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Source: Areopagitica, with a Commentary by Sir Richard C. Jebb and with Supplementary Material (Cambridge at the University Press, 1918).
LIFE OF MILTON
Milton’s life falls into these clearly defined divisions. The first period ends with the poet’s return from Italy in 1639; the second at the Restoration in 1660, when release from the fetters of politics enabled him to remind the world that he was a great poet; the third is brought to a close with his death in 1674. We propose to summarise the main events of the three periods.
John Milton was born on December 9, 1608, in London. He came, in his own words, ex genere honesto. A family of Miltons had been settled in Oxfordshire since the reign of Elizabeth. The poet’s father had been educated at an Oxford school, possibly as a chorister in one of the College choir-schools, and imbibing Anglican sympathies had conformed to the Established Church. For this he was disinherited by his Roman Catholic father. He settled in London, following the profession of scrivener. A scrivener combined the occupations of lawyer and law-stationer. It appears to have been a lucrative calling; certainly John Milton (the poet was named after the father) attained to easy circumstances He married about 1600, and had six children, of whom several died young. The third child was the poet.
The elder Milton was evidently a man of considerable culture, in particular an accomplished musician, and a composer whose madrigals were deemed worthy of being printed side by side with those of Byrd, Orlando Gibbons and other leading musicians of the time. To him, no doubt, the poet owed the love of music of which we see frequent indications in the poems . Realising, too, that in his son lay the promise and possibility of future greatness, John Milton took the utmost pains to have the boy adequately educated; and the lines Ad Patrem show that the ties of affection between father and child were of more than ordinary closeness.
Milton was sent to St Paul’s School about the year 1620. Here two influences, apart from those of ordinary school-life, may have affected him particularly. The headmaster was a good English scholar; he published a grammar containing many extracts from English poets, notably Spenser; it is reasonable to assume that he had not a little to do with the encouragement and guidance of Milton’s early taste for English poetry . Also, the founder of St Paul’s School, Colet, had prescribed as part of the school-course the study of certain early Christian writers, whose influence is said to be directly traceable in Milton’s poems and may in some cases have suggested his choice of sacred themes . While at St Paul’s, Milton also had a tutor at home, Thomas Young, a Scotchman, afterwards an eminent Puritan divine—the inspirer, doubtless, of much of his pupil’s Puritan sympathies. And Milton enjoyed the signal advantage of growing up in the stimulating atmosphere of cultured home-life. Most men do not realise that the word “culture” signifies anything very definite or desirable before they pass to the University; for Milton, however, home-life meant, from the first, not only broad interests and refinement, but active encouragement towards literature and study. In 1625 he left St Paul’s. Of his extant English poems only one, On the Death of a Fair Infant, dates from his school-days; but we are told that he had written much verse, English and Latin. And his early training had done that which was all-important: it had laid the foundation of the far-ranging knowledge which makes Paradise Lost unique for diversity of suggestion and interest.
Milton went to Christ’s College, Cambridge, in the Easter term of 1625, took his B.A. degree in 1629, proceeded M.A. in 1632, and in the latter year left Cambridge. The popular view of Milton’s connection with the University will be coloured for all time by Johnson’s unfortunate story that for some unknown offence he “suffered the public indignity of corporal correction.” For various reasons this story is now discredited by the best judges. It is certain, however, that early in 1626 Milton did have some serious difficulty with his tutor, which led to his removal from Cambridge for a few weeks and his transference to another tutor on his return later in the term. He spoke of the incident bitterly at the time in one of his Latin poems, and he spoke of Cambridge bitterly in after years On the other hand he voluntarily passed seven years at the University, and resented strongly the imputations brought against him in the “Smectymnuus” controversy that he had been in ill-favour with the authorities of his college. Writing in 1642, he takes the opportunity “to acknowledge publicly with all grateful mind, that more than ordinary favour and respect, which I found above any 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 .” And if we look into those uncomplimentary allusions to Cambridge which date from the controversial period of his life we see that the feeling they represent is hardly more than a phase of his theological bias. He detested ecclesiasticism, and for him the two Universities (there is a fine impartiality in his diatribes) are the strongholds of what he detested: “nurseries of superstition”—“not yet well recovered from the scholastic grossness of barbarous ages”—given up to “monkish and miserable sophistry,” and unprogressive in their educational methods. But it may fairly be assumed that Milton the scholar and poet, who chose to spend seven years at Cambridge, owed to her more than Milton the fierce controversialist admitted or knew. A poet he had proved himself before leaving the University in 1632 The short but exquisite ode At a Solemn Music, and the Nativity Hymn (1629), were already written
Milton’s father had settled at Horton in Buckinghamshire. Thither the son retired in July, 1632. He had gone to Cambridge with the intention of qualifying for some profession, perhaps the Church . This purpose was soon given up, and when Milton returned to his father’s house he seems to have made up his mind that there was no profession which he cared to enter He would choose the better part of studying and preparing himself, by rigorous self-discipline and application, for the far-off divine event to which his whole life moved.
