1628 ca.
ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

At a Vacation Exercise.

Joannis Miltonii Angli, Epistolarum Familiarium Liber Unus Quibus Accesserunt, Eiusdem, Iam Olim in Collegio Adolescentis, Prolusiones Quaedam Oratoriae.

John Milton


First published in 1673.

Samuel Johnson: "In the last year of his life he sent to the press, seeming to take delight in publication, a collection of Familiar Epistles in Latin; to which, being too few to make a volume, he added some academical exercises, which perhaps he perused with pleasure, as they recalled to his memory the days of youth; but for which nothing but veneration for his name could now procure a reader" Lives of the English Poets (1779-81), ed. Hill (1905) 1:149.

Thomas Warton: "This is the first and last time that the system of the Fairies was ever introduced to illustrate the doctrine of Aristotle's ten categories. It may be remarked, that they both were in fashion, and both exploded, at the same time.... Milton is supposed, in the invocation and assemblage of these rivers, to have had an eye on Spenser's episode of the Nuptials of Thames and Medway, Faer. Qu. iv.xi. I rather think he consulted Drayton's Polyolbion. It is hard to say, in what sense, or in what manner, this introduction of the rivers was to be applied to the subject" in Todd, Works of Milton (1826) 6:78n, 81-82n.

Richard Mant on Thomas Warton: "In a copy of Fenton's edition of Milton's smaller Poems, which was in his possession in 1745, his 17th year, and abounds in MS. notes and references, he remarks, that Milton has never yet been illustrated by comparison with his predecessors &c. and these very notes and references we find some years after transferred into his Observations on Spenser, whence again they were conveyed, much enlarged and improved, and indeed in a great measure new-modelled, into his edition of the Juvenilia of Milton" Memoir of Thomas Warton in Poetical Works (1802) 1:xxviii.

Robert Aris Willmott (writing as "Thomas Gray"): "No poet ever imbued his country's literature so deeply as Spenser: you catch the echo of his lute in Drayton, Fairfax, Fletcher, Browne, and many others, until it died away for a season in the early poems of Milton. The magnetic power of Genius not only attracts other minds, but imparts to those minds, in an inferior degree, the power of attracting others in their turn. But from that chief Stone at the head of the series, comes the virtue operating through them all. Whatever of beauty you meet with in the imitators of Spenser, is inspired by their Master" "Gray and Mason" in Conversations at Cambridge (1836) 179.

George Saintsbury: "It ought to be mentioned that the influence of both [Fletchers] upon Milton, directly and as handing on the tradition of Spenser, was evidently very great. The strong Cambridge flavour (not very perceptible in Spenser himself, but of which Milton is, at any rate in his early poems, full) comes out of them, and from [Giles Fletcher's] Christ's Victory at any rate the poet of Lycidas, the Ode on the Nativity, and Paradise Regained, apparently 'took up,' as the phrase of his own day went, not a few commodities" History of Elizabethan Literature (1887; 1909) 298-99.

Herbert E. Cory: "I like to compare Milton and Keats when they wrote At a Vacation Exercise in the College (1628) and the Specimen of me Induction to a Poem. Both were dreaming vaguely and delightedly with Spenser. They were toying with boundless ambitions. Keats was lost in the delight of dancing plumes, glittering cuirasses, and Gothic arches. He had no story to tell. But be was strengthening his wings for The Eve of Saint Agnes. Milton's dreams were pleasantly obscured by his luxurious memories of Spenser and his followers, He was poring over Drayton's Poly-Olbion and its source, the description of the marriage of the Thames and the Medway in The Faerie Queene. He was dazzled by the pageants of stately rivers and aglow with the historical and legendary associations that haunted their banks. With boyish ardor invoked them.... But his desires were not lulled to slumber by the warm glow and pomp of these visions. He longed to use his language for greater purposes: 'Yet I had rather, if I were to chuse, | Thy service in some graver subject use, | Such as may make thee search thy coffers round, | Before thou clothe my fancy in fit sound'" "Spenser, the Fletchers, and Milton" UCPMP 2 (1912) 346-47.

Roberta Florence Brinkley: "By the time Milton was twenty, he showed in A Vacation Exercise that he was considering an epic subject 'Of kings and queens and heroes old.' From other early writings we learn the period in which he was interested and two of the subjects that he was seriously considering, the founding of the nation by Brute and the story of Arthur. The first is mentioned only once; the second is referred to several times and is sufficiently elaborated to show that he had in mind how the subject might be developed" Arthurian Legend (1932) 126.



