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'a most excellent mother, and particularly known for her charities in the neighbourhood."*
The poet's father was a man of high character and fine accomplishments. "Of the utmost integrity,† a serious but not a sour Puritan, he blent the virtues of religion with the graces of culture. Industrious and prudent in his business," he did not so far quit his generous and ingenious inclinations as to make himself wholly a slave to the world." His passion was music. Dr. Burneys pronounces him equal in science, if not in genius, to the best musicians of his age." Specimens of his skill are to be found in The Triumphes of Oriana, a collection of twenty-five madrigals set to music, and published in 1601; in the Teares and Lamentations of a Sorrowfull Soule (1614); and in Thomas Ravenscroft's Compendium of Church Music (1621), to which he contributed the still-remembered tunes Norwich and York. "And so, apart from all that he has given us through his son, there yet rests in the air of Britain-capable of being set loose wherever churchbells send their chimes over English earth, or voices are raised in sacred concert round an English or Scottish fireside-some portion of the soul of that admirable man, and his love of sweet sounds.”||
Of the poet's childhood we know nothing; but the period which it covers was both an interesting and a momentous one in the national history. The successor of Elizabeth had nothing of her dignity, her wisdom, or her courage. He neither secured respect nor evoked enthusiasm. The chivalrous loyalty that gave a heroic tone to the public life of England in the days of the Virgin Queen had passed away, and an era of low intrigue in the Court and of spiteful tyranny in the Church had been ushered in. James VI. failed to inspire his subjects with reverence for the royal office; and his efforts to enforce the theory of the "divine right" only irritated the people, and provoked the opposition of his Parliaments. Puritanism spread rapidly;-all the more so, indeed, that the king had become a determined supporter of the High Church party. Not yet imbued with a political spirit, it contained within itself the elements of intense antagonism to royal and prelatic despotism. The domestic influences that fostered the poet's youth were such as to substantially bias him in favour of the new movement; and we may picture him in our fancy as an eager listener to the hostile criticism that would often be expressed under his father's roof on the harsh policy of the government.
Aubrey tells us that Milton was a poet when only ten years old; but his boyish verses have not been preserved. Even at that early age, however, it may be inferred that he gave promise of future distinction; for his father had his portrait painted by Cornelius Jansen, a Dutch artist who had just settled in England, and was acquiring a high reputation. The first engraver of the work inscribed under the portrait the following lines from Paradise Regained:
* "Matre probatissimâ et eleemosynis per viciniam potissimùm notâ."-Defensio Secunda, vol. ii., p. 331.
"Patre, viro integerrimo."-Defensio Secunda, vol. ii., p. 331.
§ History of Musick, vol. iii., p. 134.
Masson's Life of Milton, vol. i., p. 38.
Serious to learn and know, and thence to do,
Milton's education was carefully attended to, "both at the grammar school and under other masters at home." The first of these masters was Thomas Young, whom Aubrey describes as a Puritan in Essex who cutt his haire short." Young was of Scotch extraction, a native of Luncarty in Perthshire, and educated at St. Andrews University. He migrated to England, and at first supported himself by private tuition and occasional preaching. Subsequently he became a minister in Suffolk (not in Essex, as Aubrey states), and a prominent member of the Puritan party. Milton has recorded his affection for his preceptor in a Latin elegy,* and two Latin epistles. About 1620 he was sent to St. Paul's School, the head-master of which at the time was Alexander Gill, a noted Latinist, critic, and divine;" reputed "also to have such an excellent way of training up youth that none in his time went beyond it;" though Aubrey remarks, in one of his manuscripts, that "he had his moods and humours, as particularly his whipping fits." That Milton, even in his boyhood, was a severe student, we have his own testimony:
"Pater me puerulum humaniorum literarum studiis destinavit; quas ita avide arripui ut ab anno aetatis duodecimo vix unquam ante mediam noctem a lucubrationibus cubitum discederem."+ Philips adds to this, that "he [Milton] generally sat up half the night, as well in voluntary improvements of his own choice, as the exact perfecting of his school exercises; so that at the age of fifteen he was full ripe for academical training.' There is, in fact, reason to believe that before he passed to the university, Milton had not only laid a solid foundation in Latin and Greek, but had acquired some knowledge of French, Italian, and Hebrew, and had read liberally in the literature of his own language. During the last year of his stay at St. Paul's School, he wrote paraphrases of Psalms cxiv. and cxxxvi.—the earliest specimens of his muse that have been preserved.
