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John Milton Post by :perry.saevik Category :Essays Author :Augustine Birrell Date :October 2011 Read :2283

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John Milton

It is now more than sixty years ago since Mr. Carlyle took occasion to observe, in his Life of Schiller, that, except the Newgate Calendar, there was no more sickening reading than the biographies of authors.

Allowing for the vivacity of the comparison, and only remarking, with reference to the Newgate Calendar, that its compilers have usually been very inferior wits, in fact attorneys, it must be owned that great creative and inventive genius, the most brilliant gifts of bright fancy and happy expression, and a glorious imagination, well-nigh seeming as if it must be inspired, have too often been found most unsuitably lodged in ill-living and scandalous mortals. Though few things, even in what is called Literature, are more disgusting than to hear small critics, who earn their bite and sup by acting as the self-appointed showmen of the works of their betters, heaping terms of moral opprobrium upon those whose genius is, if not exactly a lamp unto our feet, at all events a joy to our hearts,--still, not even genius can repeal the Decalogue, or re- write the sentence of doom, 'He which is filthy, let him be filthy still.' It is therefore permissible to wish that some of our great authors had been better men.

It is possible to dislike John Milton. Men have been found able to do so, and women too; amongst these latter his daughters, or one of them at least, must even be included. But there is nothing sickening about his biography, for it is the life of one who early consecrated himself to the service of the highest Muses, who took labour and intent study as his portion, who aspired himself to be a noble poem, who, Republican though he became, is what Carlyle called him, the moral king of English literature.

Milton was born in Bread Street, Cheapside, on the 9th of December, 1608. This is most satisfactory, though indeed what might have been expected. There is a notable disposition nowadays, amongst the meaner-minded provincials, to carp and gird at the claims of London to be considered the mother-city of the Anglo-Saxon race, to regret her pre-eminence, and sneer at her fame. In the matters of municipal government, gas, water, fog, and snow, much can be alleged and proved against the English capital, but in the domain of poetry, which I take to be a nation's best guaranteed stock, it may safely be said that there are but two shrines in England whither it is necessary for the literary pilgrim to carry his cockle hat and shoon--London, the birthplace of Chaucer, Spenser, Ben Jonson, Milton, Herrick, Pope, Gray, Blake, Keats, and Browning, and Stratford-upon-Avon, the birthplace of Shakespeare. Of English poets it may be said generally they are either born in London or remote country places. The large provincial towns know them not. Indeed, nothing is more pathetic than the way in which these dim, destitute places hug the memory of any puny whipster of a poet who may have been born within their statutory boundaries. This has its advantages, for it keeps alive in certain localities fames that would otherwise have utterly perished. Parnassus has forgotten all about poor Henry Kirke White, but the lace manufacturers of Nottingham still name him with whatever degree of reverence they may respectively consider to be the due of letters. Manchester is yet mindful of Dr. John Byrom. Liverpool clings to Roscoe.

Milton remained faithful to his birth-city, though, like many another Londoner, when he was persecuted in one house he fled into another. From Bread Street he moved to St. Bride's Churchyard, Fleet Street; from Fleet Street to Aldersgate Street; from Aldersgate Street to the Barbican; from the Barbican to the south side of Holborn; from the south side of Holborn to what is now called York Street, Westminster; from York Street, Westminster, to the north side of Holborn; from the north side of Holborn to Jewin Street; from Jewin Street to his last abode in Bunhill Fields. These are not vain repetitions if they serve to remind a single reader how all the enchantments of association lie about him. Englishwomen have been found searching about Florence for the street where George Eliot represents Romola as having lived, who have admitted never having been to Jewin Street, where the author of Lycidas and Paradise Lost did in fact live.

Milton's father was the right kind of father, amiable, accomplished, and well-to-do. He was by business what was then called a scrivener, a term which has received judicial interpretation, and imported a person who arranged loans on mortgage, receiving a commission for so doing. The poet's mother, whose baptismal name was Sarah (his father was, like himself, John), was a lady of good extraction, and approved excellence and virtue. We do not know very much about her, for the poet was one of those rare men of genius who are prepared to do justice to their fathers. Though Sarah Milton did not die till 1637, she only knew her son as the author of Comus, though it is surely a duty to believe that no son would have poems like L'Allegro and Il Penseroso in his desk, and not at least once produce them and read them aloud to his mother. These poems, though not published till 1645, were certainly composed in his mother's life. She died before the troubles began, the strife and contention in which her well-graced son, the poet, the dreamer of all things beautiful and cultured, the author of the glancing, tripping measure--

'Haste thee, nymph, and bring with thee
Jest and youthful jollity'--

was destined to take a part, so eager and so fierce, and for which he was to sacrifice twenty years of a poet's life.

The poet was sent to St. Paul's School, where he had excellent teaching of a humane and expanding character, and he early became, what he remained until his sight left him, a strenuous reader and a late student.

'Or let my lamp at midnight hour
Be seen on some high, lonely tower,
Where I may oft outwatch the Bear.'

Whether the maid who was told off by the elder Milton to sit up till twelve or one o'clock in the morning for this wonderful Pauline realized that she was a kind of doorkeeper in the house of genius, and blessed accordingly, is not known, and may be doubted. When sixteen years old Milton proceeded to Christ's College, Cambridge, where his memory is still cherished; and a mulberry-tree, supposed in some way to be his, rather unkindly kept alive. Milton was not a submissive pupil; in fact, he was never a submissive anything, for there is point in Dr. Johnson's malicious remark, that man in Milton's opinion was born to be a rebel, and woman a slave.

