Page images


The great epic Poet of England was born at a period of change and political agitation, which gave a variety of incident to his life not often found in those of students and writers.

John Milton was born December 9th, 1608, between six and seven in the morning, at the “Spread Eagle,” in Bread Street, London, not a tavern, as our non-antiquarian readers might suppose, but his father's own house, distinguished by the sign of his armorial bear. ings, as were the houses of even the nobility at that period, when dwellings were not numbered.'

Milton was the son of John Milton, a gentleman by descent, whose ancestors had formerly possessed Milton, near Thame, in Oxfordshire; but this property they had forfeited during the Wars of the Roses, and the family had ceased to be Milton “ of that ilk" for more than a hundred years.

Milton's grandfather (also a John Milton), keeper of the forest of Shotover, was a bigoted Papist. He sent his son John to Christ Church, Oxford, for education, but the youth there imbibed the principles of the Reformation, and was consequently disinherited by his father.

Compelled to work for his living, John Milton adopted the profession of a Scrivener, which he practised at the "Spread Eagle," in Bread Street. He was a man of great ability, a classical scholar, and a good musician, and highly respected in his profession. He married Sarah Caston, the daughter of a Welsh gentleman. On December 9th, 1608, she became, as we have said, the mother of a son who was destined to immortalize the name of his parents.

We will here let Milton speak of his own childhood :-"My

I Numbers to houses were very rare till 1756. It is said, that the first house numhered in London was No. 1, Strand, which still, we believe, stands next to Nor. thumberland House.- Athenaeum.

father,” he says in his "Second Defence,” “ destined me from my infancy to the study of polite literature, which I embraced with such avidity, that from the age of twelve, I hardly ever retired from my books before midnight. This proved the first source of injury to my eyes, whose natural weakness was attended with frequent pains in the head; but as all these disadvantages could not repress my ardour for learning, my father took care to have me instructed by various preceptors, buth at home and at school."

The precocious genius of the boy might well have incited his father to give him every advantage; Aubrey, who lived near the time of Milton, tells us that he wrote poetry at ten years old, and a beautiful portrait by Jansen, of the childat that age, exists to attest the paternal pride in him.

The tutor whom Mr. Milton engaged for his wondrous son was the Rev. Thomas Young of Essex, for whom his pupil formed a sincere attachment. In 1623, when the lad was fifteen, Young quitted his native land on account of religious persecution, leaving a lively and tender remembrance of him in the mind of his pupil

. Milton was then sent to St. Paul's School, where he worked hard under Alexander Gill for a twelvemonth. At this time he translated the 114th and 136th Psalms. The following year, 1624, he was admitted a pensioner of Christ's College, Cambridge. During his residence there he composed most of his Latin poems, of which Dr. Johnson says, “I once heard Mr. Hampton, the translator of Polybius, say that Milton was the first Englishman who, after the revival of letters, wrote Latin verses with classical elegance.”

While at Cambridge he wrote his Elegy, “ Ad Thomam Junium præceptorem suum, apud mercatores Anglicos Hamburgæ agentes, Pastoris munere fungentem.” (See page 535.)

Young returned to England, thus fulfilling the young poet's earnestly expressed wishes, in 1628, and was appointed to the Mastership of Jesus College, Cambridge, in 1644. Afterwards be became Vicar of Stow Market for thirty years.

At Cambridge, Milton formed a friendship for Edward King whose death he laments in “ Lycidas.” Another early and dearly. loved friend of his youth was Charles Diodati, the son of an Italian physician who had settled in England, and practised his profession there with great success. Charles Diodati's uncle,

[ocr errors]

· From the Literary Miscellany. Edition, 1812.

Giovanni (John) Diodati, was the translator of the Bible into Italian ; the family had adopted the principles of the Reformed faith, and Giovanni was a professor of theology at Geneva.

Milton was remarkable in his youth for his great personal beauty, which obtained him the name of the “ Lady” of his college. He was not tall, but graceful in person, and like Tasso“He of the sword and pen ”-he was a skilful swordsman and fond of the exercise. His long and light-brown hair was parted on bis brow and fell to his shoulders; his eyes were dark grey, his complexion fair and delicate. In after-times, when time and sorrow were creeping on him, he still looked ten years younger than he was; and his eyes did not betray by their appearance the sad secret of their blindness. “His harmonical and ingenuous sonl," says Aubrey, “ dwelt in a beautiful and well-proportioned body.”

He passed seven years at Cambridge, with the exception of a brief term of absence, when, for some slight fault, he is said to have been rusticated, and took his degree of B.A. in 1628, and M.A. in 1632. He had designed, when he first went to Cambridge, to enter holy orders, but could not bring himself to sign the Articles of the Church or submit to its discipline. He determined, therefore, to return to his home, and lead the life of a student.

His father had, by this time, made a competence, retired from business, and taken a honse at Hoxton, in Buckinghamshire. Thither Milton repaired from Cambridge, his indulgent parent being ever ready to yield to his wishes.

During his residence at the University he had written all the earlier poems, amongst them the magnificent “Hymn to the Nativity,” but it had not yet won him fame, or even general notice.

In the lovely seclusion of his country home he read, it is said, all the Greek and Latin authors, and also wrote some of his most charming poems. He was, like his father, an accomplished musician, and counted amongst his friends the great lutanist of the time, Henry Lawes, who taught music in the family of the Earl of Bridgewater. In the year 1634, Lord Bridgewater was President of Wales, and held his court at Ludlow Castle, in Shropshire. On a journey thither to join their father, his two sons, Lord Brackly, and Mr. Egerton and his daughter, Lady Alice Egerton, were benighted in Haywood Forest, in Herefordshire, and the young lady for a short time was lost. At Lawes's request, Milton commemorated the incident in the exquisite “Mask of Comus," which

[ocr errors][ocr errors]

was "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

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.


[ocr errors]

Milton proceeded to Italy, then the classic land of Europe, to which his thoughts and affections had continually travelled. There Tasso had qnite 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 world. spread. 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 ainusement; 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 Miiton 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 as 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, ą savant of Euro

« PreviousContinue »