Page images
[ocr errors]


[ocr errors]
[ocr errors]

* presented” before the Earl at Ludlow, his children and Lawes being the chief actors. (See heading to “Comus," at page 40.) We cannot refrain from adding, that the Lady” afterwards married the Earl of Carbury, and at his seat, “Golden Grove,” in Carmarthenshire, sheltered and protected Milton's great contemporary, Jeremy Taylor, during the usurpation of Cromwell. The eloquent divine preached her funeral sermon, in which her character is admirably drawn. Her sister, Lady Mary, was married to the celebrated Lord Herbert of Cherbury.

The “ Comus” had been preceded by the “ Arcades,” which the youthful poet wrote for the family of his fair neighbour the Dowager Countess of Derby, who lived near Uxbridge, and at whose house he frequently visited. Here, probably, also he had made the acquaintance of the Bridgewater family, for Lord Bridgewater had married a daughter of Lady Derby's.

This lady was a very accomplished woman, and of kin to Spenser, the poet.

During his five years' residence in his father's house, Milton occasionally visited London, to buy books, enjoy the society of his friends, and to visit the theatres, in which he greatly delighted at this period of his life—that brilliant and gifted youth which we so reluctantly quit for his harder and sterner manhood.

In 1637 his friend Edward King was lost in the Irish Sea, and Milton honoured his memory by writing “Lycidas," as a monody on his death.

It is not possible to fix the date of the composition of the Allegro " or the "Penseroso," but there is every reason to believe that those enchanting pictures of rural life, of mirth and melancholy, were written at Hoxton.

He was beginning to grow weary of the country, and had thoughts of taking chambers in one of the Inns of Court, when his mother died; and his father shortly afterwards was persuaded to let him travel on the Continent. Before his departure he received from the celebrated Sir Henry Wotton the wise instruction to keep “i pensieri stretti ed il viso sciolto,” i.e., "close thoughts and a frank countenance.'

In 1638 he quitted England, and went first to Paris. Here Lord Scudamore, the English Ambassador, gave him an introduction to Grotius, the learned ambassador of the singular and (also) learned Christina, Queen of Sweden. From Paris, after a short stay,


Milton proceeded to Italy, then the classic land of Europe, to which his thoughts and affections had continually travelled. There Tasso had quite recently charmed the world with his “Gerusalemme Liberata ;" Ariosto was still a modern poet, and the renown of Dante and Petrarch, now two centuries old, was at its height. In the recent reigns of Elizabeth and James, the intercourse between Italy and England had been frequent. - To have swum in a gondola ” was, as Shakespeare tells us, the boast of travelled youths. The fame of the arts and science of “le belle contade" was worldspread. No marvel that Milton eagerly mastered the language and hurried to its shores.

The Italians were deeply interested in all literature, and far better able to appreciate the gifted Englishman than the generality of his uncultivated countrymen; -- amongst whom, as

Johnson says, with respect to the sale of “ Paradise Lost," " to read was not then a general amusement; neither traders, nor often gentlemen, thought themselves disgraced by ignorance: the women had not then aspired to literature . and of that middle race of students, who read for pleasure or accomplishment, the number was comparatively small.”

To pass from the England of 1638 to the Italy of that period, must have been like going from darkness to light.

Milton went from Nice to Genoa, thence to Leghorn and Pisa, and proceeded to Florence, where he remained two months. Sir Henry Wotton (whose heart had been won by the “ Comus ") had given the poet introductory letters to the chief literary men of the city, and Milton met with a most enthusiastic reception.

He formed friendships with the celebrated Carlo Dati, Frescobaldi, and Antonio Malatesta, and during his residence there he visited the recently liberated prisoner of the Inquisition-Galileo. It is thought probable that Grotius had urged Milton to see the great astronomer, for in the very month in which the young English poet was presented to him, he wrote thus to Vossius of Galileo :-“This old man, to whom the universe is so largely indebted, worn out with maladies, and still more with anguish of mind, gives us little reasons to hope that his life can be long. Common prudence, therefore, suggests to us to make the most of the time while we can yet avail ourselves of such an instructor."

Milton next paid a short visit to Sienna, then proceeded to Rome, where he remained two months. Holstenius, à savant of Euro


pean renown (who had known Milton when he (Holstenius) was at Oxford) was then Librarian to the Vatican. He introduced the young Englishman to Cardinal Barberini, afterwards Pope Urban VIII., who invited him to a concert, received him at the doors, and presented him, in the most flattering terms, to the brilliant assembly. Amongst them Milton's eyes lighted on a woman, beautiful, with the rare and intellectual loveliness of a Grecian muse: she was Leonora Baroni—the first singer in the world. Her mother, as beautiful and nearly as fine a singer as herself, sat near her with her lute. The rapture of the poet may be imagined when he heard the fair wonder sing to her mother's accompaniment. He celebrated her genius in three fine Latin epigrams. (See page 549.) Whether she was the “ Donna" of his Italian sonnets we cannot tell; her name recalled the Leonora of Tasso; her talent was just that which he best loved.