It was Milton’s constant resolve to achieve something that should vindicate the ways of God to men, something great that should justify his own possession of unique powers—powers of which, with no trace of egotism, he proclaims himself proudly conscious. The feeling finds repeated expression in his prose; it is the guiding-star that shines clear and steadfast even through the mists of politics. He has a mission to fulfil, a purpose to accomplish, no less than the most fanatic of religious enthusiasts; and the means whereby this end is to be attained are devotion to religion, devotion to learning, and ascetic purity of life
This period of self-centred isolation lasted from 1632 to 1638 Gibbon tells us among the many wise things contained in that most wise book the Autobiography, that every man has two educations: that which he receives from his teachers and that which he owes to himself, the latter being infinitely the more important. During these five years Milton completed his second education, ranging the whole world of classical antiquity and absorbing the classical genius so thoroughly that the ancients were to him what they afterwards became to Landor, what they have never become to any other English poet in the same degree, even as the very breath of his being, pursuing, too, other interests, such as music, astronomy and the study of Italian literature; and combining these vast and diverse influences into a splendid equipment of hard-won, well-ordered culture. The world has known many greater scholars in the technical, limited sense than Milton, but few men, if any, who have mastered more things worth mastering in art, letters and scholarship . It says much for the poet that he was sustained through this period of study, pursued ohne Hast, ohne Rast, by the full consciousness that all would be crowned by a masterpiece which should add one more testimony to the belief in that God who ordains the fates of men. It says also a very great deal for the father who suffered his son to follow in this manner the path of learning.
True, Milton gave more than one earnest of his future fame. The dates of the early pieces—L’Allegro, Il Penseroso, Arcades, Comus and Lycidas—are not all certain; but probably each was composed at Horton before 1638. Four of them have great autobiographic value as an indirect commentary, written from Milton’s coign of seclusion, upon the moral crisis through which English life and thought were passing, the clash between the careless hedonism of the Cavalier world and the deepening austerity of Puritanism. In L’Allegro the poet holds the balance almost equal between the two opposing tendencies. In Il Penseroso it becomes clear to which side his sympathies are leaning. Comus is a covert prophecy of the downfall of the Court-party, while Lycidas openly “foretells the ruine” of the Established Church. The latter poem is the final utterance of Milton’s lyric genius. Here he reaches, in Mr Mark Pattison’s words, the highwater mark of English verse; and then—the pity of it—he resigns that place among the lyrici vates of which the Roman singer was ambitious, and for nearly twenty years suffers his lyre to hang mute and rusty in the temple of the Muses.
The composition of Lycidas may be assigned to the year 1637. In the spring of the next year Milton started for Italy. It was natural that he should seek inspiration in the land where many English poets, from Chaucer to Shelley, have found it. Milton remained abroad some fifteen months. Originally he had intended to include Sicily and Greece in his travels, but news of the troubles in England hastened his return. He was brought face to face with the question whether or not he should bear his part in the coming struggle; whether without self-reproach he could lead any longer this life of learning and indifference to the public weal. He decided as we might have expected that he would decide, though some good critics see cause to regret the decision. Milton puts his position very clearly in his Defensio Secunda: “I thought it base to be travelling for amusement abroad, while my fellow-citizens were fighting for liberty at home.” And later: “I determined to relinquish the other pursuits in which I was engaged, and to transfer the whole force of my talents and my industry to this one important object” (i.e. the vindication of liberty).
The summer of 1639 (July) found Milton back in England. Immediately after his return he wrote the Epitaphium Damonis, the beautiful elegy in which he lamented the death of his school friend, Diodati. Lycidas was the last of the English lyrics: the Epitaphium, which should be studied in close connection with Lycidas, the last of the long Latin poems. Thenceforth, for a long spell, the rest was silence, so far as concerned poetry. The period which for all men represents the strength and maturity of manhood, which in the cases of other poets produces the best and most characteristic work, is with Milton a blank. In twenty years he composed no more than a bare handful of Sonnets, and even some of these are infected by the taint of political animus. Other interests claimed him—the question of Church-reform, education, marriage, and, above all, politics.
