Page images
PDF
EPUB
[ocr errors][ocr errors]

tion enforced as a task, but they are partly due to real defect of natural knowledge.

Other objeccions of the critics on the same score, which may be met with, are easily dismissed. The objector, who can discover no reason why the oak should be styled “monumental,” meets with his match in the defender who suggests that it may be rightly so called because monuments in churches are made of oak. I should tremble to have to offer an explanation to critics of Milton so acute as these two. But of less ingenious readers I would ask if any single word can be found equal to “ monumental" in its power of suggesting to the imagination the historic oak of park or chase, up to the knees in fern, which has outlasted ten generations of men, has been the mute witness of the scenes of love, treachery or violence enacted in the baronial hall which it shadows and protects, and has been so associated with man that it is now rather a column and memorial oblelisk than a tree of the forest ?

These are the humors of criticism. But'apart from these, a naturalist is at once aware that Milton had neither the eye nor the ear of a naturalist. At no time, even before his loss of sight, was he an exact observer of natural objects. It may be that he knew a skylark from a redbreast, and did not confound the dog-rose with the honeysuckle. But I am sure that he had never acquired that interest in nature's things and ways which leads to close and loving watching of them. He had not that sense of outdoor nature, empirical and not scientific, which endows the Angler of his contemporary Walton with his enduring charm, and which is to be acquired only by living in the open country in childhood. Milton is not a man of the fields, but of books. His life is in his study, and when he steps abroad into the air he carries his study thoughts with him. He does not look at nature, but he sees her through books. Natural impressions are received from without, but always in those forms of beautiful speech in which the poets of all ages have clothed them. His epithets are not, like the epithets of the school of Dryden and Pope, culled from the Gradus ad Parnassum ; they are expressive of some reality, but it is of a real emotion in the spectator's soul, not of any quality detected by keen insight in the objects themselves. This emotion Milton's art stamps with an epithet which shall convey the added charm of classical reminiscence. When, e.g., he speaks of “the wand'ring moon,” the original significance of the epithet comes home to the scholarly reader with the enhanced effect of its association with the “errantem lunam” of Horace. Nor because it is adopted from Horace has the epithet here the second-hand effect of a copy. If Milton sees nature through books, he still sees it.

“ To behold the wand'ring moon,

Riding near her highcst noon,
Like one that had been led astray,
Through the heaven's wide pathless way,
And oft, as if her head she bow'd,
Stooping through a fleecy cloud."

No allegation that “wand'ring moon” is borrowed from Hørace can hide from us that Milton, though he remembered Horace, had watched the phenomenon with a feeling so intense that he projected his own soul's throb into the object before him, and named it with what Thomson calls “recollected love."

Milton's attitude towards nature is not that of a scientific naturalist, nor even that of a close observer. It is that of a poet who feels its total influence too powerfully to dissect it. If, as I have said, Milton reads books first and nature afterwards, it is not to test nature by his books, but to learn from both. He is learning not books, but from books. All he reads, sees, hears, is to him but nutriment for the soul. He is making himself. Man is to him the highest object; nature is subordinate to man, not only in its more vulgar uses, but as an excitant of fine emotion. He is not concerned to register the facts and phenomena of nature, but to convey the impressions they make on a sensitive soul. The external forms of things are to be presented to us as transformed through the heart and mind of the poet. The moon is endowed with life and will, “stooping," riding, “wand'ring,” “ bowing her head,” not as a frigid personification, and because the ancient poet so personified her, but by communication to her of the intense agitation which the nocturnal spectacle rouses in the poet's own breast.

I have sometimes read that these two idylls are masterpieces of description.". Other critics will ask if in the scenery of L'Allegro and Il Penseroso Milton has described the country about Horton, in Bucks, or that about Forest Hill, in Oxfordshire ; and will object that the Chiltern Hills are not high enough for clouds to rest upon their top, much less upon their breast. But he has left out the pollard willows, says another censor, and the lines of pollard willow are the prominent feature in the valley of the Colne, even more so than the “hedgerow elms."

