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Milton
by John Bailey
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MILTON

BY

JOHN BAILEY

AUTHOR OF "THE CLAIMS OF FRENCH POETRY," "DR. JOHNSON AND HIS CIRCLE," ETC.



LONDON

WILLIAMS AND NORGATE



First printed Spring 1915



CONTENTS

CHAP.

I INTRODUCTORY . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 7 II MILTON'S LIFE AND CHARACTER . . . . . . . . . . . 28 III THE EARLIER POEMS . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 89 IV PARADISE LOST . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 143 V PARADISE REGAINED AND SAMSON AGONISTES . . . 190 BIBLIOGRAPHY . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 250 INDEX . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 254



Milton! thou shouldst be living at this hour: England hath need of thee; she is a fen Of stagnant waters: altar, sword and pen, Fireside, the heroic wealth of hall and bower, Have forfeited their ancient English dower Of inward happiness. We are selfish men; Oh! raise us up, return to us again; And give us manners, virtue, freedom, power. Thy soul was like a Star, and dwelt apart: Thou hadst a voice whose sound was like the sea; Pure as the naked heavens, majestic, free, So didst thou travel on life's common way, In cheerful godliness; and yet thy heart The lowliest duties on herself did lay. WORDSWORTH.



O Mighty-mouth'd inventor of harmonies, O skill'd to sing of Time or Eternity, God-gifted organ-voice of England, Milton, a name to resound for ages; Whose Titan angels, Gabriel, Abdiel, Starr'd from Jehovah's gorgeous armouries, Tower, as the deep-doomed empyrean Rings to the roar of an angel onset— Me rather all that bowery loneliness, The brooks of Eden mazily murmuring, And bloom profuse and cedar arches Charm, as a wanderer out in ocean, Where some refulgent sunset of India Streams o'er a rich ambrosial ocean isle, And crimson-hued the stately palm-woods Whisper in odorous heights of even. TENNYSON.



{7}

MILTON

CHAPTER I

INTRODUCTORY

When a man spends a day walking in hilly country he is often astonished at the new shape taken on by a mountain when it is looked at from a new point of view. Sometimes the change is so great as to make it almost unrecognizable. He who has seen Snowdon from Capel-Curig is reluctant to admit that what he sees from Llanberis is the same mountain: he who has seen the Langdale Pikes from Glaramara is amazed at their beauty as he gazes at them from the garden at Low Wood. These are extreme cases. But to a less degree every traveller among the mountains is experiencing the same thing all day. He finds the eternal hills the most plastic of forms. At each change in his own position there is a change in the shape of a mountain under which he is passing. He may keep his eye fixed upon it but insensibly, as he watches, the long {8} chain will become a vertical peak, the jagged precipice a round green slope.

Much the same process goes on as the generations of men pass on their way, with their eyes fixed, as they cannot help being, on the great human heights of their own and earlier days. Many of these look great only when you are close to them. At a little distance they are seen to be small and soon they disappear altogether. The true mountains remain but they do not keep the same shape. Each succeeding generation sees the peaks of humanity from a new point of view which cannot be exactly the same as that of its predecessor. Each age reshapes for itself its conception of art, of poetry, of religion, and of human life which includes them all. Of some of the masters in each of these worlds it feels that they belong not to their own generation only but to all time and so to itself. It cannot be satisfied, therefore, with what its predecessors have said about them. It needs to see them again freshly for itself, and put into words so far as it can its own attitude towards them.

That is the excuse for the new books which will always be written every few years about Hebrew Religion, or Greek Art, or the French Revolution, or about such men as Plato, {9} St. Paul, Shakspeare, Napoleon. It is the excuse even for a much humbler thing, for the addition of a volume on Milton to the Home University Library. The object of this Library is not, indeed, to say anything startlingly new about the great men with whom it deals. Rather the contrary, in fact: for to say anything startlingly new about Shakspeare or Plato would probably be merely to say what is absurd or false. The main outlines of these great figures have long been settled, and the man who writes a book to prove that Shakspeare was not a great dramatist, or was an exact and lucid writer, is wasting his own time and that of his readers. The mountain may change its aspect from hour to hour, but when once we have ascertained that it is composed of granite, that matter is settled, and there is no use in arguing that it is sandstone or basalt. The object of such volumes as those of this Library is no vain assault on the secure judgment-seat of the world, no hopeless appeal against the recorded and accepted decrees of time. It is rather to re-state those decrees in modern language and from the point of view of our own day: to show, for instance, how Plato, though no longer for us what he was for the Neo-Platonists, is {10} still for us the most moving mind of the race that more than all others has moved the mind of the world; how Milton, though no longer for us a convincing justifier of the ways of God to men, is still a figure of transcendent interest, the most lion-hearted, the loftiest-souled, of Englishmen, the one consummate artist our race has produced, the only English man of letters who in all that is known about him, his life, his character, his poetry, shows something for which the only fit word is sublime.

There was much else beside, of course. The sublime is very near the terrible, and the terrible is often not very far removed from the hateful. Dante giving his "daily dreadful line" to the private and public enemies with whom he grimly populates his hell is not exactly an amiable or attractive figure. Still less so is Milton in those prose pamphlets in which he passes so rapidly, and to us so strangely, from the heights of heaven to the gutter mud of scurrilous personalities. This is a disease from which our more amiable age seems at last to have delivered the world. But Milton has at least the excuse of a long and august tradition, from the days of Demosthenes, equally profuse of a patriotism as lofty and of personalities as {11} base as Milton's, to those of a whole line of the scholars of the Renaissance who lived with the noblest literature of the world and wrote of each other in the language of Billingsgate fishwives. So the sublimity of his life is wholly that of an irresistible will, set from the first on achieving great deeds and victoriously achieving them in defiance of adverse men and fates. But this is quite compatible with qualities the reverse of agreeable. It is the business of sublimity to compel amazed admiration, not to be a pleasant companion. Milton rejoicing over the tortures bishops will suffer in hell, Milton insulting Charles I, Milton playing the tyrant to his daughters, none of these are pleasant pictures. But such incidents, if perhaps unusually grim in the case of Milton, are apt to happen with Olympians. Experience shows that it is generally best to listen to their thunder from a certain distance.

Such limitations must not be ignored. But neither must they be unduly pressed. The important thing about the sun is not its spots but its light and heat. No great poet in all history, with the possible exception of Dante, has so much heat as Milton. In prose and verse alike he burns and glows with fire. At its worst it is a fire of anger and pride, at {12} its best a fire of faith in liberty, justice, righteousness, God. Of the highest of all fires, the white flame of love, it has indeed little. Milton had no Beatrice to teach him how to show men the loveliness of the divine law, the beauty of holiness. He could describe the loss of Paradise and even its recovery, but its eternal bliss, the bliss of those who live in the presence of

l'amor che move il sole e l'altre stelle,

he could not describe. To do that required one who had seen the Vita Nuova before he saw the Inferno. In la sua volontade e nostra pace. So Dante thought: but not altogether so Milton. It is not a difference of theological opinion: it is a difference of temper. For Dante the "will of God" at once suggested both the apostolic and the apocalyptic love, joy, peace, the supreme and ultimate beatific vision. Bitter as his life on earth had been, no man ever suffering more from evil days and evil tongues, no man ever more bitterly conscious of living in an evil and perverse generation, he had yet within him a perpetual fountain of peace in the thought of God's will, and the faith that he was daily advancing nearer to the light of heaven and the divine presence. Milton, a sincere believer in God {13} if man ever were, must also at times have had his moments of beatific vision in which the invisible peace of God became more real than the storms of earthly life and the vileness of men. Indeed, we see the traces of such moments in the opening of Comus, in the concluding lines of Lycidas, in the sustained ecstasy of At a Solemn Music. But they appear to have been only moments. Milton was a lifelong Crusader who scarcely set foot in the Holy Land. The will of God meant for him not so much peace as war. He is a prophet rather than a psalmist. "Woe is me, my Mother, that thou hast born me a man of strife and contention," he himself complains in the Reason of Church Government. He was not much over thirty when he wrote those words: and they remained true of him to the end. For twenty years the strife was active and public; ever, in appearance at least, more and more successful: then for the final fourteen it became the impotent wrath of a caged and wounded lion. Never for a moment did his soul bow to the triumph of the idolaters: but neither could it forget them, nor make any permanent escape into purer air. Paradise Lost, Paradise Regained and Samson, especially the last, are all plainly the works of a man conscious of {14} having been defeated by a world which he could defy but could not forget. Sublimely certain of the righteousness of his cause, he has no abiding certainty of its victory. He hears too plainly the insulting voices of the sons of Belial, and broods in proud and angry gloom over the ruin of all his hopes, personal, political and ecclesiastical. And as his religion was a thing of intellect and conscience, not a thing of spiritual vision, he cannot make for himself that mystical trans-valuation of all earthly doings in the light of which the struggles of political and ecclesiastical parties are seen as things temporary, trivial and of little account.

