[ocr errors][ocr errors][ocr errors][ocr errors]

whoever would convince himself minutely of Milton's youthful vocation to poetry rather than to anything else, may derive proofs on that head. Here will be found power of the most rare and beautiful conception, choice of words the most exact and exquisite, the most erfect music and charm of verse. Above all, here will be found that ineffable something—call it imagination or what we will— wherein lies the intimate and ineradicable peculiarity of the poet; the art to work on and on for ever in a purely ideal element, to chase and marshal airy nothings according to a law totally unlike that of rational association, never hastening to a logical end like the schoolboy when on errand, but still lingering within the wood like the schoolboy during holiday. This peculiar mental habit, nowhere better described than by Milton himself when he speaks of verse—

“Such as the meeting soul may pierce
In notes, with many a winding bout
Of linked sweetness long drawn out,
With wanton heed and giddy cunning,”

is so characteristic of the poetical disposition, that, though in most of the greatest poets, as, for example, Dante, Goethe, Shakspeare in his dramas, Chaucer, and almost all the ancient Greek poets, it is not observable in any extraordinary degree, chiefly because in them the element of direct reference to human life and its interests had fitting preponderance, yet it may be affirmed that he who, tolerating or admiring these poets, does not relish also such poetry as that of Spenser, Keats, and Shakspeare in his minor pieces, but complains of it as wearisome and sensuous, is wanting in a portion of the genuine poetic taste. Milton, his academic studies being over, and his resolution against entering the Church already taken, remained an inmate of his father's house at Horton, Buckinghamshire, for a period of six years, that is, from 1632 to 1638, or from his twentyfourth to his thirtieth year. Walks amid the rich English scenery of the neighborhood, sometimes for the mere pleasure of exercise and meditation, sometimes in his special character as a student of botany; more lengthened excursions to Oxford and other places in or out of Buckinghamshire, particularly the pretty village of Forest Hill, some three miles from Oxford, where resided a Squire Powell, an acquaintance of his father's; occasional visits to London for books, lessons in mathematics, and the like;

in-door conversations and musical concertos with such friends or relatives as might from time to time join the family circle, including a married sister older than himself, and a younger brother engaged in the study of the law—such was the quiet nature of the poet's life, at a time when most men are plunged in the cares of worldly business. His father, himself a scholarly old gentleman, and a musical composer, “equal in science, if not in genius, to the first musicians of the age,” was probably glad that his own position as a retired attorney, living on a small estate, enabled him to afford his son the means of such manly leisure. Nor was Milton idle. Devoting the main part of his time to a course of new reading, which embraced all the most celebrated classical writers, and had special reference to those Greek philosophers whose works he felt himself more capable of appreciating now than in his college days, he produced at intervals during these years those exquisite minor poems—

Arcades, Comus, Lycidas, L'Allegro, Il Pen

seroso, and others, which the reader, when not disposed for the severer grandeurs of his later muse, turns to with delight. The style of those poems, blending so beautifully the grace of the classic model, and the spirit of classic thought, with the rich beauty of the English pastoral, indicates clearly enough that his early taste for the sweet and sensuous compositions of the elegiac and descriptive school of poets had not as yet deelined.

As clearly, however, does the loyal and strict tone of these poems, the chivalrous and sustained purity of purpose which appear in them, and most observably of all in the Conus, indicate the perfect truth of his as

sertion that he had early come to the resolve that in all his own attempts in the art he admired, the fair should serve only the good and honorable. In these poems, too, sensuous in conception and full of fantastic imagery as they are, there are genuine individual flashes of the sterner Miltonic spirit. Such, for example, is the invective in Lycidas against the hirling shepherds of the Christian fold. Such also is this, among other passages that might be quoted from Comus :-

“Against the threats Of malice or of sorcery, or that power Which erring men call chance, this I hold firm— Virtue may be assailed, but never hurt, Surprised by unjust force, but not inthralled; Yea, even that which mischief meant most harm, Shall in the happy trial prove most glory: But evil on itself shall back recoil,


And mix no more with goodness, when, at last,
Gathered like scum, and settled to itself,
It shall be in eternal restless change
Self-fed and self-consumed : If this fail
The pillared firmament is rottenness,
And earth's base built on stubble.”

