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MILTON'S DEATH. THERE are certain minor points which it is very useful to ascertain, but which, when once established, do not require to be repeated ; such are many of the particulars verified with the most exemplary labour by Todd. If any thing were wanting, Mitford has gone over the ground again with acute and discriminate taste and judgment : a poet himself, of deep feeling, and eloquent originality.
I will however just mention, that the poet did not entirely abandon literary production after having published the two magnificent poems last noticed. In 1672 he put forth his “Artis Logicæ Plenior Institutio ;" and in 1673 his “ Treatise of True Religion, Heresy,” &c.
In the year of his death he published his “ Familiar Letters in Latin," with some “Academical Exercises."
In the preceding year he reprinted his “ Juvenile Poems," with additions, among which is the “ Tractate on Education,” published in 1644.
His health now gave way fast, and his fits of the gout became violent ; but such was the firmness of his mind, that Aubrey says, even in the paroxysms of this fell disease," he would be very cheerful, and sing." He died quietly at his house in Bunhill-fields, on Sunday, November 8th, 1674 ; wanting only a month of completing his sixty-sixth year. Thus departed the greatest epic poet of England, and, in my opinion, of any country or age. He was buried near his father, in the chancel of St. Giles, Cripplegate.
His person was beautiful in youth, but his face too delicate : he was of middle height, active, and a good swordsman ; temperate in his food, and all his habits of life, except in study, in which he indulged to excess even from his childhood. His evenings were usually passed in music and conversation : his chief time of composition appears to have been the night; and by the aid of a most retentive memory, he dictated in the morning to an amanuensis what he had thus composed.
His biographers say that he was of an equal and placid temper : but this is not the character given by Mrs. Powell, the mother of his first wife ; who, however, was an angry and prejudiced witness. Todd has printed a full account of his nuncupative will, which was first discovered by T. Warton, and which, being contested, furnishes several curious particulars of his domestic habits. He had an humble establishment, consisting of two maid-servants and a man-servant : he dined usually in his kitchen*. He never was a man of worldly ostentation, and always despised money: he seems to have been stern to his daughters, and exacted too much from them; they accordingly did not steadily love him. It must have been an irksome task to them to read to him in languages which they did not understand.
As to the poet's religious tenets, a treatise has been lately recovered from the State-Paper Office, which has made a great noise among the theologists ; the title is, “ De Doctrina Christiana, ex Sacris duntaxat Libris petita, Disquisitionum Libri duo posthumi." King George IV. put it into the hands of Dr. Sumner, (afterwards Bishop of Winchester,) to be edited and translated. It is said that the poet, being dissatisfied with the Bodies of Divinity then published, was thus induced to compile one for himself. This treatise is considered to prove that Milton was finally an Arian. It is calmly and moderately written ; not with the animosity of a controversialist, but it wants the author's former or usual recondite learning and argumentative force.
Bishop Burgess, considering that this work disproves the poet's orthodoxy, has disputed its genuineness t ; but it is generally admitted that its authenticity cannot be doubted. This extraordinary treatise contains many singular opinions, which none but theologists will take the trouble to discuss. S
Milton left three daughters :-Anne, who was deformed, and died in childbed ; Mary, who died single ; and Deborah, who married Abraham Clarke, a weaver in
* This was long afterwards, in Geneva, the custom of the highest and most opulent Genevan families. See Picot, “ Histoire de Genève."
† 8vo. 1826. See discussions on Milton's tenets fiere let out, in “Edinburgh Review,” No. cvII, September, 1831 ; and see Mitford's note, “ Life," p. cx.
& See the American (Dr. Channing's) “ Remarks on the Character and Writings of Milton."
Spitalfields, and died, aged seventy-six, in August, 1727. Her daughter married Thomas Foster, also a weaver in Spitalfields, and died at Islington, May 9th, 1754, in her sixty-sixth year*.
Sir Christopher Milton, the poet's only brother, was knighted and made a judge by James 11., but soon retired from the bench. He retired to Ipswich, and afterwaris to the village of Rushmere, about two miles distant, where he died; and was buried in the church of St. Nicholas, Ipswich, March 22nd, 1692. He left childrent.
Milton had also two nephews by his sister Philips, John Philips and Edward Philips, both authors 1.
GENERAL AND MISCELLANFOUS OBSERVATIONS. I now come to general observations on the poet's character and genius : of these I have already intermixed some in the course of the narrative : if I recur to any of the same opinions and reflections, although in other words, I must crave the reader's indulgence.