Such are the limitations of Milton. They are those of a man who lived in the time of a great national struggle, deliberately chose his own side in it, and from thenceforth saw nothing in the other but folly, obstinacy and crime. He has in him nothing whatever of the universal, and universally sympathetic, insight of Shakspeare. And he has paid the price of his narrowness in the open dislike, or at best grudging recognition, of that half of the world which is not Puritan and not Republican, and still looks upon history, custom, law and loyalty with very different eyes from his. But those who exact that {15} penalty do themselves at least as much injustice as they do Milton. To deprive ourselves of Milton because we are neither Puritan moralists nor Old Testament politicians is an act of intellectual suicide. The wise, as the world goes on, may differ more and more from some of Milton's opinions. They can never escape the greatness either of the poet or of the man. Men's appreciation of Milton is almost in proportion to their instinctive understanding of what greatness is. Other poets, perhaps, have things of greater beauty: none in English, none, perhaps, in any language, fills us with a more exalting conviction of the greatness of human life. No man rises from an hour with Milton without feeling ashamed of the triviality of his life and certain that he can, if he will, make it less trivial. It is impossible not to catch from him some sense of the high issues, immediate and eternal, on which human existence ought to be conscious that it hangs. The world will be very old before we can spare a man who can render us this service. We have no one in England who renders it so imperiously as Milton.

This part of his permanent claim upon our attention belongs to all that we know of him, to everything in his life so far as it is recorded, {16} even to his prose, where its appearances are occasional, as well as to his verse, where it is continuous and omnipresent. It is, of course, in connection with the last that we are most conscious of it and that it is most important. After all, the rest would have been unknown or forgotten if he had not been a great poet. But it is not merely by his force of mind and character, nor merely by the influence they have upon us through the poetry, that he claims our attention to-day. Altogether independently of that, the study of Milton is of immense and special value to Englishmen. Except in poetry our English contribution to the life of the arts in Europe has been comparatively small. That very Puritanism which had so much to do with the greatness of Milton has also had much to do with the general failure of Englishmen to produce fine art, or even to care about it, or so much as recognize it when they see it. Now Milton, Puritan as he was, was always, and not least in his final Puritan phase, a supreme artist. Poetry has been by far our greatest artistic achievement and he is by far our greatest poetic artist. No artist in any other field, no Inigo Jones or Wren, no Purcell, no Reynolds or Turner, holds such unquestioned eminence in any other art as he in his. If {17} the world asks us where to look for the genius of England, so far as it has ever been expressed on paper, we point, of course, unhesitatingly to Shakspeare. But Shakspeare is as inferior to Milton in art as he is superior in genius. His genius will often, indeed, supply the place of art; but the possession of powers that are above art is not the same thing as being continuously and consciously a great artist. We can all think of many places in his works where for hundreds of lines the most censorious criticism can scarcely wish a word changed; but we can also think of many in which the least watchful cannot fail to wish much changed and much omitted. "Would he had blotted a thousand" is still a true saying, and its truth known and felt by all but the blindest of the idolaters of Shakspeare. No one has ever uttered such a wish about the poetry of Milton. This is not the place to anticipate a discussion of it which must come later. But, in an introductory chapter which aims at insisting upon the present and permanent importance of Milton, it is in place to point out the immense value to the English race of acquaintance with work so conscientiously perfect as Milton's. English writers on the whole have had a tendency to be rather slipshod in {18} expression and rather indifferent to the finer harmonies of human speech, whether as a thing of pure sound or as a thing of sounds which have more than mere meaning, which have associations. Milton as both a lover of music and a scholar is never for a moment unconscious of either. It would scarcely be going too far to say that there is not a word in his verse which owes its place solely to the fact that it expresses his meaning. All the words accepted by his instinctive or deliberate choice were accepted because they provided him with the most he could obtain of three qualities which he desired: the exact expression of the meaning needed for the immediate purpose in hand, the associations fittest to enhance or enrich that meaning, the rhythmical or musical effect required for the verse. The study of his verse is one that never exhausts itself, so that the appreciation of it has been called the last reward of consummate scholarship. But the phrase does Milton some injustice. It is true that the scholar tastes again and again in Milton some flavour of association or suggestion which is not to be perceived by those who are not scholars, and it is also true that he consciously understands what he is enjoying more than they possibly can. But neither Milton's nor any other {19} great art makes its main appeal to learning. What does that is not art at all but pedantry. Those who have never read a line of the Greek and Latin poets certainly miss many pleasures in reading Milton, but, if they have any ear for poetry at all, they do not miss either the mind or the art of Milton. The unconquerable will, the high soaring soul, are everywhere audibly present: and so, even to those who have little reading and no knowledge at all of matters of rhythm or metre, are the grave Dorian music, the stately verses rolling in each after the other like great ocean waves in eternal difference, in eternal sameness. The ignorant ear hears and rejoices, with a delight that passes understanding, as the ignorant eye sees a fine drawing or a piece of Greek sculpture and without understanding enjoys, learns, and unconsciously grows in keenness of sight. To live with Milton is necessarily to learn that the art of poetry is no triviality, no mere amusement, but a high and grave thing, a thing of the choicest discipline of phrase, the finest craftsmanship of structure, the most nobly ordered music of sound. The ordinary reader may not be conscious of any such lessons: but he learns them nevertheless. And from no one else in English can he learn them so well as from Milton.

{20} For these reasons, these and others, we must cling to our great epic poet, Shelley's "third among the sons of light." He is not easy reading: the greatest seldom are: but as with all the greatest, each new reading is not only easier than the last but fuller of matter for thought, wonder and delight. At each new reading, too, the things in him that belonged to his own age, the Biblical literalism, the theological prepossessions, the political partisanship, recede more and more into the background and leave us freer to enjoy the things which belong to all time. And to all peoples. Milton is, indeed, intensely English and could not have been anything but an Englishman. His profound conviction of the greatness of moral issues, and his passionate love of liberty, have both been characteristic of the Englishmen of whom England is most proud. Till lately too, at any rate, we should have said that his fierce individualism, intellectual and political, was English too. But his mind and soul, stored with the gathered riches of many languages and of an inward experience far too intense to be confined by national limitations, reach out to a world wider altogether than this island, wider even than Europe. In Samson Agonistes it is hard to say who is more vividly present, the English {21} politician, the Greek tragedian, or the Hebrew prophet. And in one sense Paradise Lost is the most universal of all poems. Indeed, that word may be applied to it in its strictest meaning, for the field of Milton's action is not Greece, or Italy, or England, or even the whole earth; it is the universe itself. That is one of its difficulties: but it is also a source of the uplifting and enlarging quality which is peculiarly Miltonic. With him we are conscious of treading no petty scene. We have in some respects travelled far from Milton's way both of stating and of solving his problem, but nevertheless it is still with us to-day and always: the problem of man's origin and destiny, of the ways of God to men. And though Milton is more hampered by literal belief in a particular theological legend than the authors of the Book of Job and the Prometheus Vinctus, yet, like these, he shows that a great mind and soul will leave the imprint of power and truth on the most incredible primitive story. To read his great poem, or indeed any of his poems, is to live for a while in the presence of one of those royal souls, those natural kings of men, whom Plato felt to be born to rule and inspire their fellows: and the heroic temper of the man is in England less rare than the consummate {22} perfection of art which has eternalized its utterance. This is Milton: and, though we may be too weak to read him often, we shall never be able to do without him, never think of him without an added strength and exaltation of spirit.



{23}

CHAPTER II

MILTON'S LIFE AND CHARACTER

We know far more about Milton than about any other English poet born so long ago. There are three reasons for this. One is that from his earliest years he was very much interested in himself, was quite aware that he was a man above the stature of ordinary men, and had the most deliberate intention and expectation of doing great things. Consequently he is not only, like most good poets, fond of bringing more or less concealed autobiography into his poetry, but still more in his prose works he inclines often to insert long passages about himself, his studies, travels, projects, friends and character. It is these more than anything else which now keep those works alive: and, coming from a man so proudly truthful as Milton evidently was, they are of the greatest interest and value. The second reason why we know so much about him is that he played an active part in politics, a far more certain way of {24} attracting contemporary attention in England than writing Hamlet or building St. Paul's Cathedral. And the third is that his life has been made the subject of perhaps the most minute and elaborate biography in the language. Mr. Masson's labours enable us to know, if we choose, every fact, however insignificant, which the most laborious investigation can discover, not only about Milton himself but, one may almost say, about everybody who was ever for five minutes in Milton's company.

From this mass of material, all that can be touched here is a few of the most salient facts of the life and the most striking features of the character.

Milton's life is naturally divided into three periods. The first is that of his education and early poems. It extends from his birth in 1608 to his return from his foreign travels in 1639. The second is that of his political activity, and extends from 1639 to the Restoration. The third is that of Paradise Lost, Paradise Regained and Samson. It concludes with his death, on November 8, 1674.

