Oldalképek
PDF
ePub

204

TIIE SALE OF “PARADISE LOST.”

That scrap

all her claims on Simmons for the sum of £8. Thus, in all, to Milton and his heirs, there came only £18* for this greatest poem of modern ages !

There is extant, in the poet's own handwriting, a receipt for the second sum of £5, dated 1669, which shows that at least 1300 copies of the book had gone off in its first two years. of worn paper sufficiently refutes the statement, so often advanced in former days, that to all the other woes heaped on Milton's grey head, the neglect of the reading public was added as a last and worst infliction. Few sacred epics would command a larger sale even in these book-devouring days. Though Charles and his glittering voluptuaries preferred the whimsical adventures of Hudibras to the lofty strains of “ Paradise Lost," there were thousands of true-hearted Puritans in England to read and love the noble verses of that veteran scholar, who had stood by the great Oliver in the palmy days of the Commonwealth, and had done with his pen for England's glory, at least as much as the rugged Lord Protector had ever done with that weighty sword he bore.

In 1670 appeared Milton's History of England, and in the following year Paradise Regained and Samson Agonistes were published in a thin octavo. His last three years were occupied in preparing for the press several minor works in Latin and in English. The clouded close of his life was calm and peaceful, on the whole, although his undutiful daughters caused him much vexation. His third wife, Elizabeth Minshull, a young woman whom he had married soon after the Restoration, tended his declining years with careful affection.

Such a picture of old Milton's daily life as that which we sub

* Some say £23 in all; but it is very unlikely that Simmons would go beyond the original £20 agreed on as the price of the poem. During Milton's life he received two payments of £5; when the 1300 copies of the second edition were sold, his widow became entitled to the third £5; and she seems, rather than wait for the sale of the stipulated number of the third edition, to have preferred £3 in hand in addition to the sum due. This seems to us the meaning of her giving up all her claims on Simmons in 1678 for £8. If she had already received the fourth sum of £5, her claims had ceased to exist; and only by supposing that this fourth sum of £5 was included in the £8, can the total reach £23. The third edition was published in 1678, and no money was due on it until 1300 copies had been sold. Hence the fourth £5 cannot hare formed a part of the final settlement of £8.

THE LAST DAYS OF MILTON.

205

join possesses a peculiar value, in enabling us to bring nearer to our hearts the great English epic poet, who ranks with Homer, with Virgil, and with Dante.

“An ancient clergyman of Dorsetshire, Dr. Wright, found John Milton in a small chamber, hung with rusty green, sitting in an elbow-chair, and dressed neatly in black; pale, but not cadaverous; his hands and feet gouty, and with chalk-stones.” *

“In his latter years he retired every night at nine o'clock, and lay till four in summer, till five in winter; and if not disposed then to rise, he had some one to sit at his bed-side and read to him. When he rose he had a chapter of the Hebrew Bible read for him; and then, with of course the intervention of breakfast, he studied till twelve. He then dined, took some exercise for an hour,—generally in a chair, in which he used to swing himself, and afterwards played on the organ or the bass-viol, and either sang himself or made his wife sing, who, as he said, had a good voice, but no ear. He then resumed his studies till six, from which hour till eight he conversed with those who came to visit him. He finally took a light supper, smoked a pipe of tobacco, and drank a glass of water, after which he retired to rest.” †

So calmly passed the days of the blind old poet, until, a month before the completion of his sixty-sixth year, he passed away from earth with scarcely a pang. It was on Sunday, 1674 the 8th of November, that the sad event occurred. Gout, his old foe, had for some time been wearing him away ; and for months he knew that his life on earth was drawing to an end. His body was laid beside his father's dust in the church of St. Giles, Cripplegate.

The following list contains the names of Milton's chief works, with the dates and places of their composition or publication :

A.D.

[blocks in formation]
[blocks in formation]

L'Allegro and Il Penseroso are two companion pictures of life at Horton, where they were written. No ecstasies of joy or sorrow are there depicted, but those moods of mirth and pensiveness which chased each other across the poet's mind, like lights and shadows across a summer landscape.

Arcades, a short pastoral masque, which was originally performed at Harefield Park before the Dowager-Countess of Derby, consists of three songs and a speech by the Genius of the wood. Some consider “ Arcades” to be only a fragment.

