Abbildungen der Seite
PDF
EPUB
[ocr errors]

career things did not go very smoothly with him. Trouble arose between him and his college tutor, and some breach of discipline, resulting from what he himself confesses to have been the “indocility" of his character, was visited with punishment. His first feelings for Cambridge were, therefore, none of the kindest, and in a Latin elegy addressed in the spring of 1626 to his school friend, Charles Diodati, we find him delighting in his enforced exile in London, where he is at leisure to live among his beloved books, and, when tired of reading (so far as yet is he from the prejudices of the severer type of Puritan), to enjoy the distractions of the town and the theatre. These initial difficulties were, however, only temporary; he soon returned to college ; and though he never grew to love Cambridge, his course there was henceforth undisturbed, and, from the scholastic point of view, satisfactory. Chiefly on account of the fairness of his complexion and his personal beauty, but also undoubtedly in part because of the purity of his life and conversation, he was dubbed by his college companions“ the Lady" -a nickname which displeased him as reflecting upon his manliness, even though manliness as then and there understood meant principally the ability" to quaff huge tankards " and indulge in the grossest debaucheries. For his own part, he made bold to declare, he preferred to show his manliness in other ways—"by living modestly and temperately," and so keeping “the heavenly strength of the mind pure and stainless." Wordsworth has given us a charming picture of Milton during these college days:

Yea, our blind Poet, who, in his later day,
Stood almost single ; uttering odious truth
Darkness before, and danger's voice behind,
Soul awful—if the earth has ever lodged
An awful soul-I seemed to see him here
Familiarly, and in his scholar's dress
Bounding before me, yet a stripling youth-
A boy, no better, with his rosy cheeks
Angelical, keen eye, courageous look,

And conscious step of purity and pride.1 Under the form of pastoral allegory, Milton himself in his “Lycidas,' to be quoted presently, also speaks, in a passage of supreme beauty, of his life at Cambridge.

It was now that his poetic impulse really awoke, and during these seven years he produced, not indeed very freely, but enough to show, amid all the preoccupations of his studies, a growing consciousness of purpose and power. Most of his college poems are occasional in character and rather slight; they are in general immature, sometimes even clumsy, in expression; and, as we should anticipate in the work of a young man of his bookish interests and wide scholarship, they contain many echoes and reminiscences of other literatures, ancient and modern. But here and there, along with so much which attests that Milton had not yet found himself, we come upon lines and passages in which is prophetically sounded the 1 "The Prelude,” iii. 283-aga.

[ocr errors]

characteristic note of the great poetry of the years to come. Among these youthful efforts one stands out supreme--the noble ode“ On the Morning of Christ's Nativity." Written in 1629, when Milton was only twenty-one, this has been placed by some of our critics among the very finest odes in the language. The implied praise is, I think, excessive. Perfect the piece certainly is not. (It is rugged in metre and unequal in style it is also now and then marred by conceits ; for example, the conception with which the hymn begins, of Nature doffing “her gaudy trim " out of sympathy with “her great Master" in the hour of His lowly birth, jars upon us as too fantastic and unreal for so lofty a theme. But, all deductions made, it is still a great poem, vigorous in thought and language, often indeed splendid in diction, and occasionally even rising into that grand manner which was to be one of the outstanding qualities of Milton's mature work. The easy assurance with which the young poet handles the learning with which he enriches his subject also calls for remark, for this too is characteristically Miltonic. Nor must the reader fail to appreciate the skill with which the materials are arranged, and much that lies outside the immediate topic is brought into the framework. We have first the simple details of the Saviour's birth, the setting of the scene, the song of the angels to the listening shepherds, and the promise which it seems to bring of the speedy coming of the Golden Age to men; then, by an abrupt but singularly effective transition, the poet passes directly to a prophetic vision of that dread Judgment Day through which alone God's purposes are to be consummated ; after which he goes back to describe the instant overthrow of the pagan gods and their oracles, returning suddenly at the end to the lowly manger where the Virgin Mother is laying her Babe to rest, and thus closing upon the note with which he had opened—the note of calm and peace.) There is nothing of mere happy accident about this plan. Milton evidently thought out his poem as an organic whole; the different parts of it arise out of and support one another; and the contrast provided by variety in details and tones is attained without sacrifice of essential unity. We thus learn that already Milton was a conscientious and painstaking poetic artist. ON THE MORNING OF CHRIST'S

NATIVITY

I
This is the month, and this the happy morn,
Wherein the Son of Heav'n's Eternal King,
Of wedded maid and virgin mother born,
Our great redemption from Above did bring ;
For so the Holy Sages once did sing,

That He our deadly forfeit should release,
And with His Father work us a perpetual peace.

II
That glorious Form, that Light unsuff'rable,
And that far-beaming blaze of Majