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life; but it seems not certain that Milton's life ever was in danger. Goodwin, who had committed the same kind of crime, escaped with incapacitation; and as exclusion from public trust is a punishment which the power of government can commonly inflict without the help of a particular law, it required no great interest to exempt Milton from a censure little more than verbal. Something may be reasonably ascribed to veneration and compassion,—to veneration of his abilities, and compassion for his distresses, which made it fit to forgive his malice for his learning. He was now poor and blind; and who would pursue with violence an illustrious enemy, depressed by fortune, and disarmed by nature ?*
The publication of the Act of Oblivion put him in the same condition with his fellow-subjects. He was, however, upon some pretence now not known, in the custody of the sergeant in December; and when he was released, upon his refusal of the fees demanded, he and the sergeant were called before the house. He was now safe within the shade of oblivion, and knew himself to be as much out of the power of a griping officer as any other man. How the question was determined is not known. Milton would hardly have contended, but that he knew himself to have right on his side.
He then removed to Jewin-street, near Aldersgate-street; and being blind and by no means wealthy, wanted a domestic companion and attendant, and therefore, by the recommendation of Dr. Paget, married Elizabeth Minshul, of a gentlemau's family in Cheshire, probably without a fortune. All his wives were virgins; for he has declared that he thought it gross and indelicate to be a second husband : upon what other principles his choice was made, cannot now be known; but marriage afforded not much of his happiness. The first wife left him in disgust, and was brought back only by terror ; the second, indeed, seems to have been more a favourite, but her life was short ; the third, as Philips relates, oppressed his children in his lifetime, and cheated them at his death.t
Soon after his marriage, according to an obscure story, he was offered the continuance of his employment; and being pressed by his wife to accept it, answered, “You, like other women, want to ride in your coach ; my wish is, to live and die an honest man.
* A different account of the means by which Milton secured himself is given by an historian lately brought to light. 'Milton, Latin secretary to Cromwell, distinguished by his writings in favour of the rights and liberties of the people, pretended to be dead, and had a public funeral procession. The king applauded his policy in escaping the punishment of death by a seasonable show of dying.” Cunningham's History of Great Britain, vol. i. p. 14.
"She died,” says Dr. Newton, “very old, about twenty years ago, at Nantwich, in Cheshire; and from the accounts of those who had seen her, I have learned that she confirmed several things related before, and particularly that her husband used to compose his poetry chiefly in the winter, and on his waking on a morning would make her write down sometimes twenty or thirty verses. Being asked whether he did not often read Homer and Virgil, she understood it as an imputation upon him for stealing from these authors, and answered with eagerness, that he stole from nobody but the muse that inspired him; and being asked by a lady present who the muse was, she answered, it was God's grace and holy spirit that visited him nightly."
he considered the Latin secretary as exercising any of the powers of government, he that had shared authority, either with the parliament or Cromwell, might have forborne to talk very loudly of his honesty; and if he thought the office purely ministerial, he certainly might have honestly retained it under the king. But this tale has too little evidence to deserve a disquisition ; large offers and sturdy rejections are amongst the most common topics of falsehood.
He had so much either of prudence or gratitude, that he forbore to disturb the new settlement with any of his political or ecclesiastical opinions, and from this time devoted himself to poetry and literature. Of his zeal for learning in all its parts, he gave a proof by publishing, the next year (1661), Accidence commenced Grammar; a little book which has nothing remarkable, but that its author, who had been lately defending the supreme powers of his country, and was then writing Paradise Lost, could descend from his elevation to rescue children from the perplexity of grammatical confusion, and the trouble of lessons unnecessarily repeated.
About this time Elwood the Quaker, being recommended to him as one who would read Latin to him for the advantage of his conversation, attended him every afternoon except on Sundays. Milton, who, in his letter to Hartlib, had declared, that“ to read Latin with an English mouth is as ill a hearing as law French,” required that Elwood should learn and practise the Italian pronunciation; which, he said, was necessary, if he would talk with foreigners. This seems to have been a task troublesome without use. There is little reason for preferring the Italian pronunciation to our own, except that it is more general ; and to teach it to an Englishman is only to make him a foreigner at home. He who travels, if he speaks Latin, may so soon learn the sounds which every native gives it, that he need make no provision before his journey; and if strangers visit us, it is their business to practise such conformity to our modes as they expect from us in their own countries. Elwood complied with the directions, and improved himself by his attendance; for he relates, that Milton, having a curious ear, knew by his voice when he read what he did not understand, and would stop him, and open the most difficult passages.