Milton’s first treatise upon the government of the Church (Of Reformation in England) appeared in 1641. Others followed in quick succession. The abolition of Episcopacy was the watchword of the enemies of the Anglican Church—the delenda est Carthago cry of Puritanism, and no one enforced the point with greater eloquence than Milton. During 1641 and 1642 he wrote five pamphlets on the subject. Meanwhile he was studying the principles of education. On his return from Italy he had undertaken the training of his nephews. This led to consideration of the best educational methods; and in the Tractate of Education, 1644, Milton assumed the part of educational theorist. In the previous year, May, 1643, he married . The marriage proved unfortunate. Its immediate outcome was the pamphlets on divorce. Clearly he had little leisure for literature proper.
The finest of Milton’s prose works, Areopagitica, a plea for the free expression of opinion, was published in 1644. In 1645 appeared the first collection of his poems. In 1649 his advocacy of the anti-royalist cause was recognised by the offer of a post under the newly appointed Council of State. His bold vindication of the trial of Charles I, The Tenure of Kings, had appeared earlier in the same year. Milton accepted the offer, becoming Latin Secretary to the Committee of Foreign Affairs. There was nothing distasteful about his duties. He drew up the despatches to foreign governments, translated state papers, and served as interpreter to foreign envoys. Had his duties stopped here his acceptance of the post would, I think, have proved an unqualified gain. It brought him into contact with the first men in the state, gave him a practical insight into the working of national affairs and the motives of human action; in a word, furnished him with that experience of life which is essential to all poets who aspire to be something more than “the idle singers of an empty day.” But unfortunately the secretaryship entailed the necessity of defending at every turn the past course of the revolution and the present policy of the Council. Milton, in fact, held a perpetual brief as advocate for his party. Hence the endless and unedifying controversies into which he drifted; controversies which wasted the most precious years of his life, warped, as some critics think, his nature, and eventually cost him his eyesight.
Between 1649 and 1660 Milton produced no less than eleven pamphlets. Several of these arose out of the publication of the famous Eikon Basilike. The book was printed in 1649 and created so extraordinary a sensation that Milton was asked to reply to it; and did so with Eikonoklastes. Controversy of this barren type has the inherent disadvantage that once started it may never end. The Royalists commissioned the Leyden professor, Salmasius, to prepare a counterblast, the Defensio Regia, and this in turn was met by Milton’s Pro Populo Anglicano Defensio, 1651, over the preparation of which he lost what little power of eyesight remained . Salmasius retorted, and died before his second farrago of scurrilities was issued: Milton was bound to answer, and the Defensio Secunda appeared in 1654. Neither of the combatants gained anything by the dispute; while the subsequent development of the controversy in which Milton crushed the Amsterdam pastor and professor, Morus, goes far to prove the contention of Mr Mark Pattison, that it was an evil day when the poet left his study at Horton to do battle for the Commonwealth amid the vulgar brawls of the market-place:
- Not here, O Apollo,
- Were haunts meet for thee.
Fortunately this poetic interregnum in Milton’s life was not destined to last much longer. The Restoration came, a blessing in disguise, and in 1660 the ruin of Milton’s political party and of his personal hopes, the absolute overthrow of the cause for which he had fought for twenty years, left him free. The author of Lycidas could once more become a poet.
Much has been written upon this second period, 1639—60. We saw what parting of the ways confronted Milton on his return from Italy. Did he choose aright? Should he have continued upon the path of learned leisure? There are writers who argue that Milton made a mistake. A poet, they say, should keep clear of political strife fierce controversy can benefit no man who touches pitch must expect to be, certainly will be, defiled: Milton sacrificed twenty of the best years of his life, doing work which an underling could have done and which was not worth doing: another Comus might have been written, a loftier Lycidas: that literature should be the poorer by the absence of these possible masterpieces, that the second greatest genius which England has produced should in a way be the “inheritor of unfulfilled renown,” is and must be a thing entirely and terribly deplorable. This is the view of the purely literary critic.
