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LIFE OF JOHN MILTON.
THE life of Milton has been already written in so many forms, and with such minute inquiry, that I might perhaps more properly have contented myself with the addition of a few notes on Mr. Fenton's elegant Abridgment, but that a new narrative was thought necessary to the uniformity of this edition.
JOHN MILTON was by birth a gentleman, descended from the proprietors of Milton, near Thame, in Oxfordshire, one of whom forfeited his estate in the times of York and Lancaster. Which side he took, I know not; his descendant inherited no veneration for the White Rose.
His grandfather John was keeper of the forest of Shotover, a zealous papist, who disinherited his son because he had forsaken the religion of his ancestors.
His father, John, who was the son disinherited, had recourse for his support to the profession of a scrivener. He was a man eminent for his skill in music, many of his compositions being still to be found; and his reputation in his profession was such, that he grew rich, and retired to an estate. He had probably more than common literature, as his son addresses him in one of his most elaborate
Latin poems. He married a gentlewoman of the name of Caston, a Welsh family, by whom he had two sons, John, the poet, and Christopher, who studied the law, and adhered, as the law taught him, to the King's party, for which he was a while persecuted, but having, by his brother's interest, obtained permission to live in quiet, he supported himself so honourably by chamber-practice, that, soon after the accession of King James, he was knighted and made a judge; but, his constitution being too weak for business, he retired before any disreputable compliances became necessary.
He had likewise a daughter Anne, whom he married with a considerable fortune to Edward Philips, who came from Shrewsbury, and rose in the CrownOffice to be secondary: by him she had two sons, John and Edward, who were educated by the poet, and from whom is derived the only authentic account of his domestic manners.
John, the poet, was born in his father's house, at the Spread-Eagle in Bread-Street, Dec. 9, 1608, between six and seven in the morning. His father appears to have been very solicitous about his education; for he was instructed at first by private tuition under the care of Thomas Young, who was afterwards chaplain to the English merchants at Hamburgh, and of whom we have reason to think well, since his scholar considered him as worthy of an epistolary elegy.
He was then sent to St. Paul's School, under the care of Mr. Gill; and removed, in the beginning of his sixteenth year, to Christ's-College, in Cambridge, where he entered a sizar1, Feb. 12, 1624.
1 Milton was admitted a pensioner, and not a sizar, as appears by the following extract from the College Register; Johannes Milton Londinensis, filius Johannis, institutus fuit in literarum elementis sub Mag'ro Gill Gymnasii Paulini præfecto, admissus est Pensionarius Minor Feb. 12o, 1624, sub M'ro Chappel, solvitq. pro Ingr. Ol. 10s. Od.'
He was at this time eminently skilled in the Latin tongue; and he himself, by annexing the dates to his first compositions, a boast of which the learned Politian had given him an example, seems to commend the earliness of his own proficiency to the notice of posterity. But the products of his vernal fertility have been surpassed by many, and particularly by his contemporary Cowley. Of the powers of the mind it is difficult to form an estimate: many have excelled Milton in their first essays, who never rose to works like Paradise Lost.
At fifteen, a date which he uses till he is sixteen, he translated or versified two Psalms, 114 and 136, which he thought worthy of the public eye; but they raise no great expectations: they would in any numerous school have obtained praise, but not excited wonder.
Many of his elegies appear to have been written in his eighteenth year, by which it appears that he had then read the Roman authors with very nice discernment. I once heard Mr. Hampton, the translator of Polybius, remark, what I think is true, that Milton was the first Englishman, who, after the revival of Letters, wrote Latin verses with classic elegance. If any exceptions can be made, they are very few: Haddon and Ascham, the pride of Elizabeth's reign, however they have succeeded in prose, no sooner attempt verse than they provoke derision. If we produced any thing worthy of notice before the elegies of Milton, it was perhaps Alabaster's Roxana2.
Of the exercises, which the rulers of the University required, some were published by him in his maturer years. They had been undoubtedly applauded; for they were such as few could perform; yet there is reason to suspect that he was regarded
2 Published 1632.
in his college with no great fondness. That he obtained no fellowship is certain; but the unkindness with which he was treated was not merely negative. I am ashamed to relate what I fear is true, that Milton was one of the last students in either university that suffered the public indignity of corporal correction 3.
It was, in the violence of controversial hostility, objected to him, that he was expelled: this he steadily denies, and it was apparently not true; but it seems plain, from his own verses to Diodati, that he had incurred Rustication, a temporary dismission into the country, with perhaps the loss of a term,
Me tenet urbs reflua quam Thamesis alluit unda,
Jam nec arundiferum mihi cura revisere Camum,
Si sit hoc exilium patrios adiise penates,
Non ego vel profugi nomen sortemve recuso,
I cannot find any meaning but this, which even kindness and reverence can give the term, vetiti laris, a habitation from which he is excluded;' or how exile can be otherwise interpreted. He declares yet more, that he is weary of enduring the threats of a rigorous master, and something else, which a temper like his cannot undergo. What was more than threat was probably punishment. This poem, which mentions his exile, proves likewise that it was not
3 The punishment of the rod was forbidden by the statutes of the university when the delinquent student had attained the age of puberty; and this circumstance, as Milton was in his seventeenth year when he entered at Christ's College, Cambridge, fully refutes that idle story, which here excites so much of Dr. Johnson's delicate sensibility.
perpetual; for it concludes with a resolution of returning some time to Cambridge. And it may be conjectured, from the willingness with which he has perpetuated the memory of his exile, that its cause was such as gave him no shame.
He took both the usual degrees; that of Bachelor in 1628, and that of Master in 1632; but he left the university with no kindness for its institution, alienated either by the injudicious severity of his governors, or his own captious perverseness. The cause cannot now be known, but the effect appears in his writings. His scheme of education, inscribed to Hartlib, supersedes all academical instruction, being intended to comprise the whole time which men usually spend in literature, from their entrance upon grammar, till they proceed, as it is called, Masters of Arts. And in his Discourse on the likeliest Way to remove Hirelings out of the Church,' he ingeniously proposes, that the profits of the lands forfeited by the act for superstitious uses, should be applied to such academies all over the land where languages and arts may be taught together; so that youth may be at once brought up to a competency of learning and an honest trade, by which means such of them as have the gift, being enabled to support themselves (without tithes) by the latter, may, by the help of the former, become worthy preachers.
One of his objections to academical education, as it was then conducted, is, that men designed for orders in the Church were permitted to act plays, writhing and unboning their clergy limbs to all the antic and dishonest gestures of Trincalos+, buffoons, and bawds; prostituting the shame of that ministry which they had, or were near having, to the eyes of
This practice was then very frequent. The last dramatic performance at either university was The Grateful Fair, written by Christopher Smart, and represented at Pembroke College, Cambridge, about 1747.