Milton was born on December 9, 1608, at a house in Bread Street, Cheapside. The house is gone, but the street is a very short one, and it is still pleasant to step out of the {25} roar of Cheapside into its quietness, and think that there, on the left, close by, under the shadow of Bow Church, was born the greatest poet to whom the greatest city of the modern world has given birth. London ought to hold fast to the honour of Milton, for his honour is peculiarly hers. He was not only born a Londoner but lived in London nearly all his life. And his mind is throughout that of the citizen. Neither agriculture nor sport means much to him; and, much as he loves the sights and sounds of the open country, his allusions to them are those of the delighted but still wondering alien, not those of the native. None is more often quoted than the passage in the ninth book of Paradise Lost

"As one who, long in populous city pent, Where houses thick and sewers annoy the air, Forth issuing on a summer's morn, to breathe Among the pleasant villages and farms Adjoined, from each thing met conceives delight— The smell of grain, or tedded grass, or kine, Or dairy, each rural sight, each rural sound— If chance with nymph-like step fair virgin pass, What pleasing seemed for her now pleases more, She most, and in her look sums all delight."

{26} And the secret of its charm obviously lies partly in the note of a personal experience. Just in that way must Milton, as boy and man, have often issued forth from the weariness of his studies and the noise and confinement of the streets, for a walk among the open fields that then lay so close at hand for the Londoner. And perhaps, as the inhabitants of towns often do, he took a pleasure in the very hedgerows unknown to those who saw them every day. The present Poet Laureate, who has spent most of his life in the country, has asked a question to which it is not easy for the countryman to give the answer he would like—

"Whose spirit leaps more high, Plucking the pale primrose, Than his whose feet must fly The pasture where it grows?"

If the town-dweller never attains to that mystical communion with the secret soul of Nature which Wordsworth and such as Wordsworth owe to a life spent in the "temple's inmost shrine," yet his eye, undulled by familiarity, commonly sees more in trees and flowers than the eyes of nearly all those who live every day among them. At its highest familiarity breeds intimacy, but more often what it breeds is indifference. A man who {27} reads the Bible for the first time in middle life will never live inside it as some saints have lived; but he will see much that is hidden from most of those who have been reading it every day since they could read at all.

Milton remained in London, so far as we know, for the first sixteen years of his life. He was educated at St. Paul's School by a private tutor, one Thomas Young, who was later a conspicuous Presbyterian figure, and by his father, to whom he owed far more than to any one except himself. The elder John Milton was a remarkable man. He had, to begin with, deserted the religious views of his family and taken a line of his own, a course which may not always indicate wisdom, but always indicates force of character. The poet's grandfather, who lived in the Oxford country, had adhered very definitely to Roman Catholicism and is said to have cast off his son for becoming a Protestant and something of a Puritan. The son went to London, set up in business as a scrivener, that is, as something like a modern solicitor, and prospered so much that by 1632 he was able to retire and live in the country. He had considerable musical talents, and his compositions are found in collections of tunes to which such {28} men as Morley, Dowland and Orlando Gibbons contributed. His house was no doubt full of music, as were, indeed, many others in that most musical of English centuries, and it must have been primarily to him that the poet owed the intense delight in music which appears in all his works. No poet speaks of music so often, and none in his poetry so often suggests that art. The untaught music of lark or nightingale he has not; but no poet has so much of the music which is one of the most consciously elaborate of those arts by which man expresses at once his senses, his mind and his soul.

In the spring of 1625, just a month or two after the accession of the king whose tragical fate was to be the original source of Milton's European fame and very nearly the cause of his mounting a scaffold himself, the future author of Paradise Lost went into residence at Cambridge where he remained for seven years. The college that can boast his name among its members is Christ's. Unlike so many poets he had a successful university career, took the ordinary degrees, and evidently made an impression on his contemporaries. No doubt the strong natural bias to a studious life which he had from a child made him apter for university discipline {29} than is usually the case with genius. From the beginning he had the passion of the student. He says of himself that from his twelfth year he scarce ever went to bed before midnight; and Aubrey reports much the same and says that his father "ordered the maid to sit up for him." And his studies were in the main the accepted studies of the time, not, like Shelley's, a defiance of them. All through his life he had a scholar's respect for learning, and for the great tradition of literature which it is the true business of scholarship to maintain. Radical and rebel as he was in politics and theology, contemptuous of law, custom and precedent, he was always the exact opposite in his art. There he never attempted the method of the tabula rasa, or clean slate, which made his political pamphlets so barren. The greatest of all proofs of the strength of his individuality is that it so entirely dominates the vast store of learning and association with which his poetry is loaded. Such a man will at least give his university a chance; and, though Milton did not in later life look back on Cambridge with great affection or respect, there can be no doubt that the seven years he spent within the walls of a college were far from useless to the poet who more than any other {30} was to make learning serve the purposes of poetry.

So strong, self-reliant and proudly virtuous a nature was not likely to be altogether popular either with the authorities or with his companions. Nor was he, at any rate at first. He had some difference with his tutor, had to leave Cambridge for a time, and is alleged, on very doubtful evidence, to have been flogged. But, whatever his fault was, it was nothing that he was ashamed of, for he publicly alluded to the affair in his Latin poems, and was never afraid to challenge inquiry into his Cambridge career. Nor did it injure him permanently with the authorities. He took his degrees at the earliest possible dates, and ten years after he left Cambridge was able to write publicly and gratefully of "the more than ordinary respect which I found, above many of my equals, at the hands of those courteous and learned men, the Fellows of that college wherein I spent some years: who, at my parting after I had taken two degrees, as the manner is, signified many ways how much better it would content them that I would stay: as by many letters full of kindness and loving respect, both before that time and long after, I was assured of their singular good affection towards me." The {31} Fellows were no doubt clerical dons of the ordinary sort: indeed, we know they were; but they could not have Milton among them for seven years without discovering that he was something above the ordinary undergraduate. Wood, who died in 1695 and therefore writes as a contemporary, says of Milton that while at Cambridge he was "esteemed to be a virtuous and sober person yet not to be ignorant of his own parts." Such young men may not be popular, but if they have the real thing in them they soon compel respect. By the undergraduates Milton was called "The Lady of Christ's." And it is plain, from his own references to this nickname in a Prolusion delivered in the college, that he owed it not only to his fair complexion, short stature and great personal beauty, but also to the purity, delicacy and refinement of his manners. He contemptuously asks the audience who had given him the nickname whether the name of manhood was to be confined to those who could drain great tankards of ale or to peasants whose hands were hard with holding the plough. He disdains the implied charge of prudery, and indeed his language is what could not have been used by an effeminate or a coward. No braver man ever held a pen. Wood says {32} that "his deportment was affable, his gait erect, bespeaking courage and undauntedness," and he himself tells us that "he did not neglect daily practice with his sword," and that "when armed with it, as he generally was, he was in the habit of thinking himself quite a match for any one and of being perfectly at ease as to any injury that any one could offer him." Evidently he owed his title of "Lady" to no weakness, but to a disgust at the coarse and barbarous amusements then common at the universities. He says of himself that he had no faculty for "festivities and jests," as indeed was to be witnessed by all his writings. The witticisms, if such they can be called, which occur in his poetry and oftener in his prose are akin to what are now called practical jokes, that is jokes made by the bodies of those whose minds are not capable of joking. This was partly the common fault of an age whose jests, as may be seen sometimes even in Shakspeare, appear to us to alternate between the merely obvious, the merely verbal, and the merely barbarous; but it was partly also the peculiar temperament of Milton, whose sense of humour, like that of many learned and serious men, was so sluggish that it could only be moved by a very violent stimulus. {33} But in the main with Milton there was no question of jests, good or bad. It is evident from his own proud confessions that he was always intensely serious, at least from his Cambridge days, always conscious of the greatness of life's issues, always uplifted with the noblest sort of ambition. He says of himself that, however he might admire the art of Ovid and poets of Ovid's sort, he soon learnt to dislike their morals and turned from them to the "sublime and pure thoughts" of Petrarch and Dante. And his "reasonings, together with a certain niceness of nature, an honest haughtiness, and self-esteem either of what I was or what I might be (which let envy call pride) . . . kept me still above those low descents of mind beneath which he must deject and plunge himself that can agree to saleable and unlawful prostitutions." And in repudiating an impudently false charge against his own character he boldly announces a doctrine far above his own age, one, indeed, to which ours has not yet attained. "Having had the doctrine of Holy Scripture unfolding these chaste and high mysteries with timeliest care infused that 'the body is for the Lord and the Lord for the body,' thus also I argued to myself,—that, if unchastity in a woman, whom St. Paul terms the glory of man, be {34} such a scandal and dishonour, then certainly in a man, who is both the image and glory of God, it must, though commonly not so thought, be much more deflowering and dishonourable. . . . Thus large I have purposely been that, if I have been justly taxed with this crime, it may come upon me after all this my confession with a tenfold shame."

