JOHN MILTON

John MiltonThe life of the second great English poet almost exactly coincides with the rise, development, and decline of the great outburst of English Puritanism, which followed the authorized version of the Bible in 1611.

John Milton was a descendant of a family of substantial yeomen long settled inn Oxfordshire. His father, John Milton, having been disinherited as a Protestant, came to London and established himself as a scrivener in Bread Street, Cheapside. There the poet was born, December 9, 1608, ten years after the death of Spenser, and eight years before the death of Shakespeare. He received a most careful education, being from early boyhood an impetuous devourer of books. He was a scholar of St. Paul's School at the age of 10, and entered at 16 as a pensioner at Christ's College, Cambridge, where he remained seven years, taking his degree of M.A. at the age of 24. At school and at college he was distinguished by his passion for classical poetry, by independence and reserve of spirit, a pure and simple life, and strong love for one or two chosen friends. He left Cambridge in 1632, eight years before the Long Parliament met, a master of Latin, Greek, French, Italian, Hebrew, skilled in fencing and other exercises of a gentleman. He then retired to his father's rural retreat at Horton, near Windsor, resolved to devote his whole life to poetry, and filled with the grand projects and ideals which he rehearses in his noble second sonnet. It was the peculiar fortune of Milton to find in his excellent father a man of rare sense and much culture, a parent who was quite willing to aid the aspirations of his son towards a life of self-training for high art. For six years the poet remained in profound retirement, absorbed in study, meditation, and poetry.

It has been well said by Mark Pattison that "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 judgment to come, alone before a fallen world." His six years at Horton were spent, as he tells us, in "turning over the Latin and Greek authors," in systematic study of poetry, history, Hebrew and modern languages, the cultivation of music, and in writing the exquisite lyrics. These in Lycidas touch the highest point of lyrical perfection that the English language has ever reached, so that therein the spiritual passion of Puritanism seems transposed into the melancholy music of Petrarch.

At the age of thirty, in 1638, the poet set forth on a journey through France and Italy to Rome. He was absent about sixteen months, and visited Grotius, Manso, the patron of Tasso, Diodati, and Galileo; and was received with delight by the most cultured and learned societies of France, Italy, and Geneva. He was home in 1639 by the sad prospect of imminent civil war. "I thought it base," he said, "whilst my countrymen were fighting for liberty, that I should be travelling abroad to improve my mind." For twenty years (1640-1660), from the opening of the Long Parliament until the restoration of the monarchy, the poet was absorbed in the advocate and then in the servant of the Commonwealth. First, he dedicated his time to education and political pamphleteering; in 1649 he was made "Secretary for Foreign Tongues" under the Commonwealth government, a post in which he laboured regularly for ten years till the downfall of the Protectorate. He was there in close relation with Cromwell and other leaders of the Republic; but his services were purely literary, and nothing is known of any closer intercourse.

It is the last fourteen years of his life, when the republican poet, blind, deserted, ruined, and broken-hearted, had withdrawn into austere retirement, that we owe the two great epics and Samson. Since the age of 43, the insatiable student of books had been totally without sight. He had buried his first wife, Mary Powell, an uncongenial spouse, in 1652; his second wife, Katherine Woodcock, died after a short term of married life in 1658; and the poet in 1663, then 55, with three little girls, married his third wife, Elizabeth Minshull, a very worthy woman, who survived him. The last thirty years of his life were passed in London, except for a visit, during the plague, to Chalfont St. Giles, where the only house which he inhabited that remains is still to be seen unaltered. Here partly, and in his residences in the city, in Bunhill Fields, the later poems were composed.

Paradise Lost was published in 1667, but it had been completed some years earlier; it was seriously begun nearly ten years before, and it had haunted the mind of the poet for at least thirty years. Paradise Regained and Samson Agonistes were published together in 1670, and were completed in the five years preceding. The poet lived four years more; but he wrote no more verse. He died in 1674, at the age of nearly 66, and was buried in St. Giles, Cripplegate, revered by his intimates, and even already famous, in the spot where his grave--long (alas!) desecrated--is still marked and often visited. With all his sorrow, afflictions, and disappointments, both public and private, his life was one of absolute dedication to his great purpose and high calling.

Both the Lyrics and the Paradise Lost were included by Comte in the Positivist Library; and, with reference to the revolutionary and critical storm which gave it inspiration, he does not scruple to speak of "the inimitable epic" as "the highest measure of Man's poetic powers." The three chief lyrics have almost every quality of poetry in literal perfection. No other 500 lines in English soar to so lofty and faultless a level, without a jarring note or a feeble phrase: so that they have become part of the very thought and language of all cultured Englishmen. The Paradise Lost has music and conceptions even more sustained and enthralling, such as Shakespeare, Dante, and Homer alone can match. It is evident, however, that the epic has not the incomparable perfection of the lyrics. There are in it incongruities, vagueness, monotony, limitations of human types, which are never felt in presence of the three masters, and seldom even in Virgil, Ariosto, Calderon, or Goethe. It is plain that Puritanism and an abortive revolution forced this consummate poet to turn away both from Past and Present, and to search for the subject of his epic in his own meditations on the Hebrew Bible. He treated this withh extreme freedom, and not without a disputatious dogmatism; but even Milton could not shake himself free from its obsolete theology and its barren cosmogony. That a great poet, under such conditions and in such an age, should have done so much with the Hebrew Pentateuch as his inspiration is one of the noblest triumphs of human genius.

At the same time, this great citizen and heroic soul, being forced back upon his own heart for his ideal of Man in presence of Nature and its Creator, produced from the depths of his pure and rich imagination a marvellous picture of Humanity in all its naked essentials, before History had loaded its memories, or civilization had clothed its life with conventions. The aim of Milton is thus analogous to Dante; and, in simple majesty and unity of scheme, for a time it seems even superior; until the rigid limits of Scripture and inevitable want of varied human interest compel us to admit that the close of the Paradise Lost is hardly equal to its sublime exordium and the earlier acts in the great drama of Man's Creation, Fall, and Salvation. Yet the originality, power, and eternal meaning of Milton's poem gain fresh significance as civilization advances; and we see that since the work of Dante there has been no such approach to the ideal epic of Humanity. Like Dante, like Homer, Milton has given us a living, and not a literary, Epic. It is Dante amongst the moderns, and Virgil amongst the ancients, whom, in sustained moral purpose and in religious consciousness of being the inspired voice of his age, Milton most nearly resembles, as also he resembles these in lifelong dedication to his task as prophet of a social regeneration to be. It is the lasting glory of English Puritanism that it could join in one work such a creative statesman as Cromwell with so supreme a poet as Milton.

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This biography is reprinted from The New Calendar of Great Men. Ed. Frederic Harrison. London: Macmillan and Co., 1920.

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