From Rome Milton travelled to Naples, in company with a hermit, who must have been able to appreciate the poet, as, on their arrival at Naples, he introduced him to Manso, Marquis of Villa, the friend, patron, and biographer of Tasso. Manso was delighted with his new acquaintance, and addressed to him a distich, with the same play on words with which Gregory inaugurated his plan for the conversion of Britian:

[ocr errors]

Ut mens, forma decor, facies, mos, si pietas sic
Non Anglus, verum hercle Angelus ipse fores.

Thus translated by Cowper :-

The Neapolitan, John Baptist Manso, Marquis of Villa, to the Englishman,


[ocr errors]

si 1

What features, form, mien, manners, with a mind,
Oh, how intelligent ! and how refined !
Were but thy piety from fault as free,
Thou wouldst no angle, but an angel be.


Milton, in return, addressed to the Marquis a Latin poem (see page 570), which must have greatly impressed the learned Italians.

Milton now purposed visiting Sicily and Greece, but letters from home told him how England was shaken to its centre by the differences between the King, Charles I., and his Parliament, and the young man thought that duty and patriotism alike forbade his absence from his native land in her hour of sore trial. So he bent

[ocr errors]

his steps homeward, not, however, hurrying his journey. Again he visited Rome, though warned of plots formed by the Jesuits against him on account of the openness with which he had discussed religious topics, and although' at Naples, Manso had told him that his religion alone precluded him from great distinction, he felt sure that his nationality protected him from personal danger, and remained again two months in Rome. From thence he went to Florence, to Lucca, and to Venice. From the latter city he sent his father a collection of music and books, and proceeded to Geneva, then the seat of Puritanism, and the spot from whence republican doctrines were promulgated over Europe. Here he found a friend in Charles Diodati's uncle, John (or Giovanni), and in Frederick Spanheim, who was also a learned Professor of Divinity. From Geneva he returned to France, and thence home, having been absent from England a year and three months.

The news of the death of his dear friend, Charles Diodati, met him on his return: he commemorated the loss in the “ Epitaphium Damonis.” (See page 573.)

The youth of Milton closes with this grief. He was now a man of thirty-one years of age, and it behoved him to take up the work of life in earnest. He had drawn largely on the means of his generous father, and he was not the only child-he had a brother Christopher, a lawyer; his sister Anne was well married before he went to Cambridge. (See his Elegy on the death of her infant, at page. 1.) She had recently been widowed and married a second time. Milton at once decided on his own course. He resolved to take pupils, and the first he received were his sister's sons by her first husband-John and Edward. Philips. He took a lodging at the house of a tailor named Russell, in St. Bride's Churchyard, and began the prosaic task of teaching ; but the locality was unendurable to him, and he removed into a pleasant house, standing in a garden, at the end of a passage rleading out of Aldersgate Street. Here he received more private pupils to board and teach.

And now we come to the reverse of the brilliant picture of his youth. For twenty years the poet sang no more." All that long period was occupied in school duties, political controversy, and householt troubles. 91 In considering this period of Milton's life, when he used his great abilities (obscured in prose) against his Sovereign and the National Church, we must pause for a moment to consider the age in which he had been born and brought up.

[ocr errors]


When his infant eyes unclosed in Bread Street, James I. had been five years King of Britain. The glorious reign of Elizabeth, with its host of great Statesmen, Warriors, Poets, and Discoverers, was succeeded by that of a contemptible and pedantic Sovereign, whose favouritism led to crimes of the darkest dye. Our readers will find in the vivid pages of Mr. Hepworth Dixon's "Her Majesty's Tower” (vols. 2nd and 3rd), a picture of corruption disgraceful to any country. The murder of Sir Thomas Overbury must have been the talk of Milton's nursery. He must have heard continually the extravagances and wickedness of the favourite Villiers, the theme of animadversion; the death of Sir Walter Raleigh must have been to him a boyish horror also; all England lamented that murder; and the persecution of his tutor, and the bigotry of his grandfather, which had robbed him of a fair heritage, must have all conspired to sway him towards the side of the Puritans.

True, his “gentle " instincts, his fine taste and early associations, and the better character of Charles I., for a time held the balance, but now he had to choose his side: no one at that time could remaini neutral, and he threw in his lot with the Parliament.

In 1641, he published a “ Treatise of Reformation,” in two books, against the established Church, being anxious to help the Puritang, who were,

he said, “inferior to the prelates in learning." Hall, the Bishop of Norwich (with whose quaint Meditations our readers are probably acquainted), had published a “Humble Remonstrance in defence of Episcopacy,” to which five ministers, the initial letters of whose names made the celebrated word Smectymnuus,' replied. “Of this apswer a confutation was attempted," says Johnson, " by the learned Usher.” To this confutation Miltou (seeing that the Archbishop had the best of the argument) replied.

His next work was “The Reason of Church Government urged against Prelacy."

“In this book,” says Johnson, "he discovers, not with ostentatious exultation, but with calm confidence, his high opinion of his own powers; and promises to undertake something, he yet knows not what, that may be of use and honour to his country.” “This," says he (Milton), “ is not to be obtained but by devout prayer to that Eternal Spirit that can enrich with all utterance and knowledge,


[ocr errors]

They were, Stephen Marsball, Edmund Calamy, Thomas Young (Milton's tutor?), Matthew Newcomen, and William Spurstow.

« PreviousContinue »