Defending his moral character, John Milton describes himself as an admirer of romance: "So that even those books which to many others have bin the fuell of wantonnesse and loose living, I cannot thinke how unlesse by divine indulgence prov'd to me so many incitements as you have heard, to the love and stedfast observation of that vertue which abhorres the society of Bordello's."
Thomas Warton: "Milton, who had a controversy with [Bishop Joseph] Hall, as I have observed, in a remonstrance called An Apology for Smectymnuus, published in 1641, rather unsuitably and disingenuously goes out of his way to attack those Satires, a juvenile effort of his dignified adversary, and under every consideration alien to the dispute.... 'But when I heard him talk of scouring the shields of elvish knights, do not blame me if I changed my thought, and concluded him some desperate cutler'.... A misquoted line in The Defiance to Envy, prefixed to the Satires. I will give the whole passage, which is a compliment to Spenser, and shows how happily Hall would have succeeded in the majestic march of the long stanza. 'Or scoure the rusted swordes of elvish knights, |Bathed in Pagan blood: or sheathe them new | in mistie moral types....'" Chalmers's English Poets (1810) 5:255.
John Keble: "In Milton, most evidently, a great difference was to be expected: both from his own character and from that of the times in which he lived. Religion was in those days the favourite topic of discussion; and it is indeed painful to reflect, how sadly it was polluted by intermixture with earthly passions: the most awful turns and most surprizing miracles of the Jewish history being made to serve the base purposes of persons, of whom it is hard to say whether they were more successful in misleading others, or in deceiving themselves. It was an effort worthy of a manly and devout spirit to rescue religion from such degradation, by chusing a subject, which, being scriptural, would suit the habit of the times, yet, from its universal and eternal importance, would give least opportunity for debasing temporary application. Then it was the temper of the man always to speak out. He carried it to a faulty excess, as his prose works too amply demonstrate. The more unfashionable his moral was, the more he would have disdained to veil it: neither had he the shrinking delicacy of Spenser to keep him back, through fear of profaning things hallowed by an unworthy touch" Quarterly Review 32 (June 1825) 228.
But because as well by this upraiding to me the Bordello's, as by other suspicious glancings in his book he would seem privily to point me out to his Readers, as one whose custome of life were not honest, but licentious; I shall intreat to be born with though I digresse: and in a way not often trod acquaint ye with the summe of my thoughts in this matter through the course of my yeares and studies. Although I am not ignorant how hazardous it will be to do this under the nose of the envious, as it were in skirmish to change the compact order, and instead of outward actions to bring inmost thoughts into front. And I must tell ye Readers, that by this sort of men I have bin already bitten at; yet shall they not for me know how slightly they are esteem'd, unlesse they have so much learning as to reade what in Greek [Greek characters] is, which together with envie is the common disease of those who censure books that are not for their reading. With me it fares now, as with him whose outward garment hath bin injur'd and ill bedighted; for having no other shift, what helpe but to turn the inside outwards, especially if the lining be of the same, or, as it is sometimes, much better. So if my name and outward demeanour be not evident enough to defend me, I must make tryall, if the discovery of my inmost thoughts can. Wherein of two purposes both honest, and both sincere, the one perhaps I shall not misse; although I faile to gaine beliefe with others of being such as my perpetuall thoughts shall heere disclose me, I may yet not faile of successe in perswading some, to be such really themselves, as they cannot believe me to be more then what I fain. I had my time Readers, as others have, who have good learning bestow'd upon them, to be sent to those places, where the opinion was it might be soonest attain'd: and as the manner is, was not unstudied in those authors which are most commended; whereof some were grave Orators and Historians; whose matter me thought I lov'd indeed, but as my age then was, so I understood them; others were the smooth Elegiack Poets, whereof the Schooles are not scarce. Whom both for the pleasing sound of their numerous writing, which in imitation I found most easie; and most agreeable to natures part in me, and for their matter which what it is, there be few who know not, I was so allur'd to read, that no recreation came to me better welcome. For that it was then those years with me which are excus'd though they be least severe, I may be sav'd the labour to remember ye. Whence having observ'd them to account it the chiefe glory of their wit, in that they were ablest to judge, to praise, and by that could esteeme themselves worthiest to love those high perfections which under one or other name they took to celebrate, I thought with my selfe by every instinct and presage of nature which is not wont to be false, that what imboldn'd them to this task might with such diligence as they us'd imbolden me, and that what judgement, wit, or elegance was my share, would herein best appeare, and best value it selfe, by how much more wisely, and with more love of vertue I should choose (let rude eares be absent) the object of not unlike praises. For albeit these thoughts to some will seeme vertuous and commendable, to others only pardonable, to a third sort perhaps idle, yet the mentioning of them now will end in serious. Nor blame it Readers, in those yeares to propose to themselves such a reward, as the noblest dispositions above other things in this life have sometimes preferr'd. Whereof not to be sensible, when good and faire in one person meet, argues both a grosse and shallow judgement, and withall an ungentle, and swainish brest. For by the firme selling of these perswasions I became, to my best memory, so much a proficient, that if I found those authors any where speaking unworthy things of themselves; or unchaste of those names which before they had extoll'd, this effect it wrought with me, from that time forward their art I still applauded, but the men I deplor'd; and above them all preferr'd the two famous renowners of Beatrice and Laura who never write but honour of them