Of this "greatest of great men,” the private traits and whole life were congenial to his poetry. Men of narrow feelings will say that his political writings contradict this congeniality. His politics were, no doubt, violent and fierce ; but it cannot be doubted that they were conscientious. He lived at a crisis of extraordinary public agitation, when all the principles of government were moved to their very foundations, and when there was a general desire to commence institutions de novo.
In his early poems there are occasional passages which show his taste for monarchical and aristocratic manners ; for the pomp of the state and the church ; for the glories of chivalry and the feudal system ; for the halls of “ knights and barvns bold ;” for the music and the solemn gloom of magnificent cathedrals :
the high-embowed roof,
In service high and anthems clear, &c.- Il Penseroso. Milton's imagination was not at all suited to the cold and dry hypocrisy of a Puritan ; but liis gigantic mind gave him a temper that spurned at all authority. This was his characteristic through life: it showed itself in every thought and every action, both public and private, from his earliest youth ; except that he did not appear to rebel against parental authority ; for nothing is more beautiful than his mild and tender expostulation to his father, in that exquisite Latiu address which has been quoted.
His great poems require such a stretch of mind in the reader, as to be almost painful. The most amazing copiousness of learning is sublimated into all his concrptions and descriptions. His learning never oppressed his imagination ; and his imagination never obliterated or dimmed his learning : but even these would not have done, without the addition of a great heart and a pure and lofty mind.
That mind was given up to study and meditation from his boyhood till his death ; he had no taste for the vulgar pleasures of life ; he was all spiritual. But he loved fame enthusiastically, and was ready to engage in the great affairs of public business, and when he did engage, performed his part with industry, skill, and courage. Courage, indeed, mingled, in a prominent degree, among his many other mighty and splendid qualities.
Who is equal to analyse a mind so rich, so powerful, so exquisite ?
I do not think that tenderness was his characteristic ; and he was, above all other men, unyielding. His softer sensibilities were rather reflective than instan* Sir Jamey Mackintosh found the last descendant of Milton, parish-clerk at Madras.
Sec Pedigrees of Knights made by Charles II. an James II., collected by De Neve, inter Ma Brit Mus.
: See their " Lives" by Godwin. See also “ Theatrum Poetarum,” Canterbury 1800 ; and again, Geneva 1824.
aneous ; his sentiments came from his imagination, rather than his imagination from his sentiments.
The vast fruits of his mind always resulted from complex ingredients ; though they were so amalgamated, that with him they became simple in their effects. It is impossible now to trace the processes of his intellect. We cannot tell what he would have been without study; but we know that he must have been great under any circum. starices, though his greatness might have been of a different kind.
He made whatever he gathered from others his own; he only used it as an ingredient for his own combinations.
His earliest study seems to have been the holy writings ; they first fed his fancy with the imagery of Eastern poetry ; and nowhere could he have found so sublime a nutriment. But what is any nutriment to him who cannot taste, digest, and be nourished! It depends not upon the force and excellence of what is conveyed; but upon the power of the recipient : it is, almost all, inborn genius, though it may be under the influence of some small modification from discipline.
However great and wonderful Milton was, there were some points in which both Spenser and Shakspeare exceeded him ; because in those points nature had been more favourable to them. Probably both Spenser and Shakspeare were more ductile to the world. Milton was stern, solitary, unbending, contemptuous, proud, yet unostentatious. With his disposition and taste, he was little observant of the minor manners and characters of society: he was always thoughtful, inflexible, and abstracted. Loftiness of musing was the sphere in which he lived : his books were his companions ; his imagination surrounded him with another and a spiritual world.
Providence has endowed us with the power to conceive what is more magnificent and more beautiful than that which the material world exhibits. We know not why—it is among the mysteries of the Almighty.
If he who nurses these spiritualities is at the same time a materialist in action, then we may doubt the good of them : but assuredly Milton was not guilty of this inconsistency. Read all his earnest and eloquent professions of innocence ; and who can hesitate to give credit to them? His controversial opponents have attempted to throw dirt upon him, but have not succeeded. He provoked the most bitter hostility ; yet no immorality could be fastened upon him.
Allowing the poet to have been harsh and choleric, yet the sanctity of his disposition and character appears to me demonstrative. I can reconcile this with his severe politics, though those seem, certainly, not very merciful.
Superficial minds, affecting the tone of wisdom, hold out that the gifts of the Muse are incompatible with serious business. Milton, the greatest of poets, affords a crushing answer to this. In the flower of his manhood, and through middle age, he was a statist, and active man of executive affairs in a crisis of unexampled difficulty and danger. His controversial writings, both in politics and divinity, are solid, vigorous, original, and practical ; and yet he could return at last to the highest Hights of the Muse, undamped and undimmed.
The lesson of his life is one of the most instructive that biography affords : it shows what various and dissimilar powers may be united in the same person, and what a grandeur of moral principles may actuate the human heart ; but at the same time it shows how little all these combined talents and virtues can secure the due respect and regard of contemporaries. It is absurd to deny that Milton was neglected during his life, and that his unworldly-mindedness let the meanest of the people mount over his head. He lived poor, and for the most part in obscurity; Even high employments in the state seem to have obtained him no luxuries, and few friends or acquaintance : no brother poets flocked round him ; none praised him, though in the habit of flattering each other.
The poet, indeed, might have been employed more consistently with his sublime genius than in political and theological controversy. He lost nineteen precious years of his middle life in those irritating occupations, from the age of thirty-two to fifty-one: after that age he occupied the remaining fourteen years of his life principally in poetry. His controversies had not sullied his imagination, nor affected the sanctity of his thoughts, language, or temper:- I mean, after these degrading labours ceased*; for, while busy in them, they must have necessarily embittered his feelings and lowered his mind. It is melancholy to think how much of grand invention, which he might in those long years have put forth, has been lost to the world.
I do not say that the writings which during that period he did put forth have been entirely useless ; but they were beneath Milton's best powers, and might probably have been executed by inferior talents. I here suppose them excellent in their department and unmixed with mischief ; but this is more than can be conceded positively to them. The notions of republicanism are assuredly carried too far; and nothing can be more dangerous than to resist all authority, and call in question all ancient institutions.
If intellect is the grand glory of man, Milton stands pre-eminent above all other human beings ; above Homer, Virgil, Dante, Petrarch, Tasso, Spenser and Shakspeare! To the highest grandeur of invention upon the sublimest subject he unites the greatest wisdom and learning, and the most perfect art. Almost all other poets sink into twinkling stars before him. What has issued from the French school of poetry seems to be the production of an inferior order of beings, and in this I include even our Dryden and Pope ; for I cannot place these two famous menamong the greatest poets: they may be among the first of a secondary class.
It is easy to select fine passages from minor poetical authors ; but a great poet must be tried by his entirety,-by the uniform texture of his web.
Milion has a language of his own ; I may say, invented by himself. It is somewhat hard, but it is all sinew : it is not vernacular, but has a latinized cast, which requires a little time to reconcile a reader to it. It is best fitted to convey his own magnificent ideas : its very learnedness impresses us with respect : it moves with a gigantie step : it does not flow, like Shakspeare's style ; nor dance, like Spenser's. Now and then there are transpositions somewhat alien to the character of the English language, which is not well-calculated for transposition ; but in Milton this is perhaps a merit, because his lines are pregnant with deep thought and sublime imagery, which require us to dwell upon them, and contemplate them over and over. He ought never to be read rapidly; his is a style which no one ought to imitate till he is endowed with a soul like Milton's. His ingredients of learning are so worked into his original thoughts, that they form a part of them ; they are never patches.
One would wish to present to oneself the mental and moral character of Milton even from his childhood. Probably he was absorbed in himself, and by no means ductile ; lonely in his pleasures, uncompanionable, and seemingly sullen ; angry when interrupted in his books : satirical or contemptuous at frivolous conversation ; contradictory when roused, and hardy when answered : estimated doubtfully by his father ; sometimes praised; sometimes raising high expectations ; sometimes causing fear, and even anger and remonstrance.
Genius will never be dictated to; and few observers can distinguish this repugnance from an obstinate and dull indocility. They, on the contrary, who are quick to apprebend, but who have no ideas of their own, take things rapidly and without resistance.
One should like to imagine the difference of early character, habits, sentiments, pursuits, conduct and temper, between Milton and Gray ; both sons of men following the same calling, both living in the bustle of the city, and both addicted to literary occupations. There was this primary difference, that Milton had a good father, and Gray a bad one.
Milton was probably more stern ; Gray more tender and morbid : Milton more confident and aspiring; Gray more fearful and hopeless. Each loved books and learning, and each had an exquisite taste. Milton was more vigorous ; Gray more nice. Both were imaginative and fond of romantic fiction : but Milton was more enterprising. Gray's fastidiousness impeded him ; he was
A puny insect, shivering at the breeze. Milton was dauntless, defiant, and, when insulted, fierce; perhaps ferocious : nothing sbook liis self-reliance. Gray was driven back even by a frown.
