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MILTON'S RESIDENCE AT HORTON.—CoMPOSEs THE comfUs—LYCIDAs— ARCADES-L'ALLEGRO-IL PENSER0so—DEATH OF HIs MoTHER— AMIBITIOUS ASPIRATIONS - VISITS ITALY AND IS RECEIVED WITH GREAT DISTINCTION.—HIS ADDRESS TO MANSO -REMARKS OF MB. MACAULAY ON HIS LATIN VERSIFICATION.
ON leaving the university, in 1629, he spent five years, probably the happiest of his life, at Horton, in Buckinghamshiré, whither his father had retired from business with a competent fortune. In his “Second Defence of the People of England,”having been led, as before observed, by the slanders of his antagonist to a brief recapitulation of the events of his early life, he thus refers to this period of his history:— “Here (at Cambridge) I passed seven years in the usual course of instruction and study, with the approbation of the good, and without any stain upon my character, till I took the degree of Master of Arts. After this I did not, as this miscreant feigns, run away into Italy, but of my own accord retired to my father's house, whither I was accompanied by the regrets of most of the fellows of the college, who showed me no common marks of friendship and esteem. On my father's estate, where he had determined to pass the remainder of his days, I enjoyed an interval of uninterrupted leisure, which I entirely devoted to the perusal of the Greek and Latin classics; though I occasionally visited the metropolis, either for the sake of purchasing books, or of learning something new in mathematics or in music, in which I, at that time, found a source of pleasure and amusement. In this manner I spent five years, till my mother's death.” It is not at all surprising that Milton should have omitted from this narrative the fact that during this interval the most admired of his minor poems were composed. The Comus, which critics unite in designating as the most exquisite dramatic poem which perhaps the genius of man has ever produced, was composed in 1634, when its author was but twenty-five years of age. Lycidas was written in 1637; and there is every reason to believe that the Arcades, L'Allegro, and Il Penseroso were also composed during Milton's residence at Horton. The poem of Comus is too well known to require description, and certainly nothing need be added to the eulogies with which it has been loaded by the choicest minds of every succeeding generation. The plot of the masque of Comus is said to have been suggested by the circumstance of Lady Alice Egerton, the youthful daughter of the Earl of Bridgwater, having when travelling been accidentally separated from her companions in the night, and having wandered for some time in a forest by herself. It is not often that Dr. Johnson exposes himself to the shafts of ridicule. There is, indeed, too much of him to be the fit object of such light missiles; yet, what other treatment is merited by such an observation as the following in reference to a master-piece of genius, such as the Comus?—“It was presented at Ludlow, then the residence of the Lord President of Wales, in 1634, and had the honour of being acted by the Earl of Bridgwater's sons and daughters,” all of whom the reader should be informed, by the way, were under fourteen years of age. That Johnson, in presence of the majesty of Milton, should exhibit this “falling-down-deadness of manner" before the little boys and girls of an earl, is certainly contemptible enough. Of the poem itself it is
impossible to speak in terms of too high admiration. The eulogy pronounced upon it by Dr. Symmons, is at once enthusiastic and discriminate: “Among the compositions of our own country,” he says, “it certainly stands unrivalled for its affluence in poetic imagery and diction; and, as an effort of the creative power, it can be paralleled only by the muse of Shakspeare, by whom in this respect it is possibly exceeded. With Shakspeare the whole, excepting some rude outlines or suggestions of the story, is the immediate emanation of his own mind; but Milton's erudition precluded him from this extreme originality, and was perpetually supplying him with thoughts, which would sometimes obtain the preference from his judgment, and would sometimes be mistaken for his own property by his invention. Original, however, he is; and, of all the sons of song, inferior in this requisite of genius to Shakspeare alone.” In the only criticism of a particular passage upon which Dr. S. ventures, he is by no means so felicitous. He selects one of the most charming passages in the drama—that in which Comus describes the lady singing the echo song:— How sweetly did they float upon the wings Of silence through the empty-vaulted night, At every fall smoothing the raven down Of darkness till it smiled. After justifying the preceding images he adds, “But it is surely a transgression, which stands in need of pardon, when proceeding a step further and accumulating personifications, we invest this raven-down with life and make it to smile.” It is surprising that a man of the taste and perception of Dr. Symmons should have fallen into such an error. The application of the term to smile to the down of the imaginary bird, smoothed by the cadences of the music, involves no additional personification. Innumerable instances might be adduced from the highest ancient and modern poets, in which, without personification, and with a strict similarity of meaning, the surface of the sea is said to smile or to
