Perhaps no man ever inhabited more houses than our great epic poet, yet scarcely one of these now remains. The greater part of his residences were in London, and in the hundred and seventy-two years since his decease, the whole of this great metropolis has been, as it were, in a ferment of growth and extension. The great fire of London swept away an immense mass of the old houses; and if we look around us now, we see how very few of the ancient framed tenements which then prevailed now remain. Again, Milton generally chose his houses, even in the city, with a view to quiet and retirement. They were, say his biographers, generally garden houses, where he enjoyed the advantages of a certain remoteness from noise, and of some openness of space. These spaces the progress of population has filled with dense buildings, in the course of the erection of which, the old solitary houses have been pulled down.
Milton, as is well known, was born in Bread-street, Cheapside, at the sign of the Spread Eagle. The spread eagle was the armorial bearing of the family. His father was an eminent scrivener, living and practising there at the time of Milton's birth, which took place on the 9th December, 1608. This house was destroyed in the fire of London. During his boyhood, which was passed here, Milton was educated at home, in the first instance, by a private tutor, Thomas Young. This man Aubrey calls "a puritan in Essex, who cutt his hair short." Young had suffered persecution for his religious faith, and it is supposed that from him Milton imbibed a strong feeling for liberty, and a great predilection for the doctrines which he held. He was much attached to him, as he has testified by his fourth elegy, and two Latin epistles. It has been remarked, that however much Milton might be swayed by the principles of his tutor, he never was by his cut of hair; for through all the reign of the Roundheads, he preserved his flowing locks. After the private tutor was dismissed, he was sent to St. Paul's School. This appears to have been in his fifteenth year. Here, too, he was a favourite scholar. The then master was Alexander Gill, and his son was the usher, and succeeded his father in the school. With him Milton was on terms of great friendship, and has left a memorial of his regard in three of his Latin epistles.
From the relation of his original biographer, Aubrey, we may see the boy Milton going to and fro between Bread-street and his school, full of zealous thirst of knowledge, and the most extraordinary industry. He studied with excessive avidity, regardless of his health, continuing his reading till midnight, so that the source of his future blindness is obvious in his early passion for letters. Aubrey says, that "when Milton went to school, and when he was very younge, he studied very hard, and sate up very late, commonly till twelve or one o'clock; and his father ordered the maid to sett up for him." His early reading was in poetical books. He confirms this account of himself in his Defensio Secunda pro Populo, &c. He says that his father destined him to liberal studies, which he so eagerly seized upon, that from his twelfth year he seldom ever retired from his books to bed before midnight; and that his eyes, originally weak, thus received the first causes of their future mischief. That perceiving the danger of this, it could not arrest his ardour of study, though his nocturnal vigils, followed by his daily exercises under his masters, brought on failing vision and pains in the head. Humphrey Lownes, a printer, living in Bread-street, supplied him, amongst other books, with Spenser and Sylvester's Du Bartas. Spenser was devoured with the intensest enthusiasm, and he has elsewhere called him his master.
Todd, the generally judicious biographer of Milton, praises his father for his discernment in the education of his son. The father, who was a very superior man, and especially fond of and skilled in music, certainly appears to have at once seen in his son the evidences of genius, and to have given to it every opportunity of development; but it is to be regretted that his fatherly encouragement was not attended with more prudence, and that he had not, instead of encouraging the habit of nocturnal study, the most pernicious that a student can fall into, restrained it. Had he done this, the poet might have retained his sight, and who shall say with what further advantage to the world!
At seventeen, Milton entered as a pensioner at Christ College, Cambridge. He was found to be a distinguished classical scholar, and conversant in several languages. His academical exercises attracted great attention, as well as his verses, both in English and Latin. His Latin elegies, in his eighteenth year, have always been regarded with wonder; and, indeed, in his Latinity, both in verse and prose, perhaps no modern writer has surpassed him. Hampton, the translator of Polybius, pronounced him the first Englishman who, since the revival of letters, wrote Latin verses with classic elegance. His extraordinary merit and acquisitions, found, from the authorities of his College, general applause, spite of a disposition to severity, induced by his sturdy opposition to them in opinion, on a plan of academical studies then under discussion.
Milton here, it appears, on the testimony of Aubrey, suffered an indignity from his tutor, which it was not in his high and independent nature to endure with impunity. He refers to this fact in his first elegy. He mentions threats and other things, which his disposition could not tolerate; that he was absent in a state of rustication, and felt no desire to revisit the reedy banks of the Cam. Aubrey says, from the information of our author's brother Christopher, that Milton's first tutor at Cambridge was Mr. Chappell, from whom receiving some unkindness, (he whipped him,) he was afterwards, though it seemed against the rules of the College, transferred to the tuition of one Mr. Tovell. This information stands in the MS. Mus. Ashmol. Oxon. No. x. p. iii. Warton, remarking on the fact, adds, that Milton "hated the place. He was not only offended at the College discipline, but had even conceived a dislike to the face of the country — the fields about Cambridge. He peevishly complains that the fields have no soft shades to attract the Muses, and there is something pointed in his exclamation, that Cambridge was a place quite incompatible with the votaries of Phoebus."
It was not very likely that a youth of perhaps eighteen, who was writing the elegies and epistles in Latin which drew upon him so much notice, would submit quietly to so degrading a treatment. This treatment, it appears from Warton, was common enough, nevertheless, at both Cambridge and Oxford, amongst the tutors at that time. But Milton spurned it, as became his great spirit and noble nature, and was in consequence, probably, rusticated for a time. But this could not have been long, nor could it have been accordant to the wishes of the fellows of his College. The offence was against the tutor, not against the heads of the College, in the poet's mind. In his Apology for Smectymnus, he thanks an enemy for the opportunity of expressing his grateful sense of the kindness of the fellows, in these words — "I thank him; for it hath given me an apt occasion to acknowledge publickly, with all grateful mind, that more than ordinary favour and respect which I found above any of my equals, at the hands of those courteous and learned men, the fellows of the College wherein I spent some years; who at my parting, after I had taken two degrees, as the manner is, signified many ways how much better it would content them if I would stay; as by many letters full of kindness and loving respect, both before that time and long after, I was assured of their good affection to me."
Leaving Cambridge, Milton went to reside some time at Horton, near Colnbrook, in Buckinghamshire. His father had retired from his practice, on a competent fortune, to this village. This portion of his life was, probably, one of the most delightful periods of it. He had acquired great reputation for talent and learning at College; he had taken his degree of M.A., and in this agreeable retirement he not only indulged himself, as he tells us, in a deep and thorough reading of the Greek and Latin authors, but probably then contemplating his visit to Italy, made himself master of its language and well-acquainted with its literature. To such perfection did he carry this accomplishment, that in Italy he not only spoke the language with perfect fluency, but wrote in it so as to astonish the most learned natives. Five years he devoted to these classical and modern studies, but not to these alone. He was here actively at work in laying the foundation of that great poetical fame which he afterwards achieved. Born in the city, he now made himself thoroughly familiar with nature. In the woods and parks, and on the pleasant hills of this pleasant county, he enjoyed the purest delights of contemplation and of poetry. Here he is supposed to have imbued himself with the allegoric romance of his favourite Spenser, and also to have written his own delightful Arcades, Comus, L'Allegro, Il Penseroso, and Lycidas. It is a fact which his biographers have not seemed to perceive, but which is really significant, that the very Italian titles, L'Allegro and Il Penseroso, of themselves almost identify the productions of this period and place, where he was busy with the preparation for his visit to Italy. The county of Buckingham appeared always to be from this time a particular favourite with him; and no wonder, for it is full of poetical beauty, abounds with those solemn and woodland charms which are so welcome to a mind brooding over poetical subjects, and shunning all things and places that disturb. It abounds, being so near the metropolis, also with historic associations of deep interest.
"This pleasant retreat," says Todd, "excited his most poetical feelings; and he has proved himself, in his pictures of rural life, to rival the works of nature, which he contemplated with delight. In the neighbourhood of Horton, the Countess Dowager of Derby resided; and the Arcades was performed by her grandchildren at this seat, called Harefield-place. It seems to me that Milton intended a compliment to his fair neighbour, for fair she was, in his L'Allegro:—
Towers and battlements it sees
Bosom'd high in tufted trees,
Where, perhaps, some beauty lies,
The cynosure of neighbouring eyes.