And thus, we see, underneath the flowers and the beauty, there ever lay in Milton all manly strength. If his art by preference still worked most in the sensuous and the idyllic, it was but as a young athlete, his symmetry not yet injured by much experience in the gymnasium, might be the gentlest of all the guests at a classic entertainment, might recline most gracefully on the embroidered couch, and wear most fitly the garland of festive roses. Milton's poems, composed during his residence in his father's house, were not written for publication. The Comus was a gift to the ladies and younger branches of the family of the Earl of Bridgewater, meant as a kind of innocent play or mask to be performed in the family-circle of Ludlow Castle; and though Lawes, who composed the airs for the mask, published it in 1637, three years after it was performed, he speaks of the authorship as not openly acknowledged. In the following year Lycidas appeared in a collection of Cambridge verses. Milton's reputation as a poet can, therefore, have been but of a very private character when, in the year 1638, his mother being then just dead, he left England for a tour on the Continent. From Paris, where he became acquainted with Grotius, he went to Italy. He resided there about a year, visiting all the chief towns, and seeing many of the eminent Italian men of the time—among others, Galileo, then in his old age, and a prisoner to the Inquisition on account of his astronomical heresies. From Italy he meant to extend his tour to Sicily and Greece; but the gathering political tempest, at home brought him back to England in the summer of 1639. In consequence either of some change in the circumstances of his father, or of some change in his own views as to his yo. life, Milton now took up household in London. “He took him a lodging,” says his earliest biographer, “in St., Bride's Churchyard, Fleet Street, at the house of one Russell, a tailor.” Probably one of the reasons that led to this arrangement is indicated in the fact that he took to board with him, as puils, two nephews, sons of his sister Mrs. hilips, the one about ten, the other about eight years of age. “He made no long

stay,” however, in St. Bride's Churchyard, “necessity of having a place to dispose his books in, and other goods fit for the furnishing of a good handsome house, hastening him to take one; and accordingly, a pretty garden-house he took in Aldersgate Street, at the end of an entry, and therefore the fitter for his turn, by the reason of the privacy, besides that there are few streets in London more free from noise than that." Here he took a few more boys as boarders, all the sons of intimate friends. It was not destined, however, that Milton should then, or for many years to come, carry his great schemes into execution. Work of a very different, and far less congenial kind, was for the present required of him. That great era in English history, which nothing in English history has paralleled since, was then opening. Vanquished by the spirit of his subjects, Charles I. had been compelled, in 1640, to summon his fifth Parliament, the famous “Long Parliament” of England, and to commit himself reluctantly to the tide of reform in Church and State which flowed out of its deliberations. Never was there such a time of hope and promise in the political world. Gathering round the new Parliament, and looking to it as the instru: ment by which, with the blessing of God, such changes would be wrought in the entire system of the country as would make England, though still under a regal head, the pattern of free and well-governed Common: wealths, all men of mark for their liberal opinions were eager to contribute their quota to the new movement. Abandoning, then, for the time, all his great schemes of literary preparation and performance, Milton, in the year 1641, plunged into the tumult of political contro: versy. The controversy, however, to which Milton so courageously lent himself, was soon snatched away from the hands of writers and clergymen, and appealed, with many other, and even graver questions, to the decision of a ruder reasoning. The final rupture between Charles and the Parliament had at length taken place, and all England was a scene of military strife. The fate, no! only of Episcopacy, but of Royalty itsell, depended on the issue of an uncertain war. Surrendering over, then, to the sword and the battle-field the continuation of his for vorite argument, and taking no more activo part in the politics of the time than that of praying for the success of the party which represented his hopes, Milton would now probably have returned to his private pro

