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The agency of Milton, as secretary to the Protector, was considered as of the highest importance by all the states of Europe. The generality of contemporary politicians ascribed to his pen, the « Declarations of the Reasons for a war with Spain: » and when a treaty with Sweden was, for private causes, suspended, the Swedish agent, incensed at the delay, contemptuously expressed his wonder, that only one man in England could write Latin, and that man blind.
Being now forty seven years old, and seeing himself disencumbered from interruptions, he seems to have recollected his former purposes, and to have resumed three great works which he had planned for his future employment; an Epic Poem, the history of his Country, and a Dictionary of the Latin Language.
To compile a dictionary, seems a work, of all others, least practicable in a state of blindness; because it depends upon perpetual and minute inspection and collation. Nor would Milton have undertaken it, after he had lost his sight, but having commenced upon it, and made some progress in it, he determined to prosecute it; but Mr. Philips observes, that the papers were so discomposed and deficient, that they could not be prepared for the press. The compilers of the Latin dictionary, printed at Cambridge, had the use of his collection, in manuscript; but the work itself was never published.
When the restoration of Charles II. took place, Milton was no longer secretary, and consequently obliged to quit the house he held by his office, and, for his own security, secrete himself in an obscure abode in Bartholomew Close.
As is was very natural for the friends of monarchy, when they had it in their power, to retaliate on the republican party, by whom they had been treated with the greatest rigour and severity; an order of council was issued to seize Milton's « Defence of the People of England,» and Goodwin's Obstructors of Justice,» another book of the same tendency, and burn them by the hands of the common hangman. The attorney-general had orders to prosecute the authors; but Milton founds means to elude the search of the officers who were sent in quest of him.
Soon after the restoration an act of oblivion passed, including all but those who had immediately co-operated in the death of the late king: but Milton, though there was every ground to conclude that he ranked in the number of those excepted by the act, found means to be included in it, and thereby saved his life. We shall relate a little anecdote respecting his escape, as told by Richardson, in his Memoirs, which he received from Pope, as delivered by Betterton. It is as follows: « In the war between the King and Parliament, Davenant, a contemporary author, but attached to the king's party, was made prisoner, and condemned to die; but was spared at the request of Milton, who had great influence with the republican party. When the turn of success brought Milton into the like danger, Davenant repaid the benefit by appearing in his favour. »
In this solitary state of blindless, having no domestic companion or attendant, he entered again into matrimony; but did not by that means improve his fortune, for the lady he espoused brought him no dowry. Dr. Johnson whimsically remarks, that all his wives were virgins, as he declared that he thought it gross and indelicate to be a second husband. Upon what other principles his choice was made cannot now be known; but marriage afforded not much of his happiness. The first wife left him in disgust, and was brought back by terror; the life of the second was short; and the third, as Philips relates, oppressed his children in his lifetime, and cheated them at his death.
Though now in his fifty-second year, infirm, blind, and by no means wealthy, the vigour of his mind was not abated; and he resumed the prosecution of his epic poem of Paradise Lost with the utmost alacrity. Many persons may justly be surprised that, under such apparent disqualifications, our author should persist in so arduous an attempt. but Dr. Johnson observes, that « Invention is the only literary labour which blindness cannot obstruct; and therefore he naturally solaced his solitude by the indulgence of his fancy, and the melody of his numbers. He had done what be knew to be necessary previous to poetical excellence; he had acquired extensive learning; he had stored his me
mory with intellectual treasures. He was skilful in many languages; and had, by reading and composing, attained the full mastery of his own. He would have wanted little help from books, even if he had retained the power of perusing them.» The progress he made in this admirable composition must have been remarked by those with whom he lived in habits of intimacy; for when he had treasured up in his memory as many lines at it could retain, he was under the necessity of employing whatever friend might be casually with him, to commit them to paper for part of the time, a regular amanuensis. foundation for many remarks and reports. who had the perasul of the manuscript for some years previous to its publication, observes, that his poetic vein never happily flowed but from the autumnal equinox to the vernal; and that whatever he attempted at other times was never to his satisfaction, though he courted his fancy ever so much; so that, in all the years he was about this poem, he may be said to have spent but half his time thereon.
