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Milton was in sympathy. Whatever he had intended in 1625, it was clear to him in 1632 that he could not take orders in the Church of England. This necessarily involved also the abandonment of all idea of continued residence in the University, whether in a Fellowship or for other chances.
1632-1638 : ætat. 24–30. On leaving the University in July 1632, Milton went to reside at Horton, in Buckinghamshire, a small village near Windsor, and about twenty miles from London, where his father, who had meanwhile retired from business, had taken a country house. At first there seems to have been some gentle remonstrance on his father's part on his abandonment of the Church and his disinclination to any other profession; but very soon the excellent man, whose trust in his son was boundless, acquiesced generously in what was proposed. That was that Milton should devote himself thenceforward exclusively to study, speculation, and literature. The tenor of the five years and eight months which he spent at Horton is, accordingly, thus described by himself : “ At my father's country residence, whither he had retired to pass his old age, I was wholly intent, through a period of absolute leisure, on a steady perusal of the Greek and Latin writers, but still so that occasionally I exchanged the country for the city, either for the purpose of buying books, or for that of learning anything new in Mathematics or in Music, in which I then took delight." From this succinct account we should not gather that it was also during those five summers and winters, passed mainly in the flat, verdant, well-wooded and well-watered scenery about Horton, with the towers of Windsor in view, that Milton composed the finest and most classic of his minor English poems. Such, however, is the fact. Here is the list :
AD PATREM (among the Sylvæ). 1632?
COMUS : A Masque presented at Ludlow Castle. 1634.
LYCIDAS. Nov. 1637. We may pass over this interesting Horton period the more lightly because in the Introductions to these pieces there is an ample filling up of minutiæ. The admission of Milton to the M.A. degree at Oxford in 1635 may, however, be noted here. Three of his Latin Familiar Epistles, it ought also to be added, belong to the period. One of these (December 4, 1634) is again to his former teacher Alexander Gill the younger; the other two (both dated September 1637) are to his friend Charles Diodati. In the last he speaks of leaving Horton permanently, and taking chambers in London. The intention was not fulfilled. He went back to Horton, to write his Lycidas there (so it may be guessed), and to remain there till April 1638. Three incidents mark the closing months of his Horton life. One was the appearance in 1637, with his permission, but anonymously, of a printed edition of his Comus by itself at the charge of his friend Henry Lawes, the musical composer. Another was his introduction, early in 1638, to the celebrated Sir Henry Wotton, Provost of Eton, not far from Horton. The third was the actual appearance of his Lycidas, with his initials “ J. M.," at the end of a collection of obituary poems, in Latin, Greek, and English, in memory of Edward King, contributed by thirtytwo friends of the deceased, and printed at the Cambridge University press. But an event earlier than any of these, and which had already made Horton a sadder home to Milton than it had been, was the death of his mother. She died at Horton April 3, 1637, and was buried in the old church there. A visit to Horton any summer's day, to see the simple stone that covers her grave, and then, after having the spot near the church pointed out to one where the house of Milton's father stood, to stroll among the meadows and pollards by the banks of the sluggish Colne, where Milton must have so often walked and mused, may be recommended to lovers of Literature and of English History.
The quiet time at Horton, bringing Milton from the twentyfourth to the thirtieth year of his age, was a continuation of the Reign of Thorough in the British Islands. Laud, Archbishop of Canterbury since 1633, was still crushing Calvinism and Puritanism in England ; Wentworth was ruling Ireland with a rod of iron ; and the business of re-shaping the rough semi-Episcopal Kirk of Scotland into a more perfect practical representation of Laud's ideal Beauty of Holiness had been steadily in progress. Precisely in this business of the Scottish Kirk, however, had the policy of Thorough struck against a rock of opposition. In July 1637 the Scots had risen in riot and revolt against the attempt to introduce Laud's new Scottish Liturgy; and in March 1638 the leaders of the Scottish people of all ranks, Nobles, Lairds, Burgesses, and Clergy, leagued themselves for open resistance, and swore their famous Covenant. The news ran through England, stirring strange hopes in the hearts of the English Puritans.
ITALIAN JOURNEY. April 1638--- August 1639 : ætat. 30–31. The Scottish Covenant (“the damnable Covenant,” as Charles called it) was the last word in all English mouths when Milton, in April 1638, set out on that journey to Italy of which he had long had dreams, and to which his father had at last given consent. He took one English man-servant with him. His father meanwhile was to live on at Horton, where his younger son Christopher, already a married man, though only passing his terms for the Bar, was to keep him company, with his newly-wedded wife, Thomasine Webber of London.