But in most cases, at all events, the rebel did well to be rebellious, and perhaps he was never so entirely in the right as when he protested against the slavish traditions of Cambridge educational methods in 1625.

Universities must, however, at all times prove disappointing places to the young and ingenuous soul, who goes up to them eager for literature, seeing in every don a devotee to intellectual beauty, and hoping that lectures will, by some occult process--the genius loci--initiate him into the mysteries of taste and the storehouses of culture. And then the improving conversation, the flashing wit, the friction of mind with mind,--these are looked for, but hardly found; and the young scholar groans in spirit, and perhaps does as Milton did--quarrels with his tutor. But if he is wise he will, as Milton also did, make it up again, and get the most that he can from his stony-hearted stepmother before the time comes for him to bid her his Vale vale et aeternum vale.

Milton remained seven years at Cambridge--from 1625 to 1632--from his seventeenth to his twenty-fourth year. Any intention or thought he ever may have had of taking orders he seems early to have rejected with a characteristic scorn. He considered a state of subscription to articles a state of slavery, and Milton was always determined, whatever else he was or might become, to be his own man. Though never in sympathy with the governing tone of the place, there is no reason to suppose that Milton (any more than others) found this lack seriously to interfere with a fair amount of good solid enjoyment from day to day. He had friends who courted his society, and pursuits both grave and gay to occupy his hours of study and relaxation. He was called the 'Lady' of his college, on account of his personal beauty and the purity and daintiness of his life and conversation.

After leaving Cambridge Milton began his life, so attractive to one's thoughts, at Horton, in Buckinghamshire, where his father had a house in which his mother was living. Here, for five years, from his twenty-fourth to his twenty-ninth year--a period often stormy in the lives of poets--he continued his work of self-education. Some of his Cambridge friends appear to have grown a little anxious, on seeing one who had distinction stamped upon his brow, doing what the world calls nothing; and Milton himself was watchful, and even suspicious. His second sonnet records this state of feeling:

'How soon hath Time, the subtle thief of youth,
Stolen on his wing my three-and-twentieth year!
My hasting days fly on with full career,
But my late spring no bud or blossom shew'th.'

And yet no poet had ever a more beautiful springtide, though it was restless, as spring should be, with the promise of greater things and 'high midsummer pomps.' These latter it was that were postponed almost too long.

Milton at Horton made up his mind to be a great poet--neither more nor less; and with that end in view he toiled unceasingly. A more solemn dedication of a man by himself to the poetical office cannot be imagined. Everything about him became, as it were, pontifical, almost sacramental. A poet's soul must contain the perfect shape of all things good, wise, and just. His body must be spotless and without blemish, his life pure, his thoughts high, his studies intense. There was no drinking at the 'Mermaid' for John Milton. His thoughts, like his joys, were not those that

'are in widest commonalty spread.'
When in his walks he met the Hodge of his period, he is more likely to have thought of a line in Virgil than of stopping to have a chat with the poor fellow. He became a student of the Italian language, and writes to a friend: 'I who certainly have not merely wetted the tip of my lips in the stream of these (the classical) languages, but in proportion to my years have swallowed the most copious draughts, can yet sometimes retire with avidity and delight to feast on Dante, Petrarch, and many others; nor has Athens itself been able to confine me to the transparent waves of its Ilissus, nor ancient Rome to the banks of its Tiber, so as to prevent my visiting with delight the streams of the Arno and the hills of Faesolae.'

Now it was that he, in his often-quoted words written to the young Deodati, doomed to an early death, was meditating 'an immortality of fame,' letting his wings grow and preparing to fly. But dreaming though he ever was of things to come, none the less, it was at Horton he composed Comus, Lycidas, L'Allegro, and Il Penseroso, poems which enable us half sadly to realize how much went and how much was sacrificed to make the author of Paradise Lost.

After five years' retirement Milton began to feel the want of a little society, of the kind that is 'quiet, wise, and good,' and he meditated taking chambers in one of the Inns of Court, where he could have a pleasant and shady walk under 'immemorial elms,' and also enjoy the advantages of a few choice associates at home and an elegant society abroad. The death of his mother in 1637 gave his thoughts another direction, and he obtained his father's permission to travel to Italy, 'that woman-country, wooed not wed,' which has been the mistress of so many poetical hearts, and was so of John Milton's. His friends and relatives saw but one difficulty in the way. John Milton the younger, though not at this time a Nonconformist, was a stern and unbending Protestant, and was as bitter an opponent of His Holiness the Pope as he certainly would have been, had his days been prolonged, of His Majesty the Pretender.

There is something very characteristic in this almost inflamed hostility in the case of a man with such love of beauty and passion for architecture and music as always abided in Milton, and who could write:

'But let my due feet never fail
To walk the studious cloisters' pale,
And love the high embowed roof,
With antique pillars massy-proof,
And storied windows richly dight,
Casting a dim, religious light.
There let the pealing organ blow
To the full-voiced quire below,
In service high and anthems clear,
As may with sweetness, through mine ear,
Dissolve me into ecstasies,
And bring all heaven before my eyes.'

