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PERHAPS the finest sentence in that noble fragment of an English History, by which the dead Macaulay yet speaks to a grateful, reverent nation, is a sentence thus recording the glory of John Milton :
"A mightier poet, tried at once by pain, danger, poverty, obloquy, and blindness, meditated, undisturbed by the obscene tumult which raged all around him, a song so sublime and so holy that it would not have misbecome the lips of those ethereal Virtues whom he saw, with that inner eye which no calamity could darken, flinging down on the jasper pavement their crowns of amaranth and gold.”
If Milton had written not one line of verse, his richly jewelled and 'majestic prose would have raised him to a lofty rank among the Raleighs and the Bacons, the Taylors and the Gibbons of our English tongue; and if he had dropped the poet's lyre for ever, when he exchanged the green shades of Horton and the crystal skies of Italy for the smoke and din of London life and the heat of a great controversial war, the songs already sung by the youthful Puritan bard had won a chaplet of unfading bays, at least as bright as those that decorate the brows of Dryden and of Pope. But, when we add to these achievements the sublime and solemn anthem of his blind old age, the lustre of his life's work brightens to such intensity, that there is but one name in the long roll of English writers which does not grow dim in the surpassing radiance of his fame.
A HAPPY PURITAN HOME.
Shakspere and Milton dwell apart from all, in a loftier region of their own. Great Consuls in the mighty republic of English letters, to them alone belong the honours of the ivory chair, the robe with purple hem, and the rod-surrounded axe.
In the reign of Elizabeth a certain John Mylton was underranger of Shotover Forest, not far from Oxford. This was the poet's grandfather. A strict Roman Catholic, he disinherited his son for adopting the Protestant faith; and this son, also a John Milton, having gone to London, set up, as a scrivener or notarypublic, at the sign of the Spread Eagle in Bread Street. There, in the intervals of his professional will-drawing and money-lending John Milton the scrivener wrote trifling verses and composed elaborate pieces of music. Under the wings of this Spread Eagle, which seems to have shadowed a very com 1608 fortable, happy home, was born, on the 9th of December 1608, John Milton the poet, son of a Puritan scrivener, and grandson of a Roman Catholic ranger ;-receiving from his father literary tastes and a love of music; and from his mother a kind, gentle nature, and the sad inheritance of weak eyes.
The Puritan influences, amid which the boy grew up, moulded his character to a shape it never lost. Having received his earlier education at home, from a Scotchman, Thomas Young, he went at about twelve years of age to St. Paul's school, which was then under the direction of a Mr. Gill. Even at that unripe age Milton's studious tastes showed themselves. Night after night he was upover his books till past twelve, and neither watering eyes nor increasing headaches could daunt the brave young worker. The cannot but be pained when we think of this intense application, by which Milton laid the foundation of the wonderful learning displayed in “Paradise Lost.” The midnight studies of the child cost the old man his enjoyment of heaven's light and earth’s colouring. Yet even here there was a blessing in disguise; for the affliction which quenched the light of the body's eye, deepened and strengthened the vision of that inner, spiritual eye, “which no calanıity could darken.”
While yet a school-boy, Milton could write capital Latin'and Greek, either in verse or prose; and knew something, too, of
MILTON AT CAMBRIDGE.
Hebrew. He had read with delight the poems of Spenser, and Sylvester's translation of the Frenchman, Du Bartas; and had tried his boyish pen on English verse by translating the 114th and 136th Psalms. Christ's College, Cambridge, being chosen for the higher instruc
tion of the youthful poet, he went thither in 1624 as a 1624
minor pensioner.' His tutor was Chappel, afterwards
Provost of Trinity College, Dublin, and Bishop of Cork. What was the ground of dispute we cannot exactly tell, but a quarrel took place between tutor and pupil, so serious that Milton had to leave his college for a while.* This incident Johnson exaggerates into rustication, insinuating on the same page that Milton was whipped at Cambridge. It is true that the rod, plied in the lower schools with systematic cruelty, had not yet been quite abandoned in the college class-room; but there is not sufficient ground for believing that Milton was flogged at college, merely because flogging at college was not quite done away with in his youthful days.
The delicate beauty of the student's face, with its shell-like pink and white, and the rolling masses of silken auburn hair, parted in the middle, that framed its oval contour, excited the jeers of some rougher class-mates, who called him "The Lady of the College.” They might well have spared their mockery, for the blonde beauty was going to outshine them all, and even then was showing signs of a wondrous genius in its dawn. In the “ winter wild" of 1629, Milton's twenty-first year, he composed his magnificent Ode on the Morning of Christ's Nativity, which ranks among the finest specimens of lyrical poetry that any age or nation has produced. Yet Johnson, in his Life of Milton, does not even mention this grand burst of song !
