« AnteriorContinuar »
Lecture the Twenty-First.
N the last lecture we closed our remarks upon the writers of the age
of Elizabeth and James, and in the present we shall speak of Milton, the great connecting link between the school of Elizabeth and that of Anneuniting, in himself, all the genius of the former, with the delicacy, the polish, and the elegance of the latter.
John Milton was born in the city of London on the ninth of December, 1608. He was descended from the ancient and honorable family of Milton, in Oxfordshire—his grandfather being an underranger to the king. In his religious sentiments, Milton's grandfather was a decided Papist, but his father early embraced the Protestant faith, in consequence of which he was disinherited, and turned from his home. Having, however, received a good education, he went to London, where he thought the means of acquiring a livelihood would be more readily found than at any other place. Soon after his arrival in that city, he engaged in the business of a scrivener, which, at that period, was not only a respectable, but even an honorable calling; and he soon after married a lady of rank and fortune. This lady was also of the Protestant faith, and was devotedly pious, in consequence of which John, who was their eldest child, was trained up with the greatest care, even from his infancy, in piety and virtue. When yet a mere child, his parents placed him under the care of Mr. Young, who was at that time one of the most devoted and successful teachers in London, and by whom Milton was carefully instructed in those rudiments of classical learning which laid the foundation for his future eminence as a scholar; and the grateful expression of Milton's recollection of Mr. Young's careful attention to his studies, forms one of those delightful pictures which are so sweet a relief to the instructor's laborious avocation.
When sufficiently advanced in his studies, Milton was placed at St. Paul's School, with a view of immediate preparation for the university ; and at twelve years of age, such was his devotion to learning, that, not considering the day of sufficient length to afford the time which study required, he devoted half the night also to that purpose. His constitution was naturally weak, and at this early period, the vigor and energy of his mind, together with his unwearied attention to study, laid the foundation of those infirmities of body which attended him during the remainder of his life, and which eventuated, long before his death, in total blindness. Even at this early period of life, he gave evidence, in the production of some minor poems, of the possession of those extraordinary poetic and intellectual powers which afterward immortalized his name.
Having made thorough preparation for the university, Milton, at the age of seventeen, entered Christ's College, Cambridge ; and, during his whole collegiate course, though poetry was his passion, he devoted himself unremittingly to the various other studies of the institution. In 1628, in the twentieth
year of his age, he took his Bachelor's degree; and as, from his infancy, he had been designed by his parents for the church, his mind was now turned to such subjects, and to such inquiries as were immediately connected with the Christian ministry. The result, however, of his inquiries, was unfavorable to his parents' most ardent wishes ; for he soon perceived that the condition of the clergy of that period was such as to prevent any man of a thoughtful and independent spirit from officially entering upon the service of the church; and he, therefore, remained at the university till 1632, when he took his Master's degree, immediately after which he retired to his father's country-seat at Horton, in Buckinghamshire. Here, the circumstances of the family being easy and independent, he passed five successive years in that delightful ease and retirement which is so grateful to the studious mind; and stored his memory, meantime, with all that is interesting and valuable in classical learning. It was during Milton's residence at Horton that he composed those minor poems—Comus, 1 Penseroso, L'Allegro, and Lycidas, which alone would have been sufficient to immortalize any other name than his own. *Comus' was written at the request of the Earl of Bridgewater, and was first privately performed at the residence of that nobleman; and 'Lycidas' was elicited by the death of Edward King, one of Milton's classmates at the university, and who was accidentally drowned while crossing the Irish Sea, to visit his parents in Dublin.
