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MILTON CONTEMPLATES THE PRODUCTION OF AN EPIC POEM-VISITS
GALILEO-RETURNS TO ENGLAND-NOTICE OF DR. JOHNSON'S DIS-
To explain some of the allusions to early British history which the epistle to Manso contains, and to manifest the further development of the great idea in Milton's bosom, it is necessary to anticipate chronology, and to have recourse to his own description of his state of mind at this time, as given in his “ Reason of Church Government urged against Prelacy," published in 1641. “I must say, therefore,” he commences, " that after I had, for my first years, by the ceaseless diligence and care of my father (whom God recompense !) been exercised to the tongues, and some sciences, as my age would suffer, by sundry masters and teachers, both at home and at the schools, it was found that, whether aught was imposed by them that had the overlooking, or betaken to of mine own choice, in English, or other tongue, prosing, or versing, but chiefly by this latter, the style, by certain vital signs it had, was likely to live.” Then, having referred to his Italian encomiasts, he adds, “I began thus far to assent both to them and divers of my friends here at home, and not less to an inward prompting which now grew daily upon me, that by
labour and intense study, (which I take to be my portion in this life,) joined with the strong propensity of nature, I might, perhaps, leave something so written, to aftertimes, as they should not willingly let it die. These thoughts at once possessed me, and these other: that if I were certain to write as men buy leases, for three lives and downward, there ought no regard be sooner had than to God's glory, by the honour and instruction of my country. For which cause, and not only for that I knew it would be hard to arrive at the second rank among the Latins, I applied myself to that resolution, which Ariosto followed against the persuasions of Bembo, to fix all the industry and art I could unite to the adorning of my native tongue; not to make verbal curiosities the end, (that were a toilsome vanity,) but to be an interpreter and relater of the best and sagest things among mine own citizens throughout this island in the mother dialect. That what the greatest and choicest wits of Athens, Rome, or modern Italy, and those Hebrews of old did for their country, I, in my proportion, with this over and above, of being a Christian, might do for mine; not caring to be once named abroad, though perhaps I could attain to that, but content with these British islands as my world; whose fortune hath hitherto been, that if the Athenians, as some say, made their small deeds great and renowned by their eloquent writers, England hath had her noble achievements made small by the unskilful handling of monks and mechanics. “Time serves not now, and perhaps I might seem too profuse, to give any certain account of what the mind at home, in the spacious circuits of her musing, hath liberty to propose to herself, though of highest hope and hardest attempting; whether that epic form whereof the two poems of Homer, and those other two of Virgil and Tasso, are a diffuse, and the book of Job a brief model; or whether the rules of Aristotle herein are strictly to be kept, or nature to be followed, which in them that know art, and use judg
ment, is no transgression, but an enriching of art: and, lastly, what king or knight, before the Conquest, might be chosen in whom to lay the pattern of a Christian hero. And as Tasso gave to a prince of Italy his choice, whether he would command him to write of Godfrey's expedition against the Infidels, or Belisarius against the Goths, or Charlemain against the Lombards; if to the instinct of nature, and the emboldening of art aught may be trusted, and that there be nothing adverse in our climate, or the fate of this age, it haply would be no rashness, from an equal diligence and inclination, to present the like offer in our own ancient stories; or whether those dramatic constitutions, wherein Sophocles and Euripides reign, shall be found more doctrinal and exemplary to a nation. The Scripture also affords us a divine pastoral drama in the Song of Solomon, consisting of two persons, and a double chorus, as Origen rightly judges. And the Apocalypse of St. John is the majestic image of a high and stately tragedy, shutting up and intermingling her solemn scenes and acts with a seven-fold chorus of hallelujahs and harping symphonies: and this my opinion, the grave authority of Pareus, commenting that book, is sufficient to confirm. Or if occasion shall lead, to imitate those magnific odes and hymns, wherein Pindarus and Callimachus are in most things worthy, some others in their frame judicious, in their matter most an end faulty. But those frequent songs throughout the law and prophets beyond all these, not in their divine argument alone, but in the very critical art of composition, may be easily made appear over all the kinds of lyric poesy to be incomparable. These abilities, wheresoever they be found, are the inspired gift of God rarely bestowed, but yet to some (though most abuse) in every nation, and are of power, beside the office of a pulpit, to inbreed and cherish in a great people the seeds of virtue and public civility, to allay the perturbations of the mind, and set the affections in right tune; to celebrate in glorious and lofty hymns the
throne and equipage of God's Almightiness, and what he works and what he suffers to be wrought with High Providence in his Church; to sing victorious agonies of martyrs and saints, the deeds and triumphs of just and pious nations, doing valiantly through faith against the enemies of Christ; to deplore the general relapses of kingdoms and states from justice and God's true worship. Lastly, whatsoever in religion is holy and sublime, in virtue amiable or grave, whatsoever hath passion or admiration in all the changes of that which is called fortune from without, or the wily subtleties and refluxes of man's thoughts from within ; all these things with a solid and treatable smoothness to paint out and describe. * * * * Neither do I think it shame to covenant with any knowing reader, that for some few years yet I may go on trust with him toward the payment of what I am now indebted, as being a work not to be raised from the heat of youth, or the vapours of wine ; like that which flows at waste from the pen of some vulgar amourist, or the trencher fury of a rhyming parasite; nor to be obtained by the invocation of dame Memory and her siren daughters, but by devout prayer to that Eternal Spirit, who can enrich with all utterance and knowledge, and sends out his seraphim, with the hallowed fire of his altar, to touch and purify the lips of whom he pleases : to this must be added industrious and select reading, steady observation, insight into all seemly and generous arts and affairs; till which, in some measure, be compassed at mine own peril and cost, I refuse not to sustain this expectation from as many as are not loth to hazard so much credulity upon the best pledges that I can give them."
It was under the influence of these ambitious, and yet devout aspirations, that Milton prepared to quit the shores of Italy without prosecuting his travels to Greece, and to take his part in the great transactions on which the destiny of his country was suspended. Before he left, however, he visited, as he himself informs us, the illustrious Galileo, then in old age and poverty, and spirit-broken by the merciless persecution of the Romish church. We have, unfortunately, no record of the particulars of this interview; but it is natural to suppose that a spectacle so impressively sad must have intensified Milton's sense of the miseries and mischiefs which result from arming any ecclesiastical body with the powers of the State.
On arriving in England he was informed of the premature death of his friend Deodati, and paid to his memory the “meed of a melodious tear,” in a Latin monody written in the pastoral style. In this he again intimates his determination to perpetuate his name by the composition of an epic poem. At this time, however, he had not formed the grander conception which he ultimately developed. His thoughts were as yet turned solely to early British history;
-he resolved that his poem should be of national interest ; and declared that his hopes would be satisfied if his fame should be bounded by the British seas.
Milton's first fixed residence was in London, at a lodging which he hired in St. Bride's church-yard, where he received the two sons of his sister, Edward and John Philips, for the purpose of education. Dr. Johnson, who wrote his Life of Milton under a morbid anxiety to find something to disparage and to censure, and whose malignity increased with his disappointments, thus notices the event just recorded :“Let not our veneration for Milton forbid us to look with some degree of merriment on great promises and small performance; on the man who hastens home, because his countrymen are contending for their liberty, and when he reaches the scene of action, vapours away his patriotism in a private boarding-school. This is 'the period of his life from which all his biographers seem inclined to shrink. They are unwilling that Milton should be degraded to a school-master—which no wise man will consider in itself disgraceful.” It is painful to contemplate, in such evidences as this, the littleness of Johnson's character in contrast with