The woody scenery of Harefield, and the personal accomplishments of the Countess, are not unfavourable to this supposition; which, if admitted, tends to confirm the opinion that L'Allegro and Il Penseroso were composed at Horton. The Masque of Comus, and Lycidas, were certainly produced under the roof of his father."
The whole of these poems breathe the spirit of youth, and of scenes like those in which he now daily rambled. Whether L'Allegro and Il Penseroso were written, as Sir William Jones contends, at Forest-hill, in Oxfordshire, or here, need not be much contested. If they were written there, it must have been many years afterwards, after his return from abroad, and after his first marriage; for it was at Forest-hill that he found his wife. But for the reason assigned, and for that of their general spirit, I incline to the belief that they were written at Horton, as there is plenty of evidence that Comus and the Arcades were. These latter poems overflow with the imagery and the feeling of the old wooded scenery of Buckinghamshire.
Comus. I know each lane, and every alley green,
Dingle, or bushy dell of this wild wood,
And every bosky bourne from side to side,
My daily walks and ancient neighbourhood.
How full of the old pastoral country are these lines:
Sec. Bro. Might we but hear
The folded flocks penned in their wattled cotes,
Or sound of pastoral reed with oaten stops,
Or whistle from the lodge, or village cock
Count the night watches to his feathery dames,
'Twould be some solace yet, some little cheering,
In this close dungeon of innumerous boughs.
There is no other poet who has been able to transfuse the very spirit of nature into words, as it is done in the following passages, except Shakespeare, on whose soul images of rural beauty and repose fell with equal felicity of effect.
This evening late, by then the chewing flocks
Had ta'en their supper on the savoury herb
Of knot-grass dew-besprent, and were in fold,
I sate me down to watch upon a bank
With ivy canopied, and interwove
With flaunting honeysuckle, and began,
Wrapt in a pleasing fit of melancholy,
To meditate my rural minstrelsy,
Till Fancy had her fill; but ere a close,
The wonted roar was up amidst the woods, &c.
How exquisite is every image of this passage:
Return, Sicilian Muse,
And call the vales, and bid them hither east
Their bells, and flowerets of a thousand hues.
Ye valleys low, where the mild whispers use
Of shades, and wanton winds, and gushing brooks,
On whose fresh lap the swart star sparely looks;
Throw hither all your quaint enamelled eyes,
That on the green turf suck the honied showers
And purple all the ground with vernal flowers.
Bring the rathe primrose that forsaken dies,
The tufted crow-toe and pale jessamine,
The white pink, and the pansy freak'd with jet,
The glowing violet,
The musk rose, and the well-attired woodbine,
With cowslips wan that hang the pensive head,
And every flower that sad embroidery wears;
Bid Amaranthus all his beauty shed,
And daffodillies fill their cups with tears,
To strow the laureat hearse where Lycid lies.
A power of poetic landscape-painting like this is only the result of genius deeply instructed in the school of nature. But the time was now come for the survey of other and more striking scenes than those of the woodlands and pastoral uplands of Buckingham. The tour of Milton in Italy is a marked portion of his life, and no doubt opened wide fields of poetic imagination and of artistic experience in his mind, He visited Nice, Leghorn, Pisa, Florence: in the vicinity of which last city, at the village of Belloguardo, or at Arcetri, it is supposed that he paid his visit to Galileo. Thence he went on to Sienna and Rome; he afterwards proceeded to Naples, and was intending to visit Sicily and Athens, when the news of the revolutionary troubles in England reached him, and caused him to retrace his steps through Rome and Florence; whence he visited Lucca, and crossing the Apennines to Bologna, Ferrara and Venice, he then hastened homewards by Verona, Milan, and along the lake Leman to Geneva, and so on through France.
In every city of Italy he was cordially and honourably received by the most distinguished persons of the age, and studied the works of the great masters, in both painting and sculpture, with an effect which is believed to be apparent in his great work, Paradise Lost. The sacrifice which he made to the spirit of patriotism by this return, is eloquently adverted to by Warton. "He gave up," he remarks, "these countries, connected with his finer feelings, interwoven with his poetical ideas, and impressed upon his imagination by his habits of reading, and by long and intimate converse with the Grecian literature. But so prevalent were his patriotic attachments, that, hearing in Italy of the commencement of the national quarrel, instead of proceeding forward, to feast his fancy with the contemplation of scenes familiar to Theocritus and Homer, the fires of Etna, and the porticos of Pericles, he abruptly changed his course, and hastily returned home to plead the cause of ideal liberty. Yet in this chaos of controversy, amidst endless disputes concerning religious and political reformation, independency, prelacy, tithes, toleration, and tyranny, he sometimes seems to have heaved a sigh for the peaceable enjoyments of lettered solitude, for his congenial pursuits, and the more mild and ingenuous exercises of the Muse."
But though he might sigh for these, he never suffered them to draw him aside from the path of what he deemed the most sacred duty, both towards God and man; he sacrificed not only his desire of visiting classical regions, and of lettered ease, but he was willing to risk the achievement of what he considered — and which eventually proved to be — the crowning act of his eternal fame, the writing of his great epic. He had conceived, as he tells us himself, the scheme of his Paradise Lost; on that he placed his hope of immortality; but even that he heroically resolved to postpone till he had seen his country rescued from her oppressors, and placed on a firm ground of freedom. The casualties of life might have robbed him and the world for ever of the projected work, but he ventured all for the great cause of his country and of man, and was rewarded.
A story has been repeatedly told as the occasion of Milton's Italian journey, and very generally believed, which Todd has shown to be told also in the preface to Posies de Marguerite, Eleanore Clotilde, depuis Madame de Surville, Poete Francaise du xv. Siecle, of another poet, a Louis de Puytendre, exactly agreeing in all the particulars, except that the ladies were on foot. That Milton needed no such romantic incentive to his Italian tour is self-evident, having a sufficient one in his classical and poetic tastes; but as it appeared in a newspaper, and obtained general credence, it may he worth transcribing.
"It is well known that in the bloom of youth, and when he pursued his studies at Cambridge, this poet was extremely beautiful. Wandering one day, during the summer, far beyond the precincts of the University, into the country, he became so heated and fatigued, that, reclining himself at the foot of a tree to rest, he fell asleep. Before he woke, two ladies, who were foreigners, passed in a carriage; agreeably astonished at the loveliness of his appearance, they alighted, and having admired him, as they thought, unperceived, for some time, the youngest, who was very handsome, drew a pencil from her pocket, and having written some lines upon a piece of paper, put it with her trembling hand into his own; immediately afterwards they proceeded on their journey. Some of his acquaintances who were in search of him had observed this silent adventure, but at too great a distance to discover that the highly-favoured party in it was our illustrious poet. Approaching nearer they saw their friend, to whom, being awakened, they mentioned what had happened; Milton opened the paper, and with surprise read these verses from Guarini, Madrigal xii. ed. 1598:
Occhi, stelle mortali,
Ministre de miei Mali,—
Se chiusi m'uccidete,
Aperti che farete?
'Ye eyes, ye human stars! ye authors of my liveliest pangs! If thus, when shut, ye wound me, what must have proved the consequence had ye been open?' Eager from this moment to find the fair incognita, Milton traversed, but in vain, through every part of Italy. His poetic fervour became incessantly more and more heated by the idea which he had formed of his unknown admirer; and it is in some degree to her that his own times, the present times, and the latest posterity, must feel themselves indebted for several of the most impassioned and charming compositions of the Paradise Lost."
Now, to say nothing of the incoherence of this story, — of the questions that naturally suggest themselves, of how these young men, too far off to recognise their companion as the object of this flattering attention, could know that the ladies were foreigners, and that the one who wrote the paper was the youngest, and was very handsome, — it is evident that had a young Cantab found himself awaking, now-a-days, under a tree, with a paper of Italian verses in his hand, and his comrades ready with a story of a couple of beautiful young ladies, foreigners, travelling in a carriage, and the youngest, who was very handsome, putting this paper into his hand, he would very naturally have deemed himself the subject of a most palpable quiz. Yet did the world, in a simpler age, not only gravely receive this narrative as a fact, but Anna Seward did it into verse.
