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Virtue may be assailed, but never hurt,
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,
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
unsuited to him in disposition and education, died. Milton was left with three little girls. In 1656 he married Katherine Woodcock, who lived but little more than a year, and to whom he paid a touching tribute in one of his sonnets.
Later Poetic Period (1660-1674). — In these later years of Milton's life, during which he suffered blindness, sorrow, and broken health, the cause for which he had sacrificed so much was lost, and England was brought again under the rule of a Stuart king. Milton had been so vehement an advocate of the Parliament that we wonder at his escape; but, from whatever reason, he was not excepted from the general pardon put forth by Charles II after his return (August 29, 1660). In the riotous years that followed, when England, casting off decency and restraint, plunged into “the mad orgy of the Restoration,” Milton entered in earnest upon the composition of Paradise Lost, singing with voice
In his little house in Bunhill Fields, near the London in which the pleasure-loving King jested at faith and honor, and held his shameless court amid
the barbarous dissonance Of Bacchus and his revellers,”
the old poet lived his life of high contemplation and undaunted labor. At no time does Milton seem to us more worthy of himself; he is so heroic that we hardly dare to pity him. But wherever the fault lay, his
daughters, whose privilege it should have been to minister to him, greatly increased his burdens. They are said to have sold his books without his knowledge, and two of them counseled his maidservant to cheat him in his marketings."
When we reflect that the oldest daughter was but fourteen at the Restoration, and that the education of all had been neglected, we are inclined to judge less hardly, but we can scarcely wonder that Milton should have sought some means of relief from these intolerable discomforts. This he happily found through his marriage with Elizabeth Minshull in 1663. Yet even when matters were at the worst, Milton seems to have borne them with fortitude, “ having a certain serenity of mind not condescending to little things.” His one faithful daughter, Deborah, speaks of his cheerfulness under his sufferings from the gout, and describes him as “the soul of conversation.” The words of one who visited him at this time help to bring Milton before us, dressed neatly in black, and seated in a large armchair in a room with dark-green hangings, his soft hair falling over his shoulders, his sightless eyes still beautiful and clear.
Paradise Lost was published in 1667, and was followed in 1671 by Paradise Regained. With the latter poem appeared the noble drama of Samson Agonistes (or the Wrestler), and with it Milton's work was ended. He died on November 8, 1674.
Milton's Ideal of Life. We are stimulated and thrilled by the thought of Milton's life, as at the sight of some noble and heroic action. In its whole ideal and in its large results, we feel that it moves habitually on the higher levels, and is animated by no vulgar or ordinary aims. It is much that as a great poet Milton
loved beauty, that as a great scholar he sought after truth. It is more that, above the scholar's devotion to knowledge, Milton set the citizen's devotion to country, the patriot's passionate love of liberty; that above even the employment of his great poetic gift, he set the high resolve to make his life “a true poem,” and to live
“As ever in my great Taskmaster's eye.”
He has accordingly left us an example of solemn self-consecration to a lofty purpose, early undertaken, and steadfastly and consistently pursued. Milton's life was lived at high tension; he not only set an exacting standard for himself, he was also inclined to impose it upon others.
He is so sublime that some of us are inclined to be a trifle ill at ease in his presence, or are apt to be repelled by a strain of severity far different from the sweet companionableness of Shakespeare. In Milton's stringent and austere ideal we miss at times the saving grace of Shakespeare's charity, or we are almost moved to exclaim with Sir Toby:
“Dost thou think, because thou art virtuous, there shall be no more cakes and ale?”
In Samson Agonistes, when Delilah pleads before her husband that she has sinned through weakness, she is met by an uncompromising reply:
"... If weakness may excuse,
From such a rigorous insistence on condemnation in strict accord with the offense, our minds revert to