Such was the man from the first, severe with others and with himself, conscious, almost from boyhood, in his own famous words, that "he who would not be frustrate of his hope to write well hereafter in laudable things ought himself to be a true poem"; a somewhat strange figure, no doubt, among the tavern-haunting undergraduates of the seventeenth century, a stranger still to be honoured, a hundred and fifty years later, in the rooms which then and now were remembered as his, by the single act of drunkenness in the long and virtuous life of Wordsworth. When he left the university in 1632 Milton had conquered respect, though probably not popularity. The tone of the sixth of the academic Orations, which he delivered at Cambridge and allowed to be published in his old age, shows that, being still aware that he was not popular, he was surprised and pleased at the applause with which a previous discourse of {35} his had been received and at the large gathering which had crowded to hear the one he was delivering. He says that "nearly the whole flower of the university" was present; and, after allowing for compliments, it is plain that only a man whose name aroused expectations could draw an audience which could be so described without obvious absurdity.

We may well then believe that there is no great exaggeration in his nephew's statement, substantially confirmed as it is by other evidence, that when Milton left Cambridge in 1632 he was already "loved and admired by the whole university, particularly by the Fellows and most ingenious persons of his House." He had, as Wood says, "performed the collegiate and academical exercises to the admiration of all." The power of his mind, the grave strength of his character, could not but be plain to all who had come into close contact with him, and even for those who had not he was a man who had distinction plainly written on his face. It is possible, even, that he was already known as a poet. Before he left Cambridge he had written several of the poems which we still read in his works: the beautiful stanzas On the Death of a Fair Infant, so like and so unlike the early poems of Shakspeare, the noble Ode {36} on the Nativity begun probably on Christmas Day 1629, though this is not certain; the pretty little Song on May Morning which one likes to fancy having been sung at some such Cambridge greeting of the rising May Day sun as those which are still performed on Magdalen Tower at Oxford; certainly the remarkable lines which are his tribute to Shakspeare: certainly also the beautiful Epitaph on the Marchioness of Winchester; and, to mention no more, the autobiographical sonnet on attaining the age of twenty-three. None of these except the lines on Shakspeare are known to have been published before they appeared in the volume of Milton's poems issued in 1645. But the fact that those lines were printed, though without Milton's name, among the commendatory verses prefixed to the 1632 Folio Edition of Shakspeare, may imply that Milton was already known as a young poet. There is also a story that the poem on the death of Lady Winchester was printed in a contemporary Cambridge collection. But whether this were so or not (and no such volume is known to have existed), it seems almost certain that some of Milton's poems would have got known by being passed about in manuscript copies. He himself from the first undervalued nothing he wrote, and was {37} not afraid to say publicly, in his Reason of Church Government, that, from his early youth, it had been found that, "whether aught was imposed me by them that had the overlooking, or betaken to of mine own choice in English or other tongue, prosing or versing, but chiefly this latter, the style, by certain signs it had, was likely to live." He published these bold words in 1641, when he had given no public proof at all of their truth. Such a man was not likely to be unwilling that his verses should be seen: and in particular such poems as the epitaph on Lady Winchester, whose death aroused much public interest, or the Ode on the Nativity, plainly challenging the greatest of his predecessors by its high theme and noble art, are almost sure to have got about and won him some fame.

He had earned distinction, then, and aroused expectation before the end of his university career. But what surprised his contemporaries was that for the next seven or eight years he appeared to do little or nothing to justify the one or fulfil the other. Leaving Cambridge when he was twenty-three, he entered no profession, but lived till he was past twenty-nine in studious retirement at his father's country house at Horton near Windsor. His father, and other friends, very {38} naturally remonstrated at this apparent inactivity. To them all the answer is the same. He cannot now enter the Church, as he had intended, because he would not "subscribe slave" and take oaths that he could not keep. He is not surrendering himself to "the endless delight of speculation," or to the pleasure of "dreaming away his years in the arms of studious retirement." No; he has other things in view than these: but for their performance he demands time for himself and patience from his friends: his own thought is not of being early or late but of being fit. And the work for which he is preparing is in his own mind a settled thing. It is literature, poetry, and, in particular, as will soon appear more definitely, a great poem to take its place among the great poems of the world.

The writing of poetry has never been a recognized and seldom a lucrative profession. Most poets, like other artists, have had to face family opposition and the danger of poverty in obeying their inward call. In this matter Milton is one of the great exceptions. Many poets have had fathers as rich as his, but it would not be easy to find one who resigned himself so cheerfully to the prospect of having a poetic son. The elder Milton was, however, as we have seen, no ordinary man. His sense {39} of the value of the things of the mind was almost as great as his faith in his son and far greater than his ambition for his son's visible success in the eyes of the world. He had naturally hoped that that son's evident abilities would be exhibited in the ordinary course in a recognized profession; and he evidently made some protest against the apparently objectless studies which, even after leaving Cambridge, Milton seemed to regard as his sole business in life. The record of this survives in the Latin poem Ad Patrem which is plainly a reply to some such remonstrance. It is an appeal, and one of very confident tone, to his father not to scorn the Muses to whom he himself owes his own great musical gifts. Why should he, a musician, be astonished to find that his son is a poet? Poetry more than any of man's other gifts is the proof of his divine origin: music and poetry rank together; may it not be that he and his father have divided between them the two great gifts of Apollo?

"Dividuumque Deum genitorque puerque tenemus."

The poem rings with the scorn of wealth, from which one must suppose that the old man of business had pointed out that the {40} scholar's life was not usually lived under the smiles of Fortune. How can you, of all men, replies his son, ask me to care much for that? You trained me from the first for learning, not for the City or the Bar; the father who had his son taught not only Latin, but Greek and Hebrew, French and Italian, astronomy and physical science, cannot ask him to regard money making as the object of life. I have chosen a better part than that: and you were the inspirer of my choice. And I know that at heart you agree with it and share it.

The poem is one of the most interesting of Milton's Latin poems, being rather less affected than most of them by that artificiality of classical allusion which is the bane of such productions. So far as we know, it was the last word on its subject. From henceforth no one questioned Milton's right to be a poet and himself. If he ever afterwards deserted his poetic vocation it was at what he believed to be a still higher call. For the present he lived on quietly at Horton, near the Church where his mother's grave may still be seen; walking often, as we may suppose, about that quietly beautiful country washed by the Thames and crowned by Windsor Castle; and sometimes, as we know from his own words, travelling the seventeen or eighteen miles to {41} London to buy books or learn "anything new in Mathematics or in Music, in which sciences I then delighted." Some of these visits to London evidently lasted days or weeks.

The interesting thing about these six years at Horton is that they are the only part of his life during which the least rural of our poets lived continuously in the country. And perhaps we may say that they bore their natural fruit; for it was while he was at Horton that Milton wrote L'Allegro and Il Penseroso, in which he touched rural life and rural scenes with a freshness and directness which he never again equalled. And the most important of the other poems written during these years, Arcades, Comus, and above all, Lycidas, show the same influence. Arcades and Comus point also to the effect of his visits to London and the musical world: for both of these were written for the music of his friend Henry Lawes, and probably at his suggestion; and, written as they were for entertainments given by members of the noble families of Stanley and Egerton, they show that Milton's plan of life did not involve cutting himself off from the great world, where they must have caused his name to be talked of. His life at Horton was evidently not that of a mere recluse, {42} forgetting the world outside and forgotten by it. Arcades and Comus, and still more the wonderful outburst At a Solemn Music, are visible links with the cultivated circles of the town, as Lycidas, which followed them in 1637 and was printed in 1638 at Cambridge with other poems to the memory of Edward King, is a visible link with his old university.

The mention of the poems of these years, the most delightful that Milton was ever to write, show that the six years spent at Horton were not entirely what he calls them, "a complete holiday spent in reading over the Greek and Latin writers." If he had never written another line, he had written enough by the time he left Horton to give him a place among the very greatest men who have practised the art of poetry in England. When he started abroad in 1638 he must have known, and his father too, that his daring choice had already justified itself. "You ask what I am about, what I am thinking of," he writes to his friend Diodati at the end of the Horton time; "why, with God's help, of immortality." It is the voice of a man who knows he has already done great things but counts them as nothing compared with what he is to do later on.

