1803 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

John Milton

George Dyer, "Cantabrigiana: Milton" The Monthly Magazine 16 (September 1803) 133-34.



Milton, as everybody knows, was of Christ's, and, on account of the beauty of his person, called the Lady of the College. In the charming delineation of Adam's person, in Paradise Lost, it is supposed that the poet had himself in view as the original; and that he set a full value on his fine exterior, is evident from those imperfect Greek lines of his: In effigiei ejus sculptorem [Greek characters].

Englished
Whoe'er my native open face surveys,
Will lay this piece a bungling hand betrays;
And you, my friends, who view no likeness here,
Must at the wretched artist's daubing jeer.

During Milton's stay at college, he composed his Latin poems; and it is difficult to conceive a more brilliant example of youthful talent. These are not faultless compositions; but they display a comprehensive intellect, a great compass of knowledge, a combining, glowing imagination, and an accurate acquaintance with the grace, variety, and power of numbers. — They render what was said of Gray, very applicable to Milton, that "he was never a boy."

From the first of there poems it appears that our poet very early entertained some strong disgust against the university; from his subsequent writings, that this disgust settled into an inveterate and principled dislike: and it is curious to observe in how different a strain two poetical geniuses may pour forth their rhapsodies on the same subject; a proof, how much all that is delightful in situation, the most vivid recollections, and the strongest poetical feelings, are the creatures of association: according to Cowley, no place so delightful as Cambridge — no river so calculated for poetic inspiration as the Cam:

Oh! sacri fontes, oh! sacrae vatibus umbrae!
Quas recreant avium Pieridumq: chori!
Oh! Camus, Phoebo nullus quo gratior amnis,
Omnibus auriferis invidiosus inops.
Cowley.

According to Milton, no country less agreeable than Cambridgeshire, and no epithet too contemptible for poor slow-footed Camus:

Nuda nec arva placent, umbrasq: negantia molles,
Quam male Phoebicolis convenit iste locus!
Milton.

Jam nec arundiferum mihi cura revisere Camum.
Milton.

Stat quoq: juncosas Cami remeare paludes.
Milton.

And while to Cowley Cambridge presents nothing but "bona gaudia, doctam quietem" — all that Milton hears is the "duri verbamagistri," the murmur "roucae scholae." In short, while one laments and complains like a lover, almost to whimpering; the other speaks like a rebellious son, almost to contempt and contumacy. And thus do poets disagree as well as doctors!

Different opinions have been formed concerning the nature of those severities, and the extent of that academical discipline, which laid the foundation of this irreconcileable hatred. That Milton was rusticated from college, his own words amply declare; and what Johnson relates as a conjecture, Dr. Warton has proved from authorities, that he underwent the discipline still inflicted on schoolboys — he was whipped — a disgrace, this, however, to the customs of the University in those times, more than to the character of John Milton.

Concerning this ignominious business, even Johnson avows, "It may be conjectured, from the willingness with which Milton has perpetuated the memory of his exile, that its cause was such as gave him no shame."

The Master of Trinity at this time was Dr. Bainbridge, of whom it is recorded that he was a rigid disciplinarian — rigid, probably, on points for which Milton very soon felt great dislike. Certain it is, that he declined going into orders from scruples of conscience; and it is not improbable, independently of the warmth of youth, and independently of his corporal punishment, that he had imbibed some principles which might incline him to revolt at college discipline, as being too much connected with the Church, and that, therefore, with him "alma mater" stood for "mala mater." Nothing can exceed the hatred which he expresses, in his [Greek characters], of Forms of Prayer — "those good manuals and handmaids of devotion, (as he calls them,) the lip-work of every prelatical liturgist, clapt together, and quilted out of Scripture-phrase with as much ease, and as little need of Christian judgment, as belongs to the compiling of any ordinary and saleable piece of English Divinity that the shops value:" and much to the same purpose, though pointed with more satire, may be seen in his Remarks on Prelacy.

From his Treatise also on Education and other of his writings, it appears, that his sentiments concerning Universities strongly resembled those of Dr. William Dell, already mentioned. A disciplinarian, then, so tenacious as Dr. Bainbridge, and a high spirited young poet like Milton, might easily come in opposition, and the collision turn out to the disadvantage of the poet.

But without precisely settling this point, it may be asserted, that the tenor of Milton's poetical as well as of prose writings demonstrate, that from his early years he had imbibed those sentiments which absorbed his future contemplations; that his political opinions bear the stamp of strengthened principle, and all the solidity of system, adorned with the sweetest flowers of poetry and the boldest figures of eloquence, unfavourable to the present constitution of our Universities, and at variance with Presbytery, as well as Episcopacy:

For Presbyter was but old Priest wrote large.
Milton.

But notwithstanding this hostility of John Milton's, members of both universities, and prelates and priests of all parties, have vied with each other in extolling the author of Paradise Lost; and smitten, it may be supposed, with the sacredness of the subject, have even criticised it with a superstitious timidity. The remarks of Dr. Johnson on Milton's poetical works possess much strong and sterling criticism, with a considerable portion of miserable alloy. Milton's political sentiments, whether right or wrong, as unfolded in his prose works, display a sternness of principle which defies the sarcasm of Johnson, and exceeded his comprehension.

There are in Trinity College Library, two copies of a letter addressed to a friend, who wished Milton to take orders — and some of his juvenile poems — in his own hand-writing. But on these, remarks have been so often made, that nothing remains to he added. Bishops Newton and Pearce have justly remarked, from the rough draughts of the dramatis personae in those MSS, that Milton originally intended the Paradise Lost as a play.

Milton's smaller poems, including his Latin, have found an ingenious critic in Dr. Warton; his two or three Greek poems, a judicious censor in Dr. Charles Burney. But we have wandered from Cambridge.—