Here surely is proof of an aesthetic nature beyond most of our modern raptures; but none the less, and at the very same time, Rome was for Milton the 'grim wolf' who, 'with privy paw, daily devours apace.' It is with a sigh of sad sincerity that Dr. Newman admits that Milton breathes through his pages a hatred of the Catholic Church, and consequently the Cardinal feels free to call him a proud and rebellious creature of God. That Milton was both proud and rebellious cannot be disputed. Nonconformists need not claim him for their own with much eagerness. What he thought of Presbyterians we know, and he was never a church member, or indeed a church-goer. Dr. Newman has admitted that the poet Pope was an unsatisfactory Catholic; Milton was certainly an unsatisfactory Dissenter. Let us be candid in these matters. Milton was therefore bidden by his friends, and by those with whom he took counsel, to hold his peace whilst in Rome about the 'grim wolf,' and he promised to do so, adding, however, the Miltonic proviso that this was on condition that the Papists did not attack his religion first. 'If anyone,' he wrote, 'in the very city of the Pope attacked the orthodox religion, I defended it most freely.' To call the Protestant religion, which had not yet attained to its second century, the orthodox religion under the shadow of the Vatican was to have the courage of his opinions. But Milton was not a man to be frightened of schism. That his religious opinions should be peculiar probably seemed to him to be almost inevitable, and not unbecoming. He would have agreed with Emerson, who declares that would man be great he must be a Nonconformist.

There is something very fascinating in the records we have of Milton's one visit to the Continent. A more impressive Englishman never left our shores. Sir Philip Sidney perhaps approaches him nearest. Beautiful beyond praise, and just sufficiently conscious of it to be careful never to appear at a disadvantage, dignified in manners, versed in foreign tongues, yet full of the ancient learning--a gentleman, a scholar, a poet, a musician, and a Christian--he moved about in a leisurely manner from city to city, writing Latin verses for his hosts and Italian sonnets in their ladies' albums, buying books and music, and creating, one cannot doubt, an all too flattering impression of an English Protestant. To travel in Italy with Montaigne or Milton, or Evelyn or Gray, or Shelley, or, pathetic as it is, with the dying Sir Walter, is perhaps more instructive than to go there for yourself with a tourist's ticket. Old Montaigne, who was but forty-seven when he made his journey, and whom therefore I would not call old had not Pope done so before me, is the most delightful of travelling companions, and as easy as an old shoe. A humaner man than Milton, a wiser man than Evelyn--with none of the constraint of Gray, or the strange, though fascinating, outlandishness of Shelley--he perhaps was more akin to Scott than any of the other travellers; but Scott went to Italy an overwhelmed man, whose only fear was he might die away from the heather and the murmur of Tweed. However, Milton is the most improving companion of them all, and amidst the impurities of Italy, 'in all the places where vice meets with so little discouragement, and is protected with so little shame,' he remained the Milton of Cambridge and Horton, and did nothing to pollute the pure temple of a poet's mind. He visited Paris, Nice, Genoa, Pisa, and Florence, staying in the last city two months, and living on terms of great intimacy with seven young Italians, whose musical names he duly records. These were the months of August and September, not nowadays reckoned safe months for Englishmen to be in Florence--modern lives being raised in price. From Florence he proceeded through Siena to Rome, where he also stayed two months. There he was present at a magnificent entertainment given by the Cardinal Francesco Barberini in his palace, and heard the singing of the celebrated Leonora Baroni. It is not for one moment to be supposed that he sought an interview with the Pope, as Montaigne had done, who was exhorted by His Holiness 'to persevere in the devotion he had ever manifested in the cause of the Church;' and yet perhaps Montaigne by his essays did more to sap the authority of Peter's chair than Milton, however willing, was able to do.

It has been remarked that Milton's chief enthusiasm in Italy was not art, but music, which falls in with Coleridge's dictum, that Milton is not so much a picturesque as a musical poet--meaning thereby, I suppose, that the effects which he produces and the scenes which he portrays are rather suggested to us by the rhythm of his lines than by actual verbal descriptions. From Rome Milton went to Naples, whence he had intended to go to Sicily and Greece; but the troubles beginning at home he forewent this pleasure, and consequently never saw Athens, which was surely a great pity. He returned to Rome, where, troubles or no troubles, he stayed another two months. From Rome he went back to Florence, which he found too pleasant to leave under two more months. Then he went to Lucca, and so to Venice, where he was very stern with himself, and only lingered a month. From Venice he went to Milan, and then over the Alps to Geneva, where he had dear friends. He was back in London in August, 1639, after an absence of fifteen months.

The times were troubled enough. Charles I., whose literary taste was so good that one must regret the mischance that placed a crown upon his comely head, was trying hard, at the bidding of a priest, to thrust Episcopacy down Scottish throats, who would not have it at any price. He was desperately in need of money, and the House of Commons (which had then a raison d'etre) was not prepared to give him any except on terms. Altogether it was an exciting time, but Milton was in no way specially concerned in it. Milton looms so large in our imagination amongst the figures of the period that, despite Dr. Johnson's sneers, we are apt to forget his political insignificance, and to fancy him curtailing his tour and returning home to take his place amongst the leaders of the Parliament men. Return home he did, but it was, as another pedagogue has reminded us, to receive boys 'to be boarded and instructed.' Dr. Johnson tells us that we ought not to allow our veneration for Milton to rob us of a joke at the expense of a man 'who hastens home because his countrymen are contending for their liberty, and when he reaches the scene of action vapours away his patriotism in a private boarding-school;' but that this observation was dictated by the good Doctor's spleen is made plain by his immediately proceeding to point out, with his accustomed good sense, that there is really nothing to laugh at, since it was desirable that Milton, whose father was alive and could only make him a small allowance, should do something, and there was no shame in his adopting an honest and useful employment.

To be a Parliament man was no part of the ambition of one who still aspired to be a poet; who was not yet blind to the heavenly vision; who was still meditating what should be his theme, and who in the meantime chastised his sister's sons, unruly lads, who did him no credit and bore him no great love.