Man proposes. In 1637 Milton was "pluming {43} his wings" for the very mightiest of poetic flights, for such a poem as would give full scope to his genius and place him among the great poets of the world. But in the result he actually wrote less poetry in the next twenty years than he had written in the previous five: less in quantity and far less in quality and importance. The first interruption was the completion of his elaborate education by a grand tour. His generous father, who was well-to-do rather than rich, had acquiesced in his not so far earning one penny for himself, and was now prepared to provide him with about a thousand pounds of our present money to enable him to go abroad for a year or two in comfortable style and with the attendance of a servant. Leaving England in the spring of 1638, he spent a few days in Paris, where he was civilly entertained by the famous Grotius, then Swedish Ambassador there, as well as by the English Ambassador, Lord Scudamore, but soon moved south, entering Italy by Nice and Genoa and arriving at Florence in August or September. There he spent two months, and was enthusiastically received by the various academies or clubs of men of letters which then flourished in Florence, one of whose still existing minute {44} books records that at its meeting on September the 16th a certain John Milton, an Englishman, read to the members a Latin hexameter poem showing great learning. There also he paid his famous visit to Galileo, now old and blind, and still a sort of nominal prisoner of the Inquisition, for the sin, as Milton says in the Areopagitica, of "thinking in Astronomy otherwise than the Franciscan and Dominican licensers thought." One may be sure that it was not merely the interest of the new theory about the motion of the earth which drew him back so often to that question in Paradise Lost. The blind astronomer, whose scientific heresies had placed him in some danger of the thumbscrew, must have been a very near and moving memory to the blind poet whose political and ecclesiastical heresies had so nearly brought him to the gallows.

From Florence Milton went on to Rome, where his scholarly tastes gratified themselves for two months in the study of what remained of the ancient city. The famous picture of Rome in Paradise Regained may owe something to these weeks. There, too, he was well received by several of Rome's most distinguished scholars who paid him compliments of Italian extravagance. There, too, he heard the famous Leonora Baroni {45} sing, and was so moved as to write three Latin epigrams in her praise. But it was at Naples, whither he passed on before winter, that he made the acquaintance which, except that of Galileo, is the most interesting his Italian tour brought him. It was that of the Neopolitan patrician, Giovanni Manso, who had been intimate with Tasso and Marini and had been celebrated by Tasso in the Gerusalemme Conquistata. His courtesy to a foreigner was soon to procure him a still greater honour; for before leaving Naples Milton addressed to him a Latin poem thanking him for his kindness, speaking openly of his own poetic ambitions and praying that, if he lives to write the great Arthurian Epic which he was then planning, he may find such a friend as Tasso found to welcome his poem, comfort his old age and cherish his fame. The only difficulty which separated Manso and Milton was that of religion, where Milton's unguarded frankness embarrassed his host. So, when he abandoned his intended tour in Greece because he thought it "base" to be "travelling abroad at case for intellectual culture while his fellow-countrymen were fighting at home for liberty," he was warned that the Jesuits at Rome had their eyes on him. But he stayed there two {46} months nevertheless, fearlessly keeping his resolution, not indeed to introduce or invite religious controversy but, if questioned, then, as he says, "whatsoever I should suffer to dissemble nothing." By February he was again in Florence; and after visits to Bologna, Ferrara and Venice, whence he characteristically shipped "a chest or two of choice music books" for England, he crossed the Alps, spent a week or two at Geneva and in France, and was at home by August 1639.

The elaborate education was now formally complete; and what ordinary men call practical life was at last to begin for Milton. Now for the first time he had an abode of his own, a lodging in St. Bride's, Fleet Street, and soon afterwards a house in Aldersgate Street where he settled with a young nephew whom he undertook to educate. But the real work which he had in view was that of a poet, not of a schoolmaster. The high expectations which he knew he had excited among Italian men of letters had reinforced those of his English friends; and he was now more than ever inclined to follow that "inward prompting which now grew daily upon me that by labour and intent study (which I take to be my portion in this life), joined with the strong propensity of nature, I might {47} perhaps leave something so written to aftertimes as they should not willingly let it die." So, as his extant notes show, he was weighing a large number of subjects for the great poem, slowly settling on a Biblical one, and indeed on that of the Fall of Man, and perhaps writing some earliest lines of what we now know as Paradise Lost.

But in November 1640 occurred an event which governed Milton's life for the next twenty years. The Long Parliament met, and, from that time forward till its final meeting in 1660 to dissolve itself and prepare the way for Charles II, politics were the dominant interest of Milton's mind. It is his age of prose; during it he wrote very little verse of any kind, and none of importance except the finer of his eighteen Sonnets which nearly all belong to these years. On the other hand, most of his prose works were written between 1640 and 1660. Of these it is enough to say that they are perhaps the most curious of all illustrations of the great things which a poet alone can bring to prose and of the dangers which he runs in bringing them. A poet of the stature of Milton is ready at all times to catch all kinds of fire, not only the fires of faith and zeal and enthusiasm, but also, as a rule, those of a scorn {48} that knows no limit and a hatred that knows no mercy. Such a man needs a strongly made vessel to control his boiling ardours. Prose is not such a vessel: and they too often overflow from it in extravagance and violence. Poetry in all its severer forms places a restraint upon the poet from which as the mood of art gains upon him he has no desire to escape. Law and limitation, willing obedience to the prescribed conditions, are of the very essence of art. And this is as true of the greatest of the arts as of any other. It is not merely that the poet accepts the bondage of rhymes, or stanzas, or numbered syllables, as the painter accepts those of a flat canvas and the sculptor those of bronze or marble; it is that they all alike submit to the mood of art which is always universal and eternal as well as individual and temporal and therefore disdains such crudities of personal violence as are to be found everywhere in Milton's prose and nowhere in his poetry.

But if a poet's prose has its inevitable disadvantages it has also some great qualities which only a poet can supply. In 1640 Milton plunged into a great struggle in which his attitude throughout was that of an angry and contemptuous partisan. And his pamphlets exhibit all the distortion of facts, {49} injustice to opponents, and narrowness of view which are the inevitable if often unconscious vices of the man who writes in the interest of a party. But they also contain flights of noble eloquence, in which, as in the passage about the City of London in the Areopagitica, the soul of partisanship has undergone a fiery purification and emerges free of all its grosser elements, a pure essence of zeal and faith and spiritual vision.

The first stage of the struggle was largely ecclesiastical, and Milton plunged into it with five pamphlets in 1641 and 1642, fiercely demanding the abolition of Episcopacy and the establishment of a Presbyterian system in England. Fortunately for himself, as he was soon to see, the views he advocated did not in the end prevail. For the next step he took in the way of pamphlet writing would assuredly have got him into difficulties with any possible kind of ecclesiastical jurisdiction, whether after the model of Laud or of Calvin. It grew out of the most important and disastrous event in the whole of his private life. In the spring of 1643 he went into Oxfordshire, from which county his father had originally come, and, to the surprise of his friends, who knew nothing of his intention, returned a married man. His wife was one {50} Mary Powell, the daughter of a Justice of the Peace at Forest Hill, near Oxford. The Powell family owed the Milton family five hundred pounds, which may have been the poet's introduction to them. If so, the marriage to which it led had the results that might be expected from such a beginning. The war had then already begun, the King was at Oxford and the Powells were Cavaliers; so that when Mrs. Milton, who had been accompanied to London by her relations, was to be left alone with a husband of twice her age, and of severe tastes, she shrank from the prospect, got away on a visit to her family and did not return till 1645, by which time the King was ruined and with him the Powells.

When Shelley deserted his wife he wrote to her asking her to come and live with him and the lady who had supplanted her. When Milton's wife deserted him he wrote a series of pamphlets advocating divorce at the will of the husband. Such are the extravagances of those whose eyes are so accustomed to a brighter light that when brought into that of common day they see nothing, and make mistakes which are justly ridiculous to the children of this world. It is an old story: Plato's philosopher in the cave, the saint in politics, the modern poet in the world of war, {51} commerce, or industry: the eye that sees heaven often blunders on earth. Milton's divorce pamphlets, like nearly all his controversial writings, have three fatal defects. They are utterly blind to the temper of those to whom they were addressed, to the reasonable arguments of opponents, and to the practical difficulties inherent in their proposals. He argues that, as the law gives relief to a man whose wife disappoints him of the physical end of marriage, it is an outrage that he should have none when deprived of the social and intellectual companionship which is its moral end. But he takes no note of the awkward fact that the dismissed wife is not and cannot be in the same position as she was before her marriage. Nor does he give the wife any corresponding rights to get rid of her husband. These, and a hundred other difficulties all too visible to duller eyes, he utterly ignores as he proceeds on his violent way of deliverance from what he calls "imaginary and scarecrow sins." Nothing is allowed to stand in his path. For instance, the awkward texts in the Bible, whose authority he accepts, are given new interpretations with which it is to be feared his temper had more to do than his knowledge of the meaning of Greek words. But {52} there is not a hint of his own case in all he says, and it is not desertion that he discusses but incompatibility of temper. Masson even sees reason to think that he began the first pamphlet before his wife left him, but when, no doubt, her unfitness to be his wife was only too evident. However all that may be, we can only think with wondering pity of those summer weeks of 1643 and of the two years which followed. Everything in Milton's life and writings shows him a man unusually susceptible to the attraction of women, one whose love was of that strongest sort which is built on a chastity born not of coldness but of purity and self-control. Such a man, in such a plight, with the added misery of knowing that he owed it to his own rash folly, may be pardoned for forgetting the true bearing of his own doctrine that laws are made for the "common lump of men." Cases like his are the real tragedies, the tragedies of life so much more bitter than the more visible ones of death; and no thinking or feeling man will lightly decide that they must remain unrelieved. But neither Milton nor any of his successors must look at the problem from his own point of view alone. Laws are made, and ought to be, as he himself says, for the "lump of men"; and the wisdom or {53} unwisdom of facilities for divorce must be judged, not merely by the relief they afford in unhappy marriages, but also by the danger of disturbance they produce in the far more numerous marriages which, though experiencing their days of doubt or difficulty, are on the whole happy or at least not unhappy. Perhaps Milton himself might have hesitated if he could have foreseen the consequences of an application of his theories. Modern divorce laws have filled our newspapers with just that "clamouring debate of utterless things" which he dreaded and abhorred, while few will argue that they have increased the number of unions which answer to his conception of "the true intent of marriage."