to whom they devote their verse, displaying sublime and pure thoughts, without transgression. And long it was not after, when I was confirm'd in this opinion, that he who would not be frustrate of his hope to write well hereafter in laudable things, ought him selfe to bee a true Poem, that is, a composition, and patterne of the best and honourablest things; not presuming to sing high praises of heroick men, or famous Cities, unlesse he have in himselfe the experience and the practice of all that which is praise-worthy. These reasonings, together with a certaine nicenesse of nature, an honest haughtinesse, and self-esteem either of what I was, or what I might be, (which let envie call pride) and lastly that modesty, whereof though not in the Title page yet here I may be excus'd to make some beseeming profession, all these uniting the supply of their natural! aide together, kept me still above those low descents of minde, beneath which he must deject and plunge himself, that can agree to salable and unlawfull prostitutions. Next, (for heare me out now Readers) that I may tell ye whether my younger feet wander'd; I betook me among those lofty Fables and Romances, which recount in solemne canto's the deeds of Knighthood founded by our victorious Kings; and from hence had in renowne over all Christendome. There I read it in the oath of every Knight, that he should defend to the expence of his best blood, or of his life, if it so befell him, the honour and chastity of Virgin or Matron. From whence even then I learnt what a noble vertue chastity sure must be, to the defence of which so many worthies by such a cleare adventure of themselves had sworne. And if I found in the story afterward any of them by word or deed breaking that oath, I judg'd it the same fault of the Poet, as that which is attributed to Homer; to have written undecent things of the gods. Only this my minde gave me that every free and gentle spirit without that oath ought to be borne a Knight, nor needed to expect the guilt spurre, or the laying of a sword upon his shoulder to stirre him up both by his counsell, and his arme to secure and protect the weaknesse of any attempted chastity. So that even those books which to many others have bin the fuell of wantonnesse and loose living, I cannot thinke how unlesse by divine indulgence prov'd to me so many incitements as you have heard, to the love and stedfast observation of that vertue which abhorres the society of Bordello's. Thus from the Laureat fraternity of Poets, riper yeares, and the ceaselesse round of study and reading led me to the shady spaces of philosophy, but chiefly to the divine volumes of Plato, and his equall Xenophon. Where if I should tell ye what I learnt, of chastity and love, I meane that which is truly so, whose charming cup is only vertue which she bears in her hand to those who are worthy. The rest are cheated with a thick intoxicating potion which a certaine Sorceresse the abuser of loves name carries about; and how the first and chiefest office of love, begins and ends in the soule, producing those happy twins of her divine generation knowledge and vertue, with such abstracted sublimities as these, it might be worth your listning, Readers, as I may one day hope to have ye in a still time, when there shall be no chiding; not in these noises, the adversary as ye know, barking at the dove; or searching for me at the Burdello's where it may be he has lost himselfe, and raps up without pitty the sage and rheumatick old Prelatesse with all her young Corinthian Laity to inquire for such a one. Last of all not in time, but as perfection is last, that care was ever had of me, with my earliest capacity not to be negligently train'd in the precepts of Christian Religion: This that I have hitherto related, hath bin to shew, that though Christianity had bin but slightly taught me, yet a certain reserv'dnesse of naturall disposition, and morall discipline learnt out of the noblest Philosophy was enough to keep me in disdain of farre lesse incontinences then this of the Burdello. But having had the doctrine of holy Scripture unfolding those chaste and high mysteries with timeliest care infus'd, that the body is for the Lord and the Lord for the body, thus also I argu'd to my selfe; that if unchastity in a woman whom Saint Paul termes the glory of man, be such a scandall and dishonour, then certainly in a man who is both the image and glory of God, it must, though commonly not so thought, be much more deflouring and dishonourable. In that he sins both against his owne body which is the perfeter sex, and his own glory which is in the woman, and that which is worst, against the image and glory of God which is in himselfe. Nor did I slumber over that place expressing such high rewards of ever accompanying the Lambe, with those celestiall songs to others inapprehensible, but not to those who were not defil'd with women, which doubtlesse meanes fornication: For mariage must not be call'd a defilement. Thus large I have purposely bin, that if I have bin justly text with this crime, it may come upon me after all this my confession, with a tenne-fold shame. But if I have hitherto deserv'd no such opprobrious word, or suspicion, I may hereby ingage my selfe now openly to the faithfull observation of what I have profess. I go on to shew you the unbridl'd impudence of this loose rayler, who having once begun his race regards not how farre he flyes out beyond all truth and shame; who from the single notice of the animadversions, as he protests, will undertake to tell ye the very cloaths I weare, though he be much mistaken in my wardrobe. And like a son of Belial without the hire of Jesabel charges me of blaspheming God and the King, as ordinarily as he imagines me to drink Sack and sweare, meerely because this was a shred in his common place-book, and seem'd to come off roundly, as if he were some Empirick of false accusations to try his poysons upon me whether they would work or no. Whom what should I endeavour to refute more, whenas that book which is his only testimony returnee the lye upon him; not giving him the least hint of the author to be either a swearer, or a Sack drinker. And for the readers if they can believe me, principally for those reasons which I have alleg'd, to be of life and purpose neither dishonest, nor unchaste, they will be easily induc't to thinke me sober both of wine, and of word; but if I have bin already successelesse in perswading them, all that I can furder say will be but vaine; and it will be better thrift to save two tedious labours, mine of excusing, and theirs of needlesse hearing.