Having completed his course, and taken his degree of 1632
M.A., he left Cambridge in 1632, to spend five calm de
lightful years in his father's country house at Horton in Buckinghamshire.
It is impossible to doubt that the lovely pictures of Eden-life,
* It has been maintained by some keen and able reasoners that Milton nerer left liis college at all.
FIVE HAPPY YEARS AT HORTON.
which we find in the fourth and some succeeding books of “Paradise Lost"--sunny days and innocent enjoyments, shadowy rose-bowers, gentle labours amid vine and orchard, delicate fruit repasts, and sweet scenes of rosy morning and silver moonlightwere drawn from early memories of the Horton glades and gardens, idealized by the bright sunlight of poetic fancy.
Deep study, quiet country walks, and poetic composition, broken now and then by a run to London for books, or tuition in music and mathematics, filled up the softly flowing days of the poet's rural life.
At Horten and on the Continent Milton spent the vacation period of his life--a happy six years' holiday intervening between his Cambridge study and his London school; and five poems, round which the scent of the hawthorn hedge is ever fresh and sweet, were the exercises which gave a zest to the enjoyment of these bright and careless years. L'Allegro, il penseroso, Arcades, Comus, and Lycidas were written at Horton. The country breezes seem to have swept off the grey shadows of the Cambridge rooms, and to have called forth his love of nature in buds and blossoms of the richest luxuriance. How many verses were woven in the fragrant meadows, all embroidered with wild flowers, or by the chime of the silver stream, we do not know; but the odours and the colours of sweet rural life breathe and brighten in every line.
How curiously the life one lives is reflected in his works ! As the sea wave takes the colour of the sky above it, the multitudinuus billows of thought that roll in every human soul are tinged with the hues of the outward life. Place the Ode on the Nativity side by side with L'Allegro, and mark the contrasted tints. Residence within the “ studious cloisters pale” has given to the one a stern grey awfulness, a pure classic beauty, and a grave learnedness, which have but little in common with the frolicsome play and brown, healthy, country life, that laugh and gambol in the other.
His mother's death in 1637 broke the sweet charm that had bound him to Horton. There was nothing now to pre
1638 vent him from starting upon his Continental tour, and accordingly, in the following year, armed with advice and letters from Sir Henry Wotton, the Provost of Eton, he croesed the
IN FRANCE AND ITALY.
straits to France. We shall not follow him minutely on his journeyings. He was absent from England for fifteen months, during which he travelled through France and Italy, residing for a time in some of the principal cities. At Paris he met Hugo Grotius, the great Dutchman; at Florence he visited the blind old Galileo, who then lay in the prison of the Inquisition for daring to speak what he believed about the stars; at Rome he heard Leonora Baroni sing, and was welcomed with remarkable attention in the first circles of society; at Naples, beyond which he did not go, he was guided through the city by the Marquis of Villa, the friend and biographer of Tasso. The influence which Italian scenery, sculpture, and music had in kindling the imagination of the grave English Puritan and storing his memory with a wealth of classic thoughts, that gave shape and colour to the ideas he had drawn from books among the woods of Horton, formed a most important element in the education of the poet for his great work. Amid his recollections of foreign travel, -scenic, artistic, literary, historic, classic,—there stole, too, a tinge of love, whose purple light yet lingers on his Italian Sonnets. It was at Florence that the faircheeked Englishman met a beauty of Bologna, whose black eyes subdued his heart, and whose voice completed the conquest by binding it in silver chains-chains which it cost him a pang to
break before he could tear himself away. After visiting 1639 Venice and Geneva, among other places, he returned
by way of France to England. Amid all the license and
vice of Continental life, as it then was, he passed pure and unstained, returning with the bloom of his young religious feelings unfaded, like the flush of English manhood on his cheek. The thought of writing an epic poem appears to have ripened to a purpose in Italy; but he had not yet chosen his great theme. The story of Arthur, or some other hero of ancient British days, seems at this time to have been floating before his mind.
The toils of a teacher's life, and the composition of many prose works filled up the chief part of those ten years which elapsed between Milton's return from abroad and his appointment as Foreign Secretary (1639-1649). His poetic muse was all but silent. Six