On the 12th of February 1625, he was admitted, at the age of sixteen, a lesser pensioner of Christ's College, Cambridge,‡ where he resided for seven years. Regarding his academic curriculum, we possess almost no information, except what he himself furnishes in his Latin epistles. Mr. Masson § has done his best to reproduce the period and the scene; but his laborious efforts only prove how little there is to tell. The public life of the university, its social and political gossip, the characters of its leading members, the nature of the scholastic discipline, are all copiously described in the pages of the learned professor; but everywhere we miss the figure that could alone give vitality to the picture. Yet it is doubtful if even a contemporary could have added much to our knowledge. Milton was a solitary student, who kept himself contemptu
* Elegy IV.
Written at the age of eighteen.
+ Defensio Secunda, vol. ii., p. 331.
The college Entry-Book says: Admissus est pensionarius minor, Feb. 12, 1624." But this date is according to the old style.
§ Life of Milton, vol. i., pp. 87-288.
ously aloof from the mass of undergraduates. In a letter to the younger Gill, written after a four years' residence, he complains of finding no companions in his studies. Almost the only fact that is prominent in his university career is the story of his quarrel with his first tutor, Chappell; which happened in his second year (1626), and which the malice of his enemies at a later date exaggerated into the statement that he was publicly whipped for misconduct. Milton himself alludes to the matter in a Latin epistle to his friend Diodati:
"Jam nec arundiferum mihi cura revisere Camum,
Nec dudum vetiti me laris angit amor.
What those indignities were to which his spirit could not submit, what was the nature or cause of his disagreement with Chappell, we do not know; but it is clear from the passage quoted that he suffered a temporary "rustication" from college. This rustication, however, did not extend over a couple of months; and Mr. Masson has shown that Milton did not lose a single term in the whole of his course. Dr. Johnson is of opinion that he was not popular in his college, and there is ground for supposing that this was the case at first, and for some time; but ultimately the virtues of his character and the splendour of his genius were universally recognized. Philips expressly affirms that "he was loved and admired by the whole university, particularly by the Fellows and most ingeniose persons of his house;" and the poet himself, in his Apology for Smectymnuus,* replying to the slanderous assertion of an opponent that he had been "vomited" out of the university for his profligate life, says: "It hath given me an apt occasion to acknowledge publickly, with all gratefull minde, that more than ordinary favour and respect which I found, above any of my equals, at the hands of those curteous and learned men the Fellowes of that colledge wherein I spent some yeares; who at my parting, after I had taken two Degrees, as the manner is, signify'd many wayes how much better it would content them that I would stay; as by many letters full of kindnesse and loving respect, both before that time and long after, I was assur'd of their singular good affection toward me.'
To the same year as his quarrel with Chappell belong several Latin elegies: of which the most notable is that on the death of the great scholar, Lancelot Andrewes, Bishop of Winchester; and also the beautiful English piece on the death of his infant niece.† One in truth can do little more, in this part of Milton's biography, than note the date of a letter or a poem. In 1627, he renews his correspondence with his old tutor Young, then pastor at Hamburg. In 1628, a Latin poem‡ records the impression made upon his heart by some unknown beauty whom he saw by chance in London, qua nostri Spatiantur in urbe Quirites. In 1629, besides the In Adventum Veris, and an epistle to his friend Charles Diodati,§ son of an Italian physician settled in London, he wrote the Hymn on the Morning of Christ's Nativity, a poem
* Birch, ed. 1738, vol. i., p. 108.
The daughter of his sister Anne, who had married, two years before, Edward Philips, of the Crown Office in Chancery.
§ Elegy VI.
which raises him above all his contemporaries, and places him at once by the side of Spenser.* It was probably followed, at a short interval, by the verses on the Circumcision, Time, and the Passion. Though none of these pieces are dated, they all breathe the same spirit, and are cast in the same mould of pious fancy. The lines on Shakspeare, it may be noticed, bear the date 1630. The next year produced a sonnet; † the two epitaphs on Hobson, the university carrier; and one on the Marchioness of Winchester: the year following, the last of his residence in college, only an English letter to some Cambridge friend, explaining his hesitation at entering the Church. There can be little doubt that Milton's early dislike of prelatic and all other forms of tyranny had increased during his residence at the university. Glimpses of his interest in public affairs are occasionally caught in his correspondence; and it is easy to see on which side his sympathies were enlisted. His high spirit-tinged with a certain austere haughtiness, nurtured on the free philosophy of antiquity, and familiar with the forms of republican life in Italy and Greece - could ill brook the insolence of ecclesiastical despotism; and it is probable that the words he wrote, ten years later, correctly express the sentiments he cherished at the close of his curriculum :
"The Church to whose service, by the intentions of my parents and friends, I was destin'd as a child, and in mine own resolutions, till coming to some maturity of years, and perceiving what tyranny had invaded the Churchthat he who would take orders must subscribe slave, and take an oath withal; which unless he took with a conscience that would retch, he must either straight perjure or split his faith-I thought it better to prefer a blameless silence before the sacred office of speaking, bought and begun with servitude and forswearing."‡
Having taken the degree of M.A., Milton left the university in July 1632, and went to reside with his father, who had now retired from business, and was living at Horton in Buckinghamshire, where he had purchased a small estate. "At my father's country residence," he says,§ "whither he had retired to pass his old age, I, with every advantage of leisure, spent a complete holiday in turning over the Greek and Latin writers; not but that sometimes I exchanged the country for the town, either for the purpose of buying books, or for that of learning something new in mathematics or in music, in which sciences I then delighted. Having passed five years in this manner, after my mother's death, I being desirous of seeing foreign lands, and especially Italy, went abroad with one servant, having by entreaty obtained my father's consent."
