Page images
PDF
EPUB

LIFE OF MILTON.

CHAPTER I.

THE POET'S BIRTH CHARACTER OF THE TIMES

HIS EARLY EDUCATION AND PROPENSITIES.

The nativity of John Milton was cast at an epoch when mighty events were brewing in the political institutions of England, and when poetry had been advanced to greater perfection than it has ever since reached, except by his own voice. Spenser had not been dead ten years, and Shakspeare was yet living. In these two all the inexhaustible abundance of poetical thought, imagery, and language was to be found, even if all other fountains had been shut.

It was a stirring time for all minds, in every department. The whole reign of Queen Elizabeth had been full of gallantry, adventure, and greatmindedness;—of all that captivates the imagination, and all that exercises and elevates the understanding: and it was as profound in learning as original and brilliant in native faculties of the intellect: but there was the leaven of an unholy

VOL. I. A

and factious spirit mixed with it. The Puritans had been working under-ground and above-ground with incessant industry, intrigue, and talent; nor were the Papists more quiet.

Amid these fermenting elements of discord, grown into a frightful strength under the government of the pusillanimous, indiscreet, and pedantic monarch, James I., was our great poet born on the 9th of December, 1608, in the parish of Allhallows, Bread Street, London; the son of John Milton, scrivener. His mother's name was Caston, derived, according to the best authority, from a Welsh family.*

Milton's grandfather was under-ranger of the forest of Shotover, near Halton, in Oxfordshire, in which neighbourhood his family was ancient, but had lost their estates in the civil contests of the houses of York and Lancaster. This grandfather was a rigid Papist; and, having disinherited his son for embracing the Protestant faith, though he had educated him at Christ Church, Oxford, this disinherison drove him to the meaner profession of a scrivener.

His father was advanced to more than a middle age when the poet was born. He was eminent for his skill in music.

It is a curious question, how far accidental cir

* What becomes of the heralds, who always omit what they most ought to tell 1 Witness the details of pedigree of Spenser and Milton, both of gentilitial descent; and the chief of the former living at that time in great affluence and magnificence at Althorp, allied to all the highest nobility!

cumstances operated on the bent and colours of Milton's genius. Probably he was early educated in Puritan principles. His earliest tutor, Young, was a rigid and zealous Puritan; yet there are many traits in his early taste and early poems which make us hesitate as to his boyish attachment to this sect. His ruling love of poetry and classical erudition was not very congenial with it: his love of the theatre, and all feudal and chivalrous magnificence, was alien to it. There are, however, a few passages in his Lycidas concordant with it.

It does not seem to me that there are any traces of these Calvinistic prejudices at the time he visited Italy, unless his friendship to Charles Deodate be a sign of it; which I think, looking at the poetical addresses to him, it is not. The nature of Milton's lofty temper, which could not endure submission even to college-discipline, is the more probable cause.

As the resistance to monarchical authority grew daily bolder, -more obstinate, and more bitter, the chance is that Milton heated his mind, and became more fixed in his native love of liberty and self-government. As he was a reader of the most abstruse books, he entangled himself in the webs of controversy.

When King James died, March 27th, 1625, Milton was yet a boy, aged sixteen. That monarch could impress upon the poet nothing but scorn and hatred: his tyranny provoked rebellion; his cowardice encouraged it: his odious and imbecile pedantry was in itself a ground of aversion to a great mind: and these unlucky aids were added to a flame already strong enough to burst from its bondage. The character of the court was notoriously corrupt and profligate: the favourite Villiers was alone sufficient to rouse all great and good minds against it: the preceding favourite, Carr, had been still worse: there was not only a want of principle, but of talent in the administration. England had become the laughingstock of foreign powers: the internal policy was full of vicious abuses: the gentry were discontented; their swords were rusting, and parvenus began to mount over their heads: the order of knighthood was cheapened and prostituted: the Church lost the veneration it had till now possessed; and sects, that had hitherto lurked in holes and corners, arose and displayed themselves openly.

The cruel and infamous sacrifice of the life of the heroic Sir Walter Raleigh had filled the nation with horror and disgust; and Bacon's mixture of glory and littleness had taken from high station half its respect and all its splendour. All the relics of the public men of Queen Elizabeth's lofty reign had gradually disappeared. Buckhurst, Cecil, Egerton, Coke, the great navigators and soldiers; the gallant courtiers of ancient nobility; and all the leading names of commoners, rich in domains as well as in blood,— who carried more respect and influence than most of the best of modern nobility. Percy, the Earl of Northumberland, was immured a prisoner in the Tower: the head of the Howards had not recovered attainder and confiscation: the Veres, Cliffords, Nevils, Staffords, &c., were all impoverished: the Courtenays had lost all their honours: young Essex was oppressed, insulted, and spurned. The sharers of the spoils of church lands alone of the former century were rich.

This state of things encouraged those political opinions which Milton's tutor, Young, had probably instilled into him: but his acquaintance with the Countess of Derby at Harefield, and the Earl of Bridgewater, her son-in-law, must be supposed to have counteracted them for a time.

There can be little doubt that the poet's travels to Italy increased this counteraction. Milton left England in 1638, in his thirtieth year; was presented to Grotius, at Paris, by Lord Scudamore, the English ambassador; proceeded to Nice, embarked for Genoa, and thence through Leghorn and Pisa to Florence. Here he stayed two months: hence he passed through Sienna to Rome, where he stayed another two months. On quitting Rome he visited Naples: it was his purpose also to have visited Sicily and Athens; but the intelligence of the disturbances which had broken out in his own country made him think of home.

He passed back through Rome, where he again stayed two months; and then again to Florence, where also he stopped two months. He now visited Lucca; then went across the Apennines

« PreviousContinue »