« PreviousContinue »
We have no prose compositions of Milton's, of an earlier date than that which stands first in these volumes, except some of his college exercises and five of his familiar letters. Four of the letters and the college exercises are in Latin, and were not published till 1674, the last year of his life.* The fifth letter, of which Dr Birch has printed the rough and the corrected draught, from the author's own manuscripts, is in English, and was written to excuse himself to a friend for having so long delayed to enter the service of the church. It is so characteristic of Milton's noble mind and principles, that the reader will doubtless be pleased to possess it. The corrected copy is as follows:
• Sir,—Besides that in sundry other respects I must acknowledge me to profit by you, whenever we meet, you are often to me, and were yesterday especially, as a good watchman to admonish, that the hours of the night pass on, (for so I call my life as yet obscure and unserviceable to mankind,) and that the day with me is at hand, wherein Christ commands all to labor, while there is light. Which because I am persuaded you
do to no other purpose than out of a true desire, that God should be honored in everv ne, I therefore think my
*He was born on the ninth of December, 1608.
self bound, though unasked, to give you account, as oft as occasion is, of this my tardy moving, according to the precept of my conscience, which, I firmly trust, is not without God. Yet now I will not strain for any set apology, but only refer myself to what my mind shall have at any time to declare herself at her best But if
you think, as you said, that too much love of learning is in fault, and that I have given up myself to dream away my years in the arms of studious retirement, like Endymion with the moon, as the tale of Latmus goes; yet consider, that if it were no more but the mere love of learning, whether it proceed from a principle bad, good, or natural, it could not have held out thus long against so strong opposition on the other side of every kind. For if it be bad, why should not all the fond hopes, that forward youth and vanity are fledge with, together with gain, pride, and ambition, call me forward more powerfully, than a poor, regardless, and unprofitable sin of curiosity should be able to withhold me, whereby a man cuts himself off from all action, and becomes the most helpless, pusillanimous, and unweaponed creature in the world, the most unfit and unable to do that, which all mortals most aspire to, either to be useful to his friends, or to offend his enemies. Or if it be to be thought a natural proneness, there is against that a much more potent inclination inbred, which about this time of a man's life solicits most, the desire of house and family of his own, 'to which nothing is esteemed more helpful than the early entering into credible employment, and nothing hindering than this affected solitariness. And though this were enough,
yet there is to this another act, if not of pure, yet of refined nature, no less available to dissuade prolonged obscurity, a desire of honor and repute and immortal fame, seated in the breast of every true scholar, which all make haste to by the readiest ways of publishing and divulging conceived merits, as well those that shall, as those that never shall obtain it. Nature therefore would presently work the more prevalent way, if there were nothing but this inferior bent of herself to restrain her. Lastly, the love of learning, as it is the pursuit of something good, it would sooner follow the more excellent and supreme good known and presented, and so be quickly diverted from the empty and fantastic chase of shadows and notions, to the solid good flowing from due and timely obedience to that command in the gospel set out by the terrible seizing of him that hid the talent. It is more probable therefore, that not the endless delight of speculation, but this very consideration of that great commandment, does not press forward as soon as many do, to undergo, but keeps off with a sacred reverence and religious advisement how best to undergo ; not taking thought of being late, so it give advantage to be more fit; for those that were latest, lost nothing, when the master of the vineyard came to give each one his hire. And here I am come to a stream head, copious enough to disburden itself like Nilus at seven mouths into an ocean. But then I should also run into a reciprocal contradiction of ebbing and flowing at once, and do that, which I excuse myself for not doing, "preach and not preach." Yet that you may see, that I am something suspicious of myself,
and do take notice of a certain belatedness in me, bold to send you some of my nightward thoughts some while since, because they come in not altogether unfitly, made up in a Petrarchian stanza, which I told
“How soon hath Time, the subtle thief of youth,
Stoln on his wing my three and twentieth year!
But my late spring no bud or blossom shew'th.
That I to manhood am arrived so near,
That some more timely-happy spirits indu'th.
It shall be still in strictest measure even
To that same lot, however mean or high, Toward which Time leads me, and the will of Heaven.
All is, if I have grace to use it so,
As ever in my great Task-Master's eye. * By this I believe you may well repent of having made mention at all of this matter; for if I have not all this while won you to this, I have certainly wearied
This therefore alone may be a sufficient reason for me to keep me as I am, lest having thus tired you singly, I should deal worse with a whole congregation, and spoil all the patience of a parish; for I myself do not only see my own tediousness, but now grow offended with it, that has hindered me thus long from coming to the last and best period of my letter, that which must now chiefly work my pardon, that I am your true and unfeigned friend.'
you of it.