Page images
PDF
EPUB

brief snatches of autobiography which occur in his prose writings, that it had received a lasting injury from the studies which he was suffered to prosecute at night, when not more than ten or twelve years of age. When he was called upon to write his “Defence of the People of England,” he was distinctly warned by his physicians, that the prosecution of his design would involve the inevitable loss of his sight. To this condition he deliberately submitted, and the result unhappily justified the predictions of his medical advisers. The precise time at which he lost his sight is not ascertained, a fact which is the less remarkable, as the decay of the organ was in all probability gradual. His own notices of the event, however, constitute a most interesting portion of his biography. Among the distinguished men who sought the honour of his friendship, after the publication of his “Defence of the People of England,” was Lecnardi Philaras, then ambassador from the Duke of Parma to the Court of Paris. This gentleman having recommended, in a letter to Milton, the services of Thevenot, an eminent oculist in Paris, Milton addressed to him the following letter:

“To LEONARD PHILARAS, the Athenian.

“I HAVE always been devotedly attached to the literature of Greece, and particularly to that of your Athens; and have never ceased to cherish the persuasion that that city would one day make me ample recompense for the warmth of my regard. The ancient genius of your renowned country has favoured the completion of my prophecy in presenting me with your friendship and esteem. Though I was known to you only by my writings, and we were removed to such a distance from each other, you most courteously addressed me by letter; and when you unexpectedly came to London, and saw me who could no longer see, my affliction, which causes none to regard me with greater admiration, and perhaps many even with feelings of contempt, excited your tenderest sympathy and concern. You would not suffer me to abandon the hope of recovering my sight; and informed me that you had an intimate friend at Paris, Doctor Thevenot, who was particularly celebrated in disorders of the eyes, whom you would consult about mine, if I would enable you to lay before him the causes and symptoms of the complaint. I will do what you desire, lest I should seem to reject that aid which perhaps may be offered me by Heaven. It is now, I think, about ten years since I perceived my vision to grow weak and dull; and at the same time I was troubled with pain in my kidneys and bowels, accompanied with flatulency. In the morning, if I began to read, as was my custom, my eyes instantly ached intensely, but were refreshed after a little corporeal exercise. The candle which I looked at, seemed as it were encircled with a rainbow. Not long after, the sight in the left port of the left eye (which I lost some years before the other) became quite obscured, and prevented me from discerning any object on that side. The sight in my other eye has now been gradually and scnsibly vanishing away for about three years. Some months before it had entirely perished, though I stood motionless, everything which I looked at seemed in motion to and fro. A stiff cloudy vapour seemed to have settled on my forehead and temples, which usually occasions a sort of somnolent pressure upon my eyes, and particularly from dinner till the evening. So that I often recollect what is said of the poet Phineas in the Argonauctics:– “A stupor deep his cloudy temples bound, And when he walk'd he seem'd as whirling round, Or in a feeble trance he speechless lay.'

I ought not to omit that while I had any sight left, as soon as I lay down on my bed and turned on either side, a flood of light used to gush from my closed eyelids. Then, as my sight became daily more impaired, the colours became more faint, and were emitted with a certain inward crackling sound; but at present, every species of illumination being, as it were, extinguished, there is diffused around me nothing but darkness, or darkness mingled and streaked with an ashy brown. Yet the darkness in which I am perpetually immersed, seems always, both by night and day, to approach nearer to white than black; and when the eye is rolling in its socket, it admits a little particle of light, as through a chink. And though your physician may kindle a small ray of hope, yet I make up my mind to the malady as quite incurable; and I often reflect, that as the wise man admonishes, days of darkness are destined to each of us, the darkness which I experience, less oppressive than that of the tomb, is, owing to the singular goodness of the Deity, passed amid the pursuits of literature and the cheering salutations of friendship. But if, as is written, “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth from the mouth of God,' why may not any one acquiesce in the privation of his sight, when God has so amply furnished his mind and his conscience with eyes? While he so tenderly provides for me, while he so graciously leads me by the hand and conducts me on the way, I will, since it is his pleasure, rather rejoice than repine at being blind. And, my dear Philaras, whatever may be the event, I wish you adieu with no less courage and composure than if I had the eyes of a lynx.