Hail, native Language, that by sinews weak
Didst move my first endeavouring tongue to speak,
And mad'st imperfect words with childish trips,
Half unpronounc'd, slide through my infant lips,
Driving dumb Silence from the portal door,
Where he had mutely sat two years before!
Here I salute thee and thy pardon ask,
That now I use thee in my latter task:
Small loss it is that thence can come unto thee,
I know my tongue but little grace can do thee:
Thou need'st not be ambitious to be first,
Believe me I have thither pack'd the worst:
And, if it happen as I did forecast,
The daintiest dishes shall be serv'd up last.
I pray thee then deny me not thy aid
For this same small neglect that I have made:
But haste thee straight to do me once a pleasure,
And from thy wardrobe bring thy chiefest treasure,
Not those new-fangled toys, and trimming slight
Which takes our late fantasticks with delight;
But cull those richest robes, and gay'st attire,
Which deepest spirits and choicest wits desire.
I have some naked thoughts that rove about,
And loudly knock to have their passage out;
And, weary of their place, do only stay,
Till thou hast deck'd them in thy best array;
That so they may, without suspect or fears,
Fly swiftly to this fair assembly's ears;
Yet I had rather, if I were to chuse,
Thy service in some graver subject use,
Such as may make thee search thy coffers round,
Before thou clothe my fancy in fit sound:
Such where the deep transported mind may soar
Above the wheeling poles, and at Heaven's door
Look in, and see each blissful deity
How he before the thunderous throne doth lie,
Listening to what unshorn Apollo sings
To the touch of golden wires, while Hebe brings
Immortal nectar to her kingly sire
Then passing through the spheres of watchful fire,
And misty regions of wide air next under,
And hills of snow, and lofts of piled thunder,
May tell at length how green-ey'd Neptune raves,
In Heaven's defiance mustering all his waves;
Then sing of secret things that came to pass
When beldam Nature in her cradle was;
And last of kings, and queens, and heroes old,
Such as the wise Demodocus once told
In solemn songs at king Alcinous' feast,
While sad Ulysses' soul, and all the rest,
Are held, with his melodious harmony,
In willing chains and sweet captivity.
But fie, my wandering Muse, how thou cost stray!
Expectance calls thee now another way;
Thou know'st it must be now thy only bent
To keep in compass of thy predicament:
Then quick about thy purpos'd business come,
That to the next I may resign my room.

Then Ens is represented as father of the Predicaments his two sons, whereof the eldest stood for Substance with his canons, which Ens, thus speaking, explains.

Good luck befriend thee, Son; for, at thy birth,
The faery ladies danc'd upon the hearth;
Thy drowsy nurse hath sworn she did them spie
Come tripping to the room where thou didst lie,
And, sweetly singing round about thy bed,
Strew all their blessings on thy sleeping head.
She heard them give thee this, that thou shouldst still
From eyes of mortals walk invisible:
Yet there is something that doth force my fear;
For once it was my dismal hap to hear
A Sibyl old, bow-bent with crooked age,
That far events full wisely could presage,
And, in time's long and dark prospective glass,
Foresaw what future days should bring to pass;
"Your son," said she, ("nor can you it prevent)
Shall subject be to many an Accident.
O'er all his brethren he shall reign as king,
Yet every one shall make him underling;
And those, that cannot live from him asunder,
Ungratefully shall strive to keep him under;
In worth and excellence he shall out-go them,
Yet, being above them, he shall be below them;
From others he shall stand in need of nothing,
Yet on his brothers shall depend for clothing.
To find a foe it shall not be his hap,
And Peace shall lull him in her flowery lap;
Yet shall he live in strife, and at his door
Devouring War shall never cease to roar;
Yea, it shall be his natural property
To harbour those that are at enmity.
What power, what force, what mighty spell, if not
Your learned hands, can loose this Gordian knot?

The next, Quantity and Quality, spake in prose; then Relation was called by his name.

Rivers, arise; whether thou be the son
Of utmost Tweed, or Oose, or gulphy Dun,
Or Trent, who, like some Earth-born giant, spreads
His thirty arms along the indented meads;
Or sullen Mole, that runneth underneath;
Or Severn swift, guilty of maiden's death;
Or rocky Avon, or of sedgy Lee,
Or coaly Tine, or ancient hallow'd Dee;
Or Humber loud, that keeps the Scythian's name;
Or Medway smooth, or royal-tower'd Thame.

[The rest was prose.]

[Todd (1801, 1826) 6:71-83]