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than the assumed temper of a sect. “A certain reservedness of natural disposition, and a moral discipline learnt out of the noblest philosophy”—such, in Milton's own words, were the causes which, apart from his Christian training, would have always kept him, as he believed, above the vices that debase youth. And herein the example of Milton contradicts much that is commonly advanced by way of a theory of the poetical character. Poets and artists generally, it is held, are and ought to be distinguished by a predominance of sensibility over principle, an excess of what Coleridge called the spiritual over what he called the moral part of man. A nature built on quicksands, an organization of nerve languid or tempestuous with occasion, a soul falling and soaring, now subject to ecstasies and now to remorses -such, it is supposed, and on no small induction of actual instances, is the appropriate constitution of the poet. Mobility, absolute and entire destitution of principle properly so called, capacity for varying the mood indefinitely rather than for retaining and keeping up one moral gesture or resolution through all moods—this, say the theorists, is the essential thing in the structure of the artist. Against the truth of this, however, as a maxim of universal application, the character of Milton, as well as that of Wordsworth after him, is a remarkable protest. Were it possible to place before the theorists all the materials which exist for judging of Milton's personal disposition as a young man, without exhibiting to them at the same time the actual and early proofs of his poetical genius, their conclusion, were they true to their theory, would necessarily be, that the basis of his nature was too solid and immovable, the platform of personal aims and aspirations over which his thoughts moved and had footing, too fixed and firm, to permit that he should have been a poet. Nay, whosoever, even appreciating Milton as a poet, shall come to the investigation of his writings, armed with that preconception of the poetical character which is sure to be derived from an intimacy with the character of Shakespeare, will hardly escape some feeling of the same kind. Seriousness, we repeat, a solemn and even austere demeanour of mind, was the characteristic of Milton even in his youth. And the outward manifestation of this was a life of pure and devout observance. This is a point that ought not to be avoided or dismissed in mere general language; for he who does not lay stress on this, knows not and loves not Milton. Accept, then, by way of more particular statement, his own remarkable words in justifying himself against an inuendo of one of his adversaries in later life, reflecting on the tenor of his juvenile pursuits and behaviour. “A certain niceness of nature,” he says, “ an honest haughtiness and self-esteem either of what I was, or what I might be, (which let
Youth of Milton.
299 envy call pride,) and lastly that modesty whereof, though not in the title-page, yet here I may be excused to make some beseeming profession; all these, uniting the supply of their natural aid together, kept me still above those low descents of mind, beneath which he must deject and plunge himself that can agree to saleable and unlawful prostitutions." Fancy, ye to whom the moral frailty of genius is a consolation, or to whom the association of virtue with youth and Cambridge is a jest—ancy Milton, as this passage from his own pen describes him at the age of twentythree, returning to his father's house from the university, full of its accomplishments and its honours, an auburn-haired youth beautiful as the Apollo of a northern clime, and that beautiful body the temple of a soul pure and unsoiled! Truly, a son for a mother to take to her arms with joy and pride!
Connected with this austerity of character, discernible in Milton even in his youth, may be noted also, as indeed it is noted in the passage just cited, á haughty yet modest self-esteem, and consciousness of his own powers. Throughout all Milton's works there may be discerned a vein of this noble egotism, this unbashful self-assertion. Frequently, in arguing with an opponent, or in setting forth his own views on any subject of discussion, he passes, by a very slight topical connexion, into an account of himself, his education, his designs, and his relations to the matter in question; and this sometimes so elaborately and at such length, that the impression is as if he said to his readers, -Besides all my other arguments, take this also as the chief and conclusive argument, that it is I, a man of such and such antecedents, and with such and such powers to perform far higher work than you see me now engaged in, who affirm and maintain this. In his later years Milton evidently believed himself to be, if not the greatest man in England, at least the greatest writer, and one whose egomet dixi was entitled to as much force in the intellectual Commonwealth as the decree of a civil magistrate is invested with in the order of civil life. All that he said or wrote was backed in his own consciousness by a sense of the independent importance of the fact, that it was he, Milton, who said or wrote it ; and often, after arguing a point for some time on a footing of ostensible equality with his readers, he seems suddenly to stop, retire to the vantage-ground of his own thoughts, and bid his readers follow him thither, if they would see the whole of that authority which his words had failed to express. Such, we say, is Milton's habit in his later writings; in his early life, of course, the feeling which it shews existed rather as an undefined consciousness of superior power, a tendency silently and with satisfaction to compare his own intellectual measure with that of others, a resolute ambition to be and to do something great. Now we cannot help thinking that it will be found that this particular form of self-esteem goes along with that moral austerity of character which we have alleged to be discernible in Milton even in his youth, rather than with that temperament of varying sensibility which is, according to the general theory, regarded as characteristic of the poet. Men of this latter type, as they vary in the entire mood of their mind, vary also in their estimate of themselves. No permanent consciousness of their own destiny, or of their own worth in comparison with others, belongs to them. In their moods of elevation they are powers to move the world ; but while the impulse that has gone forth from them in one of these moods, may be still thrilling its way onward in wider and wider circles through the hearts of myriads they have never seen, they, the fountains of the impulse, the spirit being gone from them, may be sitting alone in the very spot and amid the ashes of their triumph, sunken and dead, despondent and self-accusing. It requires the evidence of positive results, the assurance of other men's praises, the visible presentation of effects which they cannot but trace to themselves, to convince such men that they are or can do anything. Whatever manifestations of egotism, whatever