Returned from Italy, not from the vain quest after an imaginary and romantic fair one, but with his mind stored with knowledge and poetic imagery, which he had not pursued in vain, Milton took up his residence in London, in order to be ready, as occasion presented itself, to serve his country. He had no longer the inducement to return to Horton. He had seen his mother laid in the grave before he went; his father had probably quitted Horton when the civil war broke out, and betaken himself to the security of Reading, a fortified town; for on the surrender of that town to the Earl of Essex, in 1643, the old man came up to London to his son, with whom he continued to reside till his death, about four years afterwards.
During the five years spent by Milton at Horton, between leaving Cambridge and setting out on his travels, he did not entirely bury himself there in his classical books and poetic musings in the woods and fields. He had occasional lodgings in London, in order to cultivate music, for which he had always a great passion, to prosecute his mathematics, to procure books, to enjoy the society of his friends, amongst whom were many of his old college friends, and, no doubt, to perfect himself in the speaking of the French and Italian languages, which it is not to be supposed he could do at Horton. Now, however, duty as well as inclination fixed him almost wholly in London. Great events were transpiring, and he felt a persuasion that he must bear his part in them. There was one circumstance which drew him for awhile from the metropolis, and it was this. He became attached to a young lady in Oxfordshire, and is supposed to have made some abode in the place of her residence. "The tradition," says Todd, "that he did reside at this beautiful village of Forest-hill, near Shotover, is general, though none of his biographers assert the circumstance. Madame du Bocage, in her entertaining Letters concerning England, &c., relates that, 'visiting in June, 1750, Baron Schutz and lady, at their house near Shotover-hill, they showed me, from a small eminence, Milton's House, to which I bowed with all the reverence with which that poet's memory inspires me.'" And the same writer quotes this interesting account of the place and circumstance from a letter of Sir William Jones: "The necessary trouble of correcting the first printed sheets of my history, prevented me to-day from paying a proper respect to the memory of Shakspeare, by attending his jubilee. But I resolved to do all the honour in my power to as great a poet, and set out in the morning, in company with a friend, to visit a place where Milton spent some part of his life, and where, in all probability, he composed several of his earliest compositions. It is a small village on a pleasant hill, about five miles from Oxford, called Forest-hill, because it formerly lay contiguous to a forest, which has since been cut down. The poet chose this place of retirement after his first marriage, and he describes the beauties of this retreat in that fine passage of his L'Allegro:—
Sometime walking not unseen,
By hedge-row elms, on hillocks green,—
While the ploughman, near at hand,
Whistles o'er the furrowed land,
And the milkmaid singeth blithe,
And the mower whets his sithe,
And every shepherd tells his tale
Under the hawthorn in the dale.
Straight mine eye hath caught new pleasures,
Whilst the landscape round it measures;
Russet lawns, and fallows gray,
Where the nibbling flocks de stray;
Mountains, on whose barren breast
The labouring clouds do often rest;
Meadows trim with daisies pied,
Shallow brooks and rivers wide:
Towers and battlements it sees
Bosomed high in tufted trees;
Hard by, a cottage chimney smokes
From betwixt two aged oaks, &c.
It was neither the proper season of the year, nor time of the day, to hear all the rural sounds, and see all the objects mentioned in this description; but, by a pleasing concurrence of circumstances, we were saluted on our approach to the village with the music of the mower and his scythe; we saw the ploughman intent upon his labour, and the milkmaid returning from her country employment.
"As we ascended the hill, the variety of beautiful objects, the agreeable stillness and natural simplicity of the whole scene, gave us the highest pleasure. We at length reached the spot whence Milton undoubtedly took most of his images: it is on the top of a hill, from which there is a most extensive prospect on all sides. The distant mountains, that seemed to support the clouds; the village and turrets, partly shrouded in trees of the finest verdure, and partly raised above the groves that surrounded them; the dark plains and meadows, of a greyish colour, where the sheep were feeding at large; in short, the view of the streams and rivers, convinced us that there was not a single useless or idle word in the above-mentioned description, but that it was a most exact and lively representation of nature. Thus will this fine passage, which has always been admired for its elegance, receive an additional beauty from its exactness. After we had walked, with a kind of poetical enthusiasm, over this enchanted ground, we returned to the village.
"The poet's house was close to the church; the greatest part of it has been pulled down; and what remains belongs to an adjacent farm. I am informed that several papers, in Milton's own hand, were found by the gentleman who was last in possession of the estate. The tradition of his having lived there is current amongst the villagers: one of them showed me a ruinous wall, that made part of his chamber, and I was much pleased with another who had forgotten the name of Milton, but recollected him by the title of The Poet.
"It must not be omitted, that the groves near this village are famous for nightingales, which are so elegantly described in the Penseroso. Most of the cottage windows are overgrown with sweetbriars, vines, and honeysuckles; and that Milton's habitation had the same rustic ornament, we may conclude from his description of the lark bidding him good morrow:—
Through the sweet-briar, or the vine,
Or the twisted eglantine:
for it is evident that he meant a sort of honeysuckle by the eglantine; though that word is commonly used for the sweetbriar, which he could not mention twice in the same couplet.
"If ever I pass a month or six weeks at Oxford in the summer, I shall be inclined to hire and repair this venerable mansion, and to make a festival for a circle of friends in honour of Milton, the most perfect scholar, as well as the sublimest poet that our country ever produced. Such an honour will be less splendid but more sincere and respectful, than all the pomp and ceremony on the banks of the Avon."
That Sir William might be, and probably was, mistaken in supposing that the Allegro was written at Forest-hill, I think is apparent from the character of that poem and of the Penseroso, which bear, to me, evident marks of a more youthful muse than the Comus and the Lycidas. They deal more in mere description, and, what is more, the poet himself placed them in his original volume, prior to those poems, as if written prior. The images quoted by Sir William will apply to a thousand other scenes in England, and where Milton himself never was. They are such as a thousand hill-tops in our beautiful pastoral land can show us. They may be found equally in his earlier haunts in Buckinghamshire. Nevertheless, Shotover is not the less interesting, nor do the scenes the less apply to it. There Milton undoubtedly did walk and muse, "By hedge-row elms on hillocks green," and hear the ploughman's whistle, the milkmaid's song, and the mower's ringing scythe, and rest his eye on its landscape, tinted and varied as he describes it. There he saw the distant mountains of Wales, and the shepherds under the hawthorns down in the dales below him, each "telling his tale," that is, not telling a story to some one, or making love, but "telling the tale," or number of his flock, before penning them for the night, or letting them loose in the morning.
That Milton lived at Forest-hill some time, there is no doubt; but when, and how long, and how often, are points that now cannot be very well cleared up. Sir William Jones represents him to have chosen this retirement after his first marriage. Now Milton was not married before 1643, at which time he was in his thirty-fifth year. But Comus and Lycidas were written long before then, and so no doubt were L'Allegro and Il Penseroso. Mosely, in his Address to the Reader, in the volume of Milton's poems containing all these pieces, published in 1645, tells us that these poems were known to be written, and that he solicited them to accompany Lycidas and Comus and Milton, in presenting this volume to his friend Rouse, says plainly that they were the productions of his early youth:—
Gemelle cultu simplici gaudens liber,
Fronde licet gemina,
Munditiaque nitens non operosa;
Quem manus attulit
Secula tamen haud nimii poetae, &c.
This settles the question of the location of the poems; but the question of when, and how long, and how often Milton resided at Forest-hill, still remains. That he did not reside there long, immediately after his marriage, is very clear, from the statement of his nephew and biographer, Phillips. "About Whitsuntide, or a little after, he took a journey into the country: nobody about him certainly knowing the reason, or that it was more than a journey of recreation. After a month's stay, home he returns a married man, that went out a bachelor; his wife being Mary, the eldest daughter of Mr. Richard Powell, then a justice of peace of Forestil, near Shotover, in Oxfordshire." This account is confirmed by Anthony Wood, who states that Milton courted, married, and brought his wife to his house in London, in one month's time; and that she was very young. She continued, however, as we shall presently see, only a few weeks with her husband, and returned to Forest-hill.
