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FIRST EFFORTS OF A GREAT LIFE,
How little is known of the personal histories of the Fathers of English Poetry! Rude outlines, alone, are preserved to us of the biogra
phies of Chaucer, Spenser, and Shakespeare. • Of the men whose writings exercise most influ
ence over our minds, only two or three doubtful anecdotes, and questionable notes, have been ascertained ; while those whose talents were perverted to destroy their fellows, or whose lives were frittered away in a round of petty pursuits, not worth the name of occupations, are drawn at full length-their witless words all carefully jotted down, and their objectless movements
described with ridiculous minuteness. The sayings and doings of the illustrious patriarchs of genius are altogether unknown. What would we give for some account of the everyday life of Chaucer, at Donnington Castle? or of Spenser, at Mulla ? How precious to us would be a genuine picture of a night at the “Mermaid,” with all the real words that Shakspeare said !—for men like these become dear to us ; we are not satisfied with what they have written for us ; we long to draw near to them, and to hear them speak, and to see what was the real life they led. But no! Of these men we can know little more than nothing: their times are almost inarticulate about them : and, failing these, we must content ourselves with such ware as the “Life of Beau Brummell,” in two bulky volumes ; or, “ Pepy's Diary,” in four : and, certainly, what we lacked in information touching the notes of the swan, is abundantly made up in ample details respecting the cackling of the goose.
Of John Milton, a name synonymous with the highest sublimity which inspired humanity has reached, we know little more than what is known of his illustrious predecessors. Of incidents we have scarcely any. The lives of such men are supposed, -perhaps correctly,—to be wanting in incident. Their most important days present to the world nothing very extraordinary. Yet Milton travelled much (for one in his day,) in his youth; lived in the most stirring times England has ever known ; and himself was in daily intercourse with those who touched the mainsprings of the popular movement. So prone are we to mourn over the impossible and unattainable, that we must needs regret that we have not an account of what this man did, and thought, and saw.
John Milton was born on the 9th of December, 1608, in the parish of All-hallows, Breadstreet, London. He was the son of John Milton, a scrivener or writer. At that time publicans were not the only persons who erected signs ; and it was at the sign of the “ Spread Eagle” that Milton first opened his eyes to the light. This was the crest of the family. The father of our poet was a man of refined and elegant taste, and was characterised, too, by that inflexible adherence to the rights of conscience, which shone forth with such dignity in his son. He had received his education at Christ Church, Oxford, where it seems probable he imbibed a hearty attachment to the principles of the Reformation ; but his father was a bigoted Papist, an under ranger or keeper of the Forest of Shotover, near Horton, in Oxfordshire, and he disinherited his son. His son held fast his faith, adopting the extreme Protestant views of the Puritans. He chose the somewhat mean profession of a scrivener, but retained his polite tastes and tendencies. He was successful in business, and retired at last upon an independency, to Forest Hill, in Buckinghamshire. All the biographers notice his distinguished attainments in music.
To what matter is it that we inquire at all into ancestry. It was said, the Miltons in ancient times were distinguished for their opulence, but lost all, taking the unfortunate side in the battles of the Roses. Evidence seems clear that the mother of our John Milton was named Caston, derived, so says Sir Egerton Bridges, “ according to the best authority, from a Welch family.” The curious may notice thus the blending of the Saxon and Celtic races in the poet's person, and the production of that cast of character often noticed from the combination. When the poet was born, his father had passed the middle age of life. Milton's name cannot be cited as illustrating the early dullness of genius; all the accounts we have of his boyhood confirm any impression we might previously have formed of the precocity of his powers. His
genius manifested itself very early in the various departments of poetry and scholarship. Mardhof says, “ that Milton's writings show him to have been a man from his childhood ; his poems are exceedingly above the ordinary capacity of that age.” His first tutors were Thomas Young, and afterwards Dr. Alexander Gill. The estimation in which he afterwards held these masters may be gathered from his affectionate letters to them. From the same source we may gather their judgment of him ; but his diligence soon outstripped the care and zeal of his instructors. He was initiated into several tongues; he tasted the pages of philosophy: so great was his thirst for learning, that after he was twelve years of age he seldom went to bed until past midnight. At the age of fifteen he was sent to Christ College, in Cambridge, there to prosecute yet more solid studies. Here he continued for seven years. He took his degree of M.A. at the age of twenty. To his old master, Dr. Gill, he writes not a very laudatory account of the congenial companionship of his college.
“ Among us, as far as I know, there are only two or three, who without any acquaintance with criticism or philosophy, do