The Long Parliament met in November, 1640, and began its work--brought Strafford to the scaffold, clapped Laud into the Tower, Archbishop though he was, and secured as best they could the permanency of Parliamentary institutions. None of these things specially concerned John Milton. But there also uprose the eternal Church question, 'What sort of Church are we to have?' The fierce controversy raged, and 'its fair enticing fruit,' spread round 'with liberal hand,' proved too much for the father of English epic.

'He scrupled not to eat
Against his better knowledge.'

In other words, he commenced pamphleteer, and between May, 1641, and the following March he had written five pamphlets against Episcopacy, and used an intolerable deal of bad language, which, however excusable in a heated controversialist, ill became the author of Comus.

The war broke out in 1642, but Milton kept house. The 'tented field' had no attractions for him.

In the summer of 1643 he took a sudden journey into the country, and returned home to his boys with a wife, the daughter of an Oxfordshire Cavalier. Poor Mary Powell was but seventeen, her poetic lord was thirty- five. From the country-house of a rollicking squire to Aldersgate Street was somewhat too violent a change. She had left ten brothers and sisters behind her, the eldest twenty-one, the youngest four. As one looks upon this picture and on that, there is no need to wonder that the poor girl was unhappy. The poet, though keenly alive to the subtle charm of a woman's personality, was unpractised in the arts of daily companionship. He expected to find much more than he brought of general good-fellowship. He had an ideal ever in his mind of both bodily and spiritual excellence, and he was almost greedy to realize both, but he knew not how. One of his complaints was that his wife was mute and insensate, and sat silent at his board. It must, no doubt, have been deadly dull, that house in Aldersgate Street. Silence reigned, save when broken by the cries of the younger Phillips sustaining chastisement. Milton had none of that noble humanitarian spirit which had led Montaigne long years before him to protest against the cowardly traditions of the schoolroom. After a month of Aldersgate Street, Mrs. Milton begged to go home. Her wish was granted, and she ran back to her ten brothers and sisters, and when her leave of absence was up refused to return. Her husband was furiously angry; and in a time so short as almost to enforce the belief that he began the work during the honeymoon, was ready with his celebrated pamphlet, The Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce restored to the good of both sexes. He is even said, with his accustomed courage, to have paid attentions to a Miss Davis, who is described as a very handsome and witty gentlewoman, and therefore not one likely to sit silent at his board; but she was a sensible girl as well, and had no notion of a married suitor. Of Milton's pamphlet it is everyone's duty to speak with profound respect. It is a noble and passionate cry for a high ideal of married life, which, so he argued, had by inflexible laws been changed into a drooping and disconsolate household captivity, without refuge or redemption. He shuddered at the thought of a man and woman being condemned, for a mistake of judgment, to be bound together to their unspeakable wearisomeness and despair, for, he says, not to be beloved and yet retained is the greatest injury to a gentle spirit. Our present doctrine of divorce, which sets the household captive free on payment of a broken vow, but on no less ignoble terms, is not founded on the congruous, and is indeed already discredited, if not disgraced.

This pamphlet on divorce marks the beginning of Milton's mental isolation. Nobody had a word to say for it. Episcopalian, Presbyterian, and Independent held his doctrine in as much abhorrence as did the Catholic, and all alike regarded its author as either an impracticable dreamer or worse. It was written certainly in too great haste, for his errant wife, actuated by what motives cannot now be said, returned to her allegiance, was mindful of her plighted troth, and, suddenly entering his room, fell at his feet and begged to be forgiven. She was only nineteen, and she said it was all her mother's fault. Milton was not a sour man, and though perhaps too apt to insist upon repentance preceding forgiveness, yet when it did so he could forgive divinely. In a very short time the whole family of Powells, whom the war had reduced to low estate, were living under his roof in the Barbican, whither he moved on the Aldersgate house proving too small for his varied belongings. The poet's father also lived with his son.

Mrs. Milton had four children, three of whom, all daughters, lived to grow up. The mother died in childbirth in 1652, being then twenty-six years of age.

The Areopagitica, a Speech for Unlicensed Printing, followed the divorce pamphlet, but it also fell upon deaf ears. Of all religious sects the Presbyterians, who were then dominant, are perhaps the least likely to forego the privilege of interference in the affairs of others. Instead of the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Bishop of London, instead of 'a lordly Imprimatur, one from Lambeth House, another from the west end of Paul's,' there was appointed a commission of twenty Presbyterians to act as State Licensers. Then was Milton's soul stirred within him to a noble rage. His was a threefold protest--as a citizen of a State he fondly hoped had been free, as an author, and as a reader. As a citizen he protested against so unnecessary and improper an interference. It is not, he cried, 'the unfrocking of a priest, the unmitring of a bishop, that will make us a happy nation,' but the practice of virtue, and virtue means freedom to choose. Milton was a manly politician, and detested with his whole soul grandmotherly legislation. 'He who is not trusted with his own actions, his drift not being known to be evil, and standing to the hazard of law and penalty, has no great argument to think himself reputed in the commonwealth wherein he was born, for other than a fool or a foreigner.' 'They are not skilful considerers of human things who imagine to remove sin by removing the matter of sin.' 'And were I the chooser, a dram of well-doing should be preferred before many times as much the forcible hindrance of evil doing.' These are texts upon which sermons, not inapplicable to our own day, might be preached. Milton has made our first parent so peculiarly his own, that any observations of his about Adam are interesting. 'Many there be that complain of Divine Providence for suffering Adam to transgress. Foolish tongues! When God gave him reason He gave him freedom to choose, for reason is but choosing; he had been else a mere artificial Adam. We ourselves esteem not of that obedience a love or gift which is of force. God therefore left him free, set before him a provoking object ever almost in his eyes; herein consisted his merit, herein the right of his reward, the praise of his abstinence.' So that according to Milton even Eden was a state of trial. As an author, Milton's protest has great force. 'And what if the author shall be one so copious of fancy as to have many things well worth the adding come into his mind after licensing, while the book is yet under the press, which not seldom happens to the best and diligentest writers, and that perhaps a dozen times in one book? The printer dares not go beyond his licensed copy. So often then must the author trudge to his leave-giver that those his new insertions may be viewed, and many a jaunt will be made ere that licenser--for it must be the same man--can either be found, or found at leisure; meanwhile either the press must stand still, which is no small damage, or the author lose his accuratest thoughts, and send forth the book worse than he made it, which to a diligent writer is the greatest melancholy and vexation that can befall.'

