1808 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

John Milton

Samuel Jackson Pratt, in Cabinet of Poetry (1808) 1:1-2.



Greece justly boasts of her Homer, Rome of her Virgil, and England of her Milton. As epic poets they will probably for ever reman unrivalled.

JOHN MILTON was the son of a respectable scrivener, who resided in Bread Street, London, where our poet was born, Dec. 9, 1608. The family originally sprang from Milton, in Oxfordshire, where they possessed an estate that was lost in the civil conflicts between the Yorkists and Lancastrians.

Milton was educated at St. Paul's school, and at the age of seventeen became a student of Christ's College, Cambridge, where he distinguished himself by his classical and poetical talents. His father having retired to Horton, in Buckinghamshire, after leaving college, the son spent some years there, in studious retirement, producing in this interval his Comus, his L'Allegro, Penseroso, and Lycidas, which alone would have rendered him immortal.

In 1638 he set out on his travels through France and Italy, where he was received with the respect due to his known talents; and returning a year after; established a seminary of education in Aldersgate Street, and married Mary, the daughter of Richard Powell, Esq. who soon after deserted him; but suing for a reconciliation, the torch of love burnt with brighter lustre than before.

From this period till the restoration Milton was deeply engaged in the unhappy politics of the times; and taking part with the parliament, published various polemical tracts in defence of the cause he had espoused. Such indeed was the zeal and industry with which he carried on his literary warfare, that his eyes began to be affected; and by degrees, a gutta serenea totally deprived him of vision. Under those melancholy circumstances, he lost his first wife, who left him three daughters; and soon after a second wife, the daughter of a Captain Woodcock.

Having been some years secretary to Oliver Cromwell, on the death of the Protector he found it prudent to withdraw from the busy scene, and to consult his safety by concealment. His friends, however, interfered with so much zeal, that he was included in the general pardon; and removing from obscure lodgings to Jewin Street, he entered a third time into the bonds of wedlock.

Blind, infirm, and poor, he now resumed his Paradise Lost, which had been sketched many years before; and finished this immortal poem at Chalfont, in Bucks, where he had retired from the plague of 1665. He sold the copy right for five pounds, with certain eventual conditions, which yielded about ten pounds more. Such have been, not, however, without some splendid exceptions, the rewards of genius in every age!

His Paradise Regained, which adds nothing to his fame, and his Samson Agonistes, a play on the Greek model, were produced at subsequent intervals, and under every discouragement which might well depress the flame of poetic inspiration.

In his youth, Milton is said to have been eminently beautiful. His attainments were multifarious, and his memory tenacious. Worn out with repeated attacks of the gout, he resigned his breath with Christian composure and resignation, Nov. 10, 1674, and was buried in Cripplegate church. His fame can never die!

We have selected the following pieces from among the works of this writer, as possessed of the most acknowledged merit: PARADISE LOST, L' ALLEGRO, IL PENSEROSO, LYCIDAS, and COMUS.