John Milton

Robert Chambers, in Cyclopaedia of English Literature (1844; 1850) 1:328-31.

Above all the poets of this age, and, in the whole range of English poetry, inferior only to Shakspeare, was JOHN MILTON, born in London, December 9, 1608. His father was of an ancient Catholic family, but having embraced the Protestant faith, he was disinherited, and had recourse, as a means of support, to the profession of a scrivener — one who draws legal contracts, and places money at interest. The firmness and the sufferings of the father for conscience' sake, tinctured the early feelings and sentiments of the son, who was a stern unbending champion of religious freedom. The paternal example may also have had some effect on the poet's taste and accomplishments. The elder Milton was distinguished as a musical composer, and the son was well skilled in the same soothing and delightful art. The variety and harmony of his versification may no doubt be partly traced to the same source. Coleridge styles Milton a musical, not a picturesque, poet. The saying, however, is more pointed than correct. In the most musical passages of Milton (as the lyrics in "Comus"), the pictures presented to the mind are as distinct and vivid as the paintings of Titian or Raphael. Milton was educated with great care. At fifteen, he was sent (even then an accomplished scholar) to St. Paul's school, London, and two years afterwards to Christ's college, Cambridge. He was a severe student, of a nice and haughty temper, and jealous of constraint or control. He complained that the fields around Cambridge had no soft shades to attract the muse, as Robert Hall, a century and a half afterwards, attributed his first attack of insanity to the flatness of the scenery, and the want of woods in that part of England! Milton was designed for the church, but he preferred a "blameless silence" to what he considered "servitude and forswearing." At this time, in his twenty-first year, he had written his grand Hymn on the Nativity, any one verse of which was sufficient to show that a new and great light was about to rise on English poetry. In 1632 he retired from the university, having taken his degree of M.A., and went to the house of his father, who had relinquished business, and purchased a small property at Horton, in Buckinghamshire. Here he lived five years, studying classical literature, and here he wrote his "Arcades" "Comus," and "Lycidas." The "Arcades" formed part of a masque, presented to the Countess Dowager of Derby, at Harefield, near Horton, by some noble persons of her family. "Comus, also a masque, was presented at Ludlow castle in 1634, before the Earl of Bridgewater, then president of Wales. This drama was founded on an actual occurrence. The Earl of Bridgewater then resided at Ludlow castle; his sons, Lord Brackley and Mr Egerton, and Lady Alice Egerton, his daughter, passing through Haywood forest in Herefordshire, on their way to Ludlow, were benighted, and the lady was for a short time lost. This accident being related to their father upon their arrival at his castle, Milton, at the request of his friend Henry Lawes, the musician (who taught music in the family), wrote the masque.

Lawes set it to music, and it was acted on Michaelmas night, 1634, the two brothers, the young lady, and Lawes himself, bearing each a part in the representation. "Comus" is better entitled to the appellation of a moral masque than any by Jonson, Ford or Massinger. It is a pure dream of Elysium. The reader is transported, as in Shakspeare's "Tempest," to scenes of fairy enchantment, but no grossness mingles with the poet's creations, and his muse is ever ready to "moralise the song" with strains of solemn imagery and lofty sentiment. "Comus" was first published in 1637, not by its author, but by Henry Lawes, who, in a dedication to Lord Bridgewater, says, "although not openly acknowledged by the author, yet it is a legitimate offspring, so lovely, and so much desired, that the often copying of it hath tired my pen to give my several friends satisfaction." "Lycidas" was also published in the same year. This exquisite poem is a monody on a college companion of Milton's, Edward King, who perished by shipwreck on his passage from Chester to Ireland. Milton's descriptive poems, "L'Allegro" and "Il Penseroso," are generally referred to the same happy period of his life; but from the cast of the imagery, we suspect they were sketched in at college, when he walked the "studious cloisters pale," amidst "storied windows," and "pealing anthems." And, indeed, there is a tradition that the scenery depicted in "L'Allegro" is that around a country college retirement of the poet, at Forest Hill, about three miles from Oxford. In 1638 the poet left the paternal roof, and travelled for fifteen months in France and Italy, returning homewards by the "Leman lake" to Geneva and Paris. His society was courted by the "choicest Italian wits," and he visited Galileo, then a prisoner of the Inquisition. This statuesque grace and beauty of some of Milton's poetical creations (the figures of Adam and Eve, the angel Raphael, and parts of Paradise Regained) were probably suggested by his study of this works of art in Florence and Rome. The poet had been with difficulty restrained from testifying against popery within the verge of the Vatican; and on his return to his native country, he engaged in controversy against the prelates and the royalists, and vindicated, with characteristic ardour, the utmost freedom of thought and expression. His prose works are noticed in another part of this volume. In 1643 Milton went to the country, and married Mary, the daughter of Richard Powell, a high cavalier of Oxfordshire, to whom the poet was probably known, as Mr. Powell had, many years before, borrowed £500 from his father. He brought his wife to London, but in the short period of a month, the studious habits and philosophical seclusion of the republican poet proved so distasteful to the cavalier's fair daughter, that she left his house on a visit to her parents, and refused to return. Milton resolved to repudiate her, and published some treatises on divorce, in which he argues that the law of Moses, which allowed of divorcement for uncleanness, was not adultery only, but uncleanness of the mind as well as the body. This dangerous doctrine he maintained through life; but the year after her desertion (when the poet was practically enforcing his opinions by soliciting the hand of another lady), his erring and repentant wife fell on her knees before him, "submissive in distress," and Milton, like his own Adam, was "fondly overcome with female charm." He also behaved with great generosity to her parents when the further progress of this civil war involved them in ruin. In 1649 Milton was unsolicited, appointed foreign or Latin secretary to the council of state. His salary was about £300 per annum, which was afterwards reduced one half, when the duties were shared, first with Philip Meadowes, and afterwards with the excellent Andrew Marvell. He served Cromwell when Cromwell had thrown off the mask and assumed all but the name of king, and it is to be regretted that, like his friend Bradshaw, the poet had not disclaimed this new and usurped tyranny, though dignified by a master mind. He was probably hurried along by the stormy tide of events, till he could not well recede.