In a short time he took a house in the Artillery-walk, leading to Bunhill-fields ; the mention of which concludes the register of Mil. ton's removals and habitations. He lived longer in this place than in any
other. He was now busied by Paradise Lost. Whence he drew the original design has been variously conjectured by men who cannot bear to think themselves ignorant of that hich, last, neither diligence nor sagacity can discover. Soine find the hint in an Italian tragedy. Voltaire tells a wild and unauthorised story of a farce seen by Milton in Italy, which opened thus : “ Let the rainbow be the fiddlestick of the fiddle of heaven.” It has been already shown, that the first conception was a tragedy or mystery, not of a narrative, but a dramatic work, which he is supposed to have begun to reduce to its present form about the time (1655) when he finished his dispute with the defenders of the king.
He long before had promised to adorn his native country by some great performance, while he had yet perhaps no settled design, and was stimulated only by such expectations as naturally arose from the survey of his attainments and the consciousness of his powers. What he should undertake, it was difficult to determine. He was “long choosing, and began late."
While he was obliged to divide his time between his private studies and affairs of state, his poetical labour must have been often interrupted ; and perhaps he did little more in that busy time than construct the narrative, adjust the episodes, proportion the parts, accumulate images and sentiments, and treasure in his memory, or preserve in writing, such hints as books or meditation would supply. Nothing particular is known of his intellectual operations while he was a statesman; for, having every help and accommodation at hand, he had no need of uncommon expedients.
Being driven from all public stations, he is yet too great not to be traced by curiosity to his retirement, where he has been found by Mr. Richardson, the fondest of his admirers, sitting “ before his door in a grey coat of coarse cloth, in warm, sultry weather, to enjoy the fresh air ; and so, as in his own room, receiving the visits of the people of distinguished parts as well as quality. .” His visitors of high quality must now be imagined to be few; but men of parts might reasonably court the conversation of a man so generally illustrious, that foreigners are reported by Wood to have visited the house in Bread-street where he was born.
According to another account, he was seen in a small house, “neatly enough dressed in black clothes, sitting in a room hung with rusty green ; pale but not cadaverous, with chalkstones in his hands, He said that, if it were not for the gout, his blindness would be tolerable.”
In the intervals of his pain, being made unable to use the common exercises, he used to swing in a chair, and sometimes played upon an organ.
He was now confessedly and visibly employed upon his poem, of which the progress might be noted by those with whom he was familiar; for he was obliged, when he had composed as many lines as his memory would conveniently retain, to employ some friend in writing them, having, at least for part of the time, no regular attendant, This gave opportunity to observations and reports.
Mr. Philips observes, that there was a very remarkable circumstance in the composure of Paradise Lost, “which I have a particular reason,” says he, to remember: for whereas I had the perusal of it from the very beginning, for some years, as I went from time to time to visit him, in parcels of ten, twenty, or thirty verses at a time (which, being written by whatever hand came next, might possibly want correction as to the orthography and pointing), having, as the summer came on, not been showed any for a considerable while, and desiring the reason thereof, was answered, that his vein never happily flowed but from the autumnal equinox to the vernal; and that whatever he attempted at other times was never to his satisfaction, though he courted his fancy never so much ; so that, in all the years
he was about this poem, he may be said to have spent half his time therein."
Upon this relation Toland remarks, that in his opinion Philips has mistaken the time of the year; for Milton, in his elegies, declares that with the advance of the spring he feels the increase of his poetical force, redeunt in carmina vires. To this it is answered, that Philips could hardly mistake time so well marked ; and it may be added, that Milton might find different times of the year favourable to different parts of life. Mr. Richardson conceives it impossible that such a work should be suspended for six months, or for
It may go on faster or slower, but it must go on.” By what necessity it must continually go on, or why it might not be laid aside and resumed, it is not easy to discover.
