Page images
[ocr errors]

tuous conduct. Ten years later, in 1642, Milton takes an opportunity to “acknowledge publicly, with all grateful mind, that 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 words · how much better it would content them that I would stay” have been thought to hint at the offer of a fellowship at Christ's. It is highly improbable that such an offer was ever made. There had been two vacancies in the roll of fellows since Milton had become eligible by taking his B.A. degree, and he had been passed over in favor of juniors, who were pushed by Court patrons or college favoritism. And in universities generally, it is not literature or general acquirements which recommend a candidate for endowed posts, but technical skill in the prescribed exercises, and a pedagogic intention,

Further than this, had a fellowship in his college been attainable, it would not have had much attraction for Milton. A fellowship implied two things, residence in college, with teaching, and orders in the church. With neither of these two conditions was Milton prepared to comply. In 1632, when he proceeded to his M.A. degree, Milton was twenty-four. He had been seven years in college, and had therefore sufficient experience what college life was like. He who was so impatient of the “turba legentum prava" in the Bodleian library, could not have patiently consorted with the vulgar-minded and illiterate ecclesiastics who peopled the colleges of that day. Even Mede, though the author of Clavis Apocalyptica was steeped in the soulless clericalism of his age, could not support his brother fellows without frequent retirements to Balsham,“ being not willing to be joined with such company.". To be dependent upon Bainbrigge's (the Master of Christ's) good pleasure for a supply of pupils ; to have to live in daily intercourse with the Powers and the Chappells, such as we know them from Mede's letters, was an existence to which only the want of daily bread could have driven Milton. · Happily his father's circumstances were not such as to make a fellowship pecuniarily an object to the son. If he longed for “the studious cloister's pale,” he had been now for seven years near enough to college life to have dispelled the dream that it was a life of lettered leisure and philosophic retirement. It was just about Milton's time that the college tutor finally supplanted the university professor, a system which implied the substitution of exercises performed by the pupil for instruction given by the teacher. Whatever advantages this system brought with it, it brought inevitably the degradation of the teacher, who was thus dispensed from knowledge, having only to attend to form. The time of the college tutor was

[ocr errors]

engrossed by the details of scholastic superintendence, and the frivolous worry of academical business. Admissions, matriculations, disputations, declamations, the formalities of degrees, public recepcion of royal and noble visitors, filled every hour of his day, and left no time, even if he had had the taste, for private study. To teaching, as we shall see, Milton was far from averse. But then it must be teaching as he understood it, à teaching which should expand the intellect and raise the character, not dexterity in.playing with the verbal formulæ of the disputations of the schools.

Such an occupation could have no attractions for one who was even now meditating Il Penseroso (composed 1633). At twenty he had already confided to his school-fellow, the younger Gill, the secret of his discontent with the Cambridge tone. “Here among us,

he writes from college, “are barely one or two who do not flutter off, all unfledged, into theology, having gotten of philology or of philosophy scarce so much as a smattering. And for theology they are content with just what is enough to enable them to patch up a paltry sermon. He retained the same feeling towards his Alma Mater in 1641, when he wrote (Reason of Church Government), “ Cambridge, which as in the time of her better health, and mine own younger judgment, I never greatly admired, so now much less

On a review of all these indications of feeling, I should conclude that Milton never had serious thoughts of a college fellowship, and that his antipathy arose from a sense of his own incompatibility of temper with academic life, and was not, like Phineas Fletcher's, the result of disappointed hopes, and a sense of injury for having been refused a fellowship at King's. One consideration which remains to be mentioned would alone be decisive in favor of this view. A fellowship required orders. Milton had been intended for the church, and had been sent to college with that view. By the time he left Cambridge, at twenty-four; it had become clear both to himself and his family that he could never submit his understanding to the trammels of church formularies. His later mind, about 1641, is expressed by himself in his own forcible style,-“ The church, to whose service by the intention of my parents and friends I was destined of a child, and in mine own resolutions, till coming to some maturity of years, and perceiving what tyranny had invaded in the church, that he who would take orders must subscribe slave, ånd take an oath withal,

I thought it better to prefer a blameless silence before the sacred office of speaking, bought and begun with servitude and forswearing.” When he took leave of the university, in 1632, he had perhaps not developed this distinct antipathy to the establishment. For in a letter, preserved in Trinity College, and written in the winter of 1631-32, he does not put forward any conscientious objections to the clerical profession, but only apologizes to the friend to whom the letter is addressed for delay in making choice of some profession. The delay itself sprung from an unconscious distaste. In a mind of the consistent texture of Milton's, motives are secretly influential before they emerge in consciousness. We shall not be wrong in asserting that when he left Cambridge in 1632, i was already impossible, in the nature of things, that he should have taken orders in the Church of England, or a fellowship of which orders were a condition.




Milton had been sent to college to qualify for a profession. The church, the first intended, he had gradually discovered to be incompatible. Of the law, either his father's branch, or some other, he seems to have entertained a thought, but to have speedily dismissed it. So at the age of twenty-four he returns to his father's house, bringing nothing with him but his education and a silent purpose.

The elder Milton had now retired from business, with sufficient means, but not with wealth. Though John was the eldest son, there were two other children, a brother, Christopher, and a sister, Anne, To have no profession, even a nominal one, to be above trade and below the status of squire or yeoman, and to come home with the avowed object of leading an idle life, was conduct which required justification. Milton felt it to be so. In a letter addressed, in 1632, to some senior friend at Cambridge, name unknown, he thanks him for being “a good watchman to admonish that the hours of the night pass on, for so I call my life, as yet obscure and unserviceable to mankind, and that the day with me is at hand, wherein Christ commands all to labor." Milton has no misgivings. He knows that what he is doing with himself is the best he can do. His aim is far above bread-winning, and therefore his probation must be long. He destines for himself no indolent tarrying in the garden of Armida. His is a mind made and set wholly on the accomplishment of greatest things." He knows that the looker-on will hardly accept his apology for being late,” that it is in order to being “more fit.” Yet it is the only apology he can offer. And he is dissatisfied with his own progress.

