Page images

In this instance alone, I am a dissembler against my will. My face, which is said to indicate a total privation of blood, is of a complexion entirely opposite to the pale and the cadaverous; so that though I am more than forty years old, there is scarcely any one to whom I do not appear ten years younger than I am; and the smoothness of my skin is not in the least affected by the wrinkles of age.'

[ocr errors]

One of the calumnies often uttered against Milton by his controversial adversaries, no doubt for the purpose of galling him, as he was notoriously sensitive and fastidious on that subject, was that he was a man of licentious and immoral life. These accusations he often repels with lofty and fervent indignation; and it must be allowed that his notions of chastity were in the highest (lights of Platonism, and his principles of religion and duty (no matter how they may have been misdirected) drawn from the rigid schools of primitive Christianity.

He thus replies, in his "Defensio Secunda," to the charge, that his blindness was a Divine visitation for his corrupt life and principles.

"I wish I could with equal facility refute what this barbarous opponent has said of my blindness; but I cannot do it, and I must submit to the affliction. It is not so wretched to be blind, as it is to be incapable of enduring blindness. But why should I not endure a misfortune which it behoves every man to endure if it should happen; which may in the common course of things happen to any man, and which has happened to the most distinguished and virtuous persons in history? What is related of the augur Tiresias is well known; of whom Apollonius sang thus in his drgonautics,'

'To men he dared (he will Divine disclose,

Nor feared what Jove might in his wrath impose.
The gods assigned him age without decay,
But snatched the blessing of his sight away.'

But God himself is truth; in propagating which, as men display a
greater integrity and zeal, they approach nearer to the similitude of
God, and possess a greater portion of his love. The loss of sight,
therefore, which this inspired sage, who was so eager in promoting
knowledge among men, sustained, cannot be considered as a judicial
punishment. And did not our Saviour himself declare that the
poor man whom he had restored to sight had not been born blind
either on account of his sins, or those of his progenitors?
And with respect to myself, though I have accurately examined my
conduct and scrutinized my soul, I call thee, O God, the searcher of
hearts, to witness, that I am not conscious, either in the earlier or
the later periods of my life, of any enormity which might deservedly
have marked me out as a fit object for such a calamitous visitation.
But since my enemies boast that this affliction is only a retribution
for the transgressions of my pen, I again invoke the Almighty to
witness that I never at any time wrote any thing which I did not think

This was my persuasion
Thus therefore, when I

agreeable to truth, to justice, and to piety. then, and I feel the same persuasion now. was publicly solicited to write a reply to the defence of the royal cause, when I had to contend with the pressure of sickness, and with the apprehension soon of losing the sight of my remaining eye, (the right,) and when my medical attendants clearly announced, that if I did engage in this work it would be irreparably lost, their premonitions caused no hesitation, and inspired no dismay. I would not have listened to the voice even of Esculapius himself from the shrine of Epidaurus, in preference to the suggestions of the heavenly monitor within my breast. My resolution was unskaken, though the alternative was either the loss of my sight or the desertion of my duty; and I called to mind those two destinies which the oracle of Delphi announced to the son of Thetis : I considered that many had purchased a less good by a greater evil,—the meed of glory by the loss of life; but that I might procure great good by little suffering: that though blind, I may still discharge the most honourable duties, the performance of which, as it is something more durable than glory, ought to be an object of superior admiration and esteem. I resolved, therefore, to make the short interval of sight which was left me to enjoy, as beneficial as possible to the public interest. But, if the choice was necessary, I would, Sir, prefer my blindness to yours yours is a cloud spread over the mind, which darkens both the light of reason and of conscience; mine keeps from my view only the coloured surfaces of things, while it leaves me at liberty to contemplate the beauty and stability of virtue and of truth. There is, as the Apostle hath remarked, a way to strength through weakLet me then be the most feeble creature alive, as long as that feebleness serves to invigorate the energies of my rational and immortal spirit; as long as in that darkness in which I am enveloped, the light of the Divine presence more clearly shines! And indeed in my blindness, I enjoy in no inconsiderable degree the favour of the Deity; who regards me with more tenderness and compassion in proportion as I am able to behold nothing but himself. Alas for him, who insults, who maligns me, and merits public execration! for the Divine law not only shields me from injury, but almost renders me too sacred for attack; not indeed so much from the privation of my sight, as from the overshadowing of those heavenly wings which seem to have occasioned this darkness."