Does the line “Walk the studious cloisters pale" mean St. Paul's or Westminster Abbey ? When these things can continue to be asked, it is hardly superfluous to continue to repeat that truth of fact and poetical truth are two different things. Milton's attitude towards nature is not that of a “descriptive poet," if indeed the phrase be not a self-contradiction.

In Milton nature is not put forward as the poet's theme. His theme is man, in the two contrasted moods of joyous emotion or grave reflection. The shifting scenery ministers to the varying mood. Thomson, in the Seasons (1726), sets himself to render natural phenomena as they truly are. He has left us a vivid presentation in gorgeous language of the naturalistic calendar of the changing year. Milton, in these two idylls, has recorded a day of twenty-four hours. But he has not registered the phenomena; he places us at the standpoint of the man before whom they deploy. And the man, joyous or melancholy, is not a bare spectator of them; he is the student, compounded of sensibility and intelligence, of whom we are not told that he saw so and so, or that he

CH4

felt so, but with whom we are made copartners of his thoughts and feeling. Description melts into emotion, and contemplation bodies itself in imagery. All the charm of rural life is there, but it is not tendered to us in the form of a landscape; the scenery is subordinated to the human figure in the centre,

These two short idylls are marked by a gladsome spontaneity which never came to Milton again. The delicate fancy and feeling which play about L'Allegro and Il Penseroso never reappear, and form a strong contrast to the austere imaginings of his later poetical period. These two poems have the freedom and frolic, the natural grace of movement, the improvisation, of the best Elizabethan examples, while both thoughts and words are under a strict economy unknown to the diffuse exuberance of the Spenserians.

In Lycidas (1637) we have reached the high-water mark of English poesy and of Milton's own production. A period of a century and a half was to elapse before poetry in England seemed, in Wordsworth's Ode on Immortality (1807), to be rising again towards the level of inspiration which it had once attained in Lycidas. And in the development of the Miltonic genius this wonderful dirge marks the culminating point. As the twin idylls of 1632 show a great advance upon the Ode on the Nativity (1629), the growth of the poetic mind during the five years which follow 1632 is registered in Lycidas. Like the L'Allegro and Il Penesroso, Lycidas is laid out on the lines of the accepted pastoral fiction ; like them it offers exquisite touches of idealized rural life. But Lycidas opens up a deeper vein of feeling, a patriot passion so vehement and dangerous that, like that which stirred the Hebrew prophet, it is compelled to veil itself from power, or from sympathy, in utterance made purposely enigmatical. which begins “ Last came and last did go" raises in us a thrill of awestruck expectation which I can only compare with that excited by the Cassandra of Æschylus's Agamemnon. For the reader to feel this, he must have present in memory the circumstances of England in 1637. He must place himself as far as possible in the situation of a contemporary. The study of Milton's poetry compels the study of his time ; and Professor Masson's six volumes are not too much to enable us to understand that there were real causes for the intense passion which glows underneath the poet's words—a passion which unexplained would be thought to be intrusive.

The historical exposition must be gathered from the English history of the period, which may be read in Professor Mason's excellent summary. All I desire to point out here is, that in Lycidas Milton's original picturesque vein is for the first time crossed with one of quite another sort, stern, determined, obscurely. indicative of suppressed passion, and the resolution to do or die. The fanaticism of the covenanter and the sad grace of Petrarch seem to meet in Milton's monody. Yet these opposites, instead of neutralizing cach other, are blended into one harmonious whole by the presiding, but invisible, genius of the

The passage

poet. The conflict between the old cavalier world—the years pf gayety and festivity of a splendid and pleasure-loving court, and the new Puritan world into which love and pleasure were not to enter-this conflict which was commencing in the social life of England, is also begun in Milton's own breast, and is reflected in Lycidas.

For we were nurs’d upon the self-same hill."

