Page images

law or the church, abundantly compensated for this by his transcendent excellence in the highest of the polite


Successively, under the roof of his parents, afterwards at St. Paul's School, and in due course at the University of Cambridge, young Milton received his education, and so profited by his diligence, that he came forth, in the issue, "a ripe scholar and a good one," before he had arrived at his twenty-first year. Through all his writings, whether prose or verse, his learning appears in the array of his thoughts, as well as in their adornment; however original, unborrowed, and independent of precedent or authorities these may have been. His vein for poetry showed itself early; but, till he approached manhood, this was principally exercised in Latin compositions, though occasional experiments in his own tongue strengthened and prepared his style for greater achievements in the sequel. At the age of ten years he was a poet, says Aubrey; and his fond father, to encourage him in "the idle trade" that was to "cross" his own "hopes," employed Cornelius Jansen to paint the portrait of so promising a son, "a half-length, in laced ruffles," at the price of "five broad pieces," no small sum for the honour of the little minstrel.

During this period of his life, and onward, he thus speaks of his studies :- "I must say that, after I had, for my first years, by the ceaseless diligence and care of my father (whom God recompense!) been exercised to the tongues, and some science as my age would suffer, by sundry masters and teachers, both at home and at the schools, it was found that, whether aught was imposed on me by them that had the overlooking, or betaken to of mine own choice, in English, or other tongue, prosing or versing, but chiefly the latter, the style, by certain

vital signs it had, was likely to live. But, much latelier, in the private academies of Italy, whither I was favoured to resort, perceiving that some trifles which I had composed at twenty, or thereabout* * met with acceptance above what was looked for ;—and other things, which I had shifted (in scarcity of books and conveniences), to patch up among them, were received with written encomiums, which the Italian is not forward to bestow on men on this side of the Alps;-I began thus to assent both to them, and divers of my friends at home, and not less an inward prompting, which now grew daily upon me, that, by labour and intense study (which I take to be my portion in this life), I might, perhaps, leave something so written to after-times as they should not willingly let die."-Preface to the Second Book of Church Government. A noble purpose truly, and so fulfilled in "after-times," that his countrymen will never cease to utter what he has taught his native tongue to say.

From the time of leaving Cambridge, in 1632, Milton resided five years with his father, on an estate which the latter had purchased at Horton, in the county of Bucks. This was the golden age of his life, when he was more at home, at peace, and in the enjoyment of health and ' happiness, than during any following period. Here, too, the most precious portions of his poetry, in point of richness of imagery, brilliance of colouring, and liveliness of description, were the fruits of that lucid interval of retirement. Whatever may be surmised in disparagement of his temper, either in domestic or public life, Milton must have been a dutiful and amiable son, to have continued with his parents through so long a term, in "the prime of manhood, where youth ended."

In 1637, on the death of his mother, he obtained

permission to visit Italy on a musical, as well as poetical, tour, to collect for his father the compositions of the great masters in the one art; while, for himself, he hoped to gather inspiration towards excelling in the other, by personal intercourse with the most accomplished literati there. By these he was everywhere courteously welcomed, and many poetical compliments were exchanged between the stranger and his new friends, of which several have escaped oblivion, by being usually bound up with his better productions. This circumstance proves that, though he had not then appeared as the author of any considerable work, his reputation for genius and learning was already established at home; and his claims on that account were generously recognised by illustrious foreigners in that land from which the Muses had last departed, when the northern barbarians converted Italy into a southern Scandinavia-the first land, also, to which they returned on the revival of letters in western Europe, after ten centuries of suspended animation.

It had been his purpose, on setting out, to proceed to Greece, yet more celebrated for arts, if not for arms, than Rome itself. But a voice from the far distant isles -by his classical prototypes despised and described as "cut off from the civilized world"-reached his ear. The cry of his country in distress called him home, and home therefore he hastened, after an absence of fifteen months, fully purposing, whatever that might be, to do his duty by the exercise of one of his talents, which, though not yet proved, he had assiduously cultivated from his youth upward; as he bravely avowed on a certain occasion—" I have determined to lay up, as the best treasure and solace of good old age, if God vouchsafe it to me, the honest liberty of free speech."

On the next long and arduous stage of Milton's life,

during "the Great Rebellion," as it has been called, and under the Commonwealth, from 1638, till the restoration of Charles II., in 1660, he was incessantly engaged in political controversy on all manner of debatable subjects, in that civil war of words as well as swords; or else more soberly employed in official business as Latin secretary to Cromwell.

Whatever honour he may have won, with a due proportion of obloquy, at the time, and each cleaving to his memory with a tenacity not likely to be neutralized, in either case, with parties less prejudiced than his antagonists and his admirers (to one or other of which classes all his biographers hitherto have belonged), Milton does not seem to have enriched himself with any considerable share of the spoil that fell to the disposal of Cromwell, beyond the moderate salary for his secretaryship, a thousand pounds, received by him for one of his most obnoxious publications (which had the further honour of being burned by the hands of the common hangman, after the return of the Stuarts), and the small fragment of a forfeited estate, of which he was afterwards deprived.

How zealously soever affected he may have been in what he deemed a good cause, while fighting the penand-ink battles of his country, he confesses that it was at a great sacrifice of feeling, as well as convenience, that he engaged in the strife. These are his words-“ If I were wise only to my own ends, I would certainly take such a subject [for literary composition] as of itself might catch applause (whereas this hath all the disadvantages on the contrary), and such as the publishing whereof might be delayed at pleasure, and time enough. to pencil it over with all the curious touches of art, even to the perfection of a faultless picture." Here he evidently alludes to the cherished idea of an immortal

work-probably the "Paradise Lost," then but as a seed cast into the ground, and apparently dying before it could germinate, spring up, and grow into a tree of life. "Whereas," he continues, returning to his polemics, "in this argument, the not deferring is of great moment to the good speeding, so that if solidity have leisure to do her office, art cannot have much. Lastly, I should not choose this manner of writing, wherein, knowing myself to be inferior to myself, led by the genial power of nature to another task, I have the use, as I may account, but of my left hand!"-A left hand, indeed! but it dealt tremendous blows, and such

"As made all Europe ring from side to side,"

and only less formidable than those of Cromwell's mailed hand in the battle-fields of Great Britain and Ireland, laying on deadlier strokes than poet's pen or patriot's wrath could inflict on innocent paper. In this context occurs one of those proud betrayals of conscious pre-eminence which break out in our Author's prose not less than his verse. Bespeaking pardon for his egotism, he says" Although a poet, soaring in the high region of his fancies, with his garland and singing robes about him, might, without apology, speak more of himself than I mean to do; yet for me, sitting here in the cool element of prose, a mortal thing among many readers of no empyreal conceit, to venture and divulge of myself unusual things, I shall petition to the gentler sort it may not be envy to me."-Preface to Book II. of Church Government.

In 1643, Milton married Mary, daughter of Richard Powell, Esq., of Forest Hill, in Oxfordshire. For reasons not very clear, except a defect of congeniality in their respective habits, the lady left him a few weeks

« PreviousContinue »