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TO THE ENGLISH POEMS.
PARAPHRASES ON PSALMS CXIV. AND CXXXVI.
These were done, as the author himself takes care to tell us, “at fifteen years old”-i.e. in 1624. They are, in fact, the only specimens now extant of Milton's muse before he went to Cambridge. They are the relics, doubtless, of a little collection of boyish performances, now lost, with which he amused himself, and perhaps pleased his father and his teachers, when he lived in his father's house in Bread Street, Cheapside, and attended the neighbouring school of St. Paul's. They prove him to have been even then a careful reader of contemporary English poetry, and, in particular, of Spenser, and of Sylvester's quaint and old-fashioned, but richly poetical, translation of the Divine Weekes and Workes of the French religious poet Du Bartas. This book, which had been published in 1605 by Humphrey Lownes, a wellknown printer of Bread Street Hill, close to Milton's father's house, was as popular in England as the original was on the Continent. It went through several editions while Sylvester lived, and almost every pious English household of literary tastes possessed a copy.
ON THE DEATH OF A FAIR INFANT DYING OF A Cough.
Over this poem Milton has himself placed the words “ Anno ætatis 17,” implying that it was written in his 17th year. Now, as Milton entered his seventeenth year on the 9th of December 1624, and ended it on the 9th of December 1625, this would place the poem between those dates. But, when Milton placed Arabic figures after the phrase anno ætatis in those headings of his poems, it was his habit to give himself the benefit of a year by understanding the figures as noting cardinal and not ordinal numbers. “Anno ætatis 17" meant, with him, not strictly “in his seventeenth year,” but “at seventeen years of age.” The present poem, accordingly, was actually written in the winter of 1625-6, or during Milton's second academic year at Cambridge. It is the first of his preserved English pieces of the Cambridge period, but seems to have been written, not at Cambridge, but in the course of a brief visit made to London between the Michaelmas Term and the Lent Term of the academic year,-i.e. between December 16, 1625, and January 13, 1625-6. The subject of it was the death of an infant niece of the poet, the first child of his only surviving sister Anne Milton, who was several years older than himself, and had been recently married to a Mr. Edward Phillips, a native of Shrewsbury, but resident in London, where he held a situation in the Crown Office in Chancery. When in town from Cambridge, Milton had seen the “fair infant,” whether in his father's house in Bread Street, or in his sister's own house, which was “ in the Strand, near Charing Cross.” But the life of the little creature was to be short. The autumn of 1625 was a particularly unhealthy one in London,—the Plague then raging there with such violence that as many as 35,000 persons were said to have died of it during that season within the Bills of Mortality. There is an allusion to this prevalence of the Plague in the last stanza but one of the poem. Not to the Plague, however, but to the general inclemency of the succeeding winter, did the delicate little blossom fall a victim. She died “ of a cough,”—.e. of some affection of the lungs.
AT A VACATION EXERCISE IN THE COLLEGE. The heading prefixed to this piece by Milton is, more completely, as follows : --" Anno ætatis 19: At a Vacation Exercise in the College, part Latin, part English : the Latin Speeches ended, the English thus began.” The piece, in fact, was written in 1628, or during Milton's fourth academic year at Cambridge, and, as the title implies, was but a fragment of a much longer and more composite exercise or discourse, part of which was in Latin, written for some ceremonial at Christ's College in the vacation of that year,- i.e. after the close of the Easter Term on the 4th of July.
Fortunately, the College Exercise to which this piece belonged still exists. It is the Sixth of those seven juvenile Latin Essays of Milton, called Prolusiones Oratoriæ (now included in his collected prose works), which were first published in 1674, the last year of his life, in conjunction with his Epistolæ Familiares, or Latin Familiar Epistles. All the seven Prolusiones are interesting as throwing light on Milton's career at the University, and on his success in those public debates and discussions on scholastic and philosophical topics which formed in those days so important a part of College and University training. The Sixth, however, is nearly the longest, and is perhaps the most interesting altogether. It is entitled “In Feriis Æstivis Collegii, sed concurrente, ut solet, totå fere Academia juventute, Oratio : Exercitationes nonnunquam ludicras Philosophiæ studiis non obesse”; which may be translated thus, “In the Summer Vacation of the College, but in the presence, as usual, of a concourse of nearly the whole youth of the University, an Oration to this effect : That occasional sportive exercises are not inconsistent with philosophical studies.” The Essay, then, was an actual speech delivered by Milton in the hall of Christ's College, Cambridge, on an occasion of periodical revel, when not only his fellow-collegians, but a crowd of students from other colleges, were present. Milton had nearly completed his undergraduate course, and had his degree of B. A. in prospect; and he was probably chosen to lead the revels on account of his pre-eminent reputation among the undergraduates of Christ's. “ The revels,” we say; for, in reading the speech itself, we become aware that the circumstances were those of some annual academic saturnalia, when the college hall was a scene of festivity, practical joking, and fun of all kinds, and when the president-styled, in academic phrase, “the Father” for the nonce — was expected to enliven the proceedings with a speech full of jests and personalities, and to submit in turn to interruptions, laughter, and outcries from his noisy “sons." Milton, though confessing in the course of his speech that fun was hardly his element, and that his “ faculty in festi. vities and quips” was very slight, seems to have acquitted himself in his character of “ Father," or elected master of the revels, with unusual distinction. At all events he took trouble enough. His entire discourse must have taken at least an hour and a half in the delivery. As originally delivered, it consisted of three parts,-first, a serio-comic discourse, in Latin prose, on the theme “ That sportive exercises on occasion are not inconsistent with the studies of Philosophy’; secondly, a more expressly comic harangue, also in Latin prose, in which he assumes the character of Father of the meeting, addresses his sons jocularly, and leads off the orgy ; and thirdly, a conclusion in English, partly verse and partly prose, consisting of dramatic speeches.
In the middle part, or Latin comic harangue, we have, amid many coarse jocósities, and personal allusions to individual fellow-students not now intelligible, the following passage explanatory of what is to follow : “I turn me, therefore, as Father, to my sons, of whom I behold a goodly number; and I see too that the mischievous little rogues acknowledge me to be their father by secretly bobbing their heads. Do you ask what are to be their names ? I will not, by taking the names of dishes, give my sons to be eaten by you, for that would be too much akin to the ferocity of Tantalus and Lycaon; nor will I designate them by the names of parts of the body, lest you should think that I had begotten so many bits of men instead of whole men; nor is it my pleasure to call them after the kinds of wine, lest what I should say should be not according to Bacchus. I wish them to be named according to the number of the Predicaments, that so I may express their distinguished birth and their liberal manner of life.” The meaning of the passage seems to be that it was the custom at such meetings for the - Father" to confer nicknames for the nonce on such of his fellow-students as were more particularly associated with him as his “sons,” and, as such, had perhaps to take a promi. nent part, under him, in the proceedings; and that Milton, instead of following old practice, and calling his sons by such rigmarole names as Beef, Mutton, Pork, etc. (names of dishes), or Head, Neck, Breast, etc. (names of parts of the body), or Sack, Rhenish, Sherris, etc. (names of wines), proposed to call them after the famous Ten Predicaments or Categories of Aristotle. These Predicaments or Categories