In 1638, when Milton was in the thirty-first year of his age, he had the misfortune to lose his mother, and though his father was a kind and affectionate parent, yet by this irreparable loss, his home, hitherto endeared by so many interesting considerations, lost, comparatively, all its attractions for him; and he accordingly desired his father to permit him to visit the continent. This desire was readily gratified, and he therefore, with this view, attended by a single servant, left his native country, and soon after arrived in Paris. Hugo Grotius, whose fame was at that time greater than that of any other scholar on the continent, was then in that city, and the effect of the introduction of these two men to each other, can better be conceived than expressed. After having spent about two months in Paris, Milton passed through Nice, Genoa, Leghorn, and Pisa, to Florence, where he also re
mained two months; and there he so remarkably distinguished himself in Italian poetry, as to be admired by all ranks and conditions of men, in that city of taste and refinement. It was during his residence in Florence that that extraordinary compliment was paid him by Salvaggi, an eminent Italian poet, which is little more than translated in the following lines of Dryden :
Three poets in three different ages born;
From Florence, Milton passed through Sierra, to Rome, and remained two months also in the imperial city. Here, in a short space of time, he formed a close intimacy with all the great men of Rome, and every facility was, accordingly, afforded him for acquiring all the information that he desired there to obtain. From Rome, he passed down to Naples with the intention of visiting Sicily and Greece; but while at Naples, he received intelligence of the disastrous conflict into which his own country, about that time, became involved; and his patriotism and love of home triumphing over his curiosity and desire for knowledge, he determined to return at once to England; and, therefore, passing through Florence and Lucca, he crossed the Apeninnes, hastily visited Bologna, Ferrara, Venice, Verona and Milan, and thence he passed over Lake Leman to Geneva, in Switzerland, whence, through France, he eventually reached England, after an absence of fifteen months.
,When Milton arrived in England, he found his father had left his residence at Horton, and had gone to reside with a younger brother; and as his sense of propriety and duty would no longer permit him to depend upon his father's bounty and kindness, he resolved to adopt such means for his future subsistence as might most readily offer. He, therefore, took, at the solicitation of his sister, Mrs. Phillips, a small house in London, for the purpose of conducting the education of her two sons, Edward and John. The success which attended the instruction of these two lads soon attracted the attention of other friends, and he was, therefore, induced, at their solicitation, to take a larger house, and open a regular academy. In this arduous, but delightful profession, Milton passed nearly eight years of his life. Meanwhile, however, he was very actively engaged in defending the principles of liberty, for which the Parliamentary party to which he had now attached himself, was then contending.
In 1641, he published his minor poems, which at once contributed to place him in the first rank of English poets; and from that period till he wrote Paradise Lost, his mind was constantly brooding over the production of some great work, which according to his own remark, ‘his countrymen would not willingly let die.'
In 1643, Milton married the daughter of Richard Powell, a gentleman of Oxford. This union, however, was the source of great vexation and disquiet to him; for Mr. Powell, being a devoted royalist, his daughter, perhaps through her father's influence, left Milton's house in less than a month after her marriage ; and though he frequently solicited her to return, yet she positively resisted all his endeavors to induce her to do so. Both irritated and mortified at the conduct of his wife, he immediately turned his attention toward the divine institution of marriage, and the law of divorce; and so fully did he become convinced that divorce was not only lawful, but even advisable, when, between the married parties there existed an incongruity of constitutional habit and temperament, which would forever mar their happiness, especially if there were no children to bind the parties together, that to prove his sincerity in the opinions he now advanced, he at once commenced paying his addresses to another young lady, of great wit and beauty, with the apparent prospect of a speedy union. His friends now interposed their offices of reconciliation, and his wife having meantime relented, they succeeded in introducing her into the house of a mutual acquaintance, where he was expected soon to arrive; and on his entrance she prostrated herself at his feet with such submission, and such apparent contrition, that he at once raised her to his arms, and a permanent reconciliation immediately followed. This incident is supposed to have suggested that exquisite scene in Paradise Lost, of the reconciliation of Adam and Eve after her transgression
Soon his heart relented
In 1643, Milton commenced a history of England, the principal design of which was, or seems to have been, to exhibit the principles of Ancient British freedom, and to warn the nation against the arbitrary oppressions of royalty. This important work, however, he never completed. In Kennett's History of England are to be found thefirst six books, and such other parts as he finished.
On the death of Charles the First, Milton was made Latin Secretary to the council of State, and the next ten years of his life were devoted to state affairs, and to the writing of his political works. In 1652, while engaged in the composition of one of these works, Pro populo Anglicano defensio, contro, Claudie Salmasii defensionem regiam, he lost his sight, which had, indeed, been, for many years previous, exceedingly weak.
On the elevation of Charles the Second to the crown, Milton, though one of the most strenuous, and perhaps most effective opponents of royalty in England, was, through his great eminence, solicited by that monarch to retain the office of Latin Secretary-an office which he had so eminently honored for so many years. He chose, however, to relinquish the honors of court, and to retire into private life ; for he now felt, more powerfully than ever, the influence of that impulse, which had, for many years, indicated