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As when a piece of wanton lawn,
i See Michaelis, Commentaries on the Laws of Moses (Smith), vol. iii. p. 16.
2 Crashaw was a royalist, and speaks the Stuart doctrine. The anecdote of James I. and Bishops Neale and Andrews, in the preface to Waller's works, is well known.-See Hume, chap. xlvii.
The chronological order of births brings us next in contact with Milton, although his great poems were not given to the world till after the restoration of Charles II. " The nativity of John Milton was cast at an epoch when mighty events were brewing for 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. Spencer had not been dead ten years, and Shakespeare was yet living."-Brydges. Milton's name is that of an estate in Oxfordshire, from which his ancestors had been driven during the Rose wars. His father had been disinherited for his renunciation of the Roman Catholic faith : he became a scrivener in London, and in this profession amassed a considerable fortune. The poet, a younger son, was born in London in 1608. From his childhood he possessed a passion for knowledge, and the ardour of his early studies sowed the seeds of his future blindness. He was sent to St Paul's School, and at the age of sixteen entered Trinity College, Cambridge. Little is known of his studies at College. Johnson sneers slightly at the juvenile efforts of Milton's muse. The lofty unbending character of his mind involved him in misunderstandings with the heads of his college. Johnson would fain believe that Milton was the last student who suffered the disgrace of corporal punishment. He was probably subjected to rustication. Whatever may have been his feeling towards the heads of the university, for his domestic tutor, Thomas Young, he always maintained the most affectionate respect. On taking his degree of M. A. in 1632, he retired to his father's villa at Horton, in Buckinghamshire. Here he attached himself to study with such assiduity, that in the five years of his residence he is said to have perused the whole series of Greek and Roman authors. In these years also he produced his minor pieces, L'Allegro, Penseroso, Comus, &c. On his mother's death, in 1637, he obtained his father's permission to travel. He passed through France to Italy ; " the most accomplished Englishman,” says Campbell, “ that ever visited her classic shores.” In Italy he was received with compliment and distinction by the learned ; in particular he acquired the friendship of the Neapolitan Mecænas, Manso, Marquis de Villa, the friend of Tasso. He projected the extension of his tour into Greece and the East, but the evidently approaching convulsions in England recalled him from Italy after an absence of fifteen months.
It is not known when Milton's opinions began to take their Presbyterian complexion. Some slight symptoms of them are displayed in “ Lycidas ;" but his other minor poems contain indications of tastes which Presbyterians of that age could neither relish nor sympathize with. He returned home to devote himself to the cause of movement and of freedom. He felt where his strength lay; and literature was the weapon he determined to wield for the achievement of the objects which his mind had identified with the prosperity of his country.
His procedure on his arrival in England forms another subject for Johnson's sarcasm. He undertook the charge of the education of his sister's sons, John and Edward Philips ; subsequently he received more pupils; and this occupation has drawn on him Johnson's ridicule, as “a man who hastens home because his countrymen are contending for their liberty, and, when he reaches the scene of action, vapours away his patriotism in a private
boarding-school. Milton's controversial pen, however, soon showed that his retirement was as actively auxiliary to the success of the cause he had embraced, as the swords that waved at the head of armed batallions. “I avoided," he says himself, “the toil and danger of a military life, only to render my country assistance more usefill, and not less to my own peril." The sarcasm of his enemies has been pointed chiefly by the absurd vanity of his nephew, Edward Philips, his biographer, in attempting to vindicate his uncle from the degradation of having been “ a schoolmaster.” Milton himself was deeply impressed with the fact, that education is one of the great means of the regeneration and prosperity of nations ; and he may have viewed his scholastic labours as forming one of the contributions of his patriotism to his country's cause. There is no evidence of his having received remuneration from his pupils.