Milton would have had no licensers. Every book should bear the printer's name, and 'mischievous and libellous books' were to be burnt by the common hangman, not as an effectual remedy, but as the 'most effectual remedy man's prevention can use.'

The noblest pamphlet in 'our English, the language of men ever famous and foremost in the achievements of liberty,' accomplished nothing, and its author must already have thought himself fallen on evil days.

In the year 1645, the year of Naseby, as Mr. Pattison reminds us, appeared the first edition of Milton's Poems. Then, for the first time, were printed L'Allegro and Il Penseroso, the Ode on the Morning of Christ's Nativity, and various of the sonnets. The little volume also contained Comus and Lycidas, which had been previously printed. With the exception of three sonnets and a few scraps of translation, Milton had written nothing but pamphlets since his return from Italy. At the beginning of the volume, which is a small octavo, was a portrait of the poet, most villainously executed. He was really thirty-seven, but flattered himself, as men of that age will, that he looked ten years younger; he was therefore much chagrined to find himself represented as a grim-looking gentleman of at least fifty. The way he revenged himself upon the hapless artist is well known. The volume, with the portrait, is now very scarce, almost rare.

In 1647 Milton removed from the Barbican, both his father and his father- in-law being dead, to a smaller house in Holborn, backing upon Lincoln's Inn Fields, close to where the Inns of Court Hotel now stands, and not far from the spot which was destined to witness the terrible tragedy which was at once to darken and glorify the life of one of Milton's most fervent lovers, Charles Lamb. About this time he is supposed to have abandoned pedagogy. The habit of pamphleteering stuck to him; indeed, it is one seldom thrown off. It is much easier to throw off the pamphlets.

In 1649 Milton became a public servant, receiving the appointment of Latin Secretary to the Council of Foreign Affairs. He knew some member of the Committee, who obtained his nomination. His duties were purely clerkly. It was his business to translate English despatches into Latin, and foreign despatches into English. He had nothing whatever to do with the shaping of the foreign policy of the Commonwealth. He was not even employed in translating the most important of the State papers. There is no reason for supposing that he even knew the leading politicians of his time. There is a print one sees about, representing Oliver Cromwell dictating a foreign despatch to John Milton; but it is all imagination, nor is there anything to prove that Cromwell and Milton, the body and soul of English Republicanism, were ever in the same room together, or exchanged words with one another. Milton's name does not occur in the great history of Lord Clarendon. Whitelocke, who was the leading member of the Committee which Milton served, only mentions him once. Thurloe spoke of him as a blind man who wrote Latin letters. Richard Baxter, in his folio history of his Life and Times, never mentions Milton at all. {1} He was just a clerk in the service of the Commonwealth, of a scholarly bent, peculiar habit of thought, and somewhat of an odd temper. He was not the man to cultivate great acquaintances, or to flitter away his time waiting the convenience of other people. When once asked to use his influence to obtain for a friend an appointment, he replied he had no influence, 'propter paucissimas familiaritates meas cum gratiosis, qui domi fere, idque libenter, me contineo.' The busy great men of the day would have been more than astonished, they would have been disgusted, had they been told that posterity would refer to most of them compendiously, as having lived in the age of Milton. But this need not trouble us.

Footnote: {1} See note to Mitford's Milton, vol. i., clii.

On the Continent Milton enjoyed a wider reputation, on account of his controversy with the great European scholar, Salmasius, on the sufficiently important and interesting, and then novel, subject of the execution of Charles I. Was it justifiable? Salmasius, a scholar and a Protestant, though of an easy-going description, was employed, or rather, as he had no wages (Milton's hundred Jacobuses being fictitious), nominated by Charles, afterwards the Second, to indict the regicides at the bar of European opinion, which accordingly he did in the Latin language. The work reached this country in the autumn of 1649, and it evidently became the duty of somebody to answer it. Two qualifications were necessary--the replier must be able to read Latin, and to write it after a manner which should escape the ridicule of the scholars of Leyden, Geneva, and Paris. Milton occurred to somebody's mind, and the task was entrusted to him. It is not to be supposed that Cromwell was ever at the pains to read Salmasius for himself, but still it would not have done to have it said that the Defensio Regia of so celebrated a scholar as Salmasius remained unanswered, and so the appointment was confirmed, and Milton, no new hand at a pamphlet, set to work. In March, 1651, his first Defence of the English People was in print. In this great pamphlet Milton asserts, as against the doctrine of the divine right of kings, the undisputed sovereignty of the people; and he maintains the proposition that, as well by the law of God, as by the law of nations, and the law of England, a king of England may be brought to trial and death, the people being discharged from all obligations of loyalty when a lawful prince becomes a tyrant, or gives himself over to sloth and voluptuousness. This noble argument, alike worthy of the man and the occasion, is doubtless over-clouded and disfigured by personal abuse of Salmasius, whose relations with his wife had surely as little to do with the head of Charles I. as had poor Mr. Dick's memorial. Salmasius, it appears, was henpecked, and to allow yourself to be henpecked was, in Milton's opinion, a high crime and misdemeanour against humanity, and one which rendered a man infamous, and disqualified him from taking part in debate.

