Imágenes de páginas
PDF
EPUB

ment, does not press forward, as soon as many do, to undergo, butkeeps off with a sacred reverence and religious advisement how best to undergo; not taking thought of being late, so it give advantage to be more fit; for those that were latest lost nothing when the master of the vineyard came to give each one his hire.” This letter is enriched with one of Milton's early sonnets, which, in common with the foregoing passage, exhibits that combination of modesty and earnestness of purpose, which is the invariable accompaniment of true greatness. It is as follows:— How soon has Time, the subtle thief of youth, Stolen on his wing my three and twentieth year! My hasting days fly on with full career; But my late Spring no bud or blossom shew'th. Perhaps my semblance might deceive the truth, That I to manhood am arrived so near ; And inward ripeness doth much less appear That some more timely—happy spirits indu'th. Yet be it less or more or soon or slow, It shall be still in strictest measure even To that same lot, however mean or high, Towards which time leads me and the will of Heaven. All is, if I have grace to use it so, As ever in my great Task-master's eye. In the beginning of the year 1629, Milton took his bachelor's degree, and, in due course, proceeded to that of master of arts, when he finally quitted the university. The bitter enemies whom his subsequent career arrayed against him, have attempted to derive from this, the obscurest period of his life, the means of casting a reflection upon his spotless fame. Much time and labour have been unnecessarily wasted in rebutting these calumnies. I will endeavour to dispose of them with greater brevity. The story of his having been subjected to corporal chastisement at his college, though argued with ridiculous ingenuity by several of his biographers, and treated with equally ridiculous solemnity by Dr. Johnson, does not deserve the notice of any writer who is not enthralled by a party purpose, and committed to a “foregone conclusion.” Even were it possible to suppose that the incident occurred, the foregoing notices sufficiently attest that it must have been undeserved; and the censure must therefore be transferred from the conduct of Milton to the semi-catholic regulations of the university, and the incapacity and caprice of its administrators. But, apart from this, the statement itself rests on no evidence that is deserving of a moment's consideration. The calumniators of Milton chiefly rely upon a line in one of his Latin epistles to his friend, Charles Deodati, which cannot be tortured by any ingenuity to such an interpretation." In addition to this, it is notorious that the statutes of the university prohibited the infliction of any such punishment upon a student of Milton's age. It has been further argued, that the distaste which Milton repeatedly indicated to Cambridge, both as a locality unfavourable to the inspirations of poetry, to which, as we have seen, he was passionately devoted, and also as arising from the manners and habits of the university, goes to prove his unpopularity at his college; and one opponent has even been so unscrupulous as to intimate that he was sent away from the university for a time, in consequence of his immorality. It is scarcely necessary to refute a calumny the falsehood of which is so obvious. With respect to the torpifying influence of the local scenery, the testimony of the poet Gray may be added to that of every man of ordinary taste who has been compelled to traverse the wearisome flats of Cambridgeshire. As to the more serious

[ocr errors]

minas perferre magistri, Caeteraque ingenio non subeundameo. + Some of my readers will be reminded of the incurable disgust with which the vicinity of Cambridge affected the late Robert Hall. He once described it in conversation as “Nature laid out;” and when alluding to the scarcity of wood in the neighbourhood, and having been reminded of the willows which abound there, characteristically replied, “Yes, Sir, Nature holding out signals of distress "