“I am something suspicious of myself, and do take notice of a certain belatedness in me.

Of this frame of mind the record is the second sonnet, lines which are an inseparable part of Milton's biography

“How soon hath Time, the subtle thief of youth,

Stol'n on his wing my three-and-twentieth year!

My hasting days fly on with full career,
But my late spring no bud or blossom shew'th.

Perhaps my semblance might deceive the truth

That I to manhood am arrived so near,

And in ward ripeness doth much less appear,
That some more timely-happy spirits endu'th.
Yet, be it less or more, or soon or slow,

It shall be still in strictest measure even

To that same lot, however mean or high,
Toward which Time leads me, and the will of Heaven.

Al! is, if I have grace to use it so,
As ever in my great Taskmaster's eye."

[ocr errors]

With aspirations thus vast, though unformed, with "amplitude of mind to greatest deeds," Milton retired to his father's house in the country. Five more years of self-education, added to the seven years of aca. demical residence, were not too much for the meditation of projects such as Milton was already conceiving. Years many more that twelve, filled with great events and distracting interests, were to pass over before the body and shape of Paradise Lost was given to these imaginings.

The country retirement in which the elder Milton had fixed himself was the little village of Horton, situated in that southernmost angle of the county of Buckingham which insinuates itself between Berks and Middlesex. Though only about seventeen miles from London, it was the London of Charles I., with its population of some 300,000 only; before coaches and macadamized roads; while the Colne, which flows through the village, was still a river, and not the kennel of a paper-mill. There was no lack of water and wood, meadow and pasture, closes and open field, with the regal towers of Windsor, “bosom'd high in tufted trees,” to crown the landscape. Unbroken leisure, solitude, tranquillity of mind, surrounded by the thickets and woods which Pliny thought indispensable to poetical meditation (Epist. 9. 10), no poet's career was ever commenced under more favorable auspices. The youth of Milton stands in strong contrast with the misery, turmoil, chance medley, struggle with poverty, or abandonment to dissipation, which blighted the early years of so many of our men of let

Milton's life is a drama in three acts. The first discovers him in the calm and peaceful retirement of Horton, of which L'Allegro, Il Penseroso, and Lycidas are the expression. In the second act he is breathing the foul and heated atmosphere of party passion and religious hate, generating the lurid fires which glare in the battailous canticles of his prose pamphlets. The three great poems, Paradise Lost, Paradise Regained, and Samson Agonistes, are the utterance of his final period of solitary and Promethean grandeur, when, blind, destitute, friendless, he testified of righteousness, temperance, and jndgment to come, alone before a fallen world.

In this delicious retirement of Horton, in alternate communing with nature and with books, for five years of persevering study he laid in a stock, not of learning, but of what is far above learning, of wide and accurate knowledge. Of the man whose profession is learning, it is


characteristic that knowledge is its own end, and research its own reward. To Milton all knowledge, all life, virtue itself, was already only a means to a further end. He will know only “that which is of use to know," and by useful he meant that which conduced to form him for his vocation of poet.

From a very early period Milton had taken poetry to be his vocation, in the most solemn and earnest mood. The idea of this devotion was the shaping idea of his life. It was, indeed, a bent of nature, with roots drawing from deeper strata of character than any act of reasoned will, which kept him out of the professions, and now fixed him, a seeming idler, but really hard at work, in his father's house at Horton. The intimation which he had given of his purpsse in the sonnet above quoted had become, in 1641, an inward prompting which grows daily upon, that by labor and intent study, which I take to be my portion in this life, joined with the strong propensity of nature, I might perhaps leave something so written to after times, as they should not willingly let it die.”

What the ultimate form of his poetic utterance shall be, he is in no hurry to decide. He will be “long choosing,”and quite content to be

beginning late." All his care at present is to qualify himself for the lofty function to which he aspires. No lawyer, physician, statesman, ever labored to fit himself for his profession harder than Milton strove to qualify himself for his vocation of poet. Verse-making is, to the wits, a game of ingenuity; to Milton, it is a prophetic office, towards which the will of Heaven leads him. The creation he contemplates will not flow from him as the stanzas of the Gerusalemme did from Tasso at twenty-one. Before he can make a poem, Milton will make himself. I was confirmed in this opinion, that he who would not be frustrated of his hope to write well hereafter in laudable things ought himself to be a true poem not presuming to sing high praises of heroic men or famous cities, unless he have in himself the experience and practice of all that which is praiseworthy."

Of the spontaneity, the abandon, which are supposed to be characteristic of the poetical nature, there is nothing here; all is moral purpose, precision, self-dedication. So he acquires all knowledge, not for knowledge' sake, from the instinct of learning, the necessity for completeness, but because he is to be a poet. Nor will he only have knowledge, he will have wisdom; moral development shall go hand in hand with intellectual. poet's soul should “contain of good, wise, just, the perfecť shape.' He will cherish continually a pure mind in a pure body. “I argued to myself that, if unchastity in a woman, whom St. Paul terms the glory of man, be such a scandal and dishonor, then certainly in a man, who is both the image and glory of God, it must, though commcnly not so thought, be much more deflouring and dishonorable. There is yet a third constituent of the poetical nature; to knowledge and to virtue must be added religion. For it is from God that the poet's thoughts come. “This is not to be


« PreviousContinue »