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But peaceful was the night,
Wherein the Prince of Light
The winds, with wonder whist,
Smoothly the waters kist,
Who now hath quite forgot to rave,
The oracles are dumb;
No voice or hideous hum
Apollo, from his shrine,
Can no more divine,
No nightly trance, or breathed spell,
The lonely mountains o'er,
And the resounding shore,
From haunted spring and dale,
Edged with poplar pale,
With flower-inwoven tresses torn,
In consecrated earth,
And on the holy hearth,
In urns and altars round,
A drear and dying sound
And the chill marble seems to sweat,
While each peculiar power foregoes his wonted seat. About the same time he produced the verses written at a “Solemn Musick,” which have been made far better known to the present generation by the harmony of Handel than even by the fame of their author. The student who desires to trace the mental history of Milton, will be interested by the evidences they show of the ripening of his poetic genius, and of that tendency of his mind to the sublimity of sacred subjects, to which we, doubtless, owe the Paradise Lost. This is chiefly evinced in the lines in which, speaking of Voice and Verse personified as sisters, he says, that they are
Dead things with inbreathed sense able to pierce,
To Him that sits thereon,
Touch their immortal harps of golden wires. In this passage, as Dr. Symmons observes, we acknowledge some touches prelusive to the Paradise Lost.
The prose compositions which have descended to us, produced in the retirement of Milton's college life, are chiefly academical exercises; and five letters, four of which are addressed in Latin to the tutors of his earlier youth, and one in English, the manuscript of which is still preserved in the library of Trinity College, Cambridge, written to a friend who had exhorted him to quit the pursuits of literature for the more active occupations of life. Some passages in the latter require to be reproduced here as beautiful indications of the singular loftiness of his sentiments. After designating that time of his life which was “as yet obscure and unserviceable to mankind," and declaring of his present studies that they were “according to the precept of my conscience, which I firmly trust is not without God,” he proceeds thus: “ If you think, as you said, that too much 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 proceeds 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 fledged 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 creditable employment, and nothing hindering than his 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 honour, 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 command
ment, 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."
This letter is enriched with one of Milton's early sonnets, which, in common with the foregoing passage, exhibits that combination of modesty and earnestness of purpose, which is the invariable accompaniment of true greatness. It is as follows:
How soon has Time, the subtle thief of youth,
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,
All is, if I have grace to use it so,
As ever in my great Task-master's eye. In the beginning of the year 1629, Milton took his bachelor's degree, and, in due course, proceeded to that of master of arts, when he finally quitted the university. The bitter enemies whom his subsequent career arrayed against him, have attempted to derive from this, the obscurest period of his life, the means of casting a reflection upon
his spotless fame. Much time and labour have been unnecessarily wasted in rebutting these calumnies. I will endeavour to dispose of them with greater brevity. The story of his having been subjected to corporal chastisement at his college, though argued with ridiculous ingenuity by several of his biographers, and treated with equally ridiculous solemnity by Dr. Johnson, does not deserve the notice of any writer who is not enthralled by a party purpose, and committed to a “foregone conclusion.” Even were it possible to suppose that the incident occurred, the foregoing notices sufficiently attest that it must have been undeserved; and the censure must therefore be transferred from the conduct of Milton to the semi-catholic regulations of the university, and the incapacity and caprice of its administrators. But, apart from this, the statement itself rests on no evidence that is deserving of a moment's consideration. The calumniators of Milton chiefly rely upon a line in one of his Latin epistles to his friend, Charles Deodati, which cannot be tortured by any ingenuity to such an interpretation.* In addition to this, it is notorious that the statutes of the university prohibited the infliction of any such punishment upon a student of Milton's age.
It has been further argued, that the distaste which Milton repeatedly indicated to Cambridge, both as a locality unfavourable to the inspirations of poetry, to which, as we have seen, he was passionately devoted, and also as arising from the manners and habits of the university, goes to prove his unpopularity at his college ; and one opponent has even been so unscrupulous as to intimate that he was sent away from the university for a time, in consequence of his immorality. It is scarcely necessary to refute a calumny the falsehood of which is so obvious. With respect to the torpifying influence of the local scenery, the testimony of the poet Gray may be added to that of every man of ordinary taste who has been compelled to traverse the wearisome flats of Cambridgeshire.f As to the more serious
minas perferre magistri, Cæteraque ingenio non subeunda meo. + Some of my readers will be reminded of the incurable disgust with which the vicinity of Cambridge affected the late Robert Hall. He once described it in conversation as “Nature laid out ;” and when alluding to the scarcity of wood in the neighbourhood, and having been reminded of the willows which abound there, characteristically replied, “ Yes, Sir, Nature holding out signals of distress !"