John Milton,

from Peter Bayne in the Contemporary Review


John Milton

JOHN MILTON
From a miniature by Faithorne, painted in 1667


In 1623, when Milton was a boy of fifteen, John Heminge and Henry Condell, "only to keep the memory of so worthy a friend and fellow alive as was our Shakspere," had given to the world the folio edition of Shakspere's works, very anxious that the said folio might commend itself to "the most noble and incomparable pair of brethern," William, Earl of this, and Philip, Earl of that, and exceedingly unconscious that, next to the production of the works themselves, they were doing the most important thing done, or likely to be done, in the literary history of the world. Milton read Shakspere, and in the lines which he wrote upon him in 1630, there seems to be the due throb of transcendent admiration....

As Shakspere is the supreme name in this order of poets, the men of sympathy and of humor, Milton stands first in that other great order which is too didactic for humor, and of which Schiller is the best recent representative. He was called the lady of his college not only for his beautiful face, but because of the vestal purity and austerity of his virtue. The men of the former class are intuitive, passionate, impulsive; not steadily conscious of their powers; fitful, unsystematic. Their love is ecstasy; their errors are the intoxication of joy; their sorrows are the pangs of death....

Milton, the poet of Puritanism, stands out in bold contrast to these imperfect characters. From his infancy there was nothing unregulated in his life. His father, clearly a superior man, of keen Protestantism, successful in business, well skilled in music, soon perceived that one of the race of immortals had been born in his house. He began, apparently with the conscious and delighted assent of his son, to give the young Apollo such an education as Plato might have prescribed. An eminently good education it proved to be; only not so good, with a view to the production of a world-poet, as that which nature, jealous of the Platos and pedagogues, and apt to tumble them and their grammatical appurtenances out of the window when she has one of her miraculous children in hand, had provided for that Stratford lad who came to London broken in character and probably almost broken in heart, some forty years earlier, to be a hanger-on of the theaters and to mount the intellectual throne of the world. No deer-stealing expeditions late o' nights when the moon silvered the elms of Charlecote chase; no passionate love affairs and wild boy-marriage.

Milton, carefully grounded in the tongues, went in due course to Cambridge University, and during those years when the youthful mind is in its stage of richest recipiency, lived among the kind of men who haunt seats of learning,—on the whole, the most uninteresting men in existence, whose very knowledge is a learned ignorance; not bees of industry, who have hoarded information by experience, but book-worms.... It is important, also, that Milton was never to any distracting extent in love. If Shakspere had been a distinguished university man, would he have told us of a catch that could "draw three souls out of one weaver?" And if the boy of eighteen had not been in a fine frenzy about Anne Hathaway, could he have known how Juliet and Romeo, Othello and Desdemona, loved?

... It is a proof of the fiery and inextinguishable nature of Milton's genius that it triumphed over the artificiality of his training; that there is the pulse of a true poetical life in his most highly wrought poems, and that the whole mountain of his learning glows with the strong internal flame. His inspiration was from within, the inspiration of a profound enthusiasm for beauty and an impassioned devotion to virtue. The district in which he lived during much of his most elaborate self-education is not marked enough to have disturbed, by strong impressions from without, the development of his genius from within. Horton lies where the dead flat of southeastern Buckingham meets the dead flat of southwestern Middlesex. Egham Hill, not quite so high as Hampstead, and the chalk knoll on which Windsor Castle fails to be sublime, are the loftiest ground in the immediate neighborhood. Staines, the Pontes of the Romans, and Runnymede with its associations, are near the parish church of Horton, in which Milton worshiped for five or six years, and in which his mother is buried, has one of the Norman porches common in the district, but is drearily heavy in its general structure, and forms a notable contrast to that fine example of the old English church in which, by the willows of Avon, lie Shakspere's bones. The river Colne breaks itself, a few miles to the north, into a leash of streams, the most considerable of which flows by Horton. The abounding watercourses are veiled with willows, but the tree does not seem to have attracted Milton's attention. It was reserved for the poet-painter of the Liber Studiorum to show what depths of homely pathos, and what exquisite picturesqueness of gnarled and knotted line, could be found in a pollard willow, and for Tennyson to reveal the poetic expressiveness of the tree as denoting a solemn and pensive landscape, such as that amid whose "willowy hills and fields" rose the carol

... mournful, holy,
Chaunted loudly, chaunted lowly,
Till her blood was frozen slowly,
And her eyes were darkened wholly,

of the Lady of Shalott....

