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FIRST PERIOD. 1608—1639.
In the seventeenth century it was not the custom to publish two volumes upon every man or woman whose name had appeared on a title-page. Nor, where lives of authors were written, were they written with the redudancy of particulars which is now allowed. Especially are the lives of the poets and dramatists obscure and meagrely recorded. Of Milton, however, we know more personal details than of any man of letters of that age. Edward Phillips, the poet's nephew, who was brought up by his uncle, and lived in habits of intercourse with him to the last, wrote a life, brief, inexact, superficial, but valuable from the nearness of the writer to the subject of his memoir. A contemporary of Milton, John Aubrey (b. 1625), “
a very honest man, and accurate in his accounts of matters of fact," as Toland says of him, made it his business to learn all he could about Milton's habits. Aubrey was himself acquainted with Milion, and diligently "catechised the poet's widow, his brother, and his nephew, scrupulously writing down each detail as it came to him, in the minutes of lives which he supplied to Antony Wood to be worked up in his 'Athena i and Fasti. Aubrey was only an antiquarian.collector, and was mainly dependent on what could be learned from the family. None of Milton's family, and least of all Edward Phillips, were of a capacity to apprehend moral or mental qualities, and they could only tell Aubrey of his goings out and his comings in, of the clothes he wore, the dates of events, the names of his acquaintance. In compensation for the want of observation on the part of his own kith and kin, Milton himself, with a superb and ingenuous egotism, has revealed the secret of his thoughts and feelings in numerous autobiographical passages of his prose writings. From what he directly communicates, and from what he unconsciously betrays, we obtain an internal life of
the mind, more ample than that external life of the bodily machine, which we owe to Aubrey and Phillips.
In our own generation all that printed books or written documents have preserved about Milton has been laboriously brought together by Professor David Masson, in whose Life of Milton we have the most exhaustive biography that ever was compiled of any Englishman. It is a noble and final monument erected to the poet's memory two centuries after his death. , My excuse for attempting to write of Milton after Mr. Masson is that his life is in six volumes octavo, with a total of some four to five thousand pages. The present outline is written for a different class of readers, those, namely, who cannot afford to know more of Milton than can be told in some two hundred and fifty pages.
A family of Miltons, deriving the name in all probability from the parish of Great Milton near Thame, is found in various branches spread sover Oxfordshire and the adjoining counties in the reign of Elizabeth. The poet's grandfather was a substantial yeoman, living at Stanton St. John, about five miles from Oxford, within the forest of Shotover, of which he was also an under-ranger. The ranger's son John was at school in Oxford, possibly as a chorister, conformed to the Established Church, and was in consequence cast off by his father, who adhered to the old faith. The disinherited son went up to London, and by the assistance of a friend was set up in business as a scrivener. A scrivener discharged some of the functions which, at the present day, are undertaken for us in a solicitor's office. John Milton the father, being a man of probity and force of character, was soon on the way to acquire "a plentiful fortune.” But he continued to live over his shop, which was in Bread Street, Cheapside, and which bore the sign of the Spread Eagle, the family crest.
It was at the Spread Eagle that his eldest son, John Milton, was born, 9th December, 1608, being thus exactly contemporary with Lord Clarendon, who also died in the same year as the poet. Milton must be added to the long roll of our poets who have been natives of the city which now never sees sunlight or blue sky, along with Chaucer, Spenser, Herrick, Cowley, Shirley, Ben Jonson, Pope, Gray, Keats. Besides attending as a day-scholar at St. Paul's School, which was close at hand, his father engaged for him a private tutor at home. The household of the Spread Eagle not only enjoyed civic prosperity, but some share of that liberal cultivation which, if not imbibed in the home, neither school nor college ever confers. The scrivener was not only an amateur in music, but a composer, whose tunes, songs, and airs found their way into the best collections of music. Both schoolmaster and tutor were men of mark. The high master of St. Paul's at that time was Alexander Gill, an M.A. of Corpus Christi College, Oxford, who was esteemed to have such an excellent way of training up youth, that none in his time went beyond it.” The private tutor was Thomas Young, who was, or had been, curate to Mr. Gataker, of Rotherhithe, itself a certificate of merit, even if we had not the pupil's emphatic testimony of gratitude. Milton's fourth elegy is addressed to Young, when, in 1627, he was settled at Hamburg, crediting him with having first infused into his pupil a taste for classic literature and poetry. Biographers have derived Miltons Presbyterianism in 1641 from the lessons twenty years before of this Thomas Young, a Scotchman, and one of the authors of the Smectymnuus. This, however, is a misreading of Milton's mind-a mind which was an organic whole--"whose seed was in itself,” self-determined ; not one whose opinions can be accounted for by contagion or casual impact.
