I set out in the morning, in company with a friend, to visit a place where Milton spent part of his life, and where, in all probability, he composed several of his earliest productions. It is a small village, situated on a pleasant hill, about three miles from Oxford, and 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 his retreat in that fine passage of the "L'Allegro:"
Strait mine eye hath caught new pleasures,
Whilst the landscape round it measures;
Russet lawns and fallows grey,
Where the nibbling flocks do stray
Mountains, on whose barren breast
The lab'ring clouds do often rest;
Meadows trim with daisies pied,
Shallow brooks, and rivers wide;
Towers and battlements it sees,
Bosom'd 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, upon 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 where Milton, undoubtedly, took most of his images: it is on the top of the hill, from which there is a most extensive prospect on all sides. The distant mountains, that seemed to support the clouds; the villages and turrets, partly shaded with trees of the finest verdure, and partly raised above the groves which 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 idea or 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 the enchanted ground, we returned to the village.
The poet's house is 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 among the villagers; one of whom shewed us 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 "Il Penseroso." Most of the cottage windows are overgrown with sweet-briars, vines, and honeysuckles; and that Milton's habitation had the same rustic ornament we may conclude from 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 sweet-briar, which he could not mention twice in the same couplet.