portion of the charge, we may safely cite the defensive statements of Milton himself, written at a time when, if false, they were open to a disgraceful refutation from a thousand quarters. In his Apology for Smectymnuus, which will hereafter be noticed in its proper place, the following declaration was extorted from him by the malice of his opponents :—“I must be thought, if this libeller (for now he shows himself to be so) can find belief, after an inordinate and riotous youth spent at the university, to have been at length vomited out thence. For which commodious lie, that he may be encouraged in the trade another time, I thank him; for it hath given me an apt occasion to acknowledge publickly, with all grateful mind, that more than ordinary favour and respect which I found above any of my equals at the hands of those courteous and learned men, the fellows of that college wherein I spent some years: who at my parting, after I had taken two degrees, as the manner is, signified many ways how much better it would content them that I would stay; as by many letters full of kindness and loving respect, both before that time and long after, I was assured of their singular good affection towards me. Which being likewise propense to all such as were for their studious and civil life worthy of esteem, I could not wrong their judgments and upright intentions, so much as to think I had that regard from them for other cause, than that I might be still encouraged to proceed in the honest and laudable courses of which they apprehended I had given good proof. And to those ingenuous and friendly men, who were ever the countenancers of virtuous and hopeful wits, I wish the best and happiest things that friends in absence wish one to another.” In his “Second Defense,” published twelve years after the “ Apology for Smectymnuus,” he again asserts the purity of his college life; and affirms, in opposition to his adversary's calumnies, that he passed seven years at the university, pure from every blemish, and in possession of the esteem of the good, till he took with applause his degree

of Master of Arts: that he then retired to his father's house, and left behind him a memory which was cherished with affection and respect by the greaterpart of the fellows of his college, who had always been assiduous in cultivating his regard. I have referred to the general conduct of the university at this time as offensive to Milton's moral tastes. In stating this dislike he specially observes upon the practice of acting plays, on the part of those who had entered, or were about to enter upon the duties of the Christian ministry;-“writhing and unboning their clergy limbs to all the antick and dishonest gestures of Trincolos, buffoons, and bawds, prostituting the shame of that ministry which they had, or were near having, to the eyes of courtiers and court ladies, their grooms and mademoiselles.” This passage affords Dr. Johnson an opportunity of gratifying his splenetic prejudice in the treatise which, with much respect for that extraordinary man, I can only characterize as his infamous life of Milton. After noticing the pleasure which Milton states that he had enjoyed in early life from theatrical entertainments, Dr. Johnson closes his remarks with the following sneer: “Plays were therefore only criminal when they were acted by academics.” It is scarcely necessary to point out the disingenuous sophism into which Johnson's bigotry here betrayed him. It was not the circumstance that the plays were acted by academics that offended Milton's sense of propriety, but that they were acted by men ostensibly devoted to the ministry of the gospel. If Dr. Johnson was unable to recognize this distinction, he is to be pitied; but it is hard to conceive that such language should have been written by a man who thoroughly appreciated the licentiousness of the stage in the time of the Stuarts, and who in a later and a purer day, was withheld confessedly by moral considerations from meeting his friend Garrick in the green-room. That Milton quitted the university without gaining a fellowship, or taking orders, is also the subject of Dr. Johnson's

animadversion. “He went to the university,” says the Doctor, “ with a design of entering into the Church, but in time altered his mind.” The more correct statement would be, that his father desired that the great intellectual powers, of which he gave early promise, should be thus devoted; and it is easy to conceive that the deep religious sentiments of the youth were favourable to this design. But whatever may have been his tendencies at the early age at which he entered the university, more mature reflection induced him to abandon all intention of becoming a clergyman. For this he gives us his own motives in his Treatise entitled “ The Reason of Church Government urged against Prelacy," in the following words :-“ The Church, to whose service, by the intentions of my parents and friends I was destined of a child, and in mine own resolutions; till coming to some maturity of years, and perceiving what tyranny had invaded the Church, that he who would take orders must subscribe slave, and take an oath withal, which, unless he took with a conscience that would retch, he must either straight perjure or split his faith; I thought it better to prefer a blameless silence before the sacred office of speaking, bought and begun with servitude and forswearing."

It is recorded of Dr. Johnson, that when asked by a lady who was better instructed in such matters, why he had in his Dictionary given, as the meaning of the word “ pastern," “ the knee of a horse," he proudly replied, “ Ignorance, madam, sheer ignorance.” This confession the learned lexicographer could well afford. But it is surprising he should have perilled so great a reputation by publishing the following remarks on this statement of Milton:—“These expressions are, I find, applied to the subscription of the Articles; but it seems more probable that they relate to canonical obedience. I know not any of the Articles which seem to thwart his opinions; but the thoughts of obedience, whether canonical or civil, raised his indignation.”

It is obviously unnecessary to have recourse to the suppo

« AnteriorContinuar »