It has always been reported that Salmasius, who was getting on in years, and had many things to trouble him besides his own wife, perished in the effort of writing a reply to Milton, in which he made use of language quite as bad as any of his opponent's; but it now appears that this is not so. Indeed, it is generally rash to attribute a man's death to a pamphlet, or an article, either of his own or anybody else's.

Salmasius, however, died, though from natural causes, and his reply was not published till after the Restoration, when the question had become, what it has ever since remained, academical.

Other pens were quicker, and to their productions Milton, in 1654, replied with his Second Defence of the English People, a tract containing autobiographical details of immense interest and charm. By this time he was totally blind, though, with a touch of that personal sensitiveness ever characteristic of him, he is careful to tell Europe, in the Second Defence, that externally his eyes were uninjured, and shone with an unclouded light.

Milton's Defences of the English People are rendered provoking by his extraordinary language concerning his opponents. 'Numskull,' 'beast,' 'fool,' 'puppy,' 'knave,' 'ass,' 'mongrel-cur,' are but a few of the epithets employed. This is doubtless mere matter of pleading, a rule of the forum where controversies between scholars are conducted; but for that very reason it makes the pamphlets as provoking to an ordinary reader as an old bill of complaint in Chancery must have been to an impatient suitor who wanted his money. The main issues, when cleared of personalities, are important enough, and are stated by Milton with great clearness. 'Our king made not us, but we him. Nature has given fathers to us all, but we ourselves appointed our own king; so that the people is not for the king, but the king for them.' It was made a matter of great offence amongst monarchs and monarchical persons that Charles was subject to the indignity of a trial. With murders and poisonings kings were long familiar. These were part of the perils of the voyage, for which they were prepared, but, as Salmasius put it, 'for a king to be arraigned in a court of judicature, to be put to plead for his life, to have sentence of death pronounced against him, and that sentence executed,'--oh! horrible impiety. To this Milton replies: 'Tell me, thou superlative fool, whether it be not more just, more agreeable to the rules of humanity and the laws of all human societies, to bring a criminal, be his offence what it will, before a court of justice, to give him leave to speak for himself, and if the law condemns him, then to put him to death as he has deserved, so as he may have time to repent or to recollect himself; than presently, as soon as ever he is taken, to butcher him without more ado?'

But a king of any spirit would probably answer that he preferred to have his despotism tempered by assassination than by the mercy of a court of John Miltons. To which answer Milton would have rejoined, 'Despotism, I know you not, since we are as free as any people under heaven.'

The weakest part in Milton's case is his having to admit that the Parliament was overawed by the army, which he says was wiser than the senators.

Milton's address to his countrymen, with which he concludes the first defence, is veritably in his grand style:

'He has gloriously delivered you, the first of nations, from the two greatest mischiefs of this life--tyranny and superstition. He has endued you with greatness of mind to be First of Mankind, who after having confined their own king and having had him delivered into their hands, have not scrupled to condemn him judicially, and pursuant to that sentence of condemnation to put him to death. After performing so glorious an action as this, you ought to do nothing that's mean and little; you ought not to think of, much less do, anything but what is great and sublime. Which to attain to, this is your only way: as you have subdued your enemies in the field, so to make it appear that you of all mankind are best able to subdue Ambition, Avarice, the love of Riches, and can best avoid the corruptions that prosperity is apt to introduce. These are the only arguments by which you will be able to evince that you are not such persons as this fellow represents you, traitors, robbers, murderers, parricides, madmen, that you did not put your king to death out of any ambitious design--that it was not an act of fury or madness, but that it was wholly out of love to your liberty, your religion, to justice, virtue, and your country, that you punished a tyrant. But if it should fall out otherwise (which God forbid), if, as you have been valiant in war, you should grow debauched in peace, and that you should not have learnt, by so eminent, so remarkable an example before your eyes, to fear God, and work righteousness; for my part I shall easily grant and confess (for I cannot deny it), whatever ill men may speak or think of you, to be very true. And you will find in time that God's displeasure against you will be greater than it has been against your adversaries--greater than His grace and favour have been to yourseves, which you have had larger experience of than any other nation under heaven.'

This controversy naturally excited greater interest abroad, where Latin was familiarly known, than ever it did here at home. Though it cost Milton his sight, or at all events accelerated the hour of his blindness, he appears greatly to have enjoyed conducting a high dispute in the face of Europe. 'I am,' so he says, 'spreading abroad amongst the cities, the kingdoms, and nations, the restored culture of civility and freedom of life.' We certainly managed in this affair of the execution of Charles to get rid of that note of insularity which renders our politics uninviting to the stranger.

Milton, despite his blindness, remained in the public service until after the death of Cromwell; in fact, he did not formally resign until after the Restoration. He played no part, having none to play, in the performances that occurred between those events. He poured forth pamphlets, but there is no reason to believe that they were read otherwise than carelessly and by few. His ideas were his own, and never had a chance of becoming fruitful. There seemed to him to be a ready and an easy way to establish a free Commonwealth, but on the whole it turned out that the easiest thing to do was to invite Charles Stuart to reascend the throne of his ancestors, which he did, and Milton went into hiding.

