1820 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

John Milton

John Aikin, in Select Works of the British Poets (1820) 15-17.



JOHN MILTON, a poet of the first rank in eminence was descended from an ancient family, settled at Milton, in Oxfordshire. His father, whose desertion of the Roman Catholic faith was the cause of his disinheritance, settled in London as a scrivener, and marrying a woman of good family, had two sons and a daughter. John, the eldest son was born in Bread-street, on December 9. 1608. He received the rudiments of learning from a domestic tutor, Thomas Young, afterwards chaplain to the English merchants at Hamburg, whose merits are gratefully commemorated by his pupil, in a Latin elegy. At a proper age he was sent to St. Paul's school, and there began to distinguish himself by his intense application to study, as well as by his poetical talents. In his sixteenth year he was removed to Christ's college, Cambridge, where be was admitted a pensioner, under the tuition of Mr. W. Chappel.

Of his course of studies in the university little is known; but it appears, from several exercises preserved in his works, that he had acquired extraordinary skill in writing Latin verses, which are of a purer taste than any preceding compositions of the kind by English scholars. He took the degrees both of Bachelor and Master of Arts; the latter in 1632, when he left Cambridge. He renounced his original intention of entering the church, for which he has given as a reason, that, "coming to some maturity of years, he had perceived what tyranny bad invaded it;" which denotes a man early habituated to think and act for himself.

He now returned to his father, who had retired from business to a residence at Horton, in Buckinghamshire; and he there passed five years in the study of the best Roman and Grecian authors, and in the composition of some of his finest miscellaneous poems. This was the period of his Allegro and Penseroso, his Comus and Lycidas. That his learning and talents had at this time attracted considerable notice, appears from an application made at him from the Bridgewater family, which produced his admirable masque of Comus, performed in 1634, at Ludlow Castle, before the Earl of Bridgewater, then Lord President of Wales; and by his Arcades, part of an entertainment presented to the Countess Dowager of Derby, at Harefield, by some of her family.

In 1638, he obtained his father's leave to improve himself by foreign travel, and set out for the continent. Passing through France, he proceeded to Italy, and spent a considerable time in that seat of the arts and literature. At Naples he was kindly received by Manso, Marquis of Villa, who had long before deserved the gratitude of poets by his patronage of Tasso; and, in return for a laudatory distich of Manso, Milton addressed to him a Latin poem, of great elegance. He left Italy by the way of Geneva, where he contracted an acquaintance with two learned divines, John Diodati and Frederic Spanheim; and he returned through France, having been absent about a year and three months.

On his arrival, Milton found the nation agitated by civil and religious disputes, which threatened a crisis; and as he had expressed himself impatient to be present on the theatre of contention, it has been thought extraordinary that he did not immediately place himself in some native station. But his turn was not military; his fortune precluded a seat in parliament; the pulpit he had declined; and for the bar he had made no preparation. His taste and habits were altogether literary; for the present, therefore, he fixed himself in the metropolis and undertook the education of his sister's two sons, of the name of Philips. Soon after, he was applied to by several parents to admit their children to the benefit of his tuition. He therefore took a commodious house in Aldersgate-street, and opened an academy. Disapproving the plan of education in the public schools and universities, he deviated from it as widely as possible. He put into the hands of his scholars, instead of the common classics, such Greek and Latin authors as treated on the arts and sciences, and on philosophy; thus expecting to instil the knowledge of things with that of words. We are not informed of the result of his plan; but it will appear singular that one who had himself drunk so deeply at the muse's fount, should withhold the draught from others. We learn, however, that he performed the task of instruction with great assiduity.

Milton did not long suffer himself to lie under the reproach of having neglected the public cause in his private pursuits, and, in 1641, he published four treatises relative to church-government, in which he gave the preponderance to the presbyterian form above the episcopalian. Resuming the same controversy in the following year, he numbered among his antagonists such men as Bishop Hall and Archbishop Usher. His father, who had been disturbed by the king's troops, now came to live with him; and the necessity of a female head of such a house, caused Milton, in 1643, to form a connection with the daughter of Richard Powell, Esq., a magistrate of Oxfordshire. This was, in several respects, an unhappy marriage; for his father-in-law was a zealous royalist, and his wife had accustomed herself to the jovial hospitality of that party. She had not, therefore, passed above a month in her husband's house, when, having procured an invitation from her father, she went to pass the summer in his mansion. Milton's invitations for her return were treated with contempt; upon which, regarding her conduct as a desertion which broke the nuptial contract, he determined to punish it by repudiation. In 1644 he published a work on The Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce; and, in the next year, it was followed by Tetrachordon, or Expositions upon the four chief Places in Scripture which treat of Marriage. He farther reduced his doctrine into practice, by paying his addresses to a young Lady of great accomplishments; but, as he was paying a visit to a neighbour and kinsman, he was surprised with the sudden entrance of his wife, who threw herself at his feet, and implored forgiveness. After a short struggle of resentment, he took her to his bosom; and he sealed the reconciliation by opening his house to her father and brothers, when they had been driven from home by the triumph of the republican arms.

In the progress of Milton's prose works, it will be right to mention his Areopagitica; a Speech of Mr. John Milton, for the Liberty of Unlicensed Printing, — a work, published in 1644, written with equal spirit and ability, and which, when reprinted in 1738, was affirmed by the editor to be the best defence that had ever then appeared of that essential article of public liberty. In the following year he took care that his poetical character should not he lost to the world, and published his juvenile poems, Latin and English.

