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CRITICISMS ON HIS WORKS,
BY DR. JOHNSON.
JOHN MILTON, the boast of his country, and the admiration of the world, was descended from an honourable family, which had long resided near Thame in Oxfordshire : but the estate annexed to it was forfeited in the perilous times of York and Lancaster. The grandfather of our poet, actuated by that intemperate zeal which is ever excited by bigotry, disinherited the father of our poet, because he renounced the doctrines of the church of Rome, to which his ancestors had been long and warmly attached. Thus deserted, he was reduced to the necessity of exerting his efforts for a support, and accordingly entered on the business of a scrivener, which he prosecuted with such success, as enabled him to retire with a competent fortune. He married a lady of Welsh extraction, by whom, with other children, he had issue, John the Poet.
John Milton, the subject of these memoirs, was born in the city of London, in the year 1608. His father must have been a literary character, as our author addresses him in one of his mest elaborate Latin Poems; it was therefore natural for him to be solicitous about the education of his son. He placed him under the private tuition of Thomas Young, a clergyman, to whom, as a token of gratitude for his care and attention, his pupil addressed an Epistolary Elegy, written when he had only attained to the age of twelve years.
Having passed some time at St. Paul's school, to which
he was sent when he left Mr. Young; he was removed to Cambridge, and admitted a pensioner of Christ's College in the year 1624. He had acquired a proficiency in the Latin language previous to his admission as a student in the University, as is evident from many of his elegiac compositions, produced in his eighteenth year, from which it appears, in the opinion of Dr. Johnson, that he must have then read the Roman authors with very nice discernment. Indeed, it has been remarked, by an eminent literary character, that Milton was the first Englishman who, after the revival of letters, wrote Latin verses with classical elegance.
When he first became a student in the University, he had formed a resolution of devoting himself to the service of the church; but, in course of time, he declined it, from an objection he had to some established rites and ceremonies, to which he must have been under a necessity of subscribing previous to his being admitted into orders. His words upon this occasion are, « Whoever became a clergyman, must subscribe slave, and take an oath withal, which, unless he took conscientiously, he must perjure himself> He thought it better to prefer a blameless silence before the office of speaking, bought and begun with servitude and forswearing.
Having taken his degree of Master of Arts, in 1632, he left college, and resided five years with his father at Horton in Buckinghamshire, where he wrote his « Arcades; » and in 1634 he produced his « Masque of Comus, » which was presented at Ludlow, then the residence of the Lord President of Wales, and patronized by the Earl of Bridgwater, whose sons and daughters performed in the piece.
The next production of our author was « Lycidas» a monody on the death of his friend Edward King. Milton, in this monody, evinces, as Dr. Johnson observes, his knowledge of the Italian writers, by a mixture of longer and shorter verses, according to the rules of Tuscan poetry.
He left England in 1638, and went to Paris, where he visted the renowned Grotius, who resided at the French court as ambassador from the Queen of Sweden. From Paris he departed for Italy, where, from the knowledge he had acquired of the language and literature of the country, he
could not fail of commanding the attention and respect of the great and the learned. Notwithstanding the frank and undissembled manner in which he avowed his political and religious opinions, he was introduced, by the keeper of the Vatican library at Rome, to Cardinal Barberini (afterwards Pope Urban VIII.) who, at a musical entertainment, took the bard by the hand, and conducted him into an assembly composed of the first personages in the kingdom.
Having visited Rome, he proceded to Naples, where he was introduced to Manso, Marquis of Villa, patron of the celebrated Italian Poet Tasso. The Marquis, who was not only an admirer of learning, but a profound scholar himself, complimented Milton in some elegant lines of poetry; and our author returned the obligation in a Latin address, which, Johnson observes, must have raised an high opinion of English elegance and literature. He designed to have extended his travels to Sicily and Greece; but hearing of the commotions which prevailed in England, through the differences which subsisted between Charles I. and the Parliament, he considered himfelf as called upon by his duty to hasten home, judging it criminal to indulge in foreign amusements, or remain indifferent, while his countrymen were contending for their constitutional rights. He therefore came back to Rome, fearless of danger; though intimation had been given him of designs formed against his life by the Jesuits, for the freedom with which he had animadverted on topics appertaining to their religion. One cause of their enmity is supposed to have arisen from his visiting the great Galileo, at that time a prisoner in the inquisition, for having taught the annual and diurnal motions of the earth 1.
