« AnteriorContinuar »
not succeed to that title till some years afterwards), having read the poem, sent it to Dryden, who in a short time returned it with this answer: “ This man cuts us all out, and the ancients too.” Although there is, doubtless, a foundation of truth in the former anecdote, the association of Sir John Denham's name with the fact is certainly erroneous, as that gentleman never was in Parliament. Shortly afterwards, however, Dryden called upon the author, and obtained his permission to construct a drama, or rather an opera, upon the great epic. This did not appear during Milton's life; but, in the preface, a due homage is paid to his genius. Although the poem passed through six editions within twenty years of its publication, it cannot be said to have obtained the attention it deserved, until it was popularized by the criticisms of Addison. It would be a waste of time to descant on the innumerable merits of a poem which has been made the theme of almost every critic of eminence for upwards of a century, and which now enjoys an undisputed supremacy. That it should not have been popular in the days of the two last Stuarts, is not matter of surprise. The age of tyranny was not likely to favour the writings of the apostle of freedom. The age of sensuality was incapable of relishing the moral beauties and intellectual charms of Milton's muse. It was reserved to a brighter and a better age to render justice to the memory of the Patriot-Bard; and, perhaps, it is safe to predict that the estimation of Milton's poetry will afford the measure of the literary refinement, and that of his prose writings will gauge the political elevation or decline, of every succeeding age in this country. Mr. Philips has mentioned one singular circumstance with respect to the composition of the “Paradise Lost,” “which,” he says, “I have a particular reason to remember; for whereas 1 had the perusal of it from the very beginning, for some years, * Todd's Life of Milton, pp. 204, 205.
as I went from 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 shown 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.” “Of his artifices of study, or particular hours of composition,” says Johnson, “we have little account.” Richardson, however, 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 aestrum, and his daughter was immediately called to secure what came. In dictating in the day, he was accustomed to sit leaning back, in an easy chair, with his leg flung over the elbow of it, and at such times he would dictate perhaps forty lines in a breath, and then reduce them to half the number. Newton, in his Life of the poet, states that “Mrs. Milton, who survived her husband, in a state of widowhood, nearly fifty-five years, related that he composed principally in the winter; and on his waking in the morning would make her write down sometimes twenty or thirty verses. On being asked whether he did not frequently read Homer and Virgil, she replied that ‘he stole from nobody but the muse who inspired him.’ To a lady inquiring who the muse was, she answered, “it was God's grace, and the Holy Spirit that visited him nightly.” During Milton's residence at Chalfont, a report obtained currency that he had perished by the plague; which need occasion the less surprise as the parish registers show, that • Johnson's Lives of the Poets, vol. i. pp. 189, 190.
that village did not escape the ravages of this calamitous visitation. This report appears to have reached the Contiment, and elicited from several eminent men letters of inquiry respecting the safety of so valuable a life. The last of the poet's familiar letters which we possess, is an answer to one of these. It is addressed, “To the most accomplished Peter Heimbach, Counsellor of State to the Elector of Brandenburgh,” and having been written in Latin, is presented by Mr. Todd in the following translation:— “That, in a year so pestilential and so fatal as the present, amidst the deaths of so many of my compatriots, you should have believed me likewise, as you write me word, in consequence too of some rumour or other, to have fallen a victim, excites in me no surprise: and if that rumour owed its currency among you, as it seems to have done, to an anxiety for my welfare, I feel flattered by it as an instance of your friendly regard. Through the goodness of God, however, who had provided me with a safe retreat in the country, I still live and am well; and would that I could add, not incompetent to any duty which it may be my further destiny to discharge. “But that after so long an interval I should have recurred to your remembrance, is highly gratifying to me; though to judge from your eloquent embellishments of the matter, when you profess your admiration of so many different virtues united in my single person, you seem to furnish some ground for suspecting that I have, indeed, escaped from your recollection. From such a number of unions, in fact, I should have cause to dread a progeny too numerous, were it not admitted that in disgrace and adversity the virtues principally increase and flourish. One of them, however, has not made me any very grateful return for her entertainment; for she whom you call the political (though I would rather that you had termed her love of country), after seducing me with her fine name, has nearly, if I may so express myself, deprived me of a country. The rest, indeed, harmonise more perfectly together. Our country is wherever we can live as we ought. “Before I conclude, I must prevail on you to impute whatever incorrectness of orthography or of punctuation you may discover in this epistle, to my young amanuensis; whose total ignorance of Latin has imposed on me the disagreeable necessity of actually dictating to him every individual letter. “That your deserts as a man, consistently with the high promise with which you raised my expectations in your youth, should have elevated you to so eminent a station in your sovereign's favour, gives me the most sincere pleasure; and I fervently pray and trust that you may proceed and prosper. Farewell!—London, August 15, 1666.” In the year 1670, Milton published his fragment of the History of England, the earlier portion of which has been noticed already, and which his subsequent intervals of labour only brought down to the period at which the strictly national interest of our annals commences—that of the victory of William of Normandy at the Battle of Hastings. In the following year he published the “Paradise Regained,” and the dramatic poem entitled “Samson Agonistes.” Had Milton never written the “Paradise Lost,” it is more than probable that the “Paradise Regained” would have been rewarded with the admiration of posterity, and secured for its author a high rank among epic poets. Some fond admirers of Milton have endeavoured to attract to it some portion of that voluntary tribute which is universally paid to its great predecessor. Jortin has eulogised it; Dunster has laboured to develop its previously unrecognized beauties; and Warburton has pronounced it a charming poem, nothing inferior in the poetry and the sentiments to the “Paradise Lost.” But these panegyrics have never received that endorsement which, in the republic of letters, is the sole, and, indeed, the just, ratification of purely literary excellence. Perhaps the truth is, that the “Paradise Lost” satiates every faculty to which it appeals," and renders the revival of the zest impossible, except by a power analogous to that which was exerted in the miracle of Cana. Nevertheless, it contains passages of great beauty and grandeur; and one which shows to what an extent he retained, irrepressible amidst the decay of nature, the principles which had governed his more active life, deserves on that account to be inserted in this place. The sentiment is put into the mouth of the Saviour:
“Extol not riches, then, the toil of fools,
* Omne supervacuum pleno de pectore manat.-HoRACE.