It is terrible to think how risky the situation was. Milton was undoubtedly in danger of his life, and Paradise Lost was unwritten. He was for a time under arrest. But after all he was not one of the regicides--he was only a scribe who had defended regicide. Neither was he a man well associated. He was a solitary, and, for the most part, an unpopular thinker, and blind withal. He was left alone for the rest of his days. He lived first in Jewin Street, off Aldersgate Street; and finally in Artillery Walk, Bunhill Fields. He had married, four years after his first wife's death, a lady who died within a twelvemonth, though her memory is kept ever fresh, generation after generation, by her husband's sonnet beginning,

'Methought I saw my late espoused saint.'
Dr. Johnson, it is really worth remembering, called this a poor sonnet. In 1664 Milton married a third and last wife, a lady he had never seen, and who survived her husband for no less a period than fifty-three years, not dying till the year 1727. The poet's household, like his country, never realized any of his ideals. His third wife took decent care of him, and there the matter ended. He did not belong to the category of adored fathers. His daughters did not love him--it seems even probable they disliked him. Mr. Pattison has pointed out that Milton never was on terms even with the scholars of his age. Political acquaintances he had none. He was, in Puritan language, 'unconnected with any place of worship,' and had therefore no pastoral visits to receive, or sermons to discuss. The few friends he had were mostly young men who were attracted to him, and were glad to give him their company; and it is well that he had this pleasure, for he was ever in his wishes a social man--not intended to live alone, and blindness must have made society little short of a necessity for him.

Now it was, in the evening of his days, with a Stuart once more upon the throne, and Episcopacy finally installed, that Milton, a defeated thinker, a baffled pamphleteer--for had not Salmasius triumphed?--with Horton and Italy far, far behind him, set himself to keep the promise of his glorious youth, and compose a poem the world should not willingly let die. His manner of life was this. In summer he rose at four, in winter at five. He went to bed at nine. He began the day with having the Hebrew Scriptures read to him. Then he contemplated. At seven his man came to him again, and he read and wrote till an early dinner. For exercise he either walked in the garden or swung in a machine. Besides conversation, his only other recreation was music. He played the organ and the bass viol. He would sometimes sing himself. After recreation of this kind he would return to his study to be read to till six. After six his friends were admitted, and would sit with him till eight. At eight he had his supper--olives or something light. He was very abstemious. After supper he smoked a pipe of tobacco, drank a glass of water, and went to bed. He found the night a favourable time for composition, and what he composed at night he dictated in the day, sitting obliquely in an elbow chair with his leg thrown over the arm.

In 1664 Paradise Lost was finished, but as in 1665 came the Great Plague, and after the Great Plague the Great Fire, it was long before the MS. found its way into the hands of the licenser. It is interesting to note that the first member of the general public who read Paradise Lost, I hope all through, was a clergyman of the name of Tomkyns, the deputy of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr. Sheldon. The Archbishop was the State Licenser for religious books, but of course did not do the work himself. Tomkyns did the work, and was for a good while puzzled what to make of the old Republican's poem. At last, and after some singularly futile criticisms, Tomkyns consented to allow the publication of Paradise Lost, which accordingly appeared in 1667, admirably printed, and at the price of 3s. a copy. The author's agreement with the publisher is in writing--as Mr. Besant tells us all agreements with publishers should be--and may be seen in the British Museum. Its terms are clear. The poet was to have 5 down pounds; another 5 pounds when the first edition, which was not to exceed 1,500 copies, was sold; a third 5 pounds when a second edition was sold; and a fourth and last 5 pounds when a third edition was sold. He got his first 5 pounds, also his second, and after his death his widow sold all her rights for 5 pounds. Consequently 18 pounds, which represents perhaps 50 pounds of our present currency, was Milton's share of all the money that has been made by the sale of his great poem. But the praise is still his. The sale was very considerable. The 'general reader' no doubt preferred the poems of Cleaveland and Flatman, but Milton found an audience which was fit and not fewer than ever is the case when noble poetry is first produced.

Paradise Regained was begun upon the completion of Paradise Lost, and appeared with Samson Agonistes in 1671, and here ended Milton's life as a producing poet. He lived on till Sunday, 8th November, 1674, when the gout, or what was then called gout, struck in and he died, and was buried beside his father in the Church of St. Giles's, Cripplegate. He remained laborious to the last, and imposed upon himself all kinds of drudgery, compiling dictionaries, histories of Britain and Russia. He must have worked not so much from love of his subjects as from dread of idleness. But he had hours of relaxation, of social intercourse, and of music; and it is pleasant to remember that one pipe of tobacco. It consecrates your own.

Against Milton's great poem it is sometimes alleged that it is not read; and yet it must, I think, be admitted that for one person who has read Spenser's Fairy Queen, ten thousand might easily be found who have read Paradise Lost. Its popularity has been widespread. Mr. Mark Pattison and Mr. John Bright measure some ground between them. No other poem can be mentioned which has so coloured English thought as Milton's, and yet, according to the French senator whom Mr. Arnold has introduced to the plain reader, 'Paradise Lost is a false poem, a grotesque poem, a tiresome poem.' It is not easy for those who have a touch of Milton's temper, though none of his genius, to listen to this foreign criticism quite coolly. Milton was very angry with Salmasius for venturing to find fault with the Long Parliament for having repealed so many laws, and so far forgot himself as to say, 'Nam nostrae leges, Ole, quid ad te?' But there is nothing municipal about Paradise Lost. All the world has a right to be interested in it and to find fault with it. But the fact that the people for whom primarily it was written have taken it to their hearts and have it on their lips ought to have prevented it being called tiresome by a senator of France.

