Page images
PDF
EPUB

CHAPTER II.

BIRTH AND PARENTAGE OF MILTON-NOTICE OF HIS FATHER-EARLY

EDUCATION AND HABITS OF THE SON-HIS EARLIEST EXTANT POEM-
ENTERS THE UNIVERSITY OF CAMBRIDGE-HIS POEMS AND EXERCISES
AT COLLEGE-CALUMNIES AGAINST HIS MORALS AT THIS PERIOD-
HIS REFUTATION OF THEM-HIS REASONS FOR DECLINING THE
CLERICAL PROFESSION— NOTICE OF DR. JOHNSON'S OBSERVATIONS
THEREON.

JOHN MILTON was born at his father's house, in Bread Street, Cheapside, on the 9th of December, 1608. His father appears, in some respects, to have been worthy to have his name perpetuated by such a son; for, while prosecuting his studies at the University of Oxford, he became convinced of the anti-christian character of the popish religion, and embraced the protestant faith at the sacrifice of his paternal inheritance and his immediate prospects. Having abruptly quitted the University upon this change of his fortunes, he commenced practice in London as a scrivener; and, while procuring the means of giving a high education to his son, he found leisure for the pursuit of various studies, and especially that of music, in which he seems to have attained considerable excellence. This accomplishment his son rated so highly, that he associated it with his own poetic genius and fame, in a Latin poem, subsequently addressed to his father, distinguished as much for its filial piety as for that classic latinity in which Milton has but few rivals in modern times. The passage referred to has been thus translated :

Nor you affect to scorn the Aonian quire,
Bless'd by their smiles and glowing with their fire.
You ! who by them inspired, with art profound,
Can wield the magic of proportion’d sound :
Through thousand tones can teach the voice to stray,
And wind to harmony its mazy way,
Arion's tuneful heir:-then wonder not
A poet-child should be by you begot,
My kindred blood is warm with kindred flame,
And the son treads his father's track to fame.
Phæbus controls us with a common sway;
To you commends his lyre,-to me his lay:
Whole in each bosom makes his just abode,

With child and sire the same, though varied god. In answer to some malignant insinuations thrown out in after life by a political adversary, Milton, in his second defence to the people of England, presents with equal brevity and modesty a view of his early history. In this we find the following reference to his boyhood: "My father destined me from a child to the pursuits of literature; and my appetite for knowledge was so voracious, that, from twelve years

of

age, I hardly ever left my studies or went to bed before midnight. This primarily led to my loss of sight. My eyes were naturally weak, and I was subject to frequent head-aches, which, however, could not chill the ardour of my curiosity, or retard the progress of my improvement. My father had me daily instructed in the Grammarschool, and by other masters at home.” Aubrey, also, in his MS. Life of Milton, preserved in the Ashmolean Museum at Oxford, relates that, “when Milton went to schoole, and when he was very younge, he studied very hard, and sate up very late, commonly till twelve or one o'clock; and his father ordered the maid to sitt up for him.” At the age of fifteen, that is, in the year 1623, Milton was admitted to St. Paul's School, and in the same year produced the first poems

which have come down to our time; although, from the authority before quoted, we learn that he was a poet at ten years old, at which

age his first portrait was executed by Cornelius Jansen.

To those who are interested in tracing in “the child the father of the man,” it will be delightful to examine these early productions; just as “the little rill near the source of one of the great American rivers is an interesting object to the traveller who is apprised, as he steps across it, or walks a few miles along its banks, that this is the stream which runs so far, and which gradually swells into so vast a flood.”* The poems referred to are versions of the 114th and 136th Psalms. The former of these is inserted as being the shorter, and, perhaps, the more characteristic. Milton afterward translated it into Greek verse.

