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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
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 stayed two months hence he passed through Sienna to Rome, where he stayed 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 stayed 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, exiv, and exxxvi. 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:
To rise above the watery main:
He with his thunder-clasping hand
Of the Erythræan main:
The floods stood still, like walls of glass,
But full soon they did devour
In bloody battle he brought down
With all his over-hardy crew;
And to his servant Israël
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:
Yet can I not persuade me thou art dead,
Or that thy corse corrupts in earth's dark womb;
Hid from the world in a low-delved tomb.
Resolve me, then, O soul most purely bless'd!
(If so it be that thou these plaints dost hear,)
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,
Excipit hine 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; Wharton 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
Aye sung before the sapphire-colour'd throne
With saintly shout and solemn jubilee;
Where the bright Seraphim, in burning row,
With those just spirits that wear victorious palms,
Here is an anticipation of the "Paradise Lost."
Again: in his "Address to his Native Language," at a vacation exercise in the College, anno ætatis 19, he
But haste thee straight to do me once a pleasure,
Thy service in some graver subject use;
How he before the thunderous throne doth lie,
To the touch of golden wires, while Hebe brings
"Here," Warton again observes, "are strong indications of a young mind, anticipating the subject of the 'Paradise Lost,' if we substitute Christian for Pagan ideas. He was now deep in the Greek poets."
The style, the picturesqueness of language, the character of the imagery, which Milton adopted from the first, was peculiar to himself. I do not say that many of the words, and even images, might not be found scattered in preceding poets, as Spenser, Shakspeare, Ben Jonson, Beaumont and Fletcher, and Joshua Sylvester's Du Bartas: but they could not be found combined into a uniform and unbroken texture, nor with the same uniformity of elevated and spiritual thought. In almost all precedent poets they are patches. That Milton was minutely familiar with the poems of all his celebrated predecessors is sufficiently evident but so far as he used them, he only used them as ingredient particles. Spenser is rich and picturesque, but Milton has a character distinct from him. Milton's texture is more massy: the gold is weightier; he has a haughtier solemnity.
CRITICAL ACCOUNT OF MILTon's college poetry.
THOUGH there were many things which had a tendency to make Milton in his boyhood and first youth discontented with the social institutions of his country, as they then displayed themselves in all their abuses; yet the relics of former greatness still remained in such preservation as to give full force to the imagination: the names, the feudal history, the trophies of former magnificence, were all fresh. Though King James was mean, pedantic, and corrupt, King Charles had a royal spirit, and a benevolent, accomplished mind: he loved literature and the arts, and had subtle, if not grand, abilities. At this time, therefore, Milton's love of monarchical and aristocratical splendour was contending with his puritanic education, and his personal hatred of arbitrary power his rich imagination and his stern judgment were at variance: his early poems rarely, if ever, touch upon sectarianism: Spenser and Shakspeare, courts, castles, and theatres, did not agree with Calvinistic rigours and formalities. Milton's enthusiasm was, as Warton observes, the enthusiasm of the poet, not of the puritan.
At this time he had more of description and less of abstract thought: that sub. lime elevation of axiomatic wisdom was not yet reached; but from his earliest years
he appears to have been conversant and delighted with the tone and expressions of the Hebrew poetry: his grand and inimitable Hymn on the Nativity" proves this. In that hymn is every poetical perfection, mingled with a sort of prophetic solemnity, which fills us with a religious awe: the nervous harmony and climax of the lines are also admirable. It was written in 1629, when he was in his twenty-first year, probably as a college exercise. Mark this stanza:
No war, or battle's sound,
Dr. Joseph Warton observes here: "attention is irresistibly awakened and engaged by the air of solemnity and enthusiasm that reigns in this stanza and some that follow. Such is the power of true poetry, that one is almost inclined to believe the superstition real."
I cannot doubt that this hymn was the congenial prelude of that holy and inspired imagination which produced the "Paradise Lost," nearly forty years afterwards.
I am not aware that our young bard had any prototype in this sort of ode: the form, the matter, the imagery, the language, the rhythm, are all new. Milton seems himself in the state of wonder and awe of the shepherds, and of all those whom he describes as affected by this miracle. The trembling, the fervour, the blaze is true inspiration. In this state, the poet, visited by heavenly appearances, must have forgot all worldly fear, and written at this early age solely after his own ideas. The manner in which he describes the dim superstitions of the false oracles is quite magical.
I mention these things here as illustrative of Milton's life. We must consider him now, when he had scarcely reached manhood, as already a perfect poet: he had stamped his power; and was entitled to take his own course accordingly in future life. Good words and pleasing thoughts may easily be worked into harmonious verse; but this is not poetry. I know nothing in which the genuine spell of poetry more breaks out than in the hymn I have here been praising. To show this, I must cite
one more stanza :
And sullen Moloch, fled,
In vain with cymbals' ring
In dismal dance about the furnace blue;
The brutal gods of Nile as fast,
"These dreadful circumstances," says Warton, "are here endued with life and action; they are put in motion before our eyes, and made subservient to a new purpose of the poet by the superinduction of a poetical fiction, to which they give