When Milton returned to England, the high-handed measures of Archbishop Laud had raised the puritan indignation against the Episcopacy to its height. The king, defeated and baffled by the Scots, with Ireland in ferocious and bloody insurrection, was forced to summon “the Long Parliament." This assembly rudely burst the bands of the late arbitrary government in church and state ; and Milton was one of the first literary leaders of the attack. His series of controversial and political writings, which rendered him renowned over Europe, extend from this period (1641) to the very eve of the restoration (1660). The poet disappeared in the champion of liberty and religion ; the aspirations which had so early looked to leaving "something" which his countrymen would " not let willingly die," were forced to “bide their time.” He stood forth “ with clean hands and a pure heart ;" and his terrible pen ground to powder all on whom its weight fell. Johnson had small reason for “merriment” on the subject of Milton's patriotism after his return to England. “ The sneer comes doubly ill from one who had been himself a schoolmaster.”—(Brydges).
In 1643 he married Mary Powell, the daughter of a royalist gentleman of Oxfordshire. His marriage proved unhappy. His lady, reared in the luxury and freedom of a royalist family, felt discontented in the decent frugality and privacy of her husband's residence. Having obtained permission to visit her relations, she refused to return ; and after repeated remonstrances, Milton threatened to divorce her. llis work on the subject of divorce excited the indignation of the Presbyterian clergy, and for this, perhaps among other more conscientious reasons, he soon separated himself from that party. It was pot till, after three years' separation, he had actually made advances towards another lady, or perhaps till her royalist friends felt, in the decline of the king's cause, their need of a republican protector, that the repentant wife returned to her husband's allegiance. On the total ruin of the king's party, he gene rously protected her relatives in his own house ; they had treated him with insolence and injustice, and at that very time her marriage portion remained unpaid.
His literary services procured him in 1649, after the death of the king, the office of Latin secretary to the council of state. In this capacity his eyesight, which had long been declining, was totally extinguished during his composition of the “ Defence of the People of England," undertaken at the order of the council, in reply to “ The Defence of Charles I.," by Salmasius, His office, notwithstanding his blindness, was continued under the protectorate. His wife died in 1652. In 1658 he married Catharine, the daughter of Captain Woodcock, “ a rigid sectarist.” She was the most amiable and beloved of the poet's three wives. But their union was short ; she died in childbed within a year. AMictions were thickening round him ; not the least of them was the jealous tyranny of Cromwell's later government. His
noble panegyric of the Protector had been mingled with the stern admonitions of a patriot ; but he now saw his beloved republican institutions withering under the despotism of a supreme will. On the death of the Protector he displayed this feeling in the work “ A ready and easy way to establish a free Commonwealth.”
The distractions that followed the death of Cromwell were finally terminated by the restoration of Charles II. And now came Milton's * evil days." The triumphant royalists were not likely to be indulgent to the regicide defender of the late king's execution, and to the active secretary of the commonwealth government. But Milton himself had used his day of power with mercy, and the gratitude of distinguished names saved perhaps his life. He was obliged for a time to conceal himself, but ultimately escaped with the loss of his office and a slight injury to his remaining fortune, the bulk of which he had lost in what he believed to be the cause of patriotism and religion. In a retirement in London, he secluded himself from the licentious roar of the royalist triumph,
The barbarous dissonance
Of Bacchus and his revellers,and lamented in secret what he considered the ruin of his country. And now, after the fountains had been nearly sealed for twenty years, he found consolation in the opening of those springs which his youth had loved. It is impossible to contemplate without sympathy and admiration the poet, * blind yet bold," sitting down in poverty, affliction, and obscurity, to work out the immortality which had been the object of his earliest aspirations. He is supposed to have begun Paradise Lost during the later years of the commonwealth ; its composition formed his comfort in his misfortunes. The ingratitude of his daughters, except the youngest, Deborah, it is said, urged him to a third marriage. They plundered his property, and clandestinely sold his books. His third wife was Elizabeth Minsbull, the daughter of a gentleman of Cheshire. This lady is said to have proved an exemplary wife, to have cherished her husband, and protected his helplessness from the rapacity of his daughters. His later years were employed in the composition of Paradise Lost ; Paradise Regained ; Samson Agonistes ; in the republication of his minor poems; and in some elaborate prose works. Temperate as his life had been, the gout ultimately broke up his constitution, and he died in 1674. A tomb was erected to his memory in Westminster Abbey in 1737.
