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Life of Milton.
From 1608 to 1674, during sixty-six of the most stormny years of England's history, during the great struggle for civil and religious liberty, the life of John Milton extended, and the storm and struggle are deeply graven on the record of his work. Like the poet Spenser, whom he loved, and to whose Faerie Queen he refers in the Areopagitica, he was a Londoner, born in Bread Street, almost within touch of Bow Church, in the very centre of “this vast city, a city of refuge, the mansion house of liberty” (Areopagitica).
Parentage and Early Education. His father, a scrivener or law writer, who had been disinherited for turning Protestant, had determined that his son should receive every educational advantage, with a view to entering the Church. His earliest tutor was Thomas Young, who afterwards became an eminent Nonconformist divine, while from his father he gained that love of music which he afterwards “married to immortal verse." Of his mother but little is known, except that from her Milton probably inherited that weakness of the eyes which finally developed into blindness.
School and College.-In 1620, at the age of twelve, he entered St. Paul's School, and here laid the foundation of that profound classical education which is reflected in every line of his work, whether prose or poetry. Greek, Latin, Syriac, Hebrew, French and Italian were amongst the subjects he studied, and studied deeply, while his later references to :
“Sweetest Shakspere, fancy's child.” (L'Allegro.) and to
"Jonson's learned sock.” (L'Allegro.)
show that his love of English literature was not confined to the poet Spenser, and that he never forgot amid his classical studies that:
English is the language of men ever famous and foremost in the achievements of liberty.” (Areopagitica.)
After five years at St. Paul's Schools, where he initiated himself into the craft of poets by paraphasing Psalms cxiv. and cxxxvi., he entered Christ's College, Cambridge in 1625 as a pensioner. Here he seems to have indulged in none of those noisy revels, so pardonable in the young, but rather, by his quiet manner and studious disposition, to have merited the nickname, “Our lady of Christ's,” which was soon bestowed upon him. He left Cambridge in 1632, with his M.A. degree, after a seven years' stay, admired by all for his profound learning, and with the reputation of having
“Scorned delights, and lived laborious days.” (Lycidas.)
The Hymn to Christ's Nativity, a few odes and epitaphs (one to Shakespeare), and his first sonnet are the poetic results of these seven years.
Five Years' Happiness at Horton.—The next five years of Milton's life were spent in the peace of the rural village of Horton, in Buckinghamshire. The quiet Cambridge student kept himself aloof from the busy world, and continued his academic studies in the pleasant country lanes and fields of John Hampden's county. The dawn of the great struggle seems to have passed by him almost unheeded, and the delightful poems L'Allegro and Il Penseroso and the Masque of Comus, are the natural consequences of such a life. His monody, Lycidas, written in 1637, shows the first signs of the flame which was to burn so hot within him, and sooner and with greater effect than he thought, he was to aid in the fulfilment of his menace against the corrupt clergy of
“That two-handed engine at the door" which
“Stands ready to smite once, and smite no more,”
Foreign Travel, 1638-1639.—A short stay in France and a longer stay in Italy, where he made the acquaintance of Grotius and Galileo, was ended abruptly by the state of affairs in England. He thought it base to be travelling for '
his pleasure abroad while his countrymen were contending for their liberty at home, and he returned to England, not, as Dr. Johnson unkindly remarks, to take an active part in the fight, but to keep a school.
Keeping School.-If, however, Milton did not at plunge into the vortex of the civil strife, he took two steps which
well calculated to prepare him for active warfare. In 1639, he commenced a small private school, in which he taught his nephews and the children of a few friends, and in 1643 he married Mary Powell, the daughter of a Buckinghamshire friend, a marriage which proved unhappy. After a separation of two years they were reconciled in 1645, and lived together until her death, which occurred in 1652.
Twenty Years of Prose.—These were, however, but the preludes, the pauses before the leap; and in 1641, impelled by his great desire for liberty of thought, Milton plunged into the battle of pamphlets :
“There are three species of liberty which are essential to the happiness of social lifc—religious, domestic and civil ; and as I had already written concerning the first, and the magistrates were strenuously active in obtaining the third, I determined to turn my attention to the second, or the domestic species.”—MīlToN's Second Defence of the People of England.
His pamphlets on reformation and episcopacy appeared in 1641, and in 1644 he published his two Tractates on Divorce, a Tractate on Education, and the Areopagitica, the two first following naturally on his own development, the last compelled from him by his love of liberty. From this year until the Restoration, frona the bright aspirations and hopes of the man of thirty-six to the calmer philosophy of age, through the home troubles which were probably only the
result of his own natural disposition, in spite of the blindness which fell upon him in 1652—“bating not one jot of heart or hope"- at the age of forty-four, Milton fought for liberty with a pen that was much mightier than his sword could ever have been, in English or in Latin, but always “ with his left hand," as he called his prose. In 1649, he became Latin Secretary to Cromwell, and wrote his Eikonoklastes, or Image-breaker, a reply to Eikon Basilike, or The Kingly Image, a pamphlet written in defence of Charles I. His principal works from that time to 1660 were his two books
Defensio pro Populo Anglicano,” published in 1651 and 1654 respectively.
During these twenty years, the poet in him was almost suppressed, occasional sonnets alone breaking the long line of controversial pamphlets, but even in these last appear “purple patches.” The fire of poetic genius was only smouldering, for surely such a passage as the eulogy of England in the Areopagitica is poetry bursting the chain of prose :
“Methinks I see in my mind a noble and puissant nation, rousing herself like a strong man after sleep, and shaking her invincible locks. Methinks I see her as an eagle mewing her mighty youth, and kindling her undazzled eyes at the full midday beam, purging and unscaling her long abuséd sight at the fountain itself of heavenly radiance, while the whole noise of timorous and flocking birds, with those also that love the twilight, flutter about, amazed at what she means, and in their envious gabble would prognosticate a year of sects and schisms."
A Poet Again, 1660-1671.–Blind,, saddened by the loss of his second wife, Catherine Woodcock, in 1658, and by the unfilial conduct of his daughters, with all his efforts for civil and religious liberty apparently rendered vain by the Restoration, Milton turned once piore to poetry, and in his epics Paradise Lost (1666), Paradise Regained (1671), and Samson Agonistes (1671), gave to the world :“The magnificence of Spenser with the severity of Calvin.”