Page images




THIS most extraordinary man, this prince of English poets, this consistent champion of civil and religious liberty, was the son of John Milton and Sarah Caston; they had two other children, ANNA, who married Edward Philips; and CHRISTOPHER, bred to the common law.

Mr. JOHN MILTON was born in Bread-street, in the City of London, December 9, 1608,* descended of an ancient family of that name at Milton, near Abingdon, in Oxfordshire, where it had been a long time settled, as appears from the monument still to be seen in the church of Milton; till one of the family having taken the unfortunate side in the contest between the houses of York and Lancaster, was sequestered of all his estate, except what he held by his wife. The

* "The 20th day of December, 1608, was baptised John, the son of John Mylton, scrivener."-Extract from the Registry of All-hallows, Bread-street.


poet's grandfather, whose name also was John Milton, was under ranger, or keeper, of the forest of Shotover, near Horton, in Oxfordshire, he being a zealous papist. His father was a polite man, a great master of music, and, by profession, a scrivener, in which calling, through his diligence and honesty, he got a competent estate in a short time; for he was disinherited by his bigoted parents for embracing the Protestant religion, and abjuring the popish idolatry. He lived at the sign of the Spread Eagle, (the armorial bearings of the family,) in Bread-street. Of his mother, it is said, "she was a woman of incomparable virtue and goodness." JOHN MILTON was destined to be a scholar: and partly under domestic tutors, (whereof one was THOMAS YOUNG,* to whom the first of his familiar letters is inscribed; and afterwards, Dr. GILL, the chief master of Paul's School, to whom, likewise, the fifth of the same letters is inscribed,) he made an incredible progress in the knowledge of words and things, his diligence and inclination outstripping the care of his instructors; and after he was twelve years of age, such was his insatiable thirst for learning, that he seldom went to bed before midnight. Being thus initiated into several

* He was afterwards chaplain to the English merchants at Hamburgh. His pupil dedicated a poem to him. Aubrey calls him "a Puritan in Essex, who cut his hair


tongues, and having not slightly tasted the inexpressible sweets of philosophy, he was sent, at the age of fifteen, to Christ's College, in Cambridge, to pursue more arduous and solid studies.

In the same year he gave several proofs of his early genius for poetry. His first essay was to translate some psalms into English verse, whereof the 114th thus commences:

"When the bless'd seed of TERAH'S faithful son,
After long toil their liberty had won;

And past from Pharian fields to Canaan land,
Led by the strength of the Almighty's hand;
Jehovah's wonders were in Israel shown,
His praise and glory was in Israel known."

In his seventeenth year, he wrote a handsome copy of verses on a child of his sister, who had died of a consumption. In this year also he composed a Latin Elegy on the death of the Bishop of WINCHESTER, and another on that of the Bishop of ELY; anda bout the same time he composed his fine poem on the Gunpowder Treason Plot. Of these juvenile productions MAROHOF* says: "That MILTON's writings show him to have been a man from his childhood; and that these poems are exceedingly above the ordinary capacity of that age."

He spent seven years at Cambridge, "where he lived with great reputation, and was generally be* In his Polyhistar Literaturius.

[ocr errors]

loved. But having obtained the degree of Master of Arts, in 1632, and performed his exercises with much applause, he left the university; for he aimed not at any of those learned professions that require a longer stay in that place." Some of his academic performances are still extant among his occasional poems, and at the end of his familiar letters. He was now twenty-four years of age. From this time till 1637 he lived at his father's house at Horton, near Colebrook, in Buckinghamshire here he had full opportunity to peruse all the Greek and Latin writers. He was not, however, so much in love with solitude but that he frequently visited London for the purpose of purchasing books, and to meet his old friends from the university; or to learn something new in the mathematics, or in music, in which he extraordinarily delighted. It was during this period that he wrote, while in London, the Latin Elegy to his intimate friend CHARLES DIODATI, wherein were some verses which expressed his preference of the pleasures of London to the drudgery of the university. "It was on this account," says Toland, "that some persons, no less ignorant than malicious, afterwards took a handle to assert, that he was either expelled for some misdemeanour from Cambridge, or that he left it in discontent, because he obtained no preferment; or that he spent his time in London with lewd women, or at the

play-houses; but," he adds, "the falsity of this story we shall in due place demonstrate."

His first work of consequence was written and enacted in 1634. This was his "Comus," entitled a "A Maske, presented at Ludlow Castle, 1634, on Michaelmass night, before the Right Honourable John, Earl of Bridgewater, Viscount Brackly, Lord President of Wells, and one of his Majesty's most honourable Privy Counsell.*" In the year 1637 he wrote the inimitable poem called "Lycidas," of which the manuscript is still preserved in the Egyptian Library, Trinity College, Cambridge.

The death of his mother happened about this time, so that he felt himself at liberty to carry into effect his favourite object; and having obtained his father's consent, he resolved to make the tour of Europe. His reason for wishing to travel in foreign countries, is quaintly expressed by Toland, to have been a persuasion, "that he could not better discern the pre-eminence or defects of his own country, than by observing the customs and institutions of others; and that the study of never so many books, without the advantages of conversation, serves either to render a man a stupid fool, or an insufferable pedant."

* "London : printed for Humphrey Robinson, at the sign of the Three Pigeons, in Paul's Church Yard. 1637.”"

« PreviousContinue »