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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. Il Penseroso, composed at this young poet and his surroundings. stitions 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
Milton's L'Allegro and time, reflect both the Rustic life and super
"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
Virtue may be assailed, but never hurt,
And mix no more with goodness, when at last,
Lycidas. In his next poem, the pastoral elegy of Lycidas (1637), written in memory of his friend Edward King, a fellow of Christ's College, the space between Milton and the Elizabethans continues to widen. From the enthusiasm for virtue, he passes to an outburst of wrath and denunciation against those in the Church whom he considered the faithless shepherds of the flock.
"The hungry sheep look up, and are not fed,"
but the hour of retribution is at hand; already the
"two-handed engine at the door,
Stands ready to smite once, and smite no more."
Travels (1638-1639). The first thirty years of Milton's life had thus been lived almost wholly "in the still air of delightful studies." In this long and arduous period of preparation he had learned much from books; he was next to feel the broadening influences of foreign travel. In 1638 he left England and traveled through Paris to Italy, meeting many learned and famous men, among them the old astronomer Galileo. Milton was full of great plans, writing in 1637, "I am pluming my wings for a flight." He was
thinking of a great epic on the history of King Arthur. But in 1639 he changed his course completely. The civil troubles in England seemed gathering to a crisis, and Milton felt that while his countrymen were fighting for liberty, it was base in him to be "traveling abroad for intellectual culture." He returned to England in 1639.
Milton's Prose Period (1639-1660). — From the time of his return, to the Restoration in 1660, Milton deliberately put aside his cherished ambitions and pursuits, and freely gave up his life and genius to the service of his country. Except for occasional sonnets, the greatest poet in England forced himself to write prose for more than twenty years. Most of this prose was written in the heat of "hoarse disputes," and is often marred by the bitterness and personal abuse which marked the controversies of that troubled time; but this is redeemed in many places by earnestness and a noble eloquence.
Prominent among the works of this prose period are the Tractate on Education (1644), and the splendid Areopagitica (1644), a burning plea for the liberty of the press, of which it has been said: "Its defense of books, and the freedom of books, will last as long as there are writers and readers of books." After the execution of Charles I (1649), Milton ranged himself on the side of those who had taken this tremendous step, in a pamphlet on The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates; and a month after its publication he was made the Latin, or foreign, Secretary to the newly established Commonwealth. His pen continued to be busy for the state, until in 1652 his eyes failed him through over-use, and he was stricken with total blindness.
In the same year his wife, whom he had married as a young girl of less than half his age, but who had proved