After all, Milton's own story illustrates the advantages of putting delays and difficulties in the way of divorce. According to his nephew he had planned to act upon his principles and marry "a very handsome and witty gentlewoman"; but the lady had more regard than he to the world's opinion. And she did Milton a service by her reluctance. For the rumour of her, helped by their own misfortunes, brought the Powells to their senses; and with the help of Milton's friends they managed the well-known scene at a room in St. Martin's the Grand, in which he was {54} surprised by the sight of his wife on her knees before him.

"Soon his heart relented Towards her, his life so late, and sole delight, Now at his feet submissive in distress."

So he glances back at the scene twenty years later when he was drawing to the close of his great poem. Meanwhile he received back his wife, who bore him three daughters and died in 1653 or 1654. He was to marry again in 1656; but this second wife, the "espoused saint" of his sonnet, lived little more than a year; and in 1663 he married his third wife who long survived him. But to return to the house in the Barbican, to which he removed with his wife in 1645. With him there were also his father, two nephews and other boys whom it was his principal occupation to teach. It is somewhat surprising that he found pupils, as his views on the divorce question had naturally caused scandal in all quarters and received little support in any. He could now see that the Presbyterian Church discipline which he had advocated so eagerly in his first pamphlets might have its inconveniences; the elders of an English kirk would be no more merciful than his detested bishops to such freedom of thought, speech and action as he now demanded. {55} From henceforth he is an Independent and more than an Independent; for he was attached to no congregation, apparently attended no church regularly, and maintained that profoundly religious temper which is even more visible in his last works than in his first without the support of any authority, creed or companionship in prayer. With these views growing upon him it was natural that, when the struggle came between the Presbyterian Parliament and the Independent Army, he had no hesitation in supporting the Army; nor is it surprising that such a man of no compromise as he had shown himself to be was ready to come forward, even before the deed was done, with a defence of the execution of Charles I. It is in connection with that event that his name first became known to all Europe and was soon so famous that foreigners visiting England desired to see two men above all others, Oliver Cromwell and John Milton. This Milton, from henceforth a European celebrity, was not the author of Paradise Lost which was not yet written, nor of his earlier poems which were little known in England and quite unknown elsewhere. He was the apologist of the Regicides, the Foreign Secretary of the world-famed Protector.

{56}

For the next eleven years, from 1649 to 1660, Milton had a public and official as well as a private life. Charles was executed on January 30, 1649. Within a few days after appeared Milton's Tenure of Kings and Magistrates, largely written, of course, before the execution, and justifying it and all the other proceedings of the Army without any hesitation or compromise. It has some breathings of the Miltonic grandeur; but that is all. For the rest it is a mere party polemic written for the moment; and, as is the case with all pamphlets, the very qualities which gave it its contemporary interest make it unreadable to posterity. Part of it is a sweeping assertion of the inalienable right of the whole people to choose, judge and depose their rulers; a democratic doctrine which a few years later, when England had grown tired of the Army and the Puritans, he was to find as inconvenient as he had already found his early advocacy of the Presbyterian system in matters ecclesiastical. For the moment, however, the pamphlet made him a person of importance. Such a man, learned, eloquent, of high character, of visible sincerity, of utter fearlessness, was not an ally to be despised by a Government which had outraged public opinion at home and abroad. Within a few {57} weeks he was appointed Secretary for Foreign Tongues to the Council of State; and from henceforth till after the death of Cromwell he wrote the weightiest of the vindications, remonstrances and authoritative demands which the great Protector addressed to an astonished and overawed Europe. We can read them still. Many are insignificant, dealing with petty personal details; but the best, especially those that deal with the universal cause of Protestantism and freedom, rise on spiritual wings far above the language of diplomacy and officialism, letting us hear the authentic voice of Milton preluding the thunders of Cromwell and Blake.

But the first important work required of Milton belonged rather to the man of letters than to the Foreign Secretary. The horror aroused both at home and abroad by the execution of Charles, already great enough in itself to be very inconvenient to the Government, was greatly increased by the publication of a book called Eikon Basilike which purported to be the work of the king himself and appeared immediately after his death. It is a kind of religious portrait of Charles, reporting his spiritual meditations and containing a justification of his life. Its success was prodigious; fifty editions are said {58} to have appeared within a year. It was obviously necessary that some reply should be attempted; and the task was naturally assigned to Milton, who published his Eikonoklastes, or Image-Breaker, in October. It is a mere pamphlet, even more violent than the Tenure of Kings, not ashamed to rake up such absurdities as the alleged poisoning of James I by Buckingham, with the usual Miltonic inconsistencies, such as that which denounces Charles for the crime of refusing his consent to bills passed by Parliament and forgets that the Government on whose behalf he is writing established itself by a forcible suppression of the Parliamentary majority. It survives now only by the curious passage in it which tells us that William Shakspeare was "the closet companion" of Charles I in the "solitudes" of the end of his life; and by the puritanical allusion to the "vain amatorious poem of Sir Philip Sidney's Arcadia" from which, however "full of worth and wit" in its own kind, it was a disgrace to the king to borrow a prayer at so grave an hour. Perhaps as a mark of their approval of Eikonoklastes, the Council of State gave Milton lodgings in Whitehall; and soon afterwards, in January 1650, called upon him to reply to another Royalist book which was making a {59} great stir. The result was the beginning of a political and personal controversy which lasted almost as long as it was safe for Milton to write about politics at all.

In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries great scholars had a position which they are never likely to occupy again. In those cosmopolitan days when an Italian governed France, and regiments and even armies were often commanded by foreigners, the honour of possessing a celebrated scholar was eagerly disputed not only by universities, but by cities, sovereign states, and even kings. Learning had then a market value in the world: for then, as always, especially since the invention of printing, European opinion was worth having on one's side; and in the days before journalism the practice was to hire distinguished scholars to write to a political brief. After the death of Charles I it was obviously the policy of Charles II to secure support by a powerful indictment of the iniquity of the rulers of the English Commonwealth. For this purpose his advisers obtained the services of a certain Claude de Saumaise, or, as he was generally called, Salmasius. This man, forgotten now except for Milton, was then a scholar of such fame that his presence was disputed between Oxford {60} and Venice, the French and the Dutch, between the Pope who wanted him at Rome and Christina of Sweden who was soon to persuade him to go to Stockholm. So it is not altogether surprising that Charles II was advised to pay him, and perhaps paid him, much more than he could afford for writing a book called Defensio Regia, which was to be before all Europe the public statement of the case against the new rulers of England. Milton spent a year in preparing his reply, which came out in the beginning of 1651. The Pro Populo Anglicano Defensio is now pleasanter reading for Milton's detractors than for those who honour his name. The unbridled insults which it heaps upon Charles I and still more upon Salmasius, for whom its least offensive titles are such as "blockhead," "liar" and "apostate," exceed even the wide limits of abuse customary in these days. Corruptio optimi pessima: such a man as Milton, if he once descends to the bandying of foul language, will beat the very bargemen themselves. But what astonished his contemporaries was not his violence but his courage. An unknown Englishman had dared to meet the giant of learning on his own ground and had at least held his own. It may have been partly as the result of this {61} that Salmasius no longer found Holland a pleasant place of residence and removed to Sweden. A more certain result is that the English David who had stood up to Goliath was from henceforth a European celebrity. With his usual proud courage he had put his own name on the title-page of his book, challenging to himself both the glories and the dangers that might come of it. He was not to be disappointed of either.

From henceforth he was in the thick of a violent controversy, which made so much more noise than it deserved in its own day that it need make none here. Replies came out both to his Eikonoklastes and to his Defensio: new books grew out of the controversy; Milton's nephew wrote on his behalf, and anonymous friends of Salmasius on his; the adversaries of Milton no more spared his character than he had spared theirs; a Defensio Secunda from his own hand seemed necessary, and appeared in 1654; and so with minor pamphlets and second editions we get on to the end of the weary controversy, in which for contemporaries there was perhaps some fire and light, but for us now little but smoke and darkness of confusion.