Now, as Milton kept this courtship so profound a secret, it is quite probable that it might be going on much longer than any of his friends were aware of. When he set out on his journey, of which nobody knew the cause, he no doubt knew it. Somewhere, and some time before, he had most likely seen this Mary Powell, — where, and how long before, who shall now say? It is possible, therefore, that, for aught any one of his friends knew, he might have been at Foresthill, and sojourning there occasionally, attracted by this attachment; and that he now set out with an intention of bringing his courtship to an end, as he did. As it turned out, his wife was discontented with the dulness of his dwelling, being accustomed to much gaiety at home, and left him. Of this we shall speak more anon, but here we are inquiring only into the probability of the extent of his residence or residences at Forest-hill. The marriage took place in the midst of the revolutionary wars. Soon after, the house and property of Mr. Powell, Milton's father-in-law, were seized by the parliamentary army, he being a Cavalier; and the wife, who had deserted her husband in her father's prosperity, now, in his adversity, came back, and soon brought her father and family, to seek protection under the roof so coolly abandoned before. The father-in-law and family appear to have lived with Milton till 1647, or about three years.
Mary Powell, Milton's first wife, died in 1652, or about nine years after her marriage. Now, these nine years were all years of the ascendancy of the Parliamentary power, and consequently of danger and uncertainty to the Powell family. It must be to Milton's interest with Cromwell that they must look for any kind of security; and during these nine years there would be many occasions when Milton might find it agreeable to spend a certain time in the country, and at Forest-hill. It is said that Mr. Powell, Milton's father-in-law, had, indeed, another mansion in the neighbourhood, and allowed Milton, and his family occasional occupation of this. Thus, though Milton, from his post as Latin secretary to Cromwell, and from his continual engagements in the cause of the Commonwealth, always had, and must have, his house in London, it is quite likely that during these nine years he resided, in the summer months, not unfrequently at Forest-hill.
Warton has said that he composed some of his later productions there. It would be just the retreat for such purposes, when he required close and unbroken retirement from the excitements and personal interruptions of town. Mr. Richards, a sub-commissioner under a recent commission of the reign of George III, gave Mr. Todd this intelligence: "Milton married a daughter of Justice Powell, of Sandhurst, in the vicinity of Oxford, and lived in a house at Forest-hill, about three miles from Sandhurst, where the late laureate Warton told me Milton wrote a great part of his Paradise Lost. Warton found a number of papers of Milton's own writing in that house, and also many of Justice Powell's, which the late Mr. Crewe, father to the late Viscountess Falmouth, permitted him to take, and make what use of them he thought proper. The late Mr. Mickle translated part of Camoens' Luciad in the same house, he being, at the time I visited him, a lodger in that house. Mr. Mickle married the daughter of Mr. Tomkins, a farmer, the tenant to Mr. Crewe. The time I allude to of visiting my worthy friend Mickle, was in 1772 and 1773; and my conversations had with Mr. Warton and Mr. Crewe, were from 1781 to 1786."
Having now clearly settled the fact that Forest-hill, near Shotover, was a residence of Milton, and probably through a course of nine years, at various times, and the scene of some of those great literary and political works, on which he was arduously engaged during those years; and that while his birthplace in Bread-street, and his parental home at Horton, were both destroyed, this has been nearly so, — we will now notice a little more closely the condition of his home during those nine years of his first marriage. That marriage appears to have been a great mistake; to have destroyed to a great degree his domestic comfort, and to have occasioned the world to entertain a very unfavourable idea of Milton's disposition. The facts, drawn from his various biographers, are briefly these.
At Whitsuntide, in 1643, and in his thirty-fifth year, as we learn from his nephew Phillips, in the passage quoted, he married Mary, the daughter of Richard Powell, living at Forest-hill, near Shotover, and a justice of peace for Oxfordshire. He brought his wife to London. She was very young, and had been accustomed to a gay life. According to Aubrey, "she was brought up and bred where there was a great deal of company and merriment, as dancing, &c.; and when she came to live with her husband, she found it solitary, no company coming to her; and she often heard her nephews cry and be beaten. This life was irksome to her, and so she went to her parents." Phillips says the same; that she was averse to the philosophic life of Milton, and sighed for the mirth and jovialness to which she had been accustomed in Oxfordshire. It was a great mistake altogether. Milton was now a man of a sober age; he was yet but a schoolmaster, though he had a large and handsome house in Aldersgate-street in a garden. This was necessary for the accommodation of his pupils, as well as for his quiet study, and prosecution of those great questions of the age in which he was engaged, writing for the republican cause, and against its enemies. All this must have been immensely dull to a young girl, who, from all the glimpses we can get of her, was, though perhaps handsome and fascinating, but of an ordinary nature, and one who had been educated to frivolity and mere enjoyment of the fashionable gaieties of life. What was more, the very work on which Milton was zealously engaged, the defence of the parliamentary cause, and the defeat of the kingly, and which abstracted him from her society, was perfect poison to her and her family, — all high royalists. "Her relations," says Phillips, "being generally addicted to the Cavalier party, and some of them possibly engaged in the king's service, who at this time had his head-quarters at Oxford, and was in some prospect of success, they began to repent them of having matched the eldest daughter of the family to a person so contrary to them in opinion; and thought it would be a blot in their escutcheon, whenever that events should come to flourish again."
It was these circumstances, operating together, which induced his young wife to desert Milton. All that we can learn confirms the idea, that her family was a regularly worldly-minded one; and the only wonder is that they should ever have agreed to the match at all. Milton was then comparatively unknown. He was but a schoolmaster, and must have been pretty well known to all that came in contact with him to hold very liberal opinions. However, scarcely was the match made, than the family began to suspect they had made a great blunder. The wife asked leave, after a week, to go home and see her parents, and the whole affair reminds us of the matrimonial history of a great poet of our own day. The wife goes home in good humour, and then sends her husband word that she does not mean to come back again. It does not appear that the wife or wife's friends ever set up the plea that Milton was mad, however they might think so. Luckily Milton was a sober, moderate man, and not accustomed to run into debt. Had he, like Lord Byron, been pretty well dipped in debt, and expecting a large property with his wife, and not immediately getting it, but, on the contrary, all his creditors on his back in the expectation of it, he might have been quite as mad as he was. Like Lord Byron, however, he had not nine executions in his house in one week, — enough to craze the sanest creature; and so Milton went on for a good while, calmly and manfully labouring at his Areopagitica, or Speech for the Liberty of Unlicensed Printing, one of the noblest works in our language. His wife had gone home, at the invitation of her friends, to spend the remaining part of the summer with them: — we have seen why they invited her. The good easy man gave her leave to stay till Michaelmas. Michaelmas came, but no wife; the visit had only been a pretence for desertion. He sent for her, and she refused to come. He sent letter after letter; these remained unanswered. He despatched a messenger to bring her home; the messenger was dismissed from her father's house with contempt. This very properly moved his spirit, and he resolved to repudiate her. To justify this bold step, he published four treatises on divorce: The Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce; The Judgment of Martin Bucer concerning Divorce; his famous Tetrachordon, or Expositions upon the four chief places of Scripture which treat of Marriage, or Nullities of Marriage; and Colasterion. It is probable that the lady and her friends would have thanked him for the divorce, had the world gone well with them; and that, like the great poet of our time, he might have lived and died without further sight of his pretty run-a-way; but time political scene was now fast changing. The royal power was rapidly waning; the Powells were getting into trouble, or foresaw it fast approaching, from ,their active participation in the royal cause. Milton, on the other hand, was fast rising into popular note. He was the very man that they were likely to need in the coming storm; and with true worldly policy, they forgot all their pride and insults; were willing to forget the offended husband's public exposure of his wife's conduct, and his active measures for repudiation; and a plan was laid for retaking him. The plot was thus laid. Milton was accustomed to visit a relative in St. Martin's-le-Grand: and here, as it had been concerted on her part, he was astonished to see his wife come from another apartment, and falling on her knees before him, beg forgiveness for her conduct. After some natural astonishment, and some reluctance on his part to a reconciliation after what had passed, be at length gave way to her tears; and forgave and embraced her.
Soon his heart relented
Towards her, his life so late, and sole delight,
Now at his feet submissive in distress.
It has been supposed that the impression made upon his imagination and his feelings, on this occasion, contributed no little to his description of the scene in Paradise Lost, in which Eve addresses herself to Adam for pardon and peace.