“Westminster, September 28, 1654.”

Nothing can be imagined more lofty or affecting than the occasional references to his loss of sight which are found in the later writings of Milton. The following occurs in his “Second Defence of the People of England:”—“Thus, therefore, when I was publicly solicited to write a reply to the Defence of the Royal Cause; when I had to contend with the pressure of sickness, and with the apprehension of soon losing the sight of my remaining eye, and when my medical attendants clearly announced that if I did engage

* Prose Works, vol. iii. pp. 507, 508. N

in the work, it would be irreparably lost their premonitions caused no hesitation and inspired no dismay. I would not have listened to the voice, even of Esculapius himself from the shrine of Epidaurus, in preference to the suggestions of the heavenly monitor within my breast: my resolution was unshaken, though the alternative was either the loss of my sight or the desertion of my duty, and I called to mind those two destinies which the oracle of Delphi announced to the son of Thetis :

* For, as the goddess spake who gave me birth,
Two fates attend me while I live on earth :
If fixed I combat by the Trojan wall,
Deathless my fame, but certain is my fall.
If I return, beneath my native sky
My days shall flourish long-my glory die.'

I considered that many had purchased a less good by a greater evil, the meed of glory by the loss of life; but that I might procure great good by little suffering; that though I am blind, I might still discharge the most honourable duties, the performance of which, as it is something more durable than glory, ought to be an object of superior admiration and esteem; I resolved, therefore, to make the short interval of sight which was left me to enjoy, as beneficial as possible to the public interest. Thus it is clear by what motives I was governed in the measures which I took, and the losses which I sustained. Let, then, the calumniators of the Divine goodness cease to revile, or to make me the object of their superstitious imaginations. Let them consider, that my situation, such as it is, is neither an object of my shame or my regret, that my resolutions are too firm to be shaken, that I am not depressed by any sense of the Divine displeasure ; that, on the other hand, in the most momentous periods, I have had full experience of the Divine favour and protection ; and that, in the solace and the strength which have been infused into me from above, I have been enabled to do the will of God; that I may oftener

good

think on what he has bestowed, than on what he has withheld; that, in short, I am unwilling to exchange my consciousness of rectitude with that of any other person; and that I feel the recollection a treasured store of tranquillity and delight But, if the choice were necessary, I would, sir, prefer my blindness to yours; yours is a cloud spread over the mind, which darkens both the light of reason and of conscience; mine keeps from my view only the coloured surfaces of things, while it leaves me at liberty to contemplate the beauty and stability of virtue and of truth. How many things are there besides which I would not willingly see; how many which I must see against my will; and how few which I feel any anxiety to see! There is, as the apostle has remarked, a way to strength through weakness. Let me, then, be the most feeble creature alive, as long as that feebleness serves to invigorate the energies of my rational and immortal spirit; as long as in that obscurity in which I am enveloped, the light of the Divine presence more clearly shines—then, in proportion as I am weak, I shall be invincibly strong; and in proportion as I am blind, I shall more clearly see. 0! that I may thus be perfected by feebleness, and irradiated by obscurity! And, indeed, in my blindness, I enjoy in no inconsiderable degree the favour of the Deity, who regards me with more tenderness and compassion in proportion as I am able to behold nothing but himself. Alas! for him who insults me, who maligns and merits public execration! For the Divine law not only shields me from injury, but almost renders me too sacred to attack ; not indeed so much from the privation of my sight, as from the overshadowing of those heavenly wings which seem to have occasioned this obscurity; and which, when occasioned, he is wont to illuminate with an interior light, more precious and more pure.

To this I ascribe the more tender assiduities of my friends, their soothing attentions, their kind visits, their reverential observances.

Thus, while both God and man unite

« PreviousContinue »