Taking letters of introduction with him, one of which was from Sir Henry Wotton (see Sir Henry Wotton's Letter of April 13, 1638, prefixed to Comus), Milton arrived in Paris. Here he spent some days, receiving great attention from Lord Scudamore, English joint-ambassador with the Earl of Leicester at the court of Louis XIII. He specially mentions an interview procured for him by Lord Scudamore with the learned Dutchman, Hugo Grotius, then residing in Paris as ambassador from Sweden. From Paris he proceeded to Italy by way of Nice. After visiting Genoa, Leghorn, and Pisa, he reached Florence. Here he remained about two months (Aug.–Sept. 1638), enchanted with the beauties and antiquities of the famous city, and forming acquaintanceships with many of the wits and scholars then living in it. Seven Florentines, most of them young men, leaders in the chief Academies or literary clubs of Florence, are particularly named by him as friends whose merits, and whose courtesies to himself, he could never forget. These were Jacopo Gaddi, Carlo Dati, Pietro Frescobaldi, Agostino Coltellini, Benedetto Buommattei, Valerio Chimentelli, and Antonio Francini. They have all left some traces of themselves in Italian literary history, though some of them are now best remembered by the happy accident of their contact with Milton. It was either in Florence or in its close neighbourhood that he also “found and visited the famous Galileo, grown old, a prisoner to the Inquisition for thinking in Astronomy otherwise than the Franciscan and Dominican licensers thought.” From Florence, through Siena, Milton went to Rome. His stay here extended over nearly two months more (Oct.--Nov. 1638); and here again, besides musing amid the ruins of the Eternal City, seeing the galleries and other sights, and being present at a concert in the palace of Cardinal Francesco Barberini, where he heard the famous Leonora Baroni sing, he enjoyed the society of the literary clubs or Academies. He made special acquaintance with Lucas Holste or Holstenius, a learned German, settled in Rome as secretary to Cardinal Barberini and as one of the librarians of the Vatican, and also with Alessandro Cherubini, Giovanni Salzilli, and a certain more obscure Selvaggi. Leaving Rome, in company with “a certain Eremite Friar," he spent some little time (Nov.-Dec. 1638) in Naples. Here, through his travelling companion, he was introduced to the great man of the place, the venerable Giovanni Battista Manso, Marquis of Villa, then nearly eighty years of age. From Naples it was his intention to cross over into Sicily and thence to extend his tour into Greece ; but “the sad news of civil war in England” determined him to return, “inasmuch,” he says, “ as I thought it base to be travelling at my ease for intellectual culture while my fellowcountrymen at home were fighting for liberty.”----The news that had reached Milton in Naples, however, was not quite that of civil war in England itself, but only of such a course of events in Scotland as seemed to make civil war inevitable. The Covenant having been adopted all but universally by the population of Scotland, Charles had been obliged to temporise so far as to permit the meeting of a General Assembly of the Kirk at Glasgow for the consideration of affairs; and at this Assembly (Nov. 21-Dec. 20, 1638) the result of the consideration of affairs had been defiance to Charles and Laud in every particular. Not only had the recent ecclesiastical innovations been condemned, but all the Scottish Bishops had been deposed and disgraced, Episcopacy of every kind had been declared at an end in Scotland, and the Kirk and nation had returned absolutely to the old Presbyterian system of Knox. To punish the Scots for such audacity Charles was certainly levying forces in England and Ireland, so that in a sense civil war in Britain had actually begun. —-It was probably the receipt of such more correct information that made Milton's homeward journey more leisurely than he purposed when he left Naples. He spent, at all events, a second two months in Rome (Jan.-Feb. 1639), going about freely, and also talking freely, though warned, he says, that the English Jesuits in the city were on the watch to entrap him into some danger from the Papal police ; and he also spent a second two months in Florence (Feb.—April 1639), where his Florentine friends were rejoiced at his reappearance. From Florence he made an excursion to Lucca; after which, crossing the Apennines, and passing through Bologna and Ferrara, he came to Venice. He spent one month in that city (May 1639); whence, having despatched to England by sea the books he had collected in Italy, he made his way, by Verona and Milan, and over the Pennine Alps, to Geneva. Here he passed a week or two (June 1639), once more among Protestants, and conversing daily with the theologian Dr. Jean Diodati, the uncle of his friend Charles. Thence his route through France took him again to Paris; and early in August 1639 he was back in England.
Milton's fifteen or sixteen months of foreign travel and residence contributed but few additions to the list of his writings. Besides two Latin Familiar Epistles written at Florence, one to the Florentine grammarian Buommattei (Sept. 10, 1638), and one to Holstenius at Rome (March 30, 1639), we have to note only the following:Ad Leonoram Romæ canentem (three pieces annexed to the Elegiarum
Liber). 1638. Ad Salsillum, Poetam Romanum, ægrotantem (among the Sylvæ).
1638. MANSUS (among the Sylvæ). 1638.
Five Italian Sonnets, with a Canzone. 1639? The Introductions to these will add particulars to this section of the Memoir.