And certainly Milton, on this occasion, displayed no little magnanimity and nobility of character. His domestic peace and reputation bad been most remorselessly attacked, yet, says Fenton, "after this reunion, so far was he from retaining an unkind memory of the provocations which he had received from her ill conduct, that when the king's cause was entirely oppressed, and her father, who had been active in his loyalty, was exposed to sequestration, Milton received both him and his family to protection and free entertainment, in his own house, till his affairs were accommodated by his interest with the victorious faction." The old father-in-law had to smart for his attachment to the royal cause. He was publicly announced as a delinquent, and fined £576 12s. 3d.; besides that his house was seized by the parliamentary party.
It would be agreeable if from this time we could find data for believing that the returned wife and her friends showed a generous sense of the kindness of the poet. But we cannot. It appears from Milton's nuncupative will, that the old man never paid him a penny of the promised marriage portion of £1000; and that the three daughters, too true daughters of such a mother, had behaved to him very undutifully. The whole of the view that we obtain of the Powell family is of a piece. After the royal power was restored, and Milton was in danger and disgrace, we hear of no protection afforded by them to him; no protecting roof extended, no countenance even to the daughters, their mother now being dead; but the father being poor, and out of favour, the daughters were suffered to take their fate. One died early, having married a master builder; one died single; and the third married a weaver in Spitalfields. It should be recollected that all three daughters survived their father as well as mother, yet it does not appear that they received the slightest notice or assistance from their rich relations of Shotover. Yet his third daughter, Deborah, had great need of it and, in many respects, well deserved it. She lived to the age of seventy-six. This is the daughter that used to read to her father; and was well known to Richardson and Professor Ward: a woman of a very cultivated understanding, and not inelegant of manners. She was generously patronized by Addison, and by Queen Caroline, who sent her a present of fifty guineas. She had seven sons and three daughters, of whom Caleb and Elizabeth are remembered. Caleb emigrated to Fort Saint George, where, perhaps, he died. Elizabeth, the youngest daughter, married Thomas Foster, a weaver in Spitalfields, as her mother had done before her, and had seven children, who all died. She is said to have been a plain, sensible woman, and kept a petty grocer's or chandler's shop, first at Lower Holloway, and afterwards at Cock-lane, near Shoreditch church. In April, 1750, Comus was acted for her benefit: Doctor Johnson, who wrote the prologue, says, "She had so little acquaintance with diversion or gaiety, that she did not know what was intended when a benefit was offered her." The profits of the performance were only £67, the expenses being deducted, although Dr. Newton contributed largely, and Jacob Tonson gave £20. On this trifling augmentation to their small stock, she and her husband removed to Islington, where they both soon died.
Such is the history of Milton's posterity; that of Shakspeare was sooner terminated, though the descendants of his sister Joan still exist, in a poverty disgraceful to the nation.
With his two succeeding wives, Milton appears to have lived in great harmony and affection. His second wife, a daughter of Captain Woodcock, of Hackney, died in childbirth, within a year of their marriage; and his sonnet to her memory bears testimony to his tender regard for her. His third wife, Elizabeth Minshull, of Cheshire, survived him, and went to reside in her native county, amongst her own relatives.
From this melancholy review of Milton's domestic history, let us now return to his homes in London after his return from Italy. He came back with great intentions, but to the humble occupation of a schoolmaster: and here we encounter one of the most disgraceful pieces of chuckling over his lowly fate, to be found in that most disgraceful life of our great poet and patriot, by Dr. Johnson. The Lives of the Poets, by Johnson, in the aggregate, do him no credit. In point of research, even, they are extremely deficient; but the warped and prejudiced spirit in which they are written destroy them as authority. On Milton's head, however, Johnson poured all the volume of his collected bile. Such a piece of writing upon the greatest epic poet, as well as one of the most illustrious patriots of the nation, is a national insult of the grossest kind. Take this one passage as a specimen of the whole. "Let not our veneration for Milton forbid us to look with some degree of merriment on great promises and small performances; on the man who hastens home because his country men are contending for their liberty, and, when he reaches the scene of action, vapours away his patriotism in a private boarding-school." The passage is as false as it is malicious. Milton did not promise to come home and put himself at the head of armies or of senates. He knew where his strength lay, and he came to use it, and did use it, most effectually. He did not say, "I will be another Cromwell," but he became the Cromwell of the pen. It was precisely because he was poor, — that he had no interest or connexions to place him in the front ranks of action, that he showed the greatness of his resolve, in basting to the scene of contest, and standing ready to seize such opportunity as should offer, to strike for his country and for liberty. He desired to do his duty in the great strife, whatever might be the part he could gain to play; and had he only sincerely desired to do that, and had yet not done it for want of opportunity, he would still have been worthy of praise for his laudable desire.
But every thing that Milton promised he performed: who performed so much? He did not make great promises, and show small performances; he did not vapour away his patriotism in a private boarding-school. He took to a school, because he must live; but he soon showed, that every moment not required for teaching his private pupils was ardently and unceasingly devoted to teaching the nation, and the world. His pen was worth a thousand swords; his thoughts flew about and slew faster than bullets or cannon-balls; his word became the word of exhortation and command to his country. In his hand lay victory, not for the clay and the time only, but for all time. Shame to the old bigotted lexicographer! must every true son of his country and lover of truth exclaim, when he reads what Milton wrote and what he did. To say nothing of his Tractate of Education, and a number of other works; to say nothing of his Paradise Lost, and all his other noble poems, all breathing the most lofty and godlike sentiments — those sentiments which create souls of fire, of strength, and truth, in every age as it arises; what are his Areopagitica; his Tenure of Kings and Magistrates; his Eiconoclastes; his Defensio Populi; his Defensio Secunda; his Treatise on the Means of Removing Hirelings out of the Church; his Civil Power in Ecclesiastical Cases; his State Letters, written at the command of Cromwell and the Parliament? Are these nothing? If ever there was a magnificent monument of human genius, of intellectual power, and glorious patriotism, built up by one man, it exists in these immortal works. Vapoured away his patriotism in a private boarding-school! There was no private boarding-school which could long hold such vapouring as this; it was of a kind that did, or it needs must, come forth to the face of the government, the country, and mankind. The poor schoolmaster, who on the plains of Italy heard the cry of his country for help, flew to her rescue as confidently as if he had been a prince, with fleets and armies at his command. In a poor hired dwelling he prepared his missiles and warlike machines. Men, like Johnson, in the bigotry of despotism, might despise him and them; for they were but a few quires of paper and a grey goose-quill: but he soon shot that quill higher against the towers of royalty, deeper into the ranks of the oppressors, than ever the bullets of Cromwell and Fairfax could pierce. His papers flew abroad, the unfurled banners of liberty, before which kings trembled, and the stoutest myrmidons dropped their arms. The poor schoolmaster became speedily the oracle of the government. His Tenure of Kings and Magistrates, vindicated in unanswerable eloquence the right of nations to call their monarchs to account for their offences against the laws. His Defence of the People from the accursed charges of the hireling Salmasius, flew through Europe, and struck kings and servile senates dumb. By the side of Cromwell, the visage of the blind but divine old marl was seen, with awe and wonder; the learned and the wise from distant realms came to gaze upon the unequalled twain; and when the inspired Secretary exclaimed—
Avenge, O Lord, thy slaughtered saints, whose bones
Lie scatter'd on the Alpine mountains cold;—
the guilty persecutors shrunk aghast, for they knew that where the voice of Milton could reach, the arm of Cromwell could reach too. Who shall say how much of the renown of England at that day sprung from the pen and soul of John Milton! how much he inspired of that which Cromwell did! and how much of the grand march of political and social renovation, which is now going on throughout the world, originated in the vapourings of the poor schoolmaster! Before his fame how pales that of him who has dared thus to revile him! What are all the works of Johnson — and we are inclined to give them their fullest due — when compared with those of Milton, and their consequences? Before him "Whose soul was like a star, and dwelt apart," it became the man who so worthily chastised the meanness of a Chesterfield, to have bowed with humility and reverential love. As it is, we turn with disgust from this humiliating spectacle, of Johnson, the reviler of the noble dead, to Johnson, the friend of Goldsmith, the vindicator of Savage, and the sympathizer with the poor and the suffering.