For ten years Milton's eyesight had been failing, owing to the "wearisome studies and midnight watchings" of his youth. The last remains of it were sacrificed in the composition of his "Defensio Populi" (he was willing and proud to make the sacrifice), and by the close of the year 1652, he was totally blind, "Dark, dark, irrecoverably dark." His wife died about the same time; but he soon married again. His second partner died within a year, and he consecrated to her, memory one of his simple, but solemn and touching sonnets:—

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 wash'd from spot of child-bed 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 veil'd, yet to my fancied sight,
Love, goodness, sweetness, in her person shin'd
So clear, as in no face with more delight.
But, oh! as to embrace me she inclin'd,
I wak'd, she fled, and day brought back my night.

The Restoration deprived Milton of his public employment, and exposed him to danger, but by the interest of Davenant and Marvell (as has been said), his name was included in the general amnesty. The great poet was now at liberty to pursue his private studies, and to realise the devout aspirations of his youth for an immortality of literary fame. His spirit was unsubdued. Paradise Lost was begun in 1658, when the division of the secretaryship gave him greater leisure; it was completed in 1665, at a cottage at Chalfont, in Bucks, to which the poet had withdrawn from the plague, then raging in the metropolis; but it was not published till two years afterwards, when the copyright was purchased by Samuel Simmons, a bookseller, on the following terms: — An immediate payment of £5, and £5 more when 1300 copies should be sold; the like sum after the same number of the second edition (each edition to consist of 1500 copies), and other £5 after the sale of the third. The third edition was not published till 1678 (when the poet was no more), and his widow (Milton married a third time, about 1660) sold all her claims to Simmons for £8. It appears that in the comparatively short period of two years, the poet became entitled to his second payment, so that 1300 copies of "Paradise Lost" had been sold in the two first years of its publication — a proof that the nation was not, as has been vulgarly supposed, insensible to the merits of the divine poem then entering on its course of immortality. In eleven years from the date of its publication, 3000 copies had been sold; and a modern critic has expressed a doubt whether "Paradise Lost," published eleven years since, — would have met with a greater demand! The fall of man was a theme suited to the serious part of the community in that age, independently of the claims of a work of genius. The Puritans had not yet wholly died out — their beatific visions were not quenched by the gross sensualism of the times. Compared with Dryden's plays, how pure, how lofty and sanctified, must have appeared the epic strains of Milton! The blank-verse of "Paradise Lost" was, however, a stumblingblock to the reading public. So long a poem in this measure had not before been attempted, and ere the second edition was published, Samuel Simmons procured from Milton a short and spirited explanation of his reasons for departing from the "troublesome bondage of rhyming." In 1671 the poet produced his "Paradise Regained" and "Samson Agonistes." The severe simplicity and the restricted plan of these poems have rendered them less popular than "Comus" or "Paradise Lost;" but they exhibit the intensity and force of Milton's genius: they were "the ebb of a mighty tide." The survey of Greece and Rome in "Paradise Regained," and the poet's description of the banquet in the grove, are as rich and exuberant as anything in "Paradise Lost" while his brief sketch of the thunder-storm in the wilderness, in the same poem, is perhaps the most strikingly dramatic and effective passage of the kind in all his works. The active and studious life of the poet was now near a close. It is pleasing to reflect that Poverty, in her worst shape, never entered his dwelling, irradiated by visions of paradise; and that, though long a sufferer from hereditary disease, his mind was calm and bright to the last. He died without a struggle on Sunday the 8th of November, 1674. By his first rash and ill-assorted marriage, Milton left three daughters, whom, it is said, he taught to read and pronounce several languages, though they only understood their native tongue. He complained that the children were "undutiful and unkind" to him; and they were all living apart from their illustrious parent for some years before his death. His widow inherited a fortune of about £1500, of which she gave £100 to each of his daughters.