Such was the work which was Milton's chief occupation during the Commonwealth, to the {62} doing of which he deliberately sacrificed his eyesight. Within a year after the publication of his book against Salmasius its foreseen result was complete. From henceforth Milton was dependent upon the eyes of others. He was only forty-four when overtaken by this calamity. Yet his courage seems never to have failed him. "I argue not," he tells Cyriack Skinner in his sonnet—

"Against Heaven's hand or will, nor bate a jot Of heart or hope, but still bear up and steer Right onward. What supports me, dost thou ask? The conscience, friend, to have lost them overplied In Liberty's defence, my noble task, Of which all Europe rings from side to side."

Whoever had begun to have doubts about the course taken in 1649 and since, he had none; and no one had suffered more in defence of it. The other and greater sonnet on his blindness—

"When I consider how my light is spent Ere half my days in this dark world and wide"

shows him content if need be to take his place among those whose desire to serve {63} God must find its peace in the thought that

"They also serve who only stand and wait."

In the same spirit, perhaps, is the motto which he appended to his signature in the album of a learned foreigner in 1651: "I am made perfect in weakness." But nothing of weakness, not even its perfection, could ever come near Milton. He played a greater part in this world without his eyes than ever he had played with them. Without their help he did what prose could do towards justifying the ways of England to Europe, and was very soon to do what verse could do towards justifying the ways of God to men. He cannot, perhaps, be said to have succeeded in either, but one at least of the failures is a whole heaven above what ordinary men call success.

A few words may be said of his attitude towards men and measures during this political period of his life. His unqualified and immediate support of the King's execution had, of course, united him with the Cromwellian party who had brought it about. And his anti-Presbyterian views carried him in the same direction. So we are not surprised to find that, when Cromwell got rid of the Parliament by military force and soon {64} afterwards became Protector, Milton approved his action and gladly continued to serve under him. Nor was Milton the man to be disturbed by the Protector's rapid dissolution of his first Parliament, by the period of personal Government which followed, or by his angry breach with his second Parliament. Poets have seldom understood politics, and Milton, the most political of poets, perhaps less than any. No man ever had less of that sense of law and custom, of the need of continuity, which is the very centre and secret of politics. Few great statesmen have been able to maintain perfect consistency; but the least consistent have generally been aware that there was something in inconsistencies that needed explanation. Milton never shows any consciousness of the patent incongruity between his early exaltation of the indefeasible rights of Parliaments and his support of the Cromwellian attitude towards them: between his angry denunciation of Charles I for presuming to retain the ancient right of the kings to refuse their assent to Bills submitted to them and his approval of Cromwell's dismissal of a Parliament for attempting to deny the same right to the Protector: between the extreme doctrine of free printing claimed in the Areopagitica and the fact that its author {65} was afterwards concerned in licensing books under a Government which vigorously suppressed "seditious" publications. But inconsistencies by themselves are of little importance, particularly in revolutionary times; they would be of none, in Milton's case, if he had ever admitted that he had learnt from experience and consequently changed his mind. But he never did. Parliaments remained sacred when they were for pulling down bishops, profane when they were for establishing Presbyterianism, and utterly detestable when they were for restoring Charles II. The fact is, of course, that Milton, like most men of much imagination and no political experience, saw a vision of certain things in the value of which he believed with all his soul, and saw none of the objections to them and none of the difficulties that stood in their way. At the very end, when the bonfires for Charles II were almost lighted in the streets, he could publish A Ready and Easy Way to Establish a Free Commonwealth; and the title he chose for that book was typical of his whole attitude in all practical matters. He had to an extreme degree the man of vision's blindness to the all-important fact that the mass of men would not have what he aims at if they {66} could and could not if they would. At least in a free country the statesman knows that he has got to work through stupid people, with their consent, and with regard to the measure of their capacities. For such men as Milton stupid people either do not exist or are to be merely ignored. That is his attitude all through. Alike in the matter of divorce and in the matter of education, in the ecclesiastical problem and in the political, he was always eager to put forward a "ready and easy way" which entirely ignored the nature of the human material which was to walk in it. He simply chose not to see that in all these matters men had for centuries been walking in a way which was not his, a way which had in fact by now diverged many miles from his; and that they could not possibly, even if they would, transport themselves in a moment, at a mere wave of his wand, across the intervening bogs and forests which the lapse of years had rendered impassable. He never appears to have had a single glimpse of the truth that the essential business of the statesman is to be always moving from the past to the future without ever letting the bridge between them break down. The principal food of a political people is custom, and to break the bridge is to cut off the only source {67} of its supply. The greatest proof that Cromwell was really a statesman and not a mere political emergency man of unusual character and ability is that in his last years he was evidently seeing more and more plainly that the right metaphor for a statesman is taken from grafting and not from "root and branch" operations. It is clear that he had seen that political branches may be pruned away but roots can very seldom be safely disturbed; and that among the roots in English politics were a hereditary Monarchy and an established Church. Dynasty and formularies might perhaps be safely changed; but the things themselves were of the root, and the tree would not flourish if they were touched. It is characteristic of Milton that in both these matters he was strongly opposed to the policy towards which Cromwell was feeling his way. Ten years had taught him nothing, and the death of Cromwell found him as blind to political possibilities as the death of Charles I.

One would like to know something of the relations between the two greatest men of the Commonwealth. But there is little or nothing to know. It is plain that in most matters they must have been in close agreement; and in a few, as in the business of the {68} Piedmont massacres, the two great hearts must have beaten as one, while the sword of Cromwell stood ready drawn behind the trumpet of Milton's noble prose and nobler verse. The only surviving act of personal contact between them is to be found in Milton's sonnet; and that is a public tribute with no suggestion of private intimacy in it. Indeed, as Masson has pointed out, it may easily be taken to mean more than it really does; for it was not written because Milton could not keep silence about his admiration of Cromwell, but rather, as its full title shows, as a petition or appeal to Cromwell to save the nation from parliamentary proposals for the setting up of a State Church and for limiting the toleration of dissent from it. The sonnet, then, proves less than it has sometimes been made to prove; and in any case it proves no intimacy. Perhaps after all, in the case of Milton as in that of most men who deal with public affairs, we are apt to exaggerate the importance in their daily lives of these visible official activities. The world thinks it knows men who fight battles, or make speeches, or write books; but it knows nothing of their private thoughts or studies and still less of their private loves and joys and sorrows which to themselves {69} and in truth are much the most real part of their lives. So with Milton during these years; his wife and little children may have been, his second wife and such friends as Cyriack Skinner and Henry Lawrence and Lady Ranelagh and the poet Marvell certainly were, much greater realities to him in his daily thoughts than either the hated Salmasius and Morus of the pamphlets or the admired Cromwell of the sonnet. The "weekly table" he is said to have kept, at the expense of the State, for foreign ministers, must have provided interesting talk; but the true Milton cannot have lived in these gatherings so fully at the time or remembered them afterwards so affectionately as those other more intimate parties of which he gives us a picture in the two sonnets to Lawrence and Skinner which, for lovers of poetry, look so pleasantly back to Horace and so pleasantly forward to Cowper and Tennyson.

"Lawrence, of virtuous father virtuous son, Now that the fields are dank, and ways are mire, Where shall we sometimes meet, and by the fire Help waste a sullen day, what may be won From the hard season gaining? Time will run {70} On smoother, till Favonius re-inspire The frozen earth, and clothe in fresh attire The lily and rose, that neither sowed nor spun. What neat repast shall feast us, light and choice, Of Attic taste, with wine, whence we may rise To hear the lute well touched, or artful voice Warble immortal notes and Tuscan air? He who of those delights can judge, and spare To interpose them oft, is not unwise."

This is his own graver and older parallel to what his nephew tells us of his schoolmastering days when he would turn from "hard study and spare diet" to "drop once a month or so into the society of some young sparks of his acquaintance," and with them "would so far make bold with his body as now and then to keep a gawdy day." The sonnet shows that the poet is still the poet of L'Allegro and Il Penseroso, no narrow fanatic, but a lover of company and the arts, and of the richness and fulness of life. Such occasions as that it describes must have been oases in the desert of controversy and public business abroad and of blindness and loneliness at home. He did not live long in Whitehall, {71} moving in 1652 to a house overlooking St. James's Park, near what is now Queen Anne's Gate. There his first wife died in 1653, or 1654, and her short-lived successor too; there he lived during the remaining years of the Commonwealth, working at his pamphlets and State papers, even beginning Paradise Lost, with young friends to read to him, write for him, lead their blind great man about in the Park or elsewhere, till the catastrophe of 1660 arrived and it was no longer safe for the defender of Regicide to be seen in the streets.