Milton's bodily appearance at this time was in brilliant correspondence with the ideal which imagination might form of a youthful poet. Perfect in all bodily proportions, an accomplished fencer, with delicate flowing hair, and beautiful features through which genius, still half in slumber, shed its mystic glow, he was all that the imagination of Greece saw in the young Hyperion or Apollo.

... His three daughters, Anne, Deborah, and Mary, were the children of his first wife. He was twice married after her death in 1653, but had no more children. So early as 1644 his sight began to fail, and when his little girls were left motherless, they could be known to him, as Professor Masson touchingly says, "only as tiny voices of complaint going about in the darkness." The tiny voices did not move him to love or pity. His impatient and imperious nature had doubtless undergone exquisite misery from the moaning discontent of his wife; the daughters took the mother's part so soon as they were able to understand her sorrows; and the grave Puritan displeasure with which Milton regards the mother seems to have been transferred to the children. His austerity as a Puritan and a pedagogue, and the worse than old Hebrew meanness of his estimate of women, appear to the greatest disadvantage in connection with his daughters. Had they been sons, he would have thrown all his ardor into the enterprise of their education. The training of boys was one of his enthusiasms; but his daughters were taught nothing except to read, and were ordered to read aloud to him in languages of which they did not understand a word. Naturally they never loved him; his fame, which they were not able to appreciate, cast on them no ray of comforting light; and they thought probably in sad and scared bewilderment of the relations between their unhappy wraith-like mother, and their Titan father. How different the warm and tender relations between Shakspere and his children! In that instance it was the daughter, the pet Judith, that was the demure sweet Puritan, yet with a touch of her father's wit in her, and able to enjoy all the depth of his smile when he would ask her whether cakes and ale were to be quite abolished when the reign of the saints came in.

... To the man himself we turn, for one brief glance before laying down the pen. In the evil times of the Restoration, in the land of the Philistines, Agonistes but unconquerable, the Puritan Samson ended his days. Serene and strong; conscious that the ambition of his youth had been achieved, he begins the day with the Hebrew Bible, listens reverently to words in which Moses or David or Isaiah spake of God. But he attends no church, belongs to no communion, and has no form of worship in his family; notable circumstances which we may refer, in part at least, to his blindness, but significant of more than that. His religion was of the spirit, and did not take kindly to any form. Though the most Puritan of the Puritan, he had never stopped long in the ranks of any Puritan party, or given satisfaction to Puritan ecclesiastics and theologians. In his youth he loved the night; in his old age he loves the sunlight of early morning as it glimmers on his sightless eyes. The music which had been his delight since childhood has still its charm, and he either sings or plays on the organ or bass-violin every day. In his gray coat, at the door of his house in Bunhill Fields, he sits on clear afternoons; a proud, ruggedly genial old man, with sharp satiric touches in his talk, the untunable fiber in him to the last. Eminent foreigners come to see him; friends approach reverently, drawn by the splendor of his discourse. It would range, one can well imagine, in glittering freedom, like "arabesques of lightning," over all ages and all literatures. He was the prince of scholars; a memory of superlative power waiting, as submissive handmaid, on the queenliest imagination. The whole spectacle of ancient civilization, its cities, its camps, its landscapes, was before him. There he sat in his gray coat, like a statue cut in granite. England had made a sordid failure, but he had not failed. His soul's fellowship was with the great Republicans of Greece and Rome, and with the Psalmist and Isaiah and Oliver Cromwell.