This dependence of the soul upon the seasons, those temporary and periodical ebbs and flows of intellect, may, I suppose, justly be Herided as the fumes of vain imagination. Sapiens dominabitur astris. The author that thinks himself weather-bound will find, with a little help from hellebore, that he is only idle or exhausted. But while this notion has possession of the head, it produces the inability which it supposes. Our powers owe much of their energy to our hopes : possunt quia posse videntur. When success seems attainable, diligence is enforced; but when it is admitted that the faculties are suppressed by a cross wind or a cloudy sky, the day is given up without resistance, for who can contend with the course of Nature ?
From such prepossessions Milton seems not to have been free. There prevailed in his time an opinion, that the world was in its decay, and that we have had the misfortune to be produced in the decrepitude of nature. It was suspected that the whole creation languished, that neither trees nor animals had the height or bulk of their predecessors, and that every thing was daily sinking by gradual diminution. Milton appears to suspect that souls partake of the general degeneracy, and is not without some fear that his book is to be written in an age too late for heroic poesy.
Another opinion wanders about the world, and sometimes finds reception among wise men,--an opinion that restrains the operations of the mind to particular regions, and supposes that a luckless mortal may be born in a degree of latitude too high or too low for wisdom or for wit. From this fancy, wild as it is, he had not wholly cleared his head, when he feared lest the climate of his country might be too cold for flights of imagination.
Into a mind already occupied by such fancies, another not more reasonable might easily find its way. He that could fear lest his genius had fallen upon too old a world or too chill a climate, might consistently magnify to himself the influence of the seasons, and believe his faculties to be vigorous only half the year.
* This opinion is, with great learning and ingenuity, refuted in a book now very little known, An Apology or Declaration of the Power and Providence of God in the Government of the World, by Dr. George Hakewill, London, fol. 1635. The first who ventured to propagate it in this country was Dr. Gabriel Goodman, bishop of Gloucester, a man of a versatile temper, and the author of a book intituled The Fall of Man, or the Corruption of Nature proved by Natural Reason, Lond. 1616 and 1624, 4to. He was plundered in the Usurpation, turned Roman Catholic, and died in obscurity. See Athen. Oxon. vol. i.
His submission to the seasons was at least more reasonable than his dread of decaying Nature or a frigid zone, for general causes must operate uniformly in a general abatement of mental power; if less could be performed by the writer, less likewise would content the judges of his work. Among this lagging race of frosty grovellers he might still have risen into eminence by producing something which “ they should not willingly let die.” However inferior to the heroes who were born in better ages, he might still be great among his contemporaries, with the hope of growing every day greater in the dwindle of posterity. He might still be a giant among the pigmies, the oneeyed monarch of the blind.
Of his artifices of study, or particular hours of composition, we have little account, and there was perhaps little to be told. Richardson, who seems to have been very diligent in his inquiries, but discovers always a wish to find Milton discriminated from other men, relates, that “he would sometimes lie awake whole nights, but not a verse could he make ; and on a sudden his poetical faculty would rush upon him with an impetus or oestrus, and his daughter was immediately called to secure what came. At other times he would dictate perhaps forty lines in a breath, and then reduce them to half the number.”
These bursts of light and involutions of darkness, these transient and involuntary excursions and retrocessions of invention, having some appearance of deviation from the common train of nature, are eagerly caught by the lovers of a wonder. Yet something of this inequality happens to every man in every mode of exertion, manual or mental. The mechanic cannot handle his hammer and his file at all times with equal dexterity; there are hours, he knows not why, when “his hand is out.” By Mr. Richardson's relation, casually conveyed, much regard cannot be claimed. That in his intellectual hour Milton called for his daughter “to secure what came,” may be questioned : for unluckily it happens to be known that his daughters were never taught to write ; nor would he have been obliged, as is universally confessed, to have employed any casual visitor in disburdening his memory, if his daughter could have performed the office.
The story of reducing his exuberance has been told of other authors, and, though doubtless true of every fertile and copious mind, seems to have been gratuitously transferred to Milton.
What he has told us, and we cannot now know more, is, that he composed much of this poem in the night and morning, I suppose before his mind was disturbed with common business; and that he poured out with great fluency his “unpremeditated verse.” Versification free, like his, from the distresses of rhyme, must, by a work so long, be made prompt and habitual ; and when his thoughts were once adjusted, the words would come at his command.
At what particular times of his life the parts of his work were written, cannot often be known. The beginning of the third book