Comus is an exquisite masque, founded on an actual occurrence. Its plot is this : A beautiful lady, lost in a wood, is brought under the spells of the magician Comus. Her fate seems sealed, until a kindly spirit appearing in guise of a shepherd to her brothers, who are vainly seeking their sister, gives them a root called haemony, by means of which they set at defiance the power of the enchanter. They dash into the palace, interrupt the progress of a delicious banquet, save their sister, and put to flight Comus and

* The Latin manuscript was found in a press in the State-paper Office in 1823, wrapped in an envelope with other papers of Milton. The publication of an English version fare origin to Macaulay's brilliant Essay on Milton in the Edinburgh Review (August 1825).

THE CHOICE OF A SUBJECT, .

207

his attendant rabble. The masque was acted at Ludlow Castle by the children of the Earl of Bridgewater, then President of Wales.

Lycidas is a sweetly mournful pastoral,-a poem “In Memoriam,"—written on the death of Milton's college friend, King, who was drowned when crossing to Ireland in a crazy vessel.

Paradise Lost.—For seven years Milton laboured at the composition of his greatest work (1658–1665); but for twice seven years or more the vast design must have been shaping itself into its wonderful symmetry within the poet's brain.

The subject was not chosen rashly or with haste, and nowhere could be found a theme richer in material for genius to work upon, or more deeply fraught with a sad human interest. Many themes, no doubt, were carefully weighed, only to be rejected. Those stories of ancient Britain, which Geoffrey of Monmouth has collected, early caught the poet's attention and held it long. We can fancy his patriotic heart thrilling proudly and gladly with the thought of rearing upon the unknown graves of Arthur and his knights a great literary monument, at which the British people gazing, should learn to love the sleeping warriors evermore. But with growing years and wisdom this idea lost its charms, a change which inspired those lines at the beginning of the Ninth Book :

“Since first this subject for heroic song
Pleased me, long choosing and beginning late;
Not sedulous by nature to indite
Wars, hitherto the only argument
Heroic deemed ; chief mastery to dissect
With long and tedious havoc fabled knights,
In battles feigned ; (the better fortitude
Of patience and heroic martyrdom
Unsung ;) or to describe races and games,
Or tilting furniture, emblazoned shields,
Impresses quaint, caparisons and steeds,
Bases and tinsel trappings, gorgeous knights
At joust and tournament; then marshalled feast
Served up in ball with sewers and seneschals ;
The skill of artifice or office mean!
Not that which justly gives heroic name

To person, or to poem.
The first rough sketches of the poem took the shape of a

208

MILTOY'S PORTRAITURE OF SATAN.

tragedy or mystery on the “Fall of Man.” Two such draughts are among the Cambridge manuscripts. But the tragic form was luckily soon abandoned for the epic.

The burning lake—the council of the fallen spirits—the ordaining of the plan of salvation-Satan's voyage to the earth — Eden and its gentle tenants—their pure and happy life-Raphael's visit and discourse upon the war of the angels and the creation of the world—Adam's tale of his own awaking to life, and his first meeting with the lovely Eve—the temptation and the fall—Satan's triumphant return to hell, and the sudden fading of exultation under the first stroke of his duom—the intercession of the Sonthe mission of Michael to eject the guilty pair—the revelation of the future to Adam in a vision—and the sad departure of our first parents from their happy garden, now guarded by the sword of God,—such are the salient points in the magnificent plan developed in the twelve books of the “Paradise Lost.”

Interesting glimpses of Milton's life occur in the opening passages of certain books. Most pathetic of these is the sad but beautifully patient lament of the old man upon his blindness at the beginning of the Third. The poet's love of music, which amounted to an absorbing passion, inspired some of the grandest outbursts

of his song

Hallam

says, “The conception of Satan is doubtless the first effort of Milton's genius. Dante could not have ventured to spare so much lustre for a ruined archangel, in an age when nothing less than horns and a tail were the orthodox creed.” The magic power of Milton's genius conjures up before us a winged, colossal, fireeyed shape, whose size we do not know, but are left to guess dimly at by comparison with the hugest objects. His shield is like the moon seen through a telescope; compared with the spear, which helps his painful steps over the burning marl, the mast of a mighty ship dwindles to a wand. We find no definite outline of shape, no distinct measurement of size. Vague dimness and colossal immensity deepen the awfulness of the portrait, raising it infinitely far above the absurd caricature of a terrible subject, to which Hallam's

's sarcasm refers.

« ElőzőTovább »