frown under the sunshine or the passing shadows of clouds. It is indeed a dangerous exercise to criticise this matchless production; it stands conspicuous among the brightest productions of human genius, by a refined and exquisite purity of sentiment which, even in a strictly imaginative range of thought, may be designated as intense spirituality; and the union of this ethereal spirit with the very genius of harmony completes the enchantment of the poem. The remote and heterogenous reading indicated by its allusions still further increases the wonder with which we peruse it. It has ever been matter of amazement that the Comus could have been produced by any one at the age of twenty-five ; this, however, is not the only fact that proves the strange precocity of Milton's mind. It is scarcely more surprising that this drama should have been produced at that age than that one of the finest of his Latin poems should have been written at the age of nineteen. I refer to an Academic exercise composed to oblige one of the fellows of his college, and entitled Naturam non pati senium, its purpose being to reply to those who held the notion that the world was liable to the decays of old age. Several of Milton's biographers mention that this subject was probably suggested by a work published in the preceding year under the title of “An Apologie or Declaration of the Power and Providence of God in the Government of the World, by George Hakewill, D.D., and Archdeacon of Surrey, 1627.” Of the former production, Mr. Macaulay, in his brilliant article on Milton, first published in the Edinburgh Review, remarks, that “Comus is framed on the model of the Italian masque, as the Samson is formed on the model of the Greek tragedy. It is certainly the noblest performance of the kind which exists in any language.” * Similar views were maintained some years afterwards by Dr.
South, a bitter enemy of Milton, in a Sermon from Eccl. vii. 10—"Say not thou, what is the cause that the former days were better than these?”
The Lycidas has been the subject of a contest so fierce as to leave it difficult to conceive that either party is altogether in the right. “In this poem,” says Johnson, “there is no nature, for there is no truth: there is no art, for there is nothing new. Its form is that of a pastoral, easy, vulgar, and therefore disgusting: whatever images it can supply, are long ago exhausted; and its inherent improbability always forces dissatisfaction on the mind.” . . . . “Nothing can less display knowledge, or less exercise invention, than to tell how a shepherd has lost his companion, &c.” Nay, he even goes so far as to say, “Surely no man could have fancied that he read Lycidas with pleasure, had he not known its author.” Sir Egerton Brydges, on the contrary, maintains that “so far from deserving the character applied to it by Johnson, the language is throughout imaginative and picturesque, and the rhythm harmonious and enchanting. There is no poem in which the epithets are more beautiful, more appropriate, or more fresh ; they are like the diction of no predecessor, but of some of the occasional passages of rural description by Shakspere in his happiest moods. But it will be asked what invention there is in this poem? There is invention in the epithets, in the combinations, in the descriptions, in the apostrophes, in the visionary parts of the poem, in the sorrows, the predictions, and the consolations: in all those associations which none but a rich and poetical mind produces.” Dr. Warton goes still further, and insists that the admiration or dislike of this poem is an infallible test whether a reader has or has not a poetical taste: . . . . that he who is not enraptured with it can have no genuine idea of poetry.
The truth probably lies in a medium between the splenetic prejudice of Johnson and the enthusiasm of his more partial biographers. That there is a rhapsodical wildness about the Lycidas, few will deny; and it must be further admitted that it is rendered less intelligible to many by the affluence of classical allusion with which it is perhaps overloaded. In