Page images

and fields of Buckinghamshire reproduced not only in the scenery of "L'Allegro" and "Lycidas," but in his pictures of the arbours of Eden and the valleys of Heaven. His family circle was not numerous, but it was select, consisting of his father and mother, a married sister older than himself, and a younger brother engaged in the study of the law. By living in the country he was enabled with greater ease to preserve entire his personal purity and his temperate and devotional habits. His amusements consisted principally of botanising excursions through the neighbouring country, of musical entertainments, and of occasional visits to London for books, lessons in mathematics, and the like. Here, doubtless, passages of early love occurred, which tended still more to fan his poetic fire, although no trace of their particulars can now be discovered. He seems to have occasionally visited the accomplished Countess Dowager of Derby, residing in Harefield Place, hard by Horton, whose grandchildren performed the "Arcades." According to some accounts, he at this time, in the course of visits to the beautiful village of Foresthill, near Oxford, met with Mary Powell, daughter of Squire Powell, and destined to become his wife. Here, certainly, he wrote those beautiful minor poems, "L'Allegro," "Penseroso," ," "Penseroso," "Arcades," "Lycidas," and "Comus," which themselves constitute a claim to a reputation at least as great as Tasso's or Wordsworth's, even although "Paradise Lost" and "Paradise Regained" had never appeared. "Comus", was written for his father's landlord, the Earl of Bridgewater, and enacted in 1634 at his lordship's residence of Castle Ludlow.

In 1637 his mother died, and Milton prevailed on his father to permit him to visit the Continent. Probably he found his sphere at Horton but too comfortable and contracted for his expanding genius, and it might be that one of those sudden longings for travel which often cross the souls of the solitary had come irresistibly over his. Like Keats, he felt that "happy was England, sweet her artless daughters," but felt, too, a strong desire to see "beauties of deeper glance," and to

"Sit upon an Alp as on a throne."

He wished, besides, to visit Italy for the sake of its music, and designed to form a collection of it whilst there. Having obtained directions as to his travels from Sir Henry Wotton, to whom he had communicated his purpose, he set out in 1638, attended by a single servant. We remember few finer subjects for contemplation or picture than that of Milton in the prime of his life-with youth and manhood mingling on his brow-with his long auburn hair-with his beautiful Grecian face-with a mild majestic enthusiasm glowing in his eyes-with cheek tenderly flushed by exercise and country air-with a form erect and buoyant with hope-with a body and soul pure and uncontaminated-and bearing, like one of the ancient gods, a musical instrument in his hand, leaving the Horton solitude upon his travels to the lands of romance and poetry. How different from the spectacle presented nearly two centuries afterwards, of Byron, soured, satiated, old in passion and misery, although younger than Milton in years, setting out on his journey in search of oblivion! The one seemed a monstrous mixture of Apollo the beautiful, and Vulcan the vicious and lame; the other the very god of poesy himself, as when he kept the flocks of Admetus, or tuned his lute

"Sole sitting on the shores of old Romance."

He went first to Paris, where he remained a few days, and was, through Lord Scudamore, introduced to Grotius, then the Swedish ambassador to France, and in his fifty-sixth year. The interview between the young poet and the mature scholar must have been interesting. Milton could appreciate the learning of Grotius, and probably liked him none the less for his Arminianism. Grotius, as his metrical translations from the Greek prove, was far from destitute of poetical feeling, and must have loved the ingenuous and high-minded Englishman. Indeed, Milton's nephew tells us that he took the visit kindly, and gave him entertainment suitable to his worth, and to the high commendations he had heard of him. From Paris he went to Nice, and thence to Genoa, and thence to Florence, where he stayed for two months. He was received with the highest honours by the literati of that city, and became a

welcome guest at their "academies," as the reunions of the learned were then termed. We can conceive the rapture with which he felt himself in the city of Dante, perused the masterpieces of Italian art, gazed on the beautiful environs of the city, and, above all, mingled for the first time, to any full measure, in the society of men of kindred tastes and feelings. Of these, Dati wrote a Latin eulogy on him, and Francini an Italian ode in his praise, and Malatesti dedicated to him one of his works. At this time, too, occurred his celebrated interview with Galileo, then in the dungeons of the Inquisition; surely another theme for the noblest pencil-the meeting of Italy's old savan and England's young genius, the grayhaired sage, each wrinkle on his forehead the furrow of a star, and the "Lady of his College," with his long curling locks, and a dream of Eden sleeping on his smooth brow; while the dim twilight of the cell, spotted by the fierce eyes of the officials, seemed the age too late or too early on which both had fallen—a meeting like that of Morning with her one star, and day in the distance, and of Midnight, with all her melancholy maturity and host of diminished suns.