Of Milton's boyish exercises two have been preserved. They are English paraphrases of two of the Davidic Psalms, and were done at · the age of fifteen. That they were thought by himself worth printing in the same volume with Comụs, is the most noteworthy thing about them. No words are so commonplace but that they can be made to yield inference by a biographer. And even in these school exercises we think we can discern that the future poet was already a diligent reader of Sylvester's Du Bartas (1605), the patriarch of Protestant poetry, and of Fairfax's Tasso (1600). There are other indications that, from very early years, poetry had assumed a place in Milton's mind, not merely as a juvenile pastime, but as an occupation of serious import.
Young Gill, son of the high master, a school-fellow of Milton, went up to Trinity, Oxford, where he got into trouble by being informed against by Chillingworth, who reported incautious Presbyterian speeches of Gill to his godfather, Laud. With Gill, Milton corresponded; they exchanged their verses, Greek, Latin, and English, with a confession on Milton's part that he prefers English and Latin composition to Greek ; that to write Greek verses in this age was to sing to the deaf. Gill, Milton finds "a severe critic of poetry, howeyer disposed to be lenient to his friend's attempts.".
If Milton's genius did not announce itself in his paraphrases of Psalms, it did in his impetuosity in learning, “which I seized with such eagerness that from the twelfth year of my age I scarce ever went to bed before midnight.” Such is his own account. And it is worth notice that we have here an incidental test of the trustworthiness of Aubrey's reminiscences. Aubrey's words are, “ When he was very young he studied very hard, and sate up very late, commonly till twelve or one o'clock at night; and his father ordered the maid to sit up for him."
He was ready for college at sixteen, not earlier than the usual age at that period. As his schoolmasters, both the Gills, were Oxford men (Young was of St. Andrew's), it might have been expected that the young scholar would have been placed at Oxford. However, it was determined that he should go to Cambridge, where he was admitted a pensioner of Christ's, 12th February, 1625, and commenced
residence in the Easter term ensuing. Perhaps his father feared the growing High Church, or, as it was then called, Arminianism, of his own university. It so happened, however, that the tutor to whom the young Milton was consigned was 'specially noted for Arminian proclivities. This was William Chappell, then Fellow of Christ's, who so recommended himself to Laud by his party zeal that he was advanced to be Provost of Dublin and Bishop of Cork.
Milton was one of those pupils who are more likely to react against a tutor than to take a ply from him. A preaching divine-Chappell composed a treatise on the art of preaching a narrow ecclesiastic of the type loved by Laud, was exactly the man who would drive Milton into opposition. But the tutor of the seventeenth century was not able, like the easy-going tutor of the eighteenth, to leave the young rebel to pursue the reading of his choice in his own chamber. Chappell endeavored to drive his pupil along the scholastic highway of exercises. Milton, returning to Cambridge after his summer vacation, eager for the acquisition of wisdom, complains that he dragged from his studies, and compelled to employ himself in composing some frivolous declamation !” Indocile, as he confesses himself (indocilisque ætas prava magistra fuit), he kicked against either the discipline or the exercises exacted by college rules. He was punished. Aubrey had heard that he was flogged, a thing not impossible in itself, as the Admonition Book of Emanuel gives an instance of corporal chastisement as late as 1667. Aubrey's statement, however, is a dubitative interlineation in his MS., and Milton's age, seventeen, as well as the silence of his later detractors, who raked up everything which could be told to his disadvantage, concur to make us hesitate to accept a fact on so slender evidence. Anyhow, Milton was sent away from college for a time, in the year 1627, in consequence of something unpleasant which had occurred. That it was something of which he was not ashamed is clear, from his alluding to it himself in the lines written at the time,
“Nec duras usque libet minas perferre magistri
Cæteraque ingenio non subeunda meo.
And that the tutor was not considered to have been wholly free trom blame is evident from the fact that the master transferred Milton from Chappell to another tutor, a very unusual proceeding. Whatever the nature of the punishment, it was not what is known as a rustication; for Milton did not lose a term, taking his two degrees of B.A. and M.A. in regular course, at the earliest date from his matriculation permitted by the statutes. The one outbreak of juvenile petulance and indiscipline over, Milton's force of character and unusual attainments acquired him the esteem of his seniors. The nickname of “the lady of Christ's," given him in derision by his fellow-students, is an attestation of vir