Here is the sweet mournfulness of the Spenserian time, upon whose joys Death is the only intruder. Pass onward a little, and you are in presence of the tremendous

“Two-handed engine at the door,"

the terror of which is enhanced by its obscurity, We are very sure that the avenger is there, though we know not who he is. In these thirty lines we have the preluding mutterings of the storm which was to sweep away mask and revel and song, to inhibit the drama, and suppress poetry. In the earlier poems Milton's muse has sung in the tones of the age that is passing away; except in his austere chastity, a cavalier. Though even in L'Allegro Dr. Johnson truly detects melancholy in his mirth.” In Lycidas, for a moment, the tones of both ages, the past and the coming, are combined, and then Milton leaves behind him forever the golden age, and one half of his poetic genius. He never fulfilled the promise with which Lycidas concludes,

To-morrow to fresh fields and pastures new."

some

CHAPTER III.

JOURNEY TO ITALY.

BEFORE 1632 Milton liad begun to learn Italian. His mind, just then open on all sides to impressions from books, was peculiarly attracted by Italian poetry. The language grew to be loved for its own sake. Saturated with Dante and Petrarch, Tasso and Ariosto, the desire arose to let the ear drink in the music of Tuscan speech.

The “unhappy gift of beauty," which has attracted the spoiler of all ages to the Italian peninsula, has ever exerted, and still exerts, a magnetic force on every cultivated mind. Manifold are the sources of this fascination now. The scholar and the artist, the antiquarian and the historian, the architect and the lover of natural scenery, alike find here the amplest gratification of their tastes. This is so still ; but in the sixteenth century the Italian cities were the only homes of an ancient

[ocr errors]

and decaying civilization. Not insensible to other impressions, it was specially the desire of social converse with the living poets and men of taste a feeble generation, but one still nourishing the traditions of the great poetic age-which drew Milton across the Alps.

In April, 1637, Milton's mother had died; but his younger brother, Christopher, had come to live, with his wife, in the paternal home at Horton. Milton, the father, was not unwilling that his son should have his foreign tour, as a part of that elaborate education by which he was qualifying himself for his doubtful vocation. The cost was not to stand in the way, considerable as it must have been. Howell's estimate, in his Instructions for Forreine Travel (1642), was 300l. a year for the tourist himself, and (50l. for his man, a sum equal to about 1000l. at present.

Among the letters of introduction with which Milton provided himself, one was from the aged Sir Henry Wotton, Provost of Eton, in Milton's immediate neighborhood. Sir Henry, who had lived a long time in Italy, impressed upon his young friend the importance of discretion on the point of religion, and told him the story which he always told to travellers who asked his advice. “At Siena I was tabled in the house of one Alberto Scipioni, an old Roman courtier in dangerous times.

At my departure for Rome I had won confidence enough to beg his advice how I might carry myself securely therc, without offence of others, or of mine own conscience. "Signor Arrigo mio,' says he, 'pensieri stretti ed il viso sciolto (thoughts close, countenance open) will go safely over the whole world.?” Though the intensity of the Catholic reaction had somewhat relaxed in Italy, the deportment of a Protestant in the countries which were terrorized by the Inquisition was a matter which demanded much circumspection. Sir H. Wotton spoke from his own experience of far more rigorous times than those of the Barberini Pope. But he may have noticed, even in his brief acquaintance with Milton, a fearless presumption of speech which was just what was most likely to bring him into trouble. The event proved that the hint was not misplaced. For at Rome itself, in the very lion's den, nothing could content the young zealot but to stand up for his Protestant creed. Milton would not do as Peter Heylin did, who, when asked as to his religion, replied that he was a Catholic, which, in a Laudian, was but a natural equivoque. Milton was resolute in his religion at Rome, so much so that many were deterred from showing him the civilities which they were prepared to offer. His rule, he says, was not of my own accord to introduce in those places conversation about religion, but, if interrogated respecting the faith, then, whatsoever I should suffer, to dissemble nothing. What I was, if any one asked, I concealed from no one; if any one in the very city of the Pope attacked the orthodox religion, I defended it most freely. Beyond the statement that the English Jesuits were indignant, we hear of no evil consequences of this imprudence. Perhaps the Jesuits saw that Milton was of the stuff that would welcome mariyrdom, and were sick of the

« PreviousContinue »