From Florence he went by way of Sienna to Rome, where other and yet rarer thrills of delight awaited him. Although few if any allusions to the works of Italian statuary, painting, or architecture occur in his writings; and although some of his commentators have in vain sought to find traces of resemblance between some great Italian pictures and certain scenes in his "Paradise Lost," there can be no doubt that a mind so susceptible as his, drank in influence and inspiration from the sculptures, the paintings, and buildings of the Eternal City, from the dome of St Peter's seen by morning light, and from the ruins of Mount Palatine dim-discovered in the midnight moon. Michael Angelo, like Dante, was of a genius kindred to Milton's own-stern, lofty, ever covered by the shadow of the Infinite; and it were treason against both to suppose that the one was not enchanted by the productions of the other. At Rome, as at Florence, he was treated with the utmost consideration, particularly by Holstenius, the keeper of the Vatican library; by Cardinal Barberini, the patron cardinal of the

English; and by Salvaggi and Salsilli, who praised his powers and learning in verses which were afterwards prefixed to his Latin poems.

From Rome, after two months' stay, he proceeded to Naples in the company of a religious recluse, who introduced him to John Baptista Manso, the Marquis of Villa. This eminent person had been the patron of Tasso, and received with open arms a far greater than he. Such were his attentions to Milton that, in gratitude, on his departure from Naples, he presented him with his elegant eclogue entitled "Mansus,” a poem well calculated, by even Dr Johnson's confession, to raise in the noble Italian a very high opinion of English taste and literature. Manso, in his turn, addressed a complimentary distich to Milton. From Naples he intended to have proceeded to Sicily and Greece. How he must have regretted, and how much we also may, that he had not fulfilled his intention-not seen with that anointed and anointing eye of his—

"Etna's fires grow dim before the rising day"—

the vale of Tempe, the pastures of Peneus, the heights of Parnassus, the unmelted snows of Olympus, the gray plain of Marathon, and the marvellous combination of natural and artistic beauties which gathers round the city of Athens; nay, that he had not extended his tour eastwards to those awful lands which must far oftener have visited his dreams, where Siloa's brook still flows, where Olivet still looks down on the Holy City, and the scathed summits of Sinai tower into the torrid air as boldly as on that morning when the Ancient of Days descended on them! But he had heard of the great controversy which was raging in his native country, and this drew him back from what had been the cherished purpose of his soul. "I thought it base," he says, "to be travelling for amusement abroad while my fellow-citizens were fighting for liberty at home." And with probably a few natural sighs and wistful looks cast to the east, he turned his steps and went back to Rome. His language, while in that city before, on the subject of religion, had been fearless and outspoken. This had made him enemies, and had restrained the kindness of

[ocr errors]

friends. He was now warned that the Jesuits were framing plots against him, and that if he would escape their malice he must "keep his thoughts close and his countenance open.' Such warnings and advices he did not regard, but continued two more months in Rome, and altered in no whit either his conduct or his language. From Rome he proceeded again to Florence, and then visited Lucca. He next crossed the Apennines, and went by Bologna and Ferrara to Venice, in which city he spent a month; thence he took his course through Verona, Milan, and along the lake Leman, to Geneva. In this part of his journey he, of course, saw the Alps; and the eye of Milton, looking at the dome of Mont Blanc, must itself have been a sight. After spending After spending some time in Geneva, where he became intimate with Deodati and Spanheim, he returned through France, and arrived at home after fifteen months' absence. During that time, the scenery and manners with which he came in contact were silently and unalterably daguerreotyping themselves upon his mind; but it is even more important to observe that, according to his own express and solemn statement, he came back as he had gone out, a virgin, free of all taint from the licentious lands he had traversed. Art alone could not thus have preserved her votary, however ardent and sincere-Religion only could.

Returned to London, he hired a lodging in St Bride's Churchyard, Fleet Street, and undertook the education of his sister's sons, John and Edward Phillipps, the first ten, the other nine years of age; and in a year's time made them capable of interpreting a Latin author at sight! From Fleet Street, finding his house not large enough, he passed to Aldersgate Street, where he took a commodious and handsome house, situated at the end of an entry, and in a garden, and received a few more pupils besides his nephews. It has been objected to him that, instead of taking public part in the grand struggle of the age, he should have sunk down into a schoolmaster. Milton was himself the best judge. He felt that he could serve the popular cause better by his pen than by his sword. He sate calmly down, therefore, to WRITE down every species of arbitrary power, and supported himself


« PreviousContinue »