[ocr errors][ocr errors]

jects had not Providence prepared for him a new and far more miserable controversy in the state of his own household. His father, driven from his own residence by the disturbed condition of the country, had just come to live with him and his pupils at the house in Aldersgate Street, when, about Whitsuntide, 1643, Milton, to use the words of his nephew Philips, “took a journey into the country, nobody about him certainly knowing the reason, or that it was more than a journey of recreation, till, after a month's stay, home he returns a married man that went out a bachelor.” The wife thus unexpectedly brought home by Milton, then in his thirty-fifth year, was Mary, the eldest daughter of Mr. Powell, the Oxfordshire squire formerly mentioned. Nevel was a worse match made. The young wife had hardly been a month in town with her husband, when, in a fit of longing to see her parents and friends, she asked and obtained leave to go and spend part of the summer with them, promising to return at Michaelmas. When that time came, however, she positively refused to go back; and, her mother abetting her, she left Milton's repeated letters unanswered, and, when a messenger came with a peremptory message, had him turned out of the house. The reasons for this extraordinary occurrence, as given by Philips, are, that “her relations being generally addicted to the Cavalier party, and some of them possibly engaged in the King's service, (who by this time had his headquarters at Oxford, and was in some prospect of success,) they began to repent them of having matched the eldest daughter of the family to a person so contrary to them in opinion, and thought it would be a blot in their escutcheon whenever that court should come to flourish again.” There may be something in this; but the account given by the old gossip Aubrey, confirmed, too, by what Philips himself says, is far more to the point. The bride, according to Aubrey, had been “brought up and bred where there was a great deal of company and merriment, as dancing, &c.; and when she came to live with her husband, she found it solitary, no company came to her, and she often heard her nephews cry and be beaten. This life was irksome to her, and so she went to her parents.” There are hints also that, during her month in town, she had shown some stubbornness—accepting invitations from her relations against her husband's will, and going about with them to theatres and the like. In short, one sees the whole case but

too easily. Here was a gay, self-willed country girl, whose highest happiness it had been to dance with a King's officer at Oxford or elsewhere, married to a man whom she did not love, whom she could not understand, and whose books and austere ways were a terror to her. How Milton had been led to commit such a blunder as to marry a girl so totally unsuited to be his wife, can only be explained by the reasons he himself hints at-the inexperience of even the soberest man in these affairs, the very haste of men who have lived strictly in youth “to light the nuptial torch,” the “persuasion of friends,” the want of sufficient opportunities “for a perfect discerning” till too late, and the known fact that “the bashful muteness of a virgin,” so romantically interpreted by the lover, may often “hide all the unliveliness and natural sloth” which constitutes sheer stupidity. Stupidity, if we may judge from Milton's allusions, was the quality which, after his eyes were opened to the real character of his wife, he found most unendurable in her. “A mute and spiritless mate,” “a mind to all due conversation inaccessible,” such are the phrases in which he seems evidently to refer to his own case; and “what a solace,” he adds, “what a fit help such a consort would be through the whole life of a man, is less pain to conjecture than to have experience.” No sensible man, he even says in another place, but would rather forgive actual unfaithfulness in a woman than this sullen incompatibility of tastes and temper. At first, Milton's rage at the insult and scandal of his wife's desertion of him seems to have been something tremendous. Afterwards, bitterly making up his mind to the worst, and having determined that in no circumstances could he honorably take her back, he directed all his thoughts to the single purpose of getting rid of her. And, as it was not in his nature to put a fair face on the matter to the world, and secretly compensate himself by being other than he seemed, he pursued his object in the most open and public manner. In the course of the years 1644 and 1645, he put forth a series of four treatises on divorce—the first entitled The Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce restored from the bondage of the Canon Law ; the second, The Judgment of Martin Bucer touching Divorce, being extracts in point from that Reformer's writings; the third Tetrachordon; or Expositions of the four chief passages of Scripture which treat of Marriage ; and the fourth, Colasterion, being a reply to an anonymous answer to the first treatise. The doctrine which pervades all these treatises and which they try to enforce, partly by reason, but chiefly by the authority of Scripture, is that the guardianship of marriage ought to belong solely to the civil magistrate, and that divorce ought to be allowed not only in the cases recognized by the canon law, but also in any case of moral incompatibility between the parties immediately interested. Without entering into a consideration of Milton's views on this important subject—views which really signified “divorce at pleasure,” though Milton repudiated that phrase—we may observe that hardly in the whole history of human speculation will there be found a more remarkable instance than these treatises furnish, of how a man of the most sober and austere life may be led, by the felt misery of a personal experience, to investigate and tear up the settled maxims on which society has based itself, and to trouble a deaf world with importunate theorizings. That Milton, when the circumstances of his wife's family and the report of his intended marriage with a Miss Davis induced them after about two years to attempt a reconciliation, did then take back his wife, notwithstanding his resolution to the contrary, is well known. But, though this put an end to his open warfare on the subject, it would be a mistake to suppose that so sad a passage of his life left no permanent effects. Externally, it made a decided breach between him and the Presbyterians who had been the most resolute opponents of his theory of divorce, and had even caused the House of Lords to take the matter up as an offence against sound morals; inclining him at the same time more and more to those extremer sects whose increasing numbers had perhaps given him hope that his views might obtain legislative sanction, and among whom he actually did gain over not a few to avow his doctrine under the name of Miltonists. But the secret effects on his mind and character were far more momentous. He had already described by anticipation that “drooping and disconsolate household captivity” which results from an ill-assorted marriage, and had spoken of that “continual sight of one's deluded thoughts” which the forced association with an unloved partner supposes, as a thing “to drive a man to atheism,” or at least “to abase the mettle of a generous spirit, and sink him to a low and vulgar pitch of endeavor in all his actions.” And if the effects upon himself of his seven years of legal union with his wife after their reconciliation fell