Of all the various residences of Milton in London, as I have remarked, scarcely one has escaped the ravages of the fire, and the progress of improvement and population. The habit which he had of selecting houses standing in gardens, on account of their quietness, has more than anything else tended to sweep them away. These places, as population increased, were naturally crowded, and the detached houses pulled down to make way for regular streets. His first lodging was in St. Bride's Churchyard, Fleet-street, on his return from Italy. Here he began educating his two nephews, John and Edward Phillips. Of this lodging nothing now remains. The house, as I learn from an old and most respectable inhabitant of St. Bride's parish, who lives in the Churchyard, and very near the spot, was on the left hand, as you proceed towards Fleet-street through the avenue. It was a very small tenement, very old, and was burnt down on the 24th of November, 1824, at which time it was occupied by a hair-dresser. It was, — a proof of its age, — without party walls, and much decayed. The back part of the Punch Office now occupies its site.
These lodgings were too small, and he took a garden-house in Aldersgate-street, situated at the end of an entry, that he might avoid the noise and disturbance of the street. To his nephews he here added a few more pupils, the sons of his most intimate friends. This house was large and commodious, affording room for his library and furniture. Here he commenced his career of pure authorship, all he did having public reform and improvement for its object. Here he wrote, as a fitting commencement, a treatise Of Reformation, to assist the Puritans against the Bishops, as he deemed the Puritans deficient in learning for the defence of the great principles they were contending for. That Milton would turn out a stern reformer of church matters, might be clearly seen from a passage in his Lycidas, written before he was twenty-nine years old. In this he is said even to anticipate the execution of Laud. The passage is curious—
How well could I have spared for thee, young swain,
Enow of such as for their bellies' sake
Creep, and intrude, and climb into the fold?
Of other care they little reckoning make
Than how to scramble at the shearers' feast,
And shove away the worthy bidden guest;
Blind mouths that scarce themselves know how to hold
A sheep-hook, or have learn'd aught else the least
That to the faithful herdman's art belongs
What recks it them? What need they? They are sped;
And when they list, their lean and flashy songs
Grate on their scrannel pipes of wretched straw;
The hungry sheep look up and are not fed,
But swoln with wind, and the rank mist they draw,
Rot inwardly, and foul contagion spread:
Besides what the grim wolf with privy paw
Daily devours apace, and nothing said;
But that two-handed engine at the door,
Stands ready to smite once, and smites no more.
Here he next wrote his treatise, Of Practical Episcopacy, in defence of the Smectymneans, against Archbishop Usher; then, Reasons of Church Government, urged against Prelacy. In this work he revealed to his readers his plans for a great poem — the Paradise Lost, which only was deferred till the advocacy which the times demanded of him should be completed. Here he finished the controversy, by his Apology for Smectymnus in 1642; and in 1643 married Mary Powell, and saw her desert him at the instigation of her time-serving family. This led to his writings of Divorce. These were followed by a treatise of Education; and, finally, by his famous Areopagitica, — altogether an extraordinary mass of labour to proceed from the private abode of a poor vapouring schoolmaster!
It was in this house, on the approach of the troops of Prince Rupert to the capital in 1642, soon after the battle of Edge-hill, that Milton placed in imagination, if not in actual ink, his proudly deprecatory sonnet:
Captain, or colonel, or knight in arms,
Whose chance on these defenceless doors may seize,
If deed of honour did thee ever please,
Guard them, and him within protect from harms.
He can requite thee, for he knows the charms
That call fame on such gentle acts as these,
And he can spread thy name o'er lands and seas,
Whatever clime the sun's bright circle warms.
Lift not thy spear against the Muses' bower
The great Emathian conqueror bid spare
The house of Pindarus, when temple and tower
Went to the ground and the repeated air
Of sad Electra's poet had the power
To save th' Athenian walls from ruin bare.
His next remove was to a house in Barbican, now also, without doubt, removed: this was a larger house, for it was necessary to accommodate not only his wife but all her family. "When it is considered," says Todd, "that Milton cheerfully opened his doors to those who had treated him with indignity and breach of faiths; to a father, who, according to the poet's nuncupative will, never paid him the promised marriage-portion of a thousand pounds; and to a mother, who, according to Wood, had encouraged the daughter in her perverseness; we cannot but concede to Mr. Hayley's conclusion, that the records of private life contain not a more magnanimous example of forgiveness and beneficence. They are supposed to have left him soon after the death of his father, who ended a long life in 1647, and whose declining days had been soothed by every attention of a truly affectionate son."
From the Barbican issued the first volume of his poems, including Comus, Lycidas, L'Allegro, Il Penseroso, &c.; a strange Parnassus as it now seems to us. In 1647, his large troop of inmates having left him, he once more flitted, to use the good old Saxon term, into a smaller house in Holborn, opening backwards into Lincoln's Inn Fields; this house will now be sought in vain. Here he published, in 1649, his bold Tenure of Kings and Magistrates, in which he vindicated what the Parliament had done in 1648, in the execution of the king; this was followed by some other political pamphlets. As he had made himself a marked man before, this open defence of the royal decapitation bound him up at once with the measures of the ruling government. Such a champion was not to be overlooked; and accordingly, immediately afterwards, he was invited by the Council of State, without any expectation or solicitation on his part, to become Latin Secretary; as they had resolved neither to write to others abroad, nor to receive answers from any, except in that language, which was common to them all. Thus the vapouring schoolmaster, without any anxious solicitation, any flatteries, or compromise of his dignity and integrity, had steadily advanced to that post in which he could effectually serve his country. He was here not merely the secretary, he was the champion of the government; and accordingly the Eicon Basilike, attributed to King Charles himself, was ordered by him to have an answer, — which answer was his Eiconoclastes, or the Image-breaker. Then came his great Defence of the People of England, against Salmasius; this work was received, both at home and abroad, with the greatest excitement, abuse, and applause, as the different parties were affected: at Paris and Toulouse it was burnt; at home, Milton was complimented on his performance of his task, by the visits or invitations of all the foreign ministers in London; his own government presented him with a thousand pounds, as a testimony of their approbation of the manner in which he had acquitted himself; and even Queen Christina of Sweden, the patron of Salmasius, could not avoid applauding it, and soon after dismissed Salmasius from her court. The work itself, and the effect it produced, are said to have shortened the life of Salmasius, who died about two years afterwards, without having finished his reply, upon which he was labouring.
On being made Latin secretary, Milton quitted Holborn, and took lodgings in Scotland-yard, near Whitehall: here he lost his infant son; and his own health being impaired, he removed to a more airy situation; that is, into one of his favourite garden-houses, situated in Petty-France, Westminster, which opened into St. James's Park, in which he continued till within a few weeks of the Restoration; in this house some of the greatest domestic events of his life occurred. Here he lost the entire use of his eyes; his left eye having become quite dark in 1651, — the year in which he published his Defensio Populi — the second in 1653. His enemies triumphed in his blindness as a judgment from Heaven upon his writing against the king; he only replied by asking them, if it were a judgment upon him to lose his eyes, what sort of judgment was that upon the king, which cost him his head; and by adding, that he had charity enough to forgive them. We have seen that he laid the foundation of this deprivation in his youth, by unremitted and nocturnal study; and, when writing the Defence of the People, the physicians announced to him that he must desist, or lose his sight: he believed his duty required him to go on, and he went on, knowing the sacrifice he made.
In this house he lost, too, his first wife, Mary Powell; their infant son was dead, but she left him three daughters, the only children that survived him. Of this ill-starred marriage we have said and seen enough. He afterwards married Catherine, the daughter of Captain Woodcock, of Hackney, who died in childbed within a year of their marriage. Of the beautiful character of this excellent woman, he has left us that beautiful testimony, his twenty-second sonnet:
Methought I saw my late espoused saint
Brought to me, like Alcestis from the grave,
Whom Jove's great son to her glad husband gave,
Rescued from death by force, though pale and faint.
Mine, as whom washed from spot of childbed taint,
Purification in the old law did save,
And such, as yet once more I trust to have
Full sight of her in heaven without restraint,
Came, vested all in white, pure as her mind:
Her face was veiled, yet, to my fancied sight,
Love, sweetness, goodness, in her person shined
So clear, as in no face with more delight.
But, oh! as to embrace me she inclined,
I waked, she fled, and day brought back my night.
Here Milton wrote his Second Defence of the People against the attack made in a book called Regii Sanguinis clamor ad Coelum adversus parricidas Anglicanos; written by one Peter du Moulin, afterwards Prebendary of Canterbury; with other things in the same controversy. As he was now blind, he had the excellent Andrew Marvell associated with him, as assistant secretary. His industry continued at writing, as if he had full use of his eyes. He published now his Civil Power in Ecclesiastical Cases, and The Means of Removing Hirelings out of the Church: collected the Original Letters and Papers addressed to Oliver Cromwell concerning the affairs of Great Britain, from 1649 to 1658, with other things.
