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PARADISE REGAINED :—
My task, I hear, is done. No call on me
Yet now and then a spirit to mine ear
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!