The “ Elegiac Bard” might have done tenfold more than he did if he had been more courageous, but could never have done what Milton has done : he had not the same invention, nor the same natural sublimity. Milton was far the happier being, though he engaged in controversies which Gray's peaceful spirit would have aronted. Milton was a practical statesman ; Gray would have been utterly unfit to engage in affairs of state,
Gray's spirits were partly broken by the unprincipled and brutal conduct of his fathrt to his mother; but they were naturally low: his inborn sensitiveness amounted to disease. He seems to have been more delicate and precise in his
classical scholarship, and more exact in all his knowledge ; but it was not so mingled up with original thought, and therefore not so valuable : his memory was often mere memory, and therefore was exact. This did not arise from inability, but from timidity and indolence : he lived in the solemn and monotonous cloisters of a college ; he had nothing of the ordinary movements of life to excite him : all the faculties of his mind, therefore, except his memory, were often stagnant. The memory works best when the passions are least moved.
The dim misty grey hues of vacant despondence will chill the lips and palsy the voice. Who fears the ridicule or censure of men, but anticipates not the cheer of triumphi, will want the sources of energy and enterprise. The blood must glow in 1 the veins, and the heart must dance, to enable us to do great things.
We cannot doubt that this was the case with Milton : many noble passages regarding himself in his prose works prove it: he nursed glorious and holy hopes from his childhood. Afterwards, in the midst of the foulest calumnies, he was undaunted and undismayed. Even in the most perilous times, when the ban of proscription and the sword of death were hanging over his head, he conceived, and partly composed his“ Paradise Lost.” He had a spring of soul which nothing could relax.
Magnanimity grows strong by opposition and difficulty ; and when a difficulty is conquered, the energy is doubled : no one knows what powers are in him till lie is pressed : when they come out from pressure, hope and confidence come with them. It is not till after we have been tried that we trust to ourselves : then we stand unmoved by the blast, and laugh at the storm. All genuine power grows more vigorous after it has been tried.
Thousands go down to the grave, unconscious of the native faculties, which, if exercised, might have distinguished them : but buried faculties are an incumbrance, and breed diseases ; and it cannot be doubted that this was one of the maladies of Gray. Milton was never to be silenced : the fire within found vent; and then his great heart was at ease, and triumphed.
There was not the same force and depth in his early Latin poems as in his early English : this perhaps arose from the constraint of writing in a foreign and dead language. He was compelled to look to models ; and whatever merits the ancient classic poets have, they have not the sombre tone and colouring, and the picturesque imaginativeness, which began in the Italian school with Dante. Of that school Milton was the noblest and most inborn scholar : in some of his earliest English verses he caught Dante's magnificent darkness, his mystical images, his spiritual visions.
Milton is never an empty dealer in words ; it is always the thought, the sentiment, the image, which impels him to speak : it breathes-it throws forth the raciness of life. His earliest poems travel out of the track of mere observation, and explore the spiritual world. He ventures among miracles, and hears aerial voices, and rises among the choirs of angels. In any but the most sublime genius it would have been rash hardihood to have entered so early on such unearthly subjects. He has acquitted himself with the vigour of the most matured age.
If the “ Hymn on the Nativity" was a college exercise, its original force is the more extraordinary, because he was under thesurveillance of technical judges; and nothing but a master-genius could have emboldened him to take his own peculiar course. How those to whom it was addressed must have stared when they compared it with the creeping, feeble, lame, colloquial, trite compositions which surrounded it! They must have started, half annoyed, half doubting, half delighted against their will, half shrinking at what they suspected to be rebellious audacity; half recollecting models; then beginning to think that the young poet had found out a new language, but whispering to themselves that heresies from admitted models ought to be discouraged.
The example was not followed ; no one caught the tone : probably it was found too difficult to assume. No one had the genius, or the force, or the taste to achieve it. The first edition of the “ Juvenile Poems" appeared in 1645 ; no other was called for, for nearly thirty years.
It is wilful misrepresentation, therefore, to say that these poems received much notice from Milton's contemporaries. They are far above the taste of his age, or perhaps of the immediate popular taste of any age.
Common readers love common passions, and the images which are familiar to them; they like practical observations upon actual daily life, and witticisms upon their neighbours, rivals, and superiors.