This memorable dwelling is yet standing. It no longer opens into St. James's Park. The ancient front is now its back, and overlooks the fine old, but house-surrounded garden of Jeremy Bentham. Near the top of this ancient front is a stone, bearing this inscription — "SACRED TO MILTON, THE PRINCE OF POETS." This was placed there by no less distinguished a man than William Hazlitt, who rented the house some years, purely because it was Milton's. Bentham, when he was conducting people round his garden, which is now in the occupation of Mr. Gibs, the engineer, used to make them sometimes go down on their knees to this house. The house is tall and narrow; and has nothing striking about it. No doubt, when it opened into St. James's Park, it was pleasant; now it fronts into York-street, which runs in a direct line from the west end of Westminster Abbey. It is number 19, and is occupied by a cutler. The back, its former front, is closed in by a wall, leaving but a very narrow court; but above this wall, as already said, looks into the pleasant garden of the late venerable philosopher.
But the time of the Restoration was approaching, and Milton began to retrace his steps towards the city, by much the same regular stages as he had left it. After secreting himself in Bartholomew-close till the storm had blown over, and his pardon was signed, he once more took a house in Holborn, near Red-Lion-Fields; and thence removed to Jewin-street, near Aldersgate. All these places have been rebuilt, and no house of Milton is now to be found in these thickly populated parts. People have often wondered why Milton always showed such a preference for the city. There were many reasons. In the first place, he was born and brought up till his seventeenth year in it: the associations of youth form strong attractions. In the second, as Dr. Johnson considerately tells us, Aldersgate-street and the like were not then so much out of the world as now. Besides this, after the Restoration, it would be far more agreeable to Milton to be at some distance from the West-end, where cavaliers and courtiers were how flaunting with newly-revived insolence; and nothing but taunts, insults, and the hearing of strange and most odious doings could have awaited him. Here Milton married his third and last wife, Elizabeth Minshull, of a good family in Cheshire, with whom he seems to have lived in great affection, so much so, that he wished to leave her all that was left him of his property.
From Jewin-street he made his last remove, as to his London residences, into Artillery-walk, Bunhill-fields. Bunhill-fields were, probably, in those days, open, and airy, and quiet; at present, with the exception of the Artillery Ground itself and the thickly-populated burial-ground which contains the bones of Bunyan and De Foe, the whole of that neighbourhood is covered with a dense mass of modern houses. Artillery-walk, Bunhill-fields, is no longer to be found. The nearest approach that you get, even to the name, is Artillery-place, Bunhill-row, which is merely a row of new houses adjoining the Artillery-ground, and a new church which has been erected in that busy, ordinary, and dingy street, still called Bunhill-row. Besides an Art of Logic, his Treatise of True Religion, Heresie, Schism, Toleration, and what best means may be used against the growth of Popery; his Familiar Letters in Latin; and a translation of a Latin Declaration of the Poles in favour of John III, their heroic sovereign — the two last published in the last year of his life; his residence in Bunhill-fields was made remarkable by the publication of Paradise Lost, Paradise Regained, and Samson Agonistes. He left, moreover, in manuscript, a Brief History of Muscovy, and of other less known Countries lying eastward of Russia as far as Cathay, which was published in 1682, and his System of Theology, which was long supposed to have perished, but has been recovered and published of late years, much to the scandal of the orthodox.
Thus to the last did this wonderful man live and labour. Never did any man less "vapour away his patriotism." There is something singularly interesting and impressive in our idea of him, as he calmly passed his latter days in his quiet habitation in Bunhill-fields. He had outlived the great battle of king and people, in which extraordinary men and as extraordinary events had arisen, and shaken the whole civilized world. Charles I, Laud, and Strafford, had fallen in their blood; the monarchy and the church had fallen. Pym, Hampden, Marvel, Vane and the dictator Cromwell, had not only pulled down the greatest throne in Europe, but had made all others seem to reel by the terrific precedent. All these stern agents, with the generals Ireton, Harrison, Lambert, Fleetwood, and their compeers, who had risen from the people to fight for the people, were gone, like the actors in an awful tragedy who had played their role; some had perished in their blood, others had been torn from their graves; the monarchy and the church, the peerage and all the old practices and maxims, were again in the ascendant, and had taken bloody vengeance; yet this one man, he who had incited and applauded, who had defended and made glorious through his eloquence and his learning the whole republican cause, was left untouched. As if some especial guardianship of Providence had shielded him, or as if the very foes who pulled the dreaded Cromwell from his grave, feared the imprecations of posterity, and shrunk from the touch of that sacred head — there sate the sublime old man at his door, feeling with grateful enjoyment the genial sunshine fall on him. There he sate, erect, serene, calm, and trusting to God the Father of mankind. He had lived even to fulfil that long deferred task of poetic glory; the vision of Paradise Lost passed before him, and had been sung forth in the most majestic strains that had ever made classical the English tongue. His trust in Providence had been justified; he had served his country, and had yet not missed his immortality. The great and the wise came from every quarter to converse with him; and the wonderful passages through which he and his nation had lived, were food for the musings of the longest day or the most solitary moments.
Many have thought that those melancholy lines in Samson Agonistes, commencing, — "O loss of sight of thee I most complain," were his own wretched cogitations. But Milton, unlike Samson, had no weak seductions from the path of his great duty to reproach himself with; and far likelier were it, that the whole apostrophe to light spoken in his own character in the opening of the third book of Paradise Lost, was the more usual expression of his feelings:—
Thee I revisit safe,
And feel thy sov'ran, vital lamp; but thou
Revisit'st not these eyes, that roll in vain
To find thy piercing ray, and find no dawn;
So thick a drop serene hath quench'd their orbs,
Or dim suffusion veil'd. Yet, not the more
Cease I to wander where the Muses haunt
Clear spring, or shady grove, or sunny hill,
Smit with the love of sacred song; but chief
Thee, Sion, and the flowery brooks beneath,
That wash thy hallowed feet, and warbling flow,
Nightly I visit: nor sometimes forget
Those other two equalled with me in fate,
So were I equalled with them in renown,
Blind Thamyris and blind Maeonides,
And Tiresias and Phineus, prophets old:
Then feed on thoughts, that voluntary move
Harmonious numbers; as the wakeful bird
Sings darkling, and, in shadiest covert hid,
Tunes her nocturnal note.
Such is the view that Richardson has given us of him in his declining days: — "An ancient clergyman of Dorsetshire, Dr. Wright, found John Milton in a small chamber hung with rusty green, sitting in an elbow chair, and dressed neatly in black; pale, but not cadaverous; his hands and fingers gouty, and with chalk stones. He used also to sit in a grey, coarse cloth coat, at the door of his house in Bunhill-fields, in warm sunny weather, to enjoy the fresh air; and so, as well as in his room, received the visits of people of distinguished parts as well as quality."
Much pains have been taken to represent Milton as morose and exacting in domestic life; and as proof of it has been adduced, the leaving of him by his first wife, and the statement that he made his daughters read to him in Latin and Greek, though he would not allow them to learn a syllable of those languages. If these things were true, I should be the last man to defend them, or to endeavour to gloss them over; but they are at least very doubtful. We must remember that these were the charges of his enemies, and they were many and bitter, and by no means truthful. The causes for his wife's desertion we have already examined, and they reflect discredit on her and her family, and not on him. In that account, all that is generous and honourable lies on his side. As to his daughters, probably they did not wish to learn the classical languages; and how they could read in them, while ignorant of them, so as to satisfy his ear, is not so easily conceivable, when we recollect that when Elwood did not understand what he was reading, he immediately detected it, and stopped him. Be this however as it may, Dr. Newton tells us, that all who had written accounts of Milton agreed that "he was affable and instructive in conversation, and of an equal and cheerful temper." It is not so easy to excuse him for refusing to leave any of his property to his daughters, "because they had been very undutiful to him." No doubt he had much to complain of in that disposition which they had imbibed from their mother and her family, but it became a great man, like Milton, to cherish a great affection towards his own children, and to manifest towards them a great forgiveness.
