1819 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

John Milton

Thomas Campbell, in Specimens of the British Poets (1819; 1845) 257-58.



If the memory of Milton has been outraged by Dr. Johnson's hostility, the writings of Blackburne, Hayley, and, above all, of Symmons, may be deemed sufficient to have satisfied the poet's injured shade. The apologies for Milton have indeed been rather full to superfluity than defective. Dr. Johnson's triumphant regret at the supposed whipping of our great poet at the university, is not more amusing than the alarm of his favourable biographers at the idea of admitting it to be true. From all that has been written on the subject, it is perfectly clear that Milton committed no offence at college which could deserve an ignominious punishment. Admitting Aubrey's authority for the anecdote, and his authority is not very high, it points out the punishment not as a public infliction, but as the personal act of his tutor, who resented or imagined some unkindnesses.

The youthful history of Milton, in despite of this anecdote, presents him in an exalted and amiable light. His father, a man of no ordinary attainment, and so accomplished a musician as to rank honourably among the composers of his age, intended him for the ministry of the church and furnished him with a private tutor who probably seconded his views; but the piety that was early instilled into the poet's mind grew up with the size of his intellect, into views of religious independence that would not have suited any definite ecclesiastical pale; if Milton had become a preacher, he must have founded a church of his own. Whilst a boy, the intensity of his studies laid the seeds of his future blindness; and at that period the Latin verses addressed to his father attest not only the prematurity of his attainments, but the endearing strength of his affections.

The few years which he spent at his father's house, at Horton, in Buckinghamshire, after leaving the university, and before setting out on his travels, were perhaps the happiest in his life. In the beautiful scenery of that spot, disinclined to any profession by his universal capacity, and thirst for literature, he devoted himself to study, and wrote the most exquisite of his minor poems. Such a mind, in the opening prime of its genius, enjoying rural leisure and romantic walks, and luxuriating in the production of Comus and the Arcades, presents an inspiring idea of human beatitude.

When turned of thirty he went to Italy, the most accomplished Englishman that ever visited her classical shores. The attentions that were shown to him are well known. We find him at the same time, though a stranger and a heretic, boldly expressing his opinions within the verge of the Vatican. There, also, if poetry ever deigns to receive assistance from the younger art, his imagination may have derived at least congenial impressions from the frescoes of Michael Angelo, and the pictures of Raphael; and those impressions he may have possibly recalled in the formation of his great poem, when his eyes were shut upon the world, and when he looked inwardly for "godlike shapes and forms."

In the eventful year after his return from the continent, the fate of Episcopacy, which was yet undecided, seemed to depend chiefly on the influence which the respective parties could exercise upon the public mind, through the medium of the press, which was now set at liberty by the ordinance of the Long Parliament. Milton's strength led him foremost on his own side of the controversy; he defended the five ministers whose book was entitled Smectymnus, against the learning and eloquence of Bishop Hall and Archbishop Usher, and became, in literary warfare, the bulwark of his party. It is performing this and similar services, which Dr. Johnson calls Milton's vapouring away his patriotism in keeping a private boarding-house; and such are the slender performances at which that critic proposes that we should indulge in some degree of merriment. Assuredly, if Milton wielded the pen instead of the sword, in public dispute, his enemies had no reason to regard the former weapon as either idle or impotent in his hand. An invitation to laugh on such an occasion, may remind us of what Sternhold and Hopkins denominate "awful mirth;" for of all topics which an enemy to Milton's principles could select, his impotence in maintaining them is the most unpropitious to merriment.

The most difficult passage of his life for his biographers to comment upon with entire satisfaction, is his continued acceptance of Cromwell's wages after Cromwell had become a tyrant. It would he uncandid to deny, that his fear of the return of the Stuarts, the symptoms of his having been seldom at the usurper's court, and the circumstance of his having given him advice to spare the liberties of the people, form some apology for this negative adherence. But if the people, according to his own ideas, were capable of liberty after Cromwell's death, they were equally so before it, and a renunciation of his profits under the despot would have been a nobler and fuller sacrifice to public principles, than any advice. From ordinary men this was more than could be expected; but Milton prescribed to others such austerity of duty, that in proportion to the altitude of his character, the world, which looked to him for example, had a right to expect his practical virtue to be severe.