The latter part of this passage is a complete and sublime commentary on the celebrated opening of the third book of Paradise Lost. In his beautiful sonnet to Syriac Skinner he thus reverts to his blindness :—

'Yet I argue not

Against Heaven's hand or will, nor bate a jot
Or heist or hope; but still bear up, and steer
Kighl onward. What supports me, dost thou ask?
The conscience, friend, to have lost tbem overplied

In liberty's defence, my noble (ask,

Of which all Europe rings from side to side.

This thought might lead me through the world's vain mask
Content, though blind, had I no better guide."

The following extracts are only portions of his own defence. "I wai confirmed in this opinion, that he who would not be frustrate of his hope to write well hereafter in laudable things, ought himself be a true poem ; that is, a composition and pattern of the best and most honourable things; not presuming to sing high praises of heroic men or famous cities, unless he have in himself the experience and the practice of all that is praiseworthy. These reasonings, together with a certain niceness of nature, an honest haughtiness, and self-esteem, either of what I was, or what I might be, (which let envy call pride,) and lastly that modesty, whereof (though not in the title-page) yet here I may be excused to make some beseeming profession; all these uniting kept me still above those low descents of mind, beneath which he must deject and plunge himself, that can agree to saleable and unlawful prostitutions. Next (for hear me out now, readers) that I may tell ye whither my young feet wandered, I betook me among those lofty fables and romances, which recount in solemn cantos the deeds of knighthood founded by our victorious kings, and from hence held in renown all over Christendom. There I read it in the oath of every knight, that he should defend at the expense of his best blood, or of his life if it so befel him, the honour and chastity of virgin or matron; from whence even then I learned what a noble virtue chastity sure must be, to the defence of which so many worthies, by such a dear adventure of themselves, had sworn; and if I found in the story afterwards any of them by word or deed breaking that oath, I judged it the same fault of the poet, as that which is attributed to Homer, to have written indecent things of the gods: only this my mind conceived, that every free and noble spirit, without that oath, ought to be a knight, and not need to expect the gilt spur, or the laying of a sword upon his shoulder, to stir him up to secure and protect the weakness of any attempted chastity. So that even these books, which to many others have been the fuel of wantonness and loose living, I cannot think how, unless by Divine indulgence, proved to me so many incitements, as you have heard, to the love and steadfast observation of that virtue which abhors the society of bordelloes. Thus from the laureate fraternity of poets, riper years, and the ceaseless round of study and reading, led me to the shady walks of philosophy; but chiefly to the divine volumes of Plato, and his equal Xenophon; where, if I should tell ye what I learned of chastity and love, I mean that which is truly so, whose charming cup is only virtue, which she bears in her hand to those who are worthy; and how the first and chiefest office of love begins and ends in the soul, producing those happy twins of her generation, knowledge and virtue.”


Hit System ot Education—Marriage—his First Proie Works—Reconciliation with his Wife.

