked for Genoa, and thence through Leghorn and Pisa to Florence. Here he staid two months: hence he passed through Sienna to Rome, where he staid another two months. On quitting Rome he visited Naples: it was his purpose also to have visited Sicily and Athens; but the intelligence of the disturbances which had broken out in his own country made him think of home.
He passed back through Rome, where he again staid two months; and then again to Florence, where also he stopped two months. He now visited Lucca ; then went across the Apennines, by Bologna and Ferrara, to Venice: here he sojourned for a month; and then travelled by Verona and Milan to Geneva. His way back lay through France; having been absent about fifteen months.
I have brought these facts together rather out of order, because I believe they were the preservatives of Milton's poetical genius against his political adoptions. I now go back to his earliest manhood. From school the poet was sent to Christ's College, Cambridge, in February, 1624, æt. 16, just before King James's death. Already, or about this time, he had commenced his poetical character, for he had paraphrased two of the Psalms, cxiv. and cxxxvi. In this latter are some fine stanzas, indicative of the character of his future genius; witness this speaking of the Creator:
Who by his wisdom did create
The painted heavens so full of state:
Who did the solid earth ordain
To rise above the watery main :
Who by his all-commanding might
He with his thunder-clasping hand
The floods stood still, like walls of glass,
But full soon they did devour
The tawny king with all his power.
He gave their land, therein to dwell.
In 1625 also Milton wrote his poem "On the Death of a Fair Infant dying of a Cough," said to be his niece, daughter of his sister Phillips. It has some fine stanzas, but a little quaint and far-fetched. Take these for instance :—
Resolve me, then, O soul most purely bless'd!
And why from us so quickly thou didst take thy flight?
Thomas Warton observes of this Ode, that "on the whole, from a boy of seventeen, it is an extraordinary effort of fancy, expression, and versification: even in the conceits, which are many, we perceive strong and peculiar marks of genius. I think Milton has here given a very remarkable specimen of his ability to succeed in the Spenserian stanza: he moves with great ease and address amidst the embarrassment of a frequent return of rhyme."
Several other poems of Milton, both English and Latin, were written at college: from all these extraordinary compositions it appears that the tone, richness, and character of Milton's genius were always the same from the age of fifteen; and probably even much earlier: it was always mixed up with both classical and abstruse learning; and with an infusion from the poetry of the Bible. His Latin verses had less of the wild, the sublime, and the visionary than his English, which of course arose from the difference of his models, and the different characters of the respective languages. The feudal institutions, the enthusiasm and splendour of chivalry, and the superstitions of the dark ages, had introduced a new school of poetry in Dante, Petrarch, Ariosto, Sackville, Spenser, and Shakspeare, more suited to Milton's genius; which yet he was deterred from introducing in compositions, where he endeavoured to rival the ancient classics. There is more of what would be by cold minds called sober thoughts, sentiments, and images in his Latin productions than in his vernacular; but there certainly is not the same raciness, vigour, and picturesqueness.
His Epistles to his friend Charles Deodate are, indeed, very beautiful: they relate his studies, his amusements, his feelings, his ambitions; but these have more of amiable virtue in them than of imaginative richness.
From one of these poems it comes out that he was rusticated from his college: the cause has been speculated upon with various comments and conclusions, according to the tempers and political and personal prejudices of the censors; but I have no doubt that Mr. Mitford's opinion is the correct one. Milton, with a haughty spirit, and consciousness of his own great genius and learning, would not submit to academical discipline. The line
Cæteraque ingenio non subeunda meo
obviously means nothing but a repugnance to the observation of those petty formalities and rules which irritate and insult great minds; it is absurd to construe it to have been corporal punishment.
He retired to his father's villa at Horton, near Colebrook, in Middlesex, glad to quit the dulness of the reedy Cam; and gave himself up entirely to the literature of his own taste in his exile-except during occasional visits to the capital, to enjoy the theatres and the conversation of his friends. His college was glad to have him back again, conscious of the honour he did them by his mighty gifts and acquirements of intellect. But at Horton he says of himself,
Tempora nam licet hic placidis dare libera Musis,
Et totum rapiunt me, mea vita, libri.
Excipit hinc fessum sinuosi pompa theatri,
Et vocat ad plausus garrula scena suos.
Warton says, "Milton's Latin poems may be justly considered as legitimate classical compositions, and are never disgraced with such language and such imagery as Cowley's. Cowley's Latinity, dictated by an irregular and unrestrained imagination, presents a mode of diction, half Latin and half English. It is not so much that Cowley wanted a knowledge of the Latin style, but that he suffered that knowledge to be perverted and corrupted by false and extravagant thoughts. Milton was a more perfect scholar than Cowley, and his mind was more deeply tinctured with the excellences of ancient literature: he was a more just thinker, and therefore a more just writer: in a word, he had more taste, and more poetry, and consequently more propriety. If a fondness for the Italian writers has sometimes infected his English poetry with false ornaments, his Latin verses, both in diction and sentiment, are at least free from gross depravations.
"Some of Milton's Latin poems were written in his first year at Cambridge, when he was only seventeen: they must be allowed to be very correct and manly performances for a youth of that age; and, considered in that view, they discover an extraordinary copiousness and command of ancient fable and history. I cannot but add that Gray resembles Milton in many instances: among others, in their youth they were both strongly attached to the cultivation of Latin poetry."
Such was Milton's boyhood and youth; so predominant was his genius from the first. It was at Horton that Milton seems to have meditated an Epic poem on King Arthur, or some other part of the old British story. See "Epitaphium Damonis" (Deodatus), and "Epistola ad Mansum."
In his "Elegia in adventum Veris," written in his twentieth year, the poet tells us that his poetical powers revived with the spring.
Milton's early love of the theatre has been already mentioned; Warton also observes this, and refers to "L'Allegro," v. 131: but in another place the critic remarks, that his warmest poetical predilections were at last totally obliterated by civil and religious enthusiasm. Milton's writings afford a striking example of the strength and weakness of the same mind. Seduced by the gentle eloquence of fanaticism, he listened no more to the "wild and native wood-notes of Fancy's child." In his "Iconoclastes" he censures King Charles for studying "one, whom we well know was the closet companion of his solitudes, William Shakspeare."
Nothing could be farther than Milton was, in his own early poetry, from this sour puritanism. In his "Ode at a Solemn Musick," he addresses "the harmonious sisters, Voice and Verse," to "wed their divine sounds :"
And to our high-raised phantasy present
With saintly shout and solemn jubilee ;