strokes of self-assertion come from such men, come in the very burst and phrenzy of their passing resistlessness. The calm, deliberate, and unshaken knowledge of their own superiority is not theirs. True, Shakespeare, the very type, if rightly understood, of this class of minds, (for we are total dissenters from that theory of Shakespeare which defines him as a kind of William the Calm,) is supposed in his sonnets, to have predicted, in the strongest and most deliberate terms, his own immortality as a poet. It could be proved, however, were this the place for such an investigation, that the common interpretation of those passages of the sonnets which are supposed to supply this trait in the character of Shakespeare, is nothing more nor less than a false reading of a very subtle meaning which the critics have missed. Those other passages of the sonnets which breathe an abject melancholy and discontentment with self, which exhibit the poet as “ cursing his fate,” as “ bewailing his outcast state,” as looking about abasedly among his literary contemporaries, envying the “ art” of one, and the another, and even wishing sometimes that the very features of his face had been different from what they were and like those of some he knew, are, in our opinion, of far greater autobiographic value. Nothing of this kind is to be found in Milton. As a Christian, indeed, humiliation before God was a duty the meaning of which he knew full well; but as a man moving among other men, he possessed in that moral seriousness and stoic scorn of temptation which characterized him, a spring of
301 ever-present pride, dignifying his whole bearing among his fellows, and at times arousing bim to a kingly intolerance. In short, instead of that dissatisfaction with self which we trace as a not unfrequent feeling with Shakespeare, we find in Milton, even in his early youth, a recollection firm and habitual, that he was one of those servants to whom God had entrusted the stewardship of ten talents. In that very sonnet, for example, written on his twenty-third birthday, in which he laments that he had as yet achieved so little, his consolation is, that the power of achievement was still indubitably within him—
“ All is, if I have grace to use it so,
As ever, in my great Task-Master's eye.” And what was that special mode of activity to which Milton, still in the bloom and seed-time of his years, had chosen to dedicate the powers of which he was so conscious ? He had been destined by his parents for the Church ; but this opening into life he had definitively and deliberately abandoned. With equal decision he renounced the profession of the law; and it does not seem to have been long after the conclusion of his career at the university, when he renounced the prospects of professional life altogether. His reasons for this, which are to be gathered from various passages of his writings, seem to have all resolved themselves into a jealous concern for his own absolute intellectual freedom. He had determined, as he says, “ to lay up, as the best treasure and solace of a good old age, the honest liberty of free speech from his youth ;” and neither the Church nor the Bar of England, at the time when he formed that resolution, was a place where he could hope to keep it. For a man so situated, the alternative, then as now, was the practice or profession of literature. To this, therefore, as soon as he was able to come to a decision on the subject, Milton had implicitly, if not avowedly, dedicated himself. To become a great writer, and, above all
, a great poet; to teach the English language a new strain and modulation; to elaborate and surrender over to the English nation works that would make it more potent and wise in the age that was passing, and more memorable and lordly in the ages to come—such was the form which Milton's ambition had assumed when, laying aside his student's garb, he went to reside under his father's roof. Nor was this merely a choice of necessity, the reluctant determination of a young soul, “ Churchouted by the prelates," and disgusted with the chances of the law. Milton, in the Church, would certainly have been such an archbishop, mitred or unmitred, as England has never seen; and the very passage of such a man across the sacred floor would have trampled into timely extinction all that has since sprung up among us as Puseyism and what not, and would have modelled the ecclesiasticism of England into a shape that the world might have gazed at, with no truant glance backward to the splendours of the Seven Hills. And, doubtless, even amid the traditions of the law, such a man would have performed the feats of a Samson, albeit of a Samson in chains. An inward prompting, therefore, a love secretly plighted to the Muse, and a sweet comfort and delight in her sole society, which no other allurement, whether of profit or pastime, could equal or diminish,this, less formally perhaps, but as really as care for his intellectual liberty, or distaste for the established professions of his time, determined Milton's early resolution as to his future way of life. On this point it will be best to quote his own words.
« After I had," he says, “ for my first years, by the ceaseless diligence and care of my father, (whom God recompense !) been exercised to the tongues and some sciences, as my age would suffer, by sundry masters and teachers both at home and at the schools, it was found that, whether ought was imposed upon me by them that had the overlooking, or betaken to of mine own choice, in English or other tongue, prosing or versing, but chiefly this latter, the style, by certain vital signs it had, was likely to live.” The meaning of which sentence to a biographer of Milton, is, that Milton, before his three-and-twentieth year, knew himself to be a poet.
He knew this, he says, by “ certain vital signs,” discernible in what he had already written. What were these vital signs," these proofs indubitable to Milton that he had the art and faculty of a poet? We need but refer the reader for the answer to those smaller poetical compositions of Milton, both in English and in Latin, which survive as specimens of his earliest muse. Of these, some three or four which happen to be specially dated—such as the Elegy on the Death of a Fair Infant, written in 1624, or in the author's seventeenth year; the wellknown Hymn on the Morning of Christ's Nativity, written in 1629, when the author was just twenty-one; and the often quoted Sonnet on Shakespeare, written not much later—may be cited as convenient materials from which, whoever would convince himself minutely of Milton's youthful vocation to poetry rather than to anything else, may derive proofs on that head. Here will be found power of the most rare and beautiful conception, choice of words the most exact and exquisite, the most perfect music and charm of verse. Above all, here will be found that ineffable something-call it imagination or what we will—wherein lies the intimate and ineradicable peculiarity of the poet; the art to work on and on for ever in a purely ideal element, to chase and marshal airy nothings according to a law totally unlike that of