But what is the matter with our great epic? That nobody ever wished it longer is no real accusation. Nobody ever did wish an epic longer. The most popular books in the world are generally accounted too long--Don Quixote, the Pilgrim's Progress, Tom Jones. But, says Mr. Arnold, the whole real interest of the poem depends upon our being able to take it literally; and again, 'Merely as matter of poetry, the story of the Fall has no special force or effectiveness--its effectiveness for us comes, and can only come, from our taking it all as the literal narrative of what positively happened.' These bewildering utterances make one rub one's eyes. Carlyle comes to our relief: 'All which propositions I for the present content myself with modestly, but peremptorily and irrevocably denying.'

Mr. Pattison surely speaks the language of ordinary good sense when he writes: 'For the world of Paradise Lost is an ideal, conventional world quite as much as the world of the Arabian Nights, or the world of the chivalrous romance, or that of the pastoral novel.'

Coleridge, in the twenty-second chapter of the Biographia Literaria, points out that the fable and characters of Paradise Lost are not derived from Scripture, as in the Messiah of Klopstock, but merely suggested by it--the illusion on which all poetry is founded being thus never contradicted. The poem proceeds upon a legend, ancient and fascinating, and to call it a commentary upon a few texts in Genesis is a marvellous criticism.

The story of the Fall of Man, as recorded in the Semitic legend, is to me more attractive as a story than the Tale of Troy, and I find the rebellion of Satan and his dire revenge more to my mind than the circles of Dante. Eve is, I think, more interesting than 'Heaven-born Helen, Sparta's queen'--I mean in herself, and as a woman to write poetry about.

The execution of the poem is another matter. So far as style is concerned its merits have not yet been questioned. As a matter of style and diction, Milton is as safe as Virgil. The handling of the story is more vulnerable. The long speeches put in the mouth of the Almighty are never pleasing, and seldom effective. The weak point about argument is that it usually admits of being answered. For Milton to essay to justify the ways of God to man was well and pious enough, but to represent God Himself as doing so by argumentative process was not so well, and was to expose the Almighty to possible rebuff. The king is always present in his own courts, but as judge, not as advocate; hence the royal dignity never suffers.

It is narrated of an eminent barrister, who became a most polished judge, Mr. Knight Bruce, that once, when at the very head of his profession, he was taken in before a Master in Chancery, an office since abolished, and found himself pitted against a little snip of an attorney's clerk, scarce higher than the table, who, nothing daunted, and by the aid of authorities he cited from a bundle of books as big as himself, succeeded in worsting Knight Bruce, whom he persisted in calling over again and again 'my learned friend.' Mr. Bruce treated the imp with that courtesy which is always an opponent's due, but he never went before the Masters any more.

The Archangel has not escaped the reproach often brought against affable persons of being a bit of a bore, and though this is to speak unbecomingly, it must be owned that the reader is glad whenever Adam plucks up heart of grace and gets in a word edgeways. Mr. Bagehot has complained of Milton's angels. He says they are silly. But this is, I think, to intellectualize too much. There are some classes who are fairly exempted from all obligation to be intelligent, and these airy messengers are surely amongst that number. The retinue of a prince or of a bride justify their choice if they are well-looking and group nicely.

But these objections do not touch the main issue. Here is the story of the loss of Eden, told enchantingly, musically, and in the grand style. 'Who,' says M. Scherer, in a passage quoted by Mr. Arnold, 'can read the eleventh and twelfth books without yawning?' People, of course, are free to yawn when they please, provided they put their hands to their mouths; but in answer to this insulting question one is glad to be able to remember how Coleridge has singled out Adam's vision of future events contained in these books as especially deserving of attention. But to read them is to repel the charge.

There was no need for Mr. Arnold, of all men, to express dissatisfaction with Milton:

'Words which no ear ever to hear in heaven
Expected; least of all from thee, ingrate,
In place thyself so high above thy peers.'

The first thing for people to be taught is to enjoy great things greatly. The spots on the sun may be an interesting study, but anyhow the sun is not all spots. Indeed, sometimes in the early year, when he breaks forth afresh,

'And winter, slumbering in the open air,
Wears on his smiling face a dream of spring,

we are apt to forget that he has any spots at all, and, as he shines, are perhaps reminded of the blind poet sitting in his darkness, in this prosaic city of ours, swinging his leg over the arm of his chair, and dictating the lines:

'Seasons return, but not to me returns
Day, or the sweet approach of even or morn,
Or sight of vernal bloom or summer's rose,
Or flocks or herds, or human face divine.
But cloud instead, and ever-during dark
Surrounds me--from the cheerful ways of men
Cut off; and for the book of knowledge fair
Presented with a universal blank
Of nature's works, to me expunged and razed
And wisdom at one entrance quite shut out.
So much the rather, Thou, Celestial Light,
Shine inwards, and the mind through all her powers
Irradiate--there plant eyes; all mist from thence
Purge and disperse, that I may see and tell
Of things invisible to mortal sight.'

Coleridge added a note to his beautiful poem, 'The Nightingale,' lest he should be supposed capable of speaking with levity of a single line in Milton. The note was hardly necessary, but one loves the spirit that prompted him to make it. Sainte-Beuve remarks: 'Parler des poetes est toujours une chose bien delicate, et surtout quand on l'a ete un peu soi- meme.' But though it does not matter what the little poets do, great ones should never pass one another without a royal salute.

(The end)
Augustine Birrell's essay: John Milton

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Dr. Johnson Dr. Johnson

Dr. Johnson
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