There remains the other side of the question. It may fairly be contended that had Milton elected in 1639 to live the scholar’s life apart from “the action of men,” Paradise Lost, as we have it, or Samson Agonistes could never have been written. Knowledge of life and human nature, insight into the problems of men’s motives and emotions, grasp of the broader issues of the human tragedy, all these were essential to the author of an epic poem; they could only be obtained through commerce with the world; they would have remained beyond the reach of a recluse. Dryden complained that Milton saw nature through the spectacles of books: we might have had to complain that he saw men through the same medium. Fortunately it is not so: and it is not so because at the age of thirty-two he threw in his fortunes with those of his country; like the diver in Schiller’s ballad he took the plunge which was to cost him so dear. The mere man of letters will never move the world. Æschylus fought at Marathon: Shakespeare was practical to the tips of his fingers; a better business man than Goethe there was not within a radius of a hundred miles of Weimar.
This aspect of the question is emphasised by Milton himself The man, he says, “who would not be frustrate of his hope to write well hereafter in laudable things, ought himself to be a true poem, that is, a composition and pattern of the best and honourablest things; not presuming to sing high praises of heroic men, or famous cities, unless he have in himself the experience and the practice of all that which is praiseworthy .” Again, in estimating the qualifications which the writer of an epic such as he contemplated should possess, he is careful to include “insight into all seemly and generous arts and affairs .”
Truth usually lies half-way between extremes: perhaps it does so here. No doubt, Milton did gain very greatly by breathing awhile the larger air of public life, even though that air was often tainted by much impurity. No doubt, too, twenty years of contention must have left their mark even on Milton. In one of the very few places where he “abides our question,” Shakespeare writes (Sonnetcxi.):
- “O! for my sake do you with Fortune chide,
- The guilty goddess of my harmful deeds,
- That did not better for my life provide,
- Than public means, which public manners breeds:
- Thence comes it that my name receives a brand;
- And almost thence my nature is subdued
- To what it works in, like the dyer’s hand”
Milton’s genius was subdued in this way. If we compare him, the Milton of the great epics and of Samson Agonistes, with Homer or Shakespeare—and none but the greatest can be his parallel—we find in him a certain want of humanity, a touch of narrowness. He lacks the large-heartedness, the genial, generous breadth of Shakespeare; the sympathy and sense of the lacrimæ rerum that even in Troilus and Cressida or Timon of Athens are there for those who have eyes wherewith to see them. Milton reflects in some degree the less gracious aspects of Puritanism, its intolerance, want of humour, one-sided intensity; and it seems natural to assume that this narrowness was to a great extent the price he paid for twenty years of ceaseless special pleading and dispute. The real misfortune of his life lay in the fact that he fell on evil, angry days when there was no place for moderate men. He had to be one of two things: either a controversialist or a student: there was no via media. Probably he chose aright; but we could wish that the conditions under which he chose had been different. And he is so great, so majestic in the nobleness of his life, in the purity of his motives, in the self-sacrifice of his indomitable devotion to his ideals, that we could wish not even to seem to pronounce judgment at all.
The last part of Milton’s life, 1660-74, passed quietly. At the age of fifty-two he was thrown back upon poetry, and could at length discharge his self-imposed obligation. The early poems he had never regarded as a fulfilment of the debt due to his Creator. Even when the fire of political strife burned at its hottest, Milton did not forget the purpose which he had conceived in his boyhood. Of that purpose Paradise Lost was the attainment. Begun about 1658, it was finished in 1663, the year of Milton’s third marriage; revised from 1663 to 1665; and eventually issued in 1667. Before its publication Milton had commenced (in the autumn of 1665) its sequel Paradise Regained, which in turn was closely followed by Samson Agonistes. The completion of Paradise Regained may be assigned to the year 1666—that of Samson Agonistes to 1667. Some time was spent in their revision; and in January, 1671, they were published together, in a single volume.
In 1673 Milton brought out a reprint of the 1645 edition of his Poems, adding most of the sonnets written in the interval . The last four years of his life were devoted to prose works of no particular interest . He continued to live in London. His third marriage had proved happy, and he enjoyed something of the renown which was rightly his. Various well-known men used to visit him—notably Dryden , who on one of his visits asked and received permission to dramatiseParadise Lost. It does not often happen that a university can point to two such poets among her living sons, each without rival in his generation.
Milton died in 1674, November 8th. He was buried in St Giles’ Church, Cripplegate. When we think of him we have to think of a man who lived a life of very singular purity and devotion to duty; who for what he conceived to be his country’s good sacrificed—and no one can well estimate the sacrifice—during twenty years the aim that was nearest to his heart and best suited to his genius; who, however, eventually realised his desire of writing a great work in gloriam Dei.