Page images
PDF
EPUB

Harrington has an epigram on this lady, B. iii. 47.

IN PRAISE OF THE COUNTESS OF DERBY, MARRIED TO THE LORD CHANCELLOR.

This noble Countess lived many years

With Derby, one of England's greatest peers:

Fruitful and fair, and of so clear a name,

That all this region marvell'd at her fame.

But this brave peer extinct by hasten'd fate,

She stay'd, ah, too, too long, in widow's state;

And in that state took so sweet state upon her,

All ears, eyes, tongues, heard, saw, and told her honour, &c.

But Milton is not the only great English poet who has celebrated the Countess Dowager of Derby. She was the sixth daughter, as we have seen, of Sir John Spencer, with whose family Spenser the poet claimed an alliance. In his 'Colin Clout's come home again,' written about 1595, he mentions her under the appellation of Amaryllis, with her sisters Phyllis or Elizabeth, and Charyllis or Anne; these three of Sir John Spencer's daughters being best known at court. See 1. 536.

No less praiseworthy are the sisters three,
The honour of the noble family,
Of which 1 meanest boast myself to be,
And most that unto them I am so nigh.

After a panegyric on the first two, he next comes

to Amaryllis, or Alice, our lady, the dowager of

Earl Ferdinando, lately deceased :—

But Amaryllis, whether fortunate,

Or else unfortunate may I aread,

That freed is from Cupid's yoke by fate,

Since which she doth new bands adventure dread,

Shepherd, whatever thou hast heard to be
In this or that praised diversely apart,
In her thou mayest them assembled see,
And seal'd up in the treasure of her heart.

And in the same poem he thus apostrophises to her late husband, under the name of Amyntas: see 1. 434.

Amyntas quite is gone, and lies full low,

Having his Amaryllis left to moan!

Help, O ye shepherds! help ye all in this,—

Her loss is yours; your loss Amyntas is!

Amyntas, flower of shepherds' pride forlorn;

He, whilst he lived, was the noblest swain

That ever piped on an oaten quill;

Both did he other, which could pipe, maintain,

And eke could pipe himself with passing skill.

And to the same Lady Alice, when Lady Strange, before her husband Ferdinando's succession to the earldom, Spenser addressed his "Tears of the Muses," published in 1591, in a dedication of the highest regard; where he speaks of "your excellent beauty, your virtuous behaviour, and your noble match with that most honourable lord, the very pattern of right nobility." He then acknowledges the particular bounties which she had conferred upon the poets. Thus the lady who presided at the representation of Milton's ' Arcades' was not only the theme but the patroness of Spenser. The peerage-book of this most respectable countess is the poetry of her times.

CHAPTER VIII.

ON MILTON S FOREIGN TRAVELS.

In 1637, set. twenty-nine, Milton, on the death of his mother, obtained his father's leave to visit Italy. I have already mentioned the course of his travels. The accomplished and amiable Sir Henry Wotton, whose admiration and heart had been won by the poet's 'Comus,' gave him his advice and recommendations. At Florence, Rome, and Naples, he was received with applause and kindness by all the most eminent literati. He, who had been little noticed in his own country, was received with the most distinguished honours abroad, in the country of Dante, Petrarch, Ariosto, and Tasso.

How happened this? Yet such is the perversity of human nature!

It is a subject of deep regret that Milton has not left a written account of his travels, with details such as modern visiters of the same and other countries give; or even such short notes as Gray sent in his letters. It is impossible to conceive any other so qualified to receive delight from these visits as Milton. Above all other men, his mind was full of the richest and most profound classical recollections. Not only his fancy held a mirror to all the beautiful and golden scenery, and all the exquisite and grand displays of the arts of painting and sculpture, but he had a creative imagination, beyond all other men, which must have fired into a blaze at them. All with which his mind had been stored from boyhood, drawn from distant sources, must now have seemed to be realized. He saw the very identical relics of classical times embodied before his eyes : he saw clear skies, and beautiful scenes, of which we have no idea in a northern climate. The Alps and the Apeninnes, the Mediterranean and the Adriatic, and above all the bay of Naples, gave him landscapes and sea-views such as an Englishman, who has never quitted his own country, can have no conception of.

He visited Galileo, which, however, was supposed to have raised some dangerous prejudices against him: but his great friend was the Marquis Manso of Naples, who had been the friend of Tasso, and who was, himself, a poet. 'Ad Mansum,' is one of the best of his Latin poems. With what enthusiasm must Milton have entered into Tasso's character, as well as that of Dante, Petrarch, and Ariosto! Dante's genius was, no doubt, the nearest to his own: but in addition to the epic imagination, there is in his personal history something so striking, so melancholy, and so full of deep interest, that it adds twofold to the attraction with which we read his poetry.

Three, at least, of these four mighty poets suffered great misfortunes: but the history of their lives is well known, and this is not the place for treating of them. We have nothing English of the same sort as their respective geniuses, unless, perhaps, Spenser. The sombreness and mystical sublimity of Dante is peculiar to himself: he has been admirably translated by Carey: he lived in a glorious time for poetry,' when superstition fostered and coloured all its noblest creations; and when the chilling and false artifices of the cold critic had not yet paralysed exertion;— when all was hope and adventure, both of mind and body.

Had Milton's mind at this epoch been so strongly infected with puritanism as his enemies averred, he could not have enjoyed Italian manners and Italian genius. There he saw all the pomp and warmth of religion: puritanism had all its acidity and rigidness, and all its freezing bareness. Coming fresh from these things, of which he has expressed his delight, I know not how he could so at once plunge into principles, which would destroy them all to the very root; but such are the inconsistencies of frail humanity! Gray saw all these things with equal sensibility and taste, if not with equal genius; and he remained fixed in the love of them through life.

But it is worthy of remark, that as soon as Milton actively took the side of this cause of

VOL. I. E

« PreviousContinue »