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I. ON THE LIFE OF MILTON.
THE life of a poet has too often an attraction which draws one insensibly away from the enjoyment of his poetry to a study of biography. Perhaps the temptation is robbed of its enchantment, and again, perhaps it is furnished with charms more deceitfully attractive, when we read a man's life in his own words. However this may be, there is a certain pleasure, if one must read something about a poet, in reading what he said about himself. Milton never wrote a formal autobiography, and yet from one or another of his writings we can put together enough to give us a good idea of the circumstances of his life, and at the same time some little idea of what sort of man was the writer.
In the active period of his life, shortly after the execution of Charles I., Milton wrote and published at the request of Parliament a " Defence of the People of England." The pamphlet was violently attacked by the adherents of the King, and, according to a habit now almost entirely passed away, in the answer to Milton's "Defence" was mingled much aspersion of a very personal nature. To this answer Milton replied, in a "Second Defence," not only with some unfortunate slanders of his own, but with a dignified, temperate statement of his life and work.
"I will now mention who and whence I am. I was born at London,1 of an honest family; my father was distinguished by the undeviating integrity of his life; my mother by the esteem in which she was held, and the alms which she bestowed. My father destined me from a child to the 1 1 Dec. 9, 1608.
pursuits of literature; and my appetite for knowledge was so voracious, that from twelve years of age, I hardly ever left my studies or went to bed before midnight. This primarily led to my loss of sight. My eyes were naturally weak, and I was subject to frequent headaches; which, however, could not chill the ardour of my curiosity, or retard the progress of my improvement. My father had me daily instructed in the grammar school, and by other masters at home. He then, after I had acquired a proficiency in various languages, and had made a considerable progress in philosophy, sent me to the University of Cambridge. Here I passed seven years in the usual course of instruction and study, with the approbation of the good, and without any stain upon my character, till I took the degree of Master of Arts. After this I did not, as this miscreant1 feigns, run away into Italy, but of my own accord retired to my father's house, whither I was accompanied by the regrets of most of the fellows of the college, who showed me no common marks of friendship and esteem.
"On my father's estate, where he had determined to pass the remainder of his days, I enjoyed an interval of uninterrupted leisure, which I entirely devoted to the perusal of the Greek and Latin classics; though I occasionally visited the metropolis, either for the sake of purchasing books, or of learning something new in mathematics or in music, in which I, at that time, found a source of pleasure and amusement. In this manner I spent five years, till my mother's death; I then became anxious to visit foreign parts, and particularly Italy." ("The Second Defence," Prose Works, Ed. Bohn, i. 254.)
A serious, earnest youth was Milton's, devoted to preparation for good work. We may add a passage or two from other writings, which will serve to show further his disposition, although they do not mention that this early period produced the poems "L'Allegro," "Il Penseroso,' "Comus," and "Lycidas."
1The presumed author of the answer to the Defence of the People of England, Alexander More.
2 At Horton, in Buckinghamshire.
"I must say, therefore, 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 sciences, 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 me by them that had the overlooking, or betaken to of mine own choice in English, or other tongue, prosing or versing, but chiefly this latter, the style, by certain vital signs it had, was likely to live. [He then speaks of the encomiums of certain, and goes on.] I began thus far to assent both to them and divers of my friends here at home, and not less to 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), joined with the strong propensity of nature, I might perhaps leave something so written to aftertimes, as they should not willingly let it die. Neither do I think it shame to covenant with any knowing reader, that for some years yet I may go on trust with him toward the payment of what I am now indebted, as being a work not to be raised from the heat of youth, on the vapours of some vulgar amourist, or the trencher fury of a rhyming parasite; nor to be obtained by the invocation of Dame Memory and her siren daughters, but by devout prayer to that eternal Spirit who can enrich with all utterance and knowledge, and sends out his seraphim, with the hallowed fire of his altar, to touch and purify the lips of whom he pleases: 2 to this must be added industrious and select reading, steady observation, insight into all seemly and generous arts and affairs; till which in some measure be compassed, at mine own peril and cost, I refuse not to sustain this expectation from as many as are not loth to hazard so much credulity upon the best pledges that I can give them." ("The Reason of Church Government," Works, ii. 479-481).
66 How soon
1 Mnemosyne and the Muses.
2See Paradise Lost, i. 17; written long after this.
Perhaps my semblance might deceive the truth
In such a manner passed the first part of Milton's life, ending with the delightful journey to Italy, which was to him afterward the source of much happy recollection. From Italy he returned as events were drifting into the vil war, for, as he says, he "thought it base to be travelling for amusement abroad, while [his] fellow-citizens were fighting for liberty at home."
Here begins the second period of Milton's life. Giving up for the moment the thought of literature, he devoted himself to the cause in which he stoutly believed. His particular strength lying with the pen rather than with the sword, he wrote many pieces, at first defending the ideas of the Puritans on Church Government, and afterward defending their acts in governing England. During these years, too, he had private interests of his own, some of them, unfortunately, of a nature we cannot well be proud of. In May, 1643, he married Mary Powell, the daughter of a Royalist gentleman of Oxfordshire. She was but half his age, and the marriage was not a happy one. She remained with him but a month, and then returned to her father's house. This was occasion for Milton's publishing four pamphlets upon divorce, which ought to be mentioned as representing Milton at his worst, almost the contrary of what we would imagine him from. "Paradise Lost." Nor need we say more of his pamphlets on Church Government, or in defence of the Parliament.