Milton's principles of the origin and end of government carried him to a full approbation of the trial and execution of the king; and, in order to conciliate the minds of the people to that act, he published, early in 1649, a work entitled, The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates; proving that it is lawful, and hath been so held through all ages, for any who have the power, to call to account a tyrant or wicked king; and, after due conviction, to depose and put him to death, if the ordinary magistrate have neglected or denied to do it. Certainly, it would not be easy to express, in stronger terms, an author's resolution to leave no doubts concerning hiss opinion on this important topic. His appointment to the Latin Secretaryship to the Council of State was, probably, the consequence of his decision.

The learned Frenchman, Salmasius, or Saumaise, having been hired by Charles II., while in Holland, to write a work in favour of the royal cause, which he entitled, Defensio Regia, Milton was employed to answer it; which he did in 1651, by his celebrated Defensio pro Populo Anglicano, in which he exercised all his powers of Latin rhetoric, both to justify the republican party, and to confound and vilify the famous scholar against whom he took up the pen. By this piece he acquired a high reputation, both at home and abroad, and he received a present of a thousand pounds from the English government. His book went through several editions; while, on the other hand, the work of Salmasius was suppressed by the States of Holland, in whose service he lived as a professor at Leyden.

Milton's intense application to study had, for some years preceding, brought on an affection of the eyes, which gradually impaired his sight; and, before he wrote his Defensio, he was warned by his physitians that the effort would probably end in total blindness. This opinion was soon after justified by a gutta serena, which seized both his eyes, and subjected the remainder of his life to those privations which he has so feelingly described in some passages of his poems. His intellectual powers, however, suffered no eclipse from this loss of sensitive faculties; and he pursued, without intermission, both his official and his controversial occupations. Cromwell, about this time, having assumed the supreme power, with the title of Protector, Milton acted with a subservience towards the usurper which is the part of his conduct that it is the most difficult to justify. It might have been expected, that when the wisest and most conscientious of the republicans had become sensible of his arts, and opposed his ambitious projects, the mind of Milton would neither have been blinded by hie hypocrisy, nor overawed by his power. Possibly the real cause of his predilection for Cromwell, was that he saw no refuge from the intolerance of the Presbyterians, but in the moderation of the Protector. And, in fact, the very passage in which he addresses hum with the loftiest encomium, contains a free and noble exhortation to him to respect that public liberty, of which he appeared to be the guardian.

Cromwell at length died; and so zealous and sanguine was Milton, to the very last, that one of his latest political productions was, A ready and easy Way to establish a free Commonwealth. It was in vain, however, to contend, by pamphlets, with the national inclination; and Charles II. returned in triumph. Milton was discharged from his office, and lay for some time concealed in the house of a friend. The House of Commons desired that his Majesty would issue a proclamation to call in Milton's Defences of the People, and Iconoclastes, together with a book of Goodwyn's. The books were accordingly burnt by the common hangman; but the authors were returned as having absconded, nor, in the act of indemnity, did the name of Milton appear among those of the excepted persons.

He now, in reduced circumstances, and under the discountenance of power, removed to a private habitation near his former residence. He bad buried his first wife; and a second, the daughter of a Captain Woodcock, in Hackney, died in childbed. To solace his forlorn condition, he desired his friend, Dr. Paget, to look out a third wife for him, who recommended a relation of his own, named Elizabeth Minshull, of a good family in Cheshire. His powerful mind, now centered in itself, and undisturbed by contentions and temporary topics, opened to those great ideas which were continually filling it, and the result was, Paradise Lost. Much discussion has taken place concerning the original conception of this grand performance, but whatever hint may have suggested the rude outline, it is certain that all the creative powers of a strong imagination, and all the accumulated stores of a life devoted to learning, were expended in its completion. Though he appears, at an early age, to have thought of some subject in the heroic times of English history, as peculiarly calculated for English verse, yet his religious turn, and assiduous study of the Hebrew Scriptures, produced a final preference of a story derived from the Sacred Writings, and giving scope to the introduction of his theological system. It would be superfluous, at this time, to weigh the merits of Milton's great work, which stands so much beyond competition; but it may be affirmed, that whatever his other poems can exhibit of beauty in some parts, or of grandeur in others, may all be referred to Paradise Lost as the most perfect model of both.

Milton not exhausted by this great effort followed it in 1670 by Paradise Regained, written upon a suggestion of the Quaker Elwood's and apparently regarded as the theological completion of the Paradise Lost. Although, in point of invention, its inferiority is plainly apparent, yet modern criticism has pronounced that there are passages in it by no means unworthy of the genius of Milton, allowance being made for the small compass of the subject, and his purpose in writing it. Together with it appeared his tragedy of Samson Agonistes, composed upon the model of antiquity, and never intended for the stage.

With this work his poetical account closes; and a few pieces in prose can scarcely claim particular notice. He sunk tranquilly under an exhaustion of the vital powers in November, 1674, when he had nearly completed his 66th year. His remains were carried from his house in Bunhill-Fields to the church of St. Giles, Cripplegate, with a numerous and splendid attendance. No monument marked the tomb of this great man, but his memory was honoured with a tomb in 1737, in Westminster Abbey, at the expense of Auditor Benson. The only family whom he left were daughters.