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Richardson, who seems to have been very particular in his inquiries into the peculiarities of Milton, relates, that « he would sometimes lie awake whole nights, but not a verse could he make; and on a sudden his poetical faculty would rush upon him with irresistible impetuosity, and his daughter was immediately called to secure his ideas. At other times
he would dictate perhaps forty lines in succession, and then reduce them to half the number. » It appears, from his own account, that he composed great part of his poem in the night and morning, seasons when the mind is free from the ordinary occupations of life; and that he poured out with great fluency his « unpremeditated verse. » Upon this Dr. Johnson observes, that versification, free, like his, from the distress of rhyme, must, by a work so long, be made prompt and habitual; and when his thoughts were once adjusted, the words would come at his command.
The incomparable work of « Paradise Lost, » was finished in 1665, at Chalfont, in Bucks, where the author had retired from the plague, which raged at that time in London. Mr. Elwood, a quaker, and friend of Milton, having perused
the copy, said to him, « Thou hast said a great deal upon « Paradise Lost; « what hast thou to say upon « Paradise Found?« a circumstance that induced the author to undertake his poem of « Paradise Regained. >>
When the infection had ceased in London, our author left his country residence, and in 1667 sold the copy of his poem to Samuel Simmons, for the small sum of five pounds in hand, five pounds more when thirteen hundred copies should be sold of the first edition, and the same sum for the second and third editions at the time of their publication. The three editions were to be limited to fifteen hundred copies each. Pursuant to this agreement, Milton received in all fifteen pounds; and his widow, to whom the copy was to devolve, sold all her claim for eight. Such was the first reception of a work that stands in a rank of pre-eminence to all the efforts in the English language; and can boast equality with, if not superiority to, the productions of those much admired bards of the ancients, Homer and Virgil.
Many inquiries have been made, and conjectures offered, respecting the slow progress of this unparalleled poem, both in sale and reputation. That it was not received with universal approbation in the reign of Charles II. and his brother James II. may be justly imputed to political prejudice. The courtiers, who indulged in the sunshine of the favour of these monarchs, could not be supposed to have patronized a man who had exerted such superior talents to effect the downfal of monarchy, and shake the pillars of priestcraft. Besides, in those days, reading had not become a general amusement; and very few, indeed, but persons of the first rank, had attained to a degree of erudition competent to judge the merits of so learned and sublime a work. The professors of literature were as learned as those of any other time; but there were very few persons of the middle class who read for amusement or instruction, in comparison with the numerous readers of the various productions of the present age. These we apprehend are very cogent reasons for the tardy progress of this great work at that time; and to enforce them it may be observed, that when the glorious Revolution took place, and liberty and learning triumphed over despotism and
ignorance, the excellencies of « Paradise Lost, » blazed in their meridian lustre, and the reputation and sale of it proportionally advanced.
After the publication of « Paradise Lost, » the author continued the pursuit of his studies, and supplied the want of sight by the very odd expedient, of making his daughters read to him; but he excused his eldest, in consequence of her bodily infirmity, and difficult utterance of speech; the two others were condemned to the performance of reading and exactly pronouncing all the languages of whatever book he should think proper to peruse, viz. the Hebrew, the Greek, the Latin, the Italian, Spanish, and French; all which to be confined to read, without understanding one word,might be supposed a trial of patience beyond endurance. Yet it was endured by both for a long-time; thought he irksomeness of this employment could not be always concealed, but sometimes broke out into expressions of uneasiness. Dr. Johnson remarks upon this circumstance, that « in the scene of misery, which this mode of intellectual labour sets before our eyes, it is hard to determine whether the daughters or the father are most to be lamented. » A language not understood, can never be read so as to give pleasure.
The last poetical production of Milton was his « Paradise Regained, which was his favourite; and it appears, from what Elwood relates, that he could not bear to hear « Paradise Lost,» preferred to « Paradise Regained. But Milton stood alone in his opinion as to the preference of that poem. To the great veneration due to our author for the multiplicity of his attainments, and the extent of his abilities, may be added a laudable humility, which did not disdain the meanest service to the cause of literature. The poet, the controvertist, the politician, having already condescended to produce a book of rudiments for the use of children, at the close of life composed a book of Logic for the Initiation of Students in Philosophy; and soon after published a polemical work, entitled a « Treatise on true religion, Heresy, Schism, Toleration, and the best Means to prevent the Growth of Popery. »>
Three years after his « Paradise Lost, >>he published, his