There is an episode in the later life of Milton which we are made acquainted with by Thomas Elwood, the Quaker, and which has something very pleasing and picturesque about it. It is that of his abode at Chalfont St. Giles, in Buckinghamshire. Elwood, who was the son of a country justice of peace, was one amongst the first converts to Quakerism, and has left us a most curious and amusing autobiography. In this he tells us that, while Milton lived in Jewin-street, he was introduced to him as a reader, the recompense to Elwood being that of deriving the advantage of a better knowledge of the classics, and of the foreign pronunciation of Latin. A great regard sprung up between Milton and his reader, who was a man not only of great integrity of mind, but of a quaint humour and a poetical taste. On the breaking out of the plague in London, Milton, who was then living in Bunhill-fields, wrote to Elwood, who had found an asylum in the house of an affluent Quaker, at Chalfont, to procure him a lodging there. He did so; but before Milton could take possession of his country retreat, Elwood, with numbers of other Quakers, was hurried off to Aylesbury gaol. The persecution of that sect subsiding for awhile, Elwood, on his liberation, paid Milton a visit, and received the MS. of Paradise Lost to take home and read. With this, Elwood had the sense to be greatly delighted, and, in returning it, said, "Thou hast said a great deal upon Paradise Lost; what hast thou to say upon Paradise Found?" Milton was silent a moment, as pondering on what he had heard, and then began to converse on other subjects. When, however, Elwood visited him afterwards in London, Milton showed him the Paradise Regained, saying, "This is owing to you, for you put it into my head by the question you put to me at Chalfont; which before I had not thought of."
Thus in this abode at Chalfont, we hear the first mention of Paradise Lost, and to it we owe Paradise Regained. It is supposed that Milton wrote the whole of the latter poem there, and that he must have done, or the greater part of it, from his being able so soon after his return to show it to Elwood.
It says much for the proprietors of the cottage at Chalfont, and for the feeling of the country in general, that this simple dwelling has been sacredly preserved to this time. You see that all the others near it are much more modern. This is of the old framed timber kind, and is known, not only to the whole village, but the whole country round, as Milton's house. Mr. Dunster, in the additions to his edition of Paradise Regained, says that the cottage at Chalfont "is not pleasantly situated; that the adjacent country is extremely pleasant; but the immediate spot is as little picturesque or pleasing as can well be imagined."
He might have recollected, that it could signify very little to Milton whether the spot was picturesque or not, if it were quiet, and had a good air; for Milton was, and had been, long quite blind. But, in fact, the situation, though not remarkably striking, is by no means unpleasing. It is the first cottage on the right hand as you descend the road from Beaconsfield, to Chalfont St. Giles.
Standing a little above the cottage, the view before you is very interesting. The quiet old agricultural village of Chalfont lies in the valley, amid woody uplands, which are seen all round. The cottage stands facing you, with its gable turned to the road, and fronting into its little garden and field. A row of ordinary cottages is built at its back, and face the road below. To the right, ascends the grass field mentioned; but this, with extensive old orchards above the house, is pleasing to the eye, presenting an idea of quiet, rural repose, and of meditative walks in the shade of the orchard trees, or up the field, to the breezy height above. Opposite to the house, on the other side of the way, is a wheelwright's dwelling, with his timber reared amongst old trees, and above it a chalk-pit, grown about with bushes. This is as rural as you can desire. The old house is covered in front with a vine; bears all the marks of antiquity; and is said by its inhabitant, a tailor, to have been but little altered. There was, he says, an old porch at the door, which stood till it fell with age. Here we may well imagine Milton sitting, in the sunny weather, as at Bunhill-fields, and enjoying the warmth, and the calm sweet air. Could he have seen the view which here presented itself, it would have been agreeable; for though in this direction the ascending ground shuts out distant prospect, its green and woody upland would be itself a pleasant object of contemplation; shutting out all else, and favourable to thought. The house below consists of two rooms, the one on the left, next to the road, a spacious one, though low, and with its small diamond casements suggesting to you, that it is much as when Milton inhabited it. Here he no doubt lived principally; and to all probability, here was Paradise Regained dictated to his amanuensis, most likely at that time his wife, Elizabeth Minshull. The worthy tailor and his apprentice were now mounted on a table in it, busily pursuing their labour.
Outside, over the door, is an armorial escutcheon, at the foot of which is painted in bold letters, MILTON. The old man, who was very civil and communicative, said that it was not really the escutcheon of Milton, but of General Fleetwood, who purchased the house for Milton, and who at that time lived at the Manor-house, and lies buried in the church here. Of this, Elwood tells us nothing, but on the contrary, that he procured the house for Milton. Whether this escutcheon be really Fleetwood's or not, I had no means of ascertaining, as it was not only very indistinct, but too high to examine without a ladder; but as Milton's armorial bearing contained spread eagles, and as there were birds in the shield, it no doubt had been intended for Milton by those who placed it there. Fleetwood's living at Chalfont might be an additional reason for Milton's choosing it for his then retreat; but Elwood, and not Fleetwood, took the house, and it is doubtful even whether Fleetwood was still living, being one of the regicides condemned, but never executed. Independent, however, of any other consideration, Milton had many old associations with Buckinghamshire, which would recommend it to him; and in summer the air amid the heaths and parks of this part of the country is peculiarly soft, delicious, and fragrant.
We come now to Milton's last house, the narrow house appointed for all living, in which he laid his bones beside those of his father. This was in the church of St. Giles, Cripplegate. He died on Sunday, the 8th November, 1674, and was buried on the 12th. His funeral is stated to have been very splendidly and numerously attended. By the parish registry we find that he was buried in the chancel: "John Milton, gentleman. Consumption. Chancell. 12. Nov: 1674." Dr. Johnson supposed that he had no inscription, but Aubrey distinctly states that "when the two steppes to the communion table were raysed in 1690, his stone was removed." Milton's grave remained a whole century without a mark to point out where the great poet lay, till in 1793 Mr. Whitbread erected a bust and an inscription to his memory. What is more, there is every reason to believe that his remains were, on this occasion of raising the chancel and removing the stone, disturbed. The coffin was disinterred and opened, and numbers of relic-hunters were eager to seize and convey off fragments of his bones. The matter at the time occasioned a sharp controversy, and the public were at length persuaded to believe that they were not the remains of Milton, but of a female, that by mistake had been thus treated. But when the workmen had the inscribed stone before them, and dug down directly below it, what doubt can there be that the remains were those of the poet? By an alteration in the church when it was repaired in 1682, that which was the old chancel ceased to be the present one, and the remains of Milton thus came to lie in the great central aisle. The monument erected by Whitbread marks as near as possible the place. The bust is by Bacon. It is attached to a pillar, and beneath it is this inscription:—
JOHN MILTON, Author of Paradise lost,
Born Decr. 1608.
Died Novr. 1674.
His father, John Milton, died March, 1646.
They were both interred in this church.
Samuel Whitbread posuit, 1793.
This church is remarkable for the marriage of Oliver Cromwell having taken place in it, and for being the burial-place of many eminent men. In the chancel, in close neighbourhood with Milton, lay old John Speed, the chronicler, and Fox, the martyrologist, whose monuments still remain on the wall. That of Speed is his bust, in doublet and ruff, with his right hand resting on a book, and his left on a scull. It is in a niche, representing one of the folding shrines still seen in Catholic churches on the continent. There is a monument also seen there to a lady of the family of Sir Thomas Lucy, of Shakspeare notoriety; and another of some noble person, having beneath the armorial escutcheon, an opening representing sculls, bones, and flames, within a barred grating, supposed to be symbolic of purgatory. The burial-ground of Bunhill-fields, where Bunyan and De Foe lie, belong also to this parish, and their interments are contained in the registry of this church.
Thus the Prince of Poets, as Hazlitt styled him, sleeps in good company. The times in which he lived, and the part he took in them, were certain to load his name with obloquy and misrepresentation; but the solemn dignity of his life, and the lofty tone and principle of his writings, more and more suffice not only to vindicate him, but to commend him to posterity. No man ever loved liberty and virtue with a purer affection; no man ever laboured in their cause with a more distinguished zeal; no man ever brought to the task a more glorious genius, accomplished with a more consummate learning. Milton was the noblest model of a devoted patriot and true Englishman; and the study of his works is the most certain means of perpetuating to his country spirits worthy of her greatness.