« AnteriorContinuar »
JOHN MILTON (1608–1674)
God-gifted organ voice of England.”—Tennyson.
“ Thy soul was like a star, and dwelt apart.”—Wordsworth. In the days when the exuberant vitality of the great men of Elizabeth's spacious times flowed still unchecked by the Puritan reaction, when Ben Jonson, Shakespeare, Beaumont, Fletcher, made merry at “The Mermaid," uttering words
“So nimble, and so full of subtile flame,
Had meant to put his whole wit in a jest,” a little boy, refined of face, gentle of demeanor, who was destined to utter the clarion note of the Puritan Age, was playing and learning his lessons in his home in one of London's narrow streets.
It is interesting to note that the lives of the two men universally acknowledged to be the first and the second in the greatest of the world's literatures, England's, should have overlapped by a few years. Nor is the time element their only common possession. Milton is a belated Elizabethan; in the keenness of his appreciation of beauty, in the ability to reach and keep sublime heights, in unfettered imagination that dared to conceive or to ignore what is physically impossible, Milton is of the Elizabethan group. But he had fallen upon evil days; the intensity of struggle in things political, moral, and spiritual, gripped him, and largely influenced the character of his work. It is interesting to speculate as to what his genius would have given us had he been born half a century earlier—had he been of that group of luminous orbs whose central sun was Shakespeare.
It is more than likely that the boy John Milton may have seen Shakespeare pass his father's house in Bread Street, Cheapside, where Milton was born December 9, 1608. Undoubtedly Shakespeare many times traversed Bread Street, a direct route between his lodgings and the theatre in which his plays were given by his own company and under his direction; many times must he have passed the shop of John Milton, scrivener, at the sign of the Spread Eagle, who with his family lived in rooms over the shop. Although, in 1612, Shakespeare made his home permanently in Stratford, that he afterwards visited London is attested by the date of his signature in the
register of an old inn at Oxford, no doubt a comfortable resting place for a traveler journeying from Stratford to London. It is certainly pleasant to fancy the clear-eyed handsome boy stopping in his play before his father's shop door to look for a moment upon “sweetest Shakespeare, Fancy's child," whose mantle of greatness should, in the days to come, be nearly equaled by Milton's own.
John Milton, scrivener, a man of integrity and good sense, had prospered since his coming from Oxfordshire to London. However, he evidently had other interests than those of business, for he composed tunes and songs of an excellent sort. He valued the better things of life; and the home atmosphere which young Milton breathed seems to have been one of plain living and high thinking. The scrivener sent his son to St. Paul's School near by, and, in addition, secured for him an excellent private tutor. Young Milton studied with ardor, and early began to burn the midnight oil. At sixteen he entered Christ College, Cambridge, and, except for a single youthful outburst against authority, won the unqualified approval of his masters. Even while at college he nursed the noble ambition to do "a work which the world would not willingly let die," and began to form the first rough drafts of what later developed into the great Puritan epic, “ Paradise Lost."
While yet a student at Cambridge, Milton began on Christmas Day, 1629, the beautiful ode“ On the Morning of Christ's Nativity.” This poem shows the true Elizabethan feeling for beauty, and for beauty as expressed in language. The ear finely attuned to music is evident in such lines as: “With turtle wing the amorous clouds dividing; "
(1. 50) “ When such music sweet Their hearts and ears did greet
As never was by mortal finger strook,
As all their souls in blissful rapture took;
(1. 146) These, for unalloyed beauty, may be compared with these from “ Comus”:
“ Sabrina fair,
In twisted braids of lilies knitting
The loose train of thine amber-dropping hair; (1. 859-863) and with few others from other sources; these excerpts, with many others that might be cited, fully justify Macaulay's statement that Milton's genius was lyric..
On his graduation from Cambridge, Milton showed averseness to choosing a profession; for him the law had no attractions, and his deep-rooted passion for intellectual and spiritual liberty precluded his binding himself to any formulated doctrine, as he must do if he took orders. He spent the years between 1632–1638 in retirement at his father's pleasant country home at Horton, about eighteen miles from London and a short distance from Windsor and Eton, where he studied, thought much, wandered in the out-of-doors, and wrote but little. It was not merely indolence that kept him unproductive; although he was dissatisfied with his progress (see Sonnet II,“ Written on My Twenty-third Birthday ') he knew that he was doing the wisest and best thing—and what mattered it what others might think? The calm detachment from bustle and stir proved meet nurse for a poetic child; his soul was nurtured, and his great purpose to dedicate his talents to some noble work was strengthened. Milton, like Wordsworth, "felt himself a consecrated being "; and the splendid steadfastness with which he held to his lofty purpose through the years of turmoil and strife from 1642 to 1658, years during which he was compelled to defer his great purpose, but never to relinquish it, are a testimony to the greatness of a soul which held itself “As ever in my great Taskmaster's eye.” Several sonnets, the incomparable twin lyrics,“ L'Allegro" and " Il Penseroso," " Lycidas," and the Masque of “ Comus," were written during the years at Horton. These, with the Hymn to the Nativity, are sometimes miscalled Milton's " minor" poems; they are minor " only in the relative sense that “ Paradise Lost” is truly a magnum opus. If the few years of comparative idleness at Horton had produced nothing more than “ L'Allegro ” and “Il Penseroso ” the time would have been not ill-spent. Such poems as these could have been written only in the joyous youth time of a great soul enjoying to the full
“retirëd Leisure, That in trim gardens takes his pleasure; only by a mind well stored with the world's best, temporarily unfettered, free at will to catch
new pleasures, Whilst the landskip round it measures,”
or to follow the beckoning of the "Cherub Contemplatiön." "Comus" and “Lycidas” might have been written amid other surroundings; but without such experience as that at Horton “L’Allegro” and “Il Penseroso” could never have been given forth. If “'t were worth ten years of peaceful life” but to glance at the martial array of Scott's border warriors, it is well worth five years of anybody's life, even of Milton's, to have given us two such poems, unique in literature, breathing the charm and beauty of rural England, that blend of sounds and sights and odors as perceived by the clear-brained, healthy-minded young student whose poetic fancy transmuted these good common things by his buoyancy of youthful feeling into the pure gold of lyric excellence. But with these he lost this chord of bright, spontaneous, youthful gladness; his lyre vibrated to the same note never again.
“Lycidas," a threnody, written to commemorate Edward King, a college friend of Milton, who met his untimely death by shipwreck in the Irish Sea, has been called by Mark Pattison, one of Milton's biographers, “ the high-water mark of English poetry.” This is high praise; indeed, some passages in the poem can hardly be overpraised; but it is marred by lines expressing Milton's detestation of what seemed to him abuses in matters religious, and unfortunately this expression is not free from rancor. The poem is a pastoral allegory somewhat in the manner of Theocritus and Virgil; Milton employs the fauns, satyrs, and nymphs of classic lore, and introduces also touches of the myths and legends of Cornwall and Saxon England; he represents his friend Edward King and himself as shepherds piping to their flocks, and again uses the figure of the shepherd in the scriptural sense of a religious leader. This is confusing. Doubtless no one but Milton could so have commingled such various elements in a poem so beautiful and so impressive; here indeed he“ touched the tender stops of various quills.” In this poem is wealth abounding-noble thoughts
“ Married to immortal verse
The hidden soul of harmony”together with varied and profuse imagery.
In" Lycidas” we see the highest poetic genius combined with de