On his return to England in 1G39, he was greatly afflicted to hear that his dear school-fellow and friend, a distinguished member of Trinity College, Oxford, and subsequently a physician in Cheshire, Charles Diodati, to whom he had addressed some of his warmest epistles, was dead. It was in honour of his memory he now composed his "Epitaphium Damonis," a beautiful production. He first took lodgings in St. Bride's churchyard, and soon after took a large detached house, situated in a garden in Aldersgate Street. (There were many such houses in the old city before the great fire, generally occupied by the nobility and gentry.) Here he undertook the education of his nephews, the Phillipses, and by special favour the sons of a few select friends; not, however, for pecuniary remuneration, as is vulgarly supposed, for he was then in independent circumstances. The course of classical reading which he prescribed, and the long and laborious attention which he exacted, would startle many of the most diligent and deep-read classical scholars of these times. Besides the standard authors familiar to most readers, and which are those only read at the high academies and most colleges, his course comprehended in Latin, the four authors concerning husbandry—Cato, Varro, Columella, and Palladius; Celsus; a great part of Pliny's Natural History; the architecture of Vitruvius; the stratagems of Frontinus; and the philosophical poets—Lucretius and Manilius. In Greek, Hesiod; Aratus' Phenomena and Diosemæia; Dionysius Afer de Situ Orbis; Oppian's Cynegetics and Halieutics; Quintus Calaber's Poems of the Trojan War, continued from Homer; Apollonius Rhodius's Argonautics: and in prose Plutarch's Placita Philosophorum, and "Of the Education of Children;" Xenophon's Cyropædia and Anabasis; .Mian's Tactics; and the Stratagems of Polyænus. "Nor," says his nephew and pupil, "did this application to the Greek and Latin languages, which, from his excellent judgment and easy way of teaching, were run over by his pupils to the age of sixteen, hinder the attaining to the Oriental languages—the Hebrew, the Chaldee, and the Syriac, so far as to go through the Pentateuch or five books of Moses; to make a good entrance into the Targum or Chaldee paraphrase; and to understand several chapters of St. Matthew in the Syriac Testament; besides Italian and French, and a competent knowledge of mathematics and astronomy. The Sunday's exercise was, for the most part, to read a chapter in the Greek Testament, and to hear his exposition of it; after this to write from his dictation some part of a system of divinity,

which he had collected from all the ablest divines ancient and modern." The spare diet of himself and pupils was in perfect keeping with their hard labour from an early hour till near midnight. Only now and then, once in three weeks or a month, he made a "gaudy day" (in which his pupils participated) with some gentlemen of his acquaintance, two of whom, Alphrey and Miller, of Gray's Inn, were the greatest beaux of the time. Be it remembered that these classical books were to be studied in addition to the long course of the ordinary classics; to the oriental languages; mathematics, and astronomy. Though he instructed these young gentlemen in these works partially, his great aim, as his eyes were weakened by continued study before, was to imbibe the essence of all their knowledge and beauties, for the pupils read the different passages in the various works alternately aloud. Thus while he communicated, he received instruction.

But he soon embarked in other and more arduous undertakings. In 1641 a loud clamour was raised against episcopacy; in this he joined with all his energies, and published his treatise "Of Reformation," to help the Dissenters, who, as he says in his "Defensio Secunda," were inferior to the Episcopalians in learning and eloquence. Five ministers wrote an answer, under the title of "Smectymnuus," (a word formed from the first letters of their names,) to the "Humble Remonstrance in favour of Episcopacy" by the eloquent Bishop Hall, of Norwich. Of this the famous Archbishop Usher published a "Confutation." Milton having now found an antagonist worthy of his prowess, boldly entered the lists of controversy against him, and published his treatise of "Prelatical Episcopacy. This he soon followed up more at large by his " Reason of Church Government urged against Prelaty," in two books: and Bishop Hall having published" A Defence of the Humble Remonstrance," Milton replied in his "Animadversions." All these he published in one year, 1641. In 1642 he published the "Apology for Smectymnuus," in answer to a "Confutation of the Animadversions." Yet diough clearly actuated by a conscientious feeling of duty in these works, he avows his repugnance to the task, for he says in his introduction to the Second Book of his "Reason of Church Government,"—"In this manner of writing, wherein knowing myself inferior to myself, led by the genial powers of nature to another task, I have the use, as I may account it, but of my left hand."

In 1643, during the Whitsuntide vacation, he made a journey to the country for a month, and on his return surprised his pupils and family by introducing his wife, Miss Mary Powell, the eldest daughter of Mr. Richard Powell, of Forest Hill, near Shotover, in Oxfordshire, a justice of the peace, and a gentleman of considerable respectability in that county. In about a month she obtained his permission to visit her family, promising to return at Michaelmas. Meantime the hard reading went on as unceasingly as ever. Michael

« PreviousContinue »