On his return to London, he undertook the education
1. Johnson says he was imprisoned for philosophical heresy; phrase as absurd as illiberal; for if the Deity is known by his works, those who contemplate them most, and explain them best, are entitled to the highest regard; and the objection of Johnson might be urged with equal propriety against the pursuits of the English philosopher Newton, as against those of the Italian philosopher Galileo.
of his sister's sons; and received other young persons into his house to be boarded and instructed. In his thirty-first year he married Mary, the daughter of Richard Powell, Esq. a man of respectability in the county of Oxford; but he did not long enjoy the pleasures of a conjugal life, as a separation, or rather desertion, on the part of the wife, took place in the course of a month after the ceremony of the nuptials. He sent her many letters, soliciting her return, but without the least effect: he then dispatched a messenger, whose mission was treated with the utmost indifference. He was induced, by her refractory behaviour, to publish several Treatises on << The Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce.» His wife soon afterwards returned to him.
From the time at which the last mentioned event took place, to the period of the Restoration, Milton was chiefly occupied in political and polemical disquisitions. The Allegro and Penseroso, however, appeared in a Collection of Latin and English poems, published in 1645.
It is natural to suppose, from the complexion of the times, in which an ardent love of liberty prevailed, that our author derived much more emolument from his political productions, than from any efforts in the higher departments of literature. This appears evident from the great success which attended the publication of his « Defence of the People of England,» in answer to Salmasius, professor of the belles lettres at Leyden, a man well versed in languages and antiquity, who was employed by Charles II. when in exile to write a defence of his father and monarchy, under the title of « Defensio Regis. »> Milton, for his defence, etc. was rewarded with a thousand pounds; a snm to which the profits resulting from all his poetical publications put together bore no degree of proportion. His allusions in this tract were so poignant, that, according to the report of his partizans, they killed his antagonist with vexation : but the loss of his sight, from a gutta serena, which had affected his eyes for some time, afforded the partizans of his antagonist ample scope for retort: such are the effects of bigotry and prejudice, which cannot fail of reflecting dishonour on the noblest cause that can be epoused.
But a more important advantage accrued to our author, from his controversial writing, than an immediate pecuniary gratification; for though he had been blind a considerable time, he was appointed Latin Secretary to the Protector; and as his mind was too eager to be diverted, and too strong to be subdued, he discharged his office with the greatest ability. Soon after his appointment to this office he lost his wife, who left him three daughters; but he does not seem to have been much affected by that incident; for within a short time from her demise he espoused another, who did not long survive the former. To the memory of the last he inscribed a few elegiac verses.
As we avow, and wish, upon every occasion, to observe the most inviolable impartiality, we cite the following passage, translated from his second « Defence of the People of England, «< originally written in Latin, from which Johnson infers, with the greatest propriety, that « Cesar, when he assumed the perpetual dictatorship, had not more servile or more elegant flattery than was bestowed on the Protector. » Having exposed the unskilfulness or selfishness of the former government, upon monarchical principles, « We were left,» says Milton, addressing himself to Oliver Cromwell, <<< to ourselves the whole national interest fell into your hands, and subsists only in your abilities. To your virtue, overpowerful and resistless, every man gives way, except some, who, without equal qualifications, aspire to equal honours; who envy the distinctions of merit greater than their own; or who have yet to learn, that, in the coalition of human society, nothing is more pleasing to God, or more agreable to reason, than that the highest mind should have the sovereign power. Such, Sir, are you by general confession; such are the things achieved by you, the greatest and most glorious of our countrymen, the director of our public councils, the leader of unconquered armies, the father of your country; for by that title does every good man hail you, with sincere and volontary praise. » Such is the elegant translation of Doctor Johnson from the Latin of Milton; and it is but justice to observe, that it does honour to the original.