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LIFE of MILTON. I ;
T is agreed among all writers, that the family of Milfrom which of the Miltons is not altogether so certain. Some say, and particularly Mr. Philips, that the family was of Milton near Abington in Oxfordshire, where it had been a long time seated, as appears by the monuments still to be seen in Milton-church. But that Milton is not in Oxfordshire, but in Barkshire; and upon inquiry I find, that there are no such monuments in that church, nor any remains of them. It is more probable therefore that the family came, as Mr. Wood says, from Milton near Halton and Thame in Oxfordshire: where it florished several years, till at last the estate was sequestered, one of the family having taken the unfortunate side in the civil wars between the houses of York and Lancaster. John Milton the poet's grand-father, was, cording to Mr. Wood, an under-ranger or keeper of the forest of Shotover, near Halton in Oxfordshire; he was of the religion of Rome, and such a bigot that he disinherited his son only for being a protestant. Upon this the son, the poet's father, named likewise John Milton, settled in London, and became a scrivener by the advice of a friend eminent in that profession: but he was not so devoted to gain and to business, as to lose all taste of the politer arts, and was particularly skilled in music, in which he was not only a fine performer, but is also celebrated for several pieces of his composition: and yet on the other hand he was not so fond of his music and amusements, as.in the least to neglect his business, but by his diligence and economy acquired a competent estate, which enabled him afterwards to retire, and live in the country. He was by all accounts a very worthy man; and mar
ried an excellent woman, Sarah of the antient family of the Bradshaws, says Mr. Wood; but Mr. Philips, our author's nephew, who was more likely to know, says, of the family of the Castons derived originally from Wales. Whoever she was, she is said to have been a woman of incomparable virtue and goodness; and by her, her husband had two sons and a daughter.
The elder of the sons was our famous poet, who was born in the year of our Lord 1608, on the gth of December in the morning between 6 and 7 o'clock, in Breadstreet London, where his father lived at the sign of the spread eagle, which was also the coat of arms of the family. He was named John, as his father and grand-father had been before him; and from the beginning discovering the marks of an uncommon genius, he was designed for a scholar, and had his education partly under private tutors, and partly at a public school. It has been often controverted whether a public or private education is best, but
young Milton was so happy as to share the advantages of both. It appears from the fourth of his Latin elegies, and from the first and fourth of his familiar epistles; that Mr. Thomas Young, who was afterwards pastor of the company of English merchants residing at Hamburg, was one of his private preceptors: and when he had made good progress in his studies at home, he was sent to St. Paul's School to be fitted for the university under the care of Mr. Gill, who was the master at that time, and to whose son are addressed some of his familiar epistles. In this early time of his life such was his love of learning, and so great was his ambition to surpass his equals, that from his twelfth
year he commonly continued his studies till midnight, which (as he says himself in his second Defense) was the first ruin of his eyes, to whose natural debility too were added frequent head-akes: but all could not extinguish or abate his laudable passion for letters. It is very seldom seen, that such application and such a genius meet in the
fame person. The force of either is great, but both together must perform wonders.
He was now in the 17th year of his age, and was a very good classical scholar and master of several languages, when he was sent to the university of Cambridge, and admitted at Christ's College (as appears from the register) on the twelfth of February 1624-5, under the tuition of Mr. William Chappel, afterwards Bishop of Cork and Ross in Ireland. He continued above seven years at the university, and took two degrees, that of Batchelor of Arts in 1628-9, and that of Master in 1632. It is somewhat remarkable, that tho’the merits of both our universities are perhaps equally great, and tho'poetical exercises are rather more encouraged at Oxford, yet most of our greatest poets have been bred at Cambridge, as Spenser, Cowley, Waller, Dryden, Prior, not to mention any of the lesser ones, when there is a greater than all, Milton. He had given early proofs of his poetic genius before he went to the university, and there he excelled more and more, and distinguished himself by several copies of verses casional subjects, as well as by all his academical exercises, many of which are printed among his other works, and show him to have had a capacity above his years: and by his obliging behaviour added to his great learning and ingenuity he deservedly gained the affection of many, , and admiration of all. We do not find however that he obtained any preferment in the university, or a fellowship in his own college; which seemeth the more extraordinary, as that fociety has always encouraged learning and learned men, had the most excellent Mr. Mede at that time a fellow, and afterwards boasteth the great names of Cudworth, and Burnet author of the Theory of the Earth, and several others. And this together with some Latin verses of his to a friend, reflecting upon the university seemingly on this account, might probably have given occasion to the reproach which was afterwards cast upon
him by his adversaries, that he was expelled from the university for irregularities committed there, and forced to fly to Italy: but he sufficiently refutes this calumny in more places than one of his works; and indeed it is no wonder, that a person so engaged in religious and political controversies as he was, should be calumniated and abused by the contrary party.
He was designed by his parents for holy orders; and among the manuscripts of Trinity College in Cambridge there are two draughts in Milton's own hand of a letter to a friend, who had importuned him to take orders, when he had attained the age of twenty-three; but the truth is, he had conceived early prejudices against the doctrin and disciplin of the Church, and subscribing to the articles was in his opinion subscribing slave. This no doubt was a disappointment to his friends, who though in comfortable, were yet by no means in great circumstances: and neither doth he seem to have had any inclination to any other profession; he had too free a spirit to be limited and confined; and was for comprehending all sciences, but professing none.
And therefore after he had left the university in 1632, he retired to his father's house in the country; for his father had by this time quitted business, and lived at an estate which he had purchased at Horton near Colebrooke in Buckinghamshire. Here he resided with his parents for the space of five years, and, as he himself has informed us, (in his second Defense, and the 7th of his familiar Epistles) read over all the Greek and Latin authors, particularly the historians; but now and then made an excursion to London, sometimes to buy books or to meet his friends from Cambridge, and at other times to learn something new in the mathematics or music, with which he was extremely delighted.
His retirement therefore was a learned retirement, and it was not long before the world reaped the fruits of it. It was in the year 1634 that his mask was presented at
Ludlow - Castle. There was formerly a president of Wales, and a sort of a court kept at Ludlow, which has since been abolished; and the president at that time was the Earl of Bridgwater, before whom Milton's Mask was presented on Michaelmas night, and the principal parts, those of the two brothers, were performed by his Lordship’s sons the Lord Brackly and Mr. Thomas Egerton, and that of the lady by his Lordship's daughter the Lady Alice Egerton. The occasion of this poem seemeth to have been merely an accident of the two brothers and the lady having lost one another in their way to the caftle: and it is written very much in imitation of Shakespear's Tempest, and the Faithful Shepherdess of Beaumont and Fletcher; and though one of the first, is yet one of the most beautiful of Milton's compositions. It was for some time handed about only in manuscript; but afterwards to satisfy the importunity of friends and to save the trouble of transcribing, it was printed at London, though without the author's name, in 1637, with a dedication to the Lord Brackly by Mr. H. Lawes, who composed the music, and played the part of the attendent Spirit. It was printed likewise at Oxford at the end of Mr. R's poems, as we learn from a letter of Sir Henry Wotton to our author; but who that Mr. R. was, whether Randolph the poet or who else, is uncertain. It has lately, tho' with additions and alterations, been exhibited on the stage several times; and we hope the fine poetry and morality have recommended it to the audience, and not barely the authority of Milton's name; and we wish for the honor of the nation, that the like good taste prevailed in every thing.
In 1637 he wrote another excellent piece, his Lycidas, wherein he laments the untimely fate of a friend, who was unfortunately drowned that same year in the month of August, on the Irish seas, in his passage from Chefer. This friend was Mr. Edward King, son of Sir John King,