His will, discovered in the Prerogative Registry, displays the undeserved unhappiness of Milton's life from the ingratitude and wretched conduct of his children. The bulk of his surviving property, about L.1500, was left to his wife ; to his eldest daughters he bequeathed the marriage portion of their mother, which had never been paid him. No direct descendants of the poet are known to exist.
The original materials for the biography of Milton are derived from the work of his nephew, Edward Philips. It is strange that the memory of the pride of England's literature should need vindication. Pure and spiritual as his life was, he was assailed in his own day by the most atrocious calumnies. The forging libeller Lauder was believed and patronised by Johnson when Milton's name was the object of aspersion : and the archcritic, who smiled so benignantly on geniuses now all but forgotten, had nothing for Milton but detraction and apparent malice. It is, however, one of the greatest glories of the majesty of Milton's genius, that Johnson's malignity was compelled to do it homage. The elegant criticism of Addison, first, and the affectionate biographies of Hayley, Symmons, and later critics, have done justice to the fame of the poet and the character of the man.
Milton's mind combined all the elements of power with every attribute of beauty and benignity. Hence, what his enemies dreaded they hated, what his friends loved they idolized. He was the purest of men in his motives ; he acted from his youth “ as under his great Taskmaster's eye." However much, therefore, we may condemn some of his actions and much of his language, if the character of his mind and motives be kept in view, even those who differ widely from him in political and religious opinions love and admire him. The consciousness of talents induces a demeanour of arrogance ; the feeling of superiority prompts the expression of contempt : and these, undoubtedly to some extent, the failings of Milton's mind, have certainly been made the most of by Johnson.
In his youth Milton was remarkable for his beauty. His eyes even in their darkness were clear, bright, and expressive, with no appearance of blindness. - In this alone,” he said himself in one of his vindications, “ I am unwillingly a hypocrite." His life was the pattern of simplicity and purity, almost to the extent of austerity. He deemed the indulgence of appetite inconsistent with the possession and the action of that genius which he venerated as the offspring of the Holy Ghost.
The following eloquent tribute to the nobility of Milton's character is given by Mr Macaulay : “ Venal and licentious scribblers, with just sufficient talent to clothe the thoughts of a pandar in the style of a bellman, were now the favourite writers of the sovereign and the public. It was a loathsome herd—which could be compared to nothing so fitly as to the rabble of Comus; grotesque monsters, half-bestial, half-human, dropping with wine, and reeling in obscene dances. Amidst these his muse was placed, like the Chaste Lady in the Masque, lofty, spotless, and serene—to be chattered at, and pointed at, and grinned at by the whole rabble of satyrs and gobling. If ever despondency and asperity could be excused in any man, it might have been excused in Milton. But the strength of his mind overcame every calamity. Neither blindness, nor gout, nor age, nor penury, nor domestic afflictions, nor political disappointments, nor abuse, nor proscription, nor neglect, had power to disturb his sedate and majestic patience. His spirits did not seem to have been high, but they were singularly equable. His temper was serious, perhaps stern ; but it was a temper which no sufferings could render sullen or fretful. Such as it was when, on the eve of great events, he returned from his travels in the prime of health and manly beauty, loaded with literary distinctions, and glowing with patriotic hopes-such it continued to be, when, after having experienced every calamity which is incident to our nature, old, poor, sightless, and disgraced, he retired to his hovel to die."- Edinburgh Review, Vol. xlii. p. 323.
Besides the article from which the above quotation is extracted, the criticisms of Addison in the Spectator ; the Lives of Milton by Johnson, Tod, Hayley, Symmons, Sir Egerton Brydges ; and the criticisms of Channing, &c. may be consulted for information on Milton's poetry.
The poetical works of Milton consist of his Latin Pieces ; his Italian and English Sonnets ; his College Exercises ; Il Penseroso ; L'Allegro ; Lycidas ; Arcades ; Comus ; and other smaller poems; Paradise Lost ; Paradise Regained ; and the tragedy, Samson Agonistes.