short of this, their detrimental nature may at least be traced in a tone of increased harshness and bad temper discernible in most of his subsequent writings. And the poor wife all this time ! One cannot help remembering that, though Milton could speak his wrongsin the case, she may have felt hers; and none the less keenly that people told her that her austere husband was a great scholar. Indeed, what was that act of hers which so of. fended Milton, but a practical assertion on the woman's side of that liberty which he claimed for the man 2 On his appointment to the Secretaryship, Milton, who seems now to have given up his pupils, had removed from Holborn to apart. ments in Scotland Yard. It was while residing here, in the year 1652, that he was visited by the crowning calamity of his life, his blindness. His sight had been gradually failing for ten years; and at last it completely gave way under the serious labors in which he involved himself when preparing his great work against Salmasius. His own description of the manner in which the blindness came on is worth quoting —

“On the left side of my left eye (which began to fail some years before the other) a darkness arose that hid from me all things on that side: if I chanced to close my right eye, whatever was be: fore me seemed diminished. In the last three years, as my remaining eye sailed gradually some months before my sight was utterly gone, all things that I could discern, though I moved not myself, appeared to fluctuate, now to the right, now to the left. Obstinate vapors seemed to have settled all over my forehead and temples, overwhelming my eyes with a sort of sleepy heaviness, especially after food, till the evening; so that I frequently recollect the condition of the prophet Phineus in the Argonautics:–

“Him vapors dark Enveloped, and the earth appeared to roll Beneath him, sinking in a lifeless trance.'

“But I should not omit to say that, while I had some little sight remaining, as soon as I went to bed or reclined on either side, a copious light used to dart out from my closed eyes;–then, as mysight grew daily less, darker colors seemed to burst forth with vehemence and a kind of internal noise; but now, as if everything lucid were extinguished, blackness, either absolute, or chequered and inter. woven as it were with ash-color, is accustomed to pour itself on my eyes; yet the darkness perpet ually before them, as well during the night as in the day, seems always approaching rather to while than to black, admitting, as the eye rolls, a minute portion of light, as through a crevice.”—Leller to Philaras of Athens, Sept. 28, 1654.

