1720 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

John Milton

Giles Jacob, in Historical Account of the Lives and Writings of our most considerable English Poets (1720) 100--06.



A Person Eminent at Home, and Famous Abroad for his Universal Learning, born in London in the Year 1606. He was the Son of Mr. John Milton, and a Gentleman of his Education and Family, being descended from the Miltons of Milton in Oxfordshire; but he had too much good Sense to value himself upon any other Qualities, than those of his Mind, which only he could properly Denominate his own. His Father was by Profession a Scrivener, and by his great Diligence and Honesty he got a competent Estate in a small Time, which made him amends for the Patrimony he was Divested of, upon the embracing of the Protestant Religion, for on that Account he was Disinherited by his bigotted Parents. Our Author (Destined to be a Scholar) partly under Domestick Teachers, and partly under Dr. Gill, the chief Master of St. Paul's School, soon made an incredible Progress in all sorts of Learning. At Fifteen Years of Age, he was sent to Christ's College in Cambridge, and before he had been there a Year, he gave several Proofs of his early Genius for Poetry: He first Translated some of the Psalms into English Verse; in his Seventeenth Year he wrote a Latin Elegy, On the Death of the Bishop of Winchester, and several other Excellent Poems of that kind; 'twas then also, he Composed his fine Poem on the Gun-Powder-Treason, which with the rest of his Juvenile Pieces, shew him to have been a Man almost in his infancy, and that these Poems are exceedingly above the ordinary Capacity of that Age. He continued in the University of Cambridge seven Years, where he took the Degree of Master of arts, and liv'd with great Reputation. After this, he for several Years attended his Father, in a Country Retirement, at Horton near Colebrook in Berkshire, and at his leisure perused all the Greek and Latin Writers; Diverting himself in the intervals of his Studies, with the Mathematicks and Musick, which gave him extraordinary Delight. Upon the Death of his Mother, with his Father's Approbation, he Travelled abroad. First he proceeded to France, having an Elegant Letter of Direction from Sir Henry Wotton; and being Arriv'd at Paris, he was received with great Marks of Esteem by the English Envoy there, who Recommended him to the Famous Grotius then Embassador from Christina Queen of Sweden at the French Court. From hence he parted for Italy, and staid about two Months at the City of Florence, which he infinitely admired for the Politeness of the Language, and Civility of the Inhabitants. Leaving Florence, he took his Tour to Rome, where he continued about the same space as he had done at Florence, to view the Remains of that Famous City, once the Mistress of the World. Here he became acquainted with the Celebrated Lucas Holstenius the Vatican Librarian, who used him very Courteously, and readily shewed him all the Greek Authors under his Care: For these Favours, Milton afterwards wrote to him from Florence the Ninth of his familiar Letters. At Rome and Florence he contracted an intimacy with several very great an eminent Men, particularly Carolo Dati (a Nobleman to whom he writ the tenth of his Familiar Epistles) Giovanni Battista Manso, Marquis of Villa, Patron to the great Poet Tasso, the Poet Giovanni Salsilli, and the famous Selvaggi, who wrote him the following Distich.

Graecia Maeonidem, jactet sibi Roma Maronem;
Anglia Miltonum jactat utrique parem.

Salsilli extolled him for writing correctly in Greek, Latin, and Italian. He was now preparing to pass over into Sicily and Greece, but the fatal News of a Civil War beginning in his own Country put a stop to his farther Travels. On his Return to England he touched again at Florence, and from thence came through Venice, Milan, Geneva, &c. He Arrived about the time that King Charles the First made his Second unsuccessful Expedition against the Scots; and hiring a handsome Lodging in the City, he now undertook the care of Educating his Sisters Sons, with some other young Gentlemen belonging to his intimate Friends. At this time he likewise conceived the Plan of an Epick Poem, and declared his Ambition of performing something in his Native Language, that might perpetuate his Name in these Islands, tho' he should be the more obscure and inglorious by it to the rest of the World. He thus designed it for The Warlike Actions of the old British Heroes, and particularly of King Arthur, but his Excellent Pen was reserved for a more noble Subject. In the Years 1641, he Published two Books of Reformation. These were followed with several other Admirable Works in Prose, especially relating to the Church, wherein he oppos'd the Great Bishop Usher, and some other famous Divines; and on Publishing his Tenure of Kings and Magistrates, which shew'd not only the Excellency of his Stile and Capacity, but also his Affection to the good old Cause, he was made Secretary to the Council of State, for all Foreign Affairs (then negotiated in the Latin Tongue) and at length Latin Secretary to the Protector Cromwell.

