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JOHN MILTON

(1608-1674)

:: He died,
Who was the sire of an immortal strain,
Blind, old, and lonely, when his country's pride
The priest, the slave, and the liberticide
Trampled and mocked with many a loathèd rite
Of lust and blood; he went, unterrified,

Into the gulf of death; but his clear Sprite
Yet reigns o’er earth, the third among the sons of light.”

SHELLEY. “His sympathies with things are much narrower than Shakespeare's. Shakespeare was not polemical: Milton was polemical altogether."

CARLYLE. 'An appreciation of Milton is the last reward of consummated scholarship."

- MARK PATTISON. “God-gifted organ voice of England.”

- TENNYSON. Milton is much more than the poet of Puritanism. His beauty-loving nature, his varied accomplishments, the course of his literary development, and his profound learning, make him the representative of a period rather than of a single sect or political party. We think of him as the author of Paradise Lost, and as the learned and eloquent defender of the Puritan cause, but we must remember that the highly serious and consecrated poet who wrote his great theological epic to "justify the ways of God to men” was in his early years a poetical disciple of Spenser, showing much of the master's sensuous delight in beauty. In Milton the Renaissance and the Reformation meet. The transition from the romantic, beauty-loving Milton, author of L'Allegro and Il Penseroso, to the polemical and theological Milton, who wrote Eikonoclastes and Paradise Lost, is a single, concrete illustration of the change through which England

herself passed in the first half of the seventeenth century. Born in 1608, not ten years after the death of Spenser, when Shakespeare was still in London writing for the stage, Milton had a direct heritage from the great Elizabethans. Indeed, his work throughout has much

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of that large utterance and breadth of conception, if not breadth of sympathy, which characterized the men of the preceding generation. But Milton grew up in a time noted for its erudition, and came to maturity in an England torn by the grim struggles of a civil war. His work reflects these influences also. Passing from the period of youthful dreams and poetic fancies, he

plunges into the midst of the conflict, devoting twenty years of his life to his country and the cause of liberty; and then in his last years, with the wreckage of lost causes and shattered hopes about him, writes his great narrative poems, Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained, and the poetic drama, Samson Agonistes. In these poems we have the result of years of study, of profound thought and memorable experience; the poet's voice deepens, and English poetry is given a new note.

Boyhood in London. --- Milton was born in Bread Street, in the heart of London, probably not far from the famous Mermaid Tavern, on December 9, 1608. His early years were passed in a sober and orderly Puritan household among influences of refinement and culture. His father, John Milton, was a scrivener, an occupation somewhat corresponding to the modern conveyancer, but he was also well known as a musical composer. The younger Milton's faculty for music had thus an opportunity for early development; a fact of especial interest when we recall the distinctively musical character of his verse.

Milton was early destined “for the study of humane letters,” and given every educational advantage. He had private instruction, and about 1620 was sent to the famous Grammar School of St. Paul. Here, to use his own expression, he worked “with eagerness,” laying the foundation for his future blindness by intense application. He tells us that after his twelfth year he seldom left his books until midnight. At this time he began to experiment in poetry, and wrote paraphrases of two of the Psalms.

Cambridge (1624-1632). --- In 1624 Milton entered Christ's College, Cambridge, where he continued to work with the same steady and regulated enthusiasm.

While there he seems to have become convinced that he was appointed to perform some great poetic task, and to have ordered his life accordingly. He believed that he who would “write well hereafter on laudable things ought himself to be a true poem." His youth was spotless and high-minded, with perhaps a touch of that austerity which deepened as he grew older. His face had an exquisitely refined and thoughtful beauty; his soft, light-brown hair fell to his shoulders after the Cavalier fashion; his figure was well knit but slender; his complexion, "exceeding fair." From his somewhat delicate beauty, and from his blameless life, he gained the college nickname of “the Lady.” At this period he wrote the Hymn on the Morning of Christ's Nativity, in which there is now and then a suggestion of that noble music which was to be Milton's chief contribution to English poetry; and the famous sonnet, On the Completion of his Twenty-Third Year.

Horton (1632-1638). — After leaving Cambridge, Milton spent nearly six years at his father's country house at Horton, a village near the royal castle of Windsor, and about seventeen miles from London. Here he lived with books and Nature, studying the classics and physical science, and leaving his studious quiet only for an occasional trip to town to learn something new in music or in mathematics.

L'Allegro and Il Penseroso. — Milton's L'Allegro and Il Penseroso, composed at this time, reflect both the young poet and his surroundings. Rustic life and superstitions are there blended with idyllic pictures of the Horton landscape. In L'Allegro we hear the plowman whistle at his furrow, the milkmaid sing at her work; we see the

“Meadows trim, with daisies pied,
Shallow brooks, and rivers wide,"

or mark the neighboring towers of Windsor

“Bosomed high in tufted trees.”

In both poems we detect Milton himself, a refined and serious nature, exquisitely responsive to whatever is best in life, with a quick and by no means narrow appreciation of things beautiful. The poems suggest to us a youthful Milton dreaming of gorgeous and visionary splendors in the long summer twilights, delighting in the plays of Jonson and Shakespeare, and spending lonely midnights in the loftiest speculations of philosophy. In these poems, especially L'Allegro, Milton is very close to the Elizabethans.

Comus. — But Comus (1634), Milton's next work, shows the decided growth of a new and distinctly Puritan spirit. In its form, indeed, Comus belongs to the earlier age. It is a masque one of those gorgeous dramatic spectacles which Renaissance England had learned from Italy, the favorite entertainment at the festivals of the rich, with which Ben Jonson so often delighted the Court of James. Comus has music and dancing, and it affords the requisite opportunity for scenic effects, yet there breathes through it the growing strain of moral earnestness. It shows us how purity and innocence can thread the darkest and most tangled ways of earth, unharmed and invincible, through the inherent might of goodness. In noble and memorable words Milton declares his faith in this essential power of righteousness, and in the ultimate triumph of good over evil which that power is destined to secure:

Against the threats
Of malice or of sorcery, or that power
Which erring men call Chance, this I hold firm:

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