These five years || were the most tranquil, and probably the happiest, in Milton's life. The irksome obedience to college rules which he disliked was over; from servile adherence to a routine of study he was finally freed. His imagination was fresh and strong, his intellect unfettered and vigorous. A calm delight in philosophic speculation, in poetic dreams, in the beauty of nature, breathes through everything that he wrote in the gladsome dawn of * See introduction to the notes on this Hymn.
†That entitled, On his being arrived to the age of twenty-three."
The Reason of Church Governement, B. II., Introduction.
§ Defensio Secunda, vol. ii., pp. 331–332.
Strictly, five years and nine months.
his manhood. The Puritanism that lay deep down in his soul, though ready to burst forth with volcanic force when the time arrived, was as yet mellowed and subdued by the sweet influences of art and the natural buoyancy of youth. In L'Allegro, Il Penseroso, and Comus,* there is no premonitory murmur of that fierce storm of ecclesiastical passion by which he was soon afterwards convulsed. He is a votary of the Muse, a lover of bowery woodlands, of haunted streams, of sunrise on the hills, and of moonlight on the meadows. Rural pastimes charm his fancy; the sage and solemn tunes of olden bards entrance his soul. Virtue, indeed, is ever praised; but it is with the serene enthusiasm of a scholar, not with the angry ardour of a bigot. Lycidas, however, written towards the close of his residence at Horton, furnishes evidence of the fiery indignation that burned within him against the shallow ritualists of the Church-the men who cropt the ears and slit the noses of such as too boldly opposed their imbecile superstitions, their belief in the religious efficacy of genuflections, and the spiritual meaning of the colour of a candle. But the power of Laud and Strafford was at its height, and to an Englishman who loved liberty the time for speech or action had not yet come. Besides, that part of his nature which rejoiced in art and poetry was drawn away from the immediate consideration of the Puritan movement by the force of other associations. The desire to visit the classic shores of the Mediterranean, "the glory that was Greece and the grandeur that was Rome," must have been stronger in him than in most men; for he had a nature akin to the lofty spirits of antiquity, and could worthily sympathize either with the "abstracted sublimities" of Plato, or with the heroic patriotism of the Gracchi. The death of his mother, 3rd April 1637, may have left him more free to gratify his wish; and his father, though at first reluctant, ultimately gave his consent. Some time in the course of the month in which his mother died the poet set out for the Continent, carrying with him letters of introduction to Lord Scudamore, the English Ambassador at the Court of Versailles. From Sir Henry Wotton, Provost of Eton, whose acquaintance he had recently made, and who had formed a high opinion of his poetical talent, he received an excellent bit of advice how to conduct himself abroad, and particularly in Italy: "I pensieri stretti, et il viso sciolto" ("Thoughts close, looks loose"). The Scotch were signing the National League and Covenant, and Hampden was being cast in damages for refusing to pay ship-money, when Milton sailed for France; but the great conflict between the King and the Parliament did not, perhaps, seem to him so near at hand as it really was; for he had planned to be longer from home than events permitted. At Paris, where he stayed a few days, he was introduced by Lord Scudamore to "that most learned man, Hugo Grotius, then Ambassador from the Queen of Sweden to the French King;"† and Philips informs us that "Grotius took Milton's visit kindly, and gave him entertainment suitable to his worth and the high commendations he had heard of him." But no record survives of what passed at the interview. Journeying leisurely through the French provinces, probably by way of Lyons and the Rhone, he arrived at Nice in the month of June; thence * See the introductory notes on these poems. + Defensio Secunda, vol. ii., p. 332.