But what made the most noise, and was the greatest stand for Liberty, was his Defensio pro Populo Anglicano, in answer to the Defensio Regia, of the famous Salmasius a Professor of the University of Leiden in Holland: In this Controversie he had very much the Advantage of his Antagonist, and as a Reward for his Performance he was presented with a Thousand pounds, by the Council of State. One of his last pieces before the Restoration was intitled, The ready way to Establish a free Common-Wealth, and the Excellence thereof compar'd with the Inconveniencies and Dangers of readmitting Kingship in this Nation: This Book was very much admired by the Oliverian party, but King Charles being ready to Land, Mr. Milton was discharged from his Office of Latin Secretary, and obliged to abscond 'till the Act of Oblivion passed. It was the latter part of his Life before he wrote his Paradise Lost, when he had sufficient leisure to prosecute and finish it, but he at first intended this Work to be only a Tragedy. He was thrice Married; his first Wife was Mary the Daughter of Richard Powel of Forresthill in Oxfordshire, Esq; his second, Catherine the Daughter of Captain Woodcock of Hackney, and the third Elizabeth Daughter to Mr. Minshal, of Cheshire. He obtained a Divorce from his first Wife, but a Reconciliation afterwards happening, he had several Children by her. He was never very healthy, nor over-much sickly; and the Distemper most prevalent upon him, was the Gout, of which he died in the Year 1674. He lies interred in the Chancel of St. Gile's Church near Cripplegate.

Anthony Wood, in the first Volume of his Athenae Oxonienses, gives Milton the following Character. He was a Person (says this Author) of Wonderful parts, of a very Sharp, Biting and Satirical Wit; a Great Philosopher and Historian; an Excellent Poet, Latinist, Grecian and Hebrician; and a good Mathematician and Musician. He was deprived of his Sight before he perfected his Paradise Lost, if not at the time he begun it; and his blindness he has thus inimitably Described,

Hail, holy Light; Offspring of Heaven First-born,
Or of th' Eternal coeternal Beam,
May I express Thee unblam'd? Since God is Light,
And never but in unapproached Light
Dwelt from Eternity, dwelt then in Thee,
Bright Effluence of bright Essence increate.
Or hear'st thou rather pure pure ethereal Stream,
Whose Fountain who shall tell? Before the Sun,
Before the Heavens thou we'rt; and at the voice
Of God, as with a Mantle, didst invest
The rising World of Waters dark and deep,
Won from the void and formless Infinite.
Thee I revisit now with bolder Wing,
Escap'd the Stygian Pool, tho' long detain'd
In that obscure Sojourn; while in my flight
(Thro' utter wand thro' middle Darkness born)
I Sung of Chaos and Eternal Night:
Taught by the Heavenly Muse to venture down
The Dark Descent, and up to reascend
Tho' hard and rare. Thee I revisit safe,
And feel thy Sovereign vital Lamp; but Thou
Revisitst not these Eyes that roll in vain
To find thy piercing Ray, and find no dawn:
So thick a drop serene has 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 thy flowry Brooks beneath
That wash thy hallow'd Feet, and warbling slow,
Nightly I visit [....]

Mr. Dryden allows that Milton's Thoughts are Elevated, his Words sounding, and that no Man has so happily Copied the manner of Homer; or so Copiously Translated his Grecisms, and the Latin Elegancies of Virgil. His Description of the Pandaemonium, Battle of the Angels, and Digression of Light, as well as The Creation of the World, in his Paradise Lost, are all inimitable pieces; tho' Mr. Dryden will not allow his Subject to be that of an Heroick Poem, properly so called; because the Event is not prosperous (but losing our Happiness) like that of all other Heroick Works. His Description of Sampson's Death, and the severe Satire on Woman, in his Discourse with Dalilah, are of a piece with his other Writings; and to say nothing of his Paradise Regained, his Poems on Mirth and Melancholy; An Elegy on his Friend that was Drowned; and particularly a Fragment of the Passion, are incomparable: He was the fullest and loftiest Poet we ever had, and came up to that — "Mens divinior atque os — Magna Sonaturum" — Described by Horace.