Milton's early poems have much of the manner of Spenser, particularly his "Lycidas." In "Comus" there are various traces of Fletcher, Shakspeare, and other poets. Single words, epithets, and images. he freely borrowed, but they were so combined and improved by his own splendid and absorbing imagination, as not to detract from his originality. His imperial fancy (as was said of Burke) laid all art and nature under tribute, yet never lost "its own original brightness." Milton's diction is peculiarly rich and pictorial in effect. In force and dignity he towers over all his contemporaries. He is of no class of poets: "his soul was like a star, and dwelt apart." The style of Milton's verse was moulded on classic models, chiefly the Greek tragedians; but his musical taste, his love of Italian literature, and the lofty and solemn cast of his own mind, gave strength and harmony to the whole. His minor poems alone would have rendered his name immortal, but there still wanted his great epic to complete the measure of his fame and the glory of his country.

"Paradise Lost," or the fall of man, had long been familiar to Milton as a subject for poetry. He at first intended it as a drama, and two draughts of his scheme are preserved among his manuscripts in Trinity college library, Cambridge. His genius, however, was better adapted for an epic than a dramatic poem. His "Samson," though cast in a dramatic form, has little of dramatic interest or variety of character. His multifarious learning and uniform dignity of manner would have been too weighty for dialogue; whereas in the epic form, his erudition was well employed in episode and illustration. He was perhaps too profuse of learned illustration, yet there is something very striking and imposing even in his long catalogues of names and cities. They are generally sonorous and musical. "The subject of Paradise Lost," says Mr. Campbell, "was the origin of evil — an era in existence — an event more than all others dividing past from future time — an isthmus in the ocean of eternity. The theme was in its nature connected with everything important in the circumstances of human history; and amidst these circumstances Milton saw that the fables of Paganism were too important and poetical to be omitted. As a Christian, he was entitled wholly to neglect them; but as a poet, he chose to treat them, not as dreams of the human mind, but as this delusions of infernal existences. Thus anticipating a beautiful propriety for all classical allusions, thus connecting and reconciling the co-existence of fable and truth, and thus identifying his fallen angels with the deities of "gay religions full of pomp and gold, he yoked the heathen mythology in triumph to his subject, and clothed himself in the spoils of superstition." The two first books of "Paradise Lost" are remarkable for their grandeur and sublimity. The delineation of Satan and the fallen angels "hurled headlong flaming from the ethereal sky," and their assembled deliberations in the infernal council, are astonishing efforts of human genius — "their appearance dwarfs every other poetical conception." At a time when the common superstition of the country presented the Spirit of Evil in the most low and debasing shapes, Milton invested him with colossal strength and majesty, with unconquerable pride and daring, with passion and remorse, sorrow and tears — "the archangel ruined, and the excess of glory obscured." Pope has censured the dialogues in heaven as too metaphysical, and every reader feels that they are prolix, and, in some instances, unnecessary and unbecoming. The taste of Milton for argumentative speech and theology had overpowered his poetical imagination. It has also been objected, that there is a want of human interest in the poem. This objection, however, is net felt. The poet has drawn the characters of Adam and Eve with such surpassing art and beauty, and has invested their residence in Paradise with such an accumulation of charms, that our sympathy with them is strong and unbroken; it accompanies them in their life of innocence, their daily employment among fruits and flowers, their purity, affection, and piety, and it continues after the ruins of the fall. More perfect and entire sympathy could not be excited by any living agents. In these tender and descriptive scenes, the force and occasional stiffness of Milton's style, and the march of his stately sonorous verse, are tempered and modulated with exquisite skill. The allegorical figures of Sin and Death have been found fault with: "they will not bear exact criticism," says Hallam, "yet we do not wish them away." They appear to us to be among the grandest of Milton's conceptions — terrific, repulsive, yet sublime, and sternly moral in their effects. Who but must entertain disgust and hatred at sin thus portrayed? The battle of the angels in the sixth book is perhaps open to censure. The material machinery is out of place in heaven, and seems to violate even poetical probability. The reader is sensible how the combat must end, and wishes that the whole had been more veiled and obscure. "The martial demons," remarks Campbell, "who charmed us in the shades of hell, lose some portion of their sublimity when their artillery is discharged in the daylight of heaven." The discourses of the angel Raphael, and the vision of Michael in the two last books — leading the reader gently and slowly, as it were, from the empyrean heights down to earth — have a tranquil dignity of tone and pathos that are deeply touching and impressive. The Christian poet triumphs and predominates at the close.