Why Milton was not hanged at the Restoration is still something of a mystery. His name must have been more hatefully known to the returning exiles than that of any one except the dead Cromwell whose death did not save his body from a grim ceremony at Tyburn. He had not only defended Charles I's execution before all Europe, and in a tone almost of exultation, but he had pursued the whole Stuart family with vituperation and contempt. Even in the very last weeks, when the bells were already almost ringing for Charles II, he had dared to raise his voice against the "abjured and detested thraldom of kingship"; declaring that he would not be silent though he should but speak "to trees and stones: and had none to cry to, but {72} with the prophet 'O Earth, Earth, Earth!' to tell the very soil itself what her perverse inhabitants are deaf to,"—a passage, if interpreted by its original context, of awful imprecation upon Charles I. A man so famous, so utterly unrepentant, so defiant to the very end, seemed to challenge to himself the gallows. That his challenge would receive its natural answer was the openly expressed opinion of his enemies. No doubt it was also the fear of his friends, who concealed him in Smithfield from May till August 1660. By the 24th of August the danger was over. The Act of Indemnity, which was a pardon to all political offenders not by name excepted in it, became law on that day; and Milton's was not one of the excepted names. How was that managed? There are various stories; perhaps each has some truth in it; many influences may have combined. One is that he had saved Davenant in his danger some years before and now the Cavalier poet in his turn saved the Puritan. But Davenant was not in Parliament, and the real work must have been done by a group of friends who were. The most important of them seem to have been Annesley (afterwards Lord Anglesey), Sir Thomas Clarges, who was Monk's brother-in-law, Monk's secretary Morrice, and the poet's less powerful but {73} still more devoted friend Andrew Marvell. Between them somehow they saved him, aided no doubt by the general pity for a blind man, the general respect for his learning which found expression even in that moment and even in Royalist pamphlets, and, one may hope, by the knowledge of a few of them that this was a man of genius from whom there might be great things yet to come. The names of those who thus made possible the greatest poem in the English language deserve lasting record; and a word of gratitude may be added to Clarendon and to Charles II for refraining from saying the easy and not unnatural word which would have been instantly fatal to their old enemy.

The odd thing is that he was arrested after all. There had been an order of the House of Commons for his arrest and for the burning of his books, possibly, as Masson thinks, obtained by his friends to make it seem unnecessary to except him in the Indemnity Bill. The books were duly burnt, or such copies of them as came to the hands of the hangman; and ultimately, at some uncertain date, Milton himself was got into the custody of the Sergeant-at-Arms. He was soon released, and the story would not be worth relating but for a curious proof it gives of the {74} obstinate courage of the poet. The House ordered his release on December 15; and one would have supposed that he would have been glad to escape into obscurity and safety again on any terms. But no; the Sergeant-at-Arms demanded high fees which Milton thought unreasonable; and even then, when he had almost felt the hangman's rope on his neck, he would not be bullied by any man. He refused to pay: and though the Solicitor-General ominously remarked that he deserved hanging, his friends got the fees referred to a committee and presumably reduced. Before the beginning of 1661 he was definitely a free man to live his final fourteen years of political defeat, isolation and silence, of unparalleled poetic fertility, and, before the end, of acknowledged poetic fame.

He did not return any more to the fashionable and therefore dangerous neighbourhood of Whitehall, but lived the rest of his life in a succession of houses in or near the city, ending in Artillery Walk, Bunhill Fields, where he died. His friends must for years have feared that he might be attacked and perhaps murdered by some drunken Cavalier revellers accidentally coming across the old regicide. And in spite of the Act of Indemnity he can hardly have felt absolutely comfortable on {75} the side of the law when so late as 1664 his Tenure of Kings was denounced by the censor as still extant and an unfortunate printer was hanged, drawn and quartered for issuing a sort of new version of it. Misfortunes without and fears within might be the summing up, if not of the poet's, at least of the man's life during these first years after the Restoration. To begin with, he was a much poorer man. His salary as Secretary was, of course, gone. But besides that he had lost 2000 pounds, equal to about 7000 pounds now, which he had invested in Commonwealth Securities, as well as some confiscated property he had bought of the Chapter of Westminster; and he was soon to lose, at least temporarily, the rent he received from his father's house in Bread Street which was destroyed by the Fire of London. Masson calculates that he was left after the Restoration with an income about equal to 700 pounds of our money which his further losses and outlay on his daughters had reduced to 300 pounds or 350 pounds before his death; not quite poverty even at the end, but something very different from what the eldest son of a rich man had been accustomed to. A graver misfortune was the gout which afflicted him for the rest of his life and gave him so much pain that he made little of his blindness in {76} comparison with it. Worst of all was his unhappy relation to his daughters. That is the ugliest thing in the story of his life. How things might have gone with his son, if the baby boy had lived, one does not know; but his oriental views of the moral and intellectual inferiority of women, which doubled the dangers of their fascinations, made him certain to be a despotic father to three motherless girls. And so he was. He had plenty of young men eager for the privilege of reading to him: but of course they could not be always with him, and the result was that dreadful picture which comes to us from his nephew, no unfriendly witness, of the daughters "condemned to the performance of reading and exactly pronouncing of all the languages of whatever book he should at one time or other think fit to peruse; viz. the Hebrew (and, I think, the Syriac), the Greek, the Latin, the Italian, Spanish and French," none of which languages they understood. Nor did he show any desire that they should; saying grimly that one tongue was enough for a woman. History and fiction are alike full of the tragedies that result from the blindness of extraordinary minds to ordinary duties; and Milton's case is one of the saddest. The daughters cheated him and made away with {77} his books; he spoke of them gravely and repeatedly as his "unkind children"; one of them is even reported, on very good evidence, to have said, at his third marriage in 1663, that "that was no news to hear of his wedding but, if she could hear of his death, that was something." At last it was thought better that he and they should part; and they were put out, at considerable expense to their father, to learn embroidery work and other "curious and ingenious manufactures" for their living. It is pleasant to hear that the youngest, Deborah, who was visited by Addison not long before he died, and received fifty guineas from Queen Caroline, was "in a transport" of delight when shown a portrait of her father, crying out "'Tis my father, 'tis my dear father, I see him; 'tis him; 'tis the very man! here, here!" as she pointed to some of the features. So one likes to be told, on her authority, that he was delightful company and "the life of the conversation, full of unaffected cheerfulness and civility" when he had his little parties of friends. And to us, if not to her, it is a pleasant story that she could still repeat many lines from Homer, Euripides and Ovid, though she said she did not understand Greek or Latin. The wife of a Spitalfields weaver must at last have felt {78} some pride in these survivals of her childish drudgery, proof audible to all men, if to her unintelligible, that she was the daughter of Mr. Milton, the great scholar and poet.

No more need to be said of sorrow or failure. The rest is a serene and productive old age. Paradise Lost was published in 1667, Paradise Regained and Samson in 1671. Besides these there was, in 1673, a new edition of his earlier poems reprinted, with additions from that of 1645; and many publications of prose works mostly written in earlier years but never printed, such as his History of Britain, and little books on Education, Logic and Grammar. He kept up his strenuous life of study and composition apparently to the end. He is said to have got up at four or five in the morning, and, after hearing a chapter or two from the Hebrew Bible and breakfasting, to have passed the five hours before his midday dinner dictating or having some book read to him. In the afternoon he would walk a little in his garden; all his life a garden had been one of the things he would not do without. Then music and more private study carried him on to an Horatian supper of olives or other "light things"; and so to a pipe of tobacco, a glass of water and bed. He drank but little wine, and that only with his meals. {79} Such a way of life deserved a healthful old age, which, but for that healthy man's disease the gout, he had, and a death such as he had, so easy as to be imperceptible to the bystanders. That was on November 8, 1674. Four days later his body was buried in the church of St. Giles, Cripplegate, where his grave may still be seen; the funeral being accompanied by "all his learned and great friends in London, not without a concourse of the vulgar."

By that time the battle of his life had been won. The astonishing achievements of his last years had more than fulfilled the high promise and proud words of his long distant youth. Perhaps no seven years in all literary history provide a finer record of poetic genius triumphing over difficulties external and internal than these last seven of Milton's life from 1667 to 1674. They had their reward and not only from posterity. There is a still lingering delusion, based chiefly on the five pounds paid for the first edition of Paradise Lost, that Milton's greatness was little recognized in his lifetime. The truth is the exact reverse. He had far more chance of hearing his own praises, if he cared for that, than most of the great English poets: than Keats and Shelley, for instance; than Wordsworth, {80} at least till he was old; nay, in all probability than Shakspeare himself. Which of them heard the most popular poet of their day say of them anything at all like Dryden's famous and generous "This man cuts us all out and the ancients too"? It is not even true that Paradise Lost sold badly. On the contrary, in a year and a half from the day of publication over thirteen hundred copies had been sold, from which the author received 10 pounds and the publisher, it is believed, 50 pounds or 60 pounds. He would be a sanguine publisher to-day who would be quite certain of making in eighteen months the modern equivalent of this sum, say 180 pounds, out of a new epic, even if it were as great as Milton's.

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