Even when totally blind, Milton continued

[ocr errors][ocr errors]

to hold his office as Latin Secretary; latterly, however, a colleague was appointed, who did most of the work, and received about half of the salary. For the sake of his health Milton, one of whose peculiarities it seems to have been never to be satisfied with the house he lived in, removed to a house in Petty France, Westminster, opening into St. James's Park. Here he remained for about eight years, or till the Restoration of Charles II. compelled him to seek a less public place of residence. These eight years produced not a few changes in his household. In 1652 his wife died, leaving him, a widower and blind at the age of forty-four, with three infant daughters, the oldest of whom was not more than six years old. In 1656 he married a second wife, who did not survive the marriage, however, more than a year. Her death was probably a misfortune to the poor children of the former wife, who, left thereafter to the care of their blind and austere father, seem to have grown up in a kind of horror of him, increased rather than diminished by the efforts he appears to have made from time to time to impart to them some portions of his linguistic learning. As they were not old enough yet to act as his amanuenses, the various works written by him at this period must have been dictated either to his nephew Philips, or to some other of his grown-up pupils. Among these works were several in continuation of his answer to Salmasius—such as the Defensio secunda pro Populo Anglicano, published in 1654, as a reply to a work written by Peter du Moulin, but advertised under the name of Alexander More; and the Defensio prose called forth by More's rejoinder. These, however, were but incidental exercises of his pen; and the greater part of his time after the year 1654 appears to have been devoted to several great literary projects which he had resolved upon as appropriate work for his now advancing years and disabled condition—such as the composition of a large History of England, the compilation of an elaborate Thesaurus or Dictionary of the Latin Language, and the preparation of a Body of Systematic Divinity out of the Bible. Milton survived the Restoration fourteen years, residing first in a house he had taken in Holborn ; next in Jewin Street, Aldersgate; then as a lodger in the house of Millington, a well-known auctioneer of books; and last of all in Artillery Walk, leading to Bunhill Fields. During four years of this period he remained unmarried; but in 1664, or when he was in his fifty-sixth year, he

married his third wife, Elizabeth Minshul, daughter of a Cheshire baronet. She appears to have been a rather elderly person, who had been recommended by one of his friends as a fit housekeeper for him in his old age; and the evidence seems to say that he would not have married again at all but for the undutiful conduct of his daughters. The three girls—the eldest of whom, Anne, was now about eighteen years of age, the second, Mary, about sixteen, and the youngest, Deborah, about fourteen—used “to combine together,” it is said, “and counsel his maidservant to cheat him in his marketings;” they used also to pawn and sell his books; and on one occasion, shortly before his third marriage, when the maid-servant told the second daughter, Mary, that she heard her father was to take another wife, “the said Mary replied to the said maid-servant, that it was no news to hear of his wedding, but if she could hear of his death, that would be something.” With the exception of the youngest, Deborah, the daughters appear scarcely to have lived with their father after his third marriage. The eldest, Anne, who was somewhat deformed, set up in business as a gold and silver lace maker, and afterwards married a master-builder; and her sister Mary seems to have gone with her. So long as they lived with him, all the three daughters appear to have acted as his amanuenses; after his marriage, however, this species of work devolved sometimes on the wife, sometimes on the daughter Deborah, until she also escaped by marriage with a weaver in Spitalfields, and sometimes on any stray boy that could be induced by love or money to lend his services to the imperious old man. It was in this way that he composed and made ready for publication the numerous writings which formed his sole occupation and delight during the fourteen years that intervened be. tween his retirement into private life in 1660, and his death in 1674. Laborious as these latest prose writings of Milton were, however, they were but the severer amusements of a mind which had at last, after so many years, returned to its first and most enduring love. Never, amid all the turmoil and harsh controversial warfare of his middle life, had Milton forgotten his early promise, from the performance of which he had but requested the indulgence of a few years less congenially spent ; and when at last, after not a few but many years so spent, time and sore chance threw him aside from worldly ties, and assigned to him a career of aged loneliness, with death as its welcome close, then the old

« VorigeDoorgaan »