A PARAPHRASE ON PSALM CXIV.
When the blest seed of Terah's faithful son
After long toil their liberty had won;
And pass'd from Pharian fields to Canaan land,
Led by the strength of the Almighty's hand;
Jehovah's wonders were in Israel shown,
His praise and glory was in Israel known.
That saw the troubled sea, and shivering fled,
And sought to hide his froth-becurled head
Low in the earth; Jordan's clear streams recoil,
As a faint host that hath received the foil.
The high, huge-bellied mountains skip, like rams
Amongst their ewes: the little hills, like lambs.
Why fled the ocean? And why skipt the mountains?
Why turned Jordan toward his crystal fountains ?
Shake, earth; and at the presence be aghast
Of Him that ever was, and aye shall last;
That glassy floods from rugged rocks can crush,

And make soft rills from fiery flint-stones gush! In his seventeenth year he commenced his University career at Christ College, Cambridge. For this he was prepared by an extensive acquaintance with classical literature, and a knowledge of several modern languages acquired at St. Paul's School. But it was to the poets that he devoted his chief attention, and for the appreciation of them he modestly lays claim but to one, and that a very subordinate qualification,-an exquisite nicety of ear. It was in this the first

* Foster's Essay on a Man's writing Memoirs of himself.

year of his college:life that he wrote his elegy“ On the death of a Fair Infant,” which is too long for insertion, but which indicates a great advance upon his earlier productions in : maturity of mind and in facility of management. It cannot be said of Milton that he ever set any author before him as a model. It is, however, evident that Ovid was the reigning, favourite of the youthful poet, and, even amidst the multifarious learning which, as if by a necessity he could not control, crowded the productions of his after life, it is easy; to trace the frequent reminiscences of his first love.

At college he was particularly admired for his academical exercises, both in Latin and English verse. The former language he wrote through life with as much ease and force as if it had been his vernacular tongue. In his prose writings, indeed, he never affected a pedantic conformity to the classic models, though in Latin verse his resemblance to them was at once so close and so. natural, that Mr. Macaulay justly applies to him a tasteful criticism on Cowley, that “ he wore the garb but not the clothes of the ancients."

In the year : 1627 he produced a “vacation exercise in the College," of which Todd remarks that, written at the age of nineteen, it has been repeatedly and justly noticed as containing indications of the future bard, “whose genius was equal to a subject that carried him beyond the limits of the world.” In the following lines the reader will discern the twilight that heralded the undeclining day of Comus, Il Penseroso, and the Paradise Lost. Addressing the personification of the English language, he writes:

Yet I had rather, if I were to chuse,
Thy service in some graver subject use,
Such as may make thee search thy coffers round,
Before thou clothe my fancy in fit sound:
Such where the deep transported mind may soar
Above the wheeling poles, and at heaven's door
Look in, and see each blissful deity;
How he before the thunderous throne doth lie,

Listening to what unshorn Apollo sings
To the touch of golden wires, while Hebe brings.
Immortal nectar to her kingly sire:
Then passing through the spheres of watchful fire,
And misty regions of wide air next under,
And hills of snow, and lofts of piled thunder,
May tell at length how green-eyed Neptune raves,
In heaven's defiance mustering all his waves ;
Then sing of secret things that came to pass
When beldam Nature in her cradle was;
And last of kings, and queens, and heroes old,
Such as the wise Demodocus once told
In solemn songs at King Alcinous' feast,
While sad Ulysses' soul, and all the rest,
Are held, with his melodious harmony,

In willing chains and sweet captivity. Two years afterwards he produced his “Ode on the Morning of Christ's Nativity." A hypercritical analysis has detected some fancied faults in this exquisite poem. But if the writers referred to had recollected the age in which (not to say at which) it was written, or the canon of candour which a great poetical critic* of antiquity left for the guidance of his successors, they might, perhaps, have spared their ingenuity. It bears a stamp of premature, but conscious, majesty in every verse; while in the very music of such stanzas as the following, there reigns a spirit of silence which is charmingly appropriate, and irresistibly impressive :

No war, or battle's sound,

Was heard the world around :
The idle spear and shield were high uphung;

The hooked chariot stood

Unstainéd with hostile blood;
The trumpet spake not to the armed throng;

And kings sat still with awful eye,
As if they surely knew their sov'ran Lord was by.

* Verum ubi plura nitent in carmine, non ego paucis

Offendar maculis quas aut incuria fudit,
Aut humana parum cavit natura.

Horace : De Arte Poetica.

« PreviousContinue »