« AnteriorContinuar »
THE LIFE OF JOHN MILTON.
All biographies are, more or less, skeletons. Even Boswell's Life of Johnson, which is the fullest in the world, is but an outline of its gigantic subject. This is much more true of the lives of those distinguished men who lived before biography had become a necessary article of public entertainment—before conversation was a marketable commodity—who were either lost in the general melée of the warfare and action of their times, or who cultivated a majestic solitude, living" collaterally or aside" to the world and their own age. It is remarkable, that the four greatest of all poets, Homer, Dante, Shakspere, and Milton, are those precisely of whom least has been told us, and the incidents of whose private history are in a peculiar degree at once scanty and uncertain. Homer is little more than a Voice, lonely, melancholy, and powerful, rhapsodizing on the Chian strand. Dante stands forth more clearly from the clouds of the past, but he, too, is surrounded by darkness, and his personality is that of a shade. Shakspere has been described as a munificent and modest benefactor, who knocked at the door of the human family by night-threw in inestimable wealthfled—and the sound of his footsteps was all the tidings he gave of himself. Of Milton what we know is only sufficient to make us regret that we know no more—a regret increased by the reflection, that his life was as lofty as his genius, and that his conversation seems to have been as rich as his poetry. It shall be our endeavour in the pages that follow to condense in brief compass the leading facts known of the great author of Paradise Lost, interposing a few occasional comments, and referring to the next article for our fuller views on his poetry and genius.
John Milton was the son of John and Sarah Milton, and was born in London on the 9th of December 1608. His father was a scrivener to trade, and lived at the sign of the Spread Eagle in Bread Street—a street lying-in what is called technically the City—under the shadow of St Paul's. He had in his youth attended Christ Church, Oxford, where he was converted to the Protestant faith, and abjured publicly the errors of Popery, for which his father, a bigoted Papist, disinherited him. The student was thus compelled to enter on the profession mentioned above, and prospered in it to such a degree, as to be able to give his children a liberal education, and to secure a comfortable competence for his closing years, which were spent in the country. There can be little doubt that the hatred of Popery and arbitrary power which distinguished the illustrious son was instilled into him from childhood, and intensified by the recollection of his father's wrongs. His mother's name was Caston. She was of Welsh descent, and had perhaps some sparks of the wild poetical enthusiasm of the ancient Britons in her blood. Her son speaks of her worth and liberality to the poor, and praises his father for his love of letters and his sterling integrity of character. He possessed another artistic taste, which he transmitted to the poet. He was passionately fond of music, and as a composer ranked with the best of that age.
To the unspeakable privilege of two admirable parents was added that of a most careful and copious education. Milton was one of the few who have enjoyed the benefits both of private and public tuition. His first tutor was one Thomas Young, a genuine Roundhead from Essex, who, according to Aubrey, “ cutt his hair short,” who enjoyed afterwards the honour of banishment to Holland for his religion, but returned, and, during Cromwell's reign, was master of Jesus College, Cambridge. Young, though a Puritan, loved poetry, and, according to Milton, taught his pupil to love it. He died in the year 1674. When approaching the age of fifteen, his tutor having gone abroad, Milton was removed to St Paul's school. There, under the care of Alexander Gill the master, and his son the usher of the school, he appears to have profited much in learning. Even then he was a hard student, seldom quitting his books till midnight, and frequent headaches gave, in vain, warning of the disease which was ultimately to quench his eyes in darkness. His favourite reading was in books of poetry, among which are particularly mentioned, Sylvester's Du Bartas (a vast curious medley of sense and nonsense, childish platitudes and genuine poetry, quaint pedantry and profound learning) and Spenser. It was Spenser, too, we remember with interest, who first awakened the muse of Cowley.
The season of an author's life in which love for books prompts to imitation of their beauties, and the yearning admiration and despair with which the student leans over the burning page of genius are exchanged for lively, hopeful, and determined emulation of its wonders, is always profoundly interesting and instructive, whether it occur late in life, as in the case of Dryden, or early, as in that of Pope and Milton. If the latter could hardly be said to “ lisp the numbers," he was certainly a boy-poet. In 1623, while still fifteen, he paraphrased the 114th and 136th Psalms, productions which, amid much that is imperfect and juvenile, discover the ascendancy the Hebrew genius had already acquired over his mind, and something of that unequalled command of poetical language —that knowledge of the magic of words—which distinguished him in after days. Take the following specimen :
“ He with his thunder-clasping hand
Smote the first-born of Egypt land;
Two years later, he wrote his quaint but ingenious poem on the “Death of a Fair Infant, Dying of a Cough,” said to be his niece, daughter of his sister Phillipps. Previous to this, in February 1624, he was sent from St Paul's school to Christ's College, Cambridge. There he seems at first to have been treated with considerable severity, but soon attracted attention by his diligence, his scholarship, and the exquisite Latin and English exercises he produced. At college, too, he wrote his “Sonnet on Shakspere," and his magnificent “Hymn on the Morning of Christ's Nativity,” which alone might have preserved his name, and which seems, more than any of his earlier poems, a miniature of Paradise Lost, in all its leading qualities of religious feeling, solemn grandeur of conception, slow and majestic movement of verse, massive strength of diction, language that “may be felt,” and the inimitable management of mythological and classic images.
From Christ's College he was, as all acquainted with his history know, rusticated. There is less evidence for the common story that he was whipped by his tutor for contumacy, although it is affirmed by Aubrey. Certain it is that, like many men of genius, he seems to have derived little benefit from his University, and to have cherished little affection for it. He took, however, the ordinary degree of M.A.; and then, in 1632, we see him, with a proud full heart, and having shaken the dust off his feet, leaving Cambridge for the country, to return to its inglorious shades no more.
His father had meanwhile retired from business, and settled in Horton, near Colnebrooke, Buckinghamshire. To his seat the rusticated poet repaired, and remained there from 1632 to 1638, or from his twenty-fourth to his thirtieth year. This seems to us one of the most interesting portions of his life. He had ample leisure for study, and used it in laying up those vast stores of recondite learning which were commensurate with his genius, and on which that genius was afterwards to ieed, free and unbounded, as a fire feeds upon a mighty forest. The country around is rich and beautiful, in the English sense of that word; and Milton in his solitary walks gathered materials for his descriptions of nature, and we find the groves