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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 reserving for the next volume 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 feed, 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 and fields of Buckinghamshire reproduced not only in the scenery of " L’Allegro” and “Lycidas,” but in his pictures of the arbours of Eden and the valleys of Heaven. His family circle was not numerous, but it was select, consisting of his father and mother, a married sister older than himself, and a younger brother engaged in the study of the law. By living in the country he was enabled with greater ease to preserve entire his personal purity and his temperate and devotional habits. His amusements consisted principally of botanising excursions through the neighbouring country, of musical entertainments, and of occasional visits to London for books, lessons in mathematics, and the like. Here, doubtless, passages of early love occurred, which tended still more to fan his poetic fire, although no trace of their particulars can now be discovered. He seems to have occasionally visited the accomplished Countess Dowager of Derby, residing in Harefield Place, hard by Horton, whose grandchildren performed the “ Arcades.” According to some accounts, he at this time, in the course of visits to the beautiful village of Foresthill, near Oxford, met with Mary Powell, daughter of Squire Powell, and destined to become his wife. Here, certainly, he wrote those beautiful minor poems, “L'Allegro,” “ Penseroso,” “ Arcades,” “ Lycidas,” and “ Comus," which themselves constitute a claim to a reputation at least as great as Tasso's or Wordsworth's, even although “Paradise Lost” and “Paradise Regained” had never appeared. Comus” was written for his father's landlord, the Earl of Bridgewater, and enacted in 1634 at his lordship’s residence of Castle Ludlow.
In 1637 his mother died, and Milton prevailed on his father to permit him to visit the Continent. Probably he found his sphere at Horton but too comfortable and contracted for his expanding genius, and it might be that one of those sudden longings for travel which often cross the souls of the solitary had come irresistibly over his. Like Keats, he felt that “happy was England, sweet her artless daughters,” but felt, too, a strong desire to see “ beauties of deeper glance," and to
“ Sit upon an Alp as on a throne.”
He wished, besides, to visit Italy for the sake of its music, and designed to form a collection of it whilst there. Having obtained directions as to his travels from Sir Henry Wotton, to whom he had communicated his purpose, he set out in 1638, attended by a single servant. We remember few finer subjects for contemplation or picture than that of Milton in the prime of his life—with youth and manhood mingling on his brow—with his long auburn hair—with his beautiful Grecian face—with a mild majestic enthusiasm glowing in his eyes—with cheek tenderly flushed by exercise and country air—with a form erect and buoyant with hope—with a body and soul pure and uncontaminated—and bearing, like one of the ancient gods, a musical instrument in his hand, leaving the Horton solitude upon his travels to the lands of romance and poetry. How different from the spectacle presented nearly two centuries afterwards, of Byron, soured, satiated, old in passion and misery, although younger than Milton in years, setting out on his journey in search of oblivion! The one seemed a monstrous mixture of Apollo the beautiful, and Vulcan the vicious and lame; the other the very god of poesy himself, as when he kept the flocks of Admetus, or tuned his lute
“Sole sitting on the shores of old Romance.” He went first to Paris, where he remained a few days, and was, through Lord Scudamore, introduced to Grotius, then the Swedish ambassador to France, and in his fifty-sixth year. The interview between the young poet and the mature scholar must have been interesting. Milton could appreciate the learning of Grotius, and probably liked him none the less for his Arminianism. Grotius, as his metrical translations from the Greek prove, was far from destitute of poetical feeling, and must have loved the ingenuous and high-minded Englishman. Indeed, Milton's nephew tells us that he took the visit kindly, and gave him entertainment suitable to his worth, and to the high commendations he had heard of him. From Paris he went to Nice, and thence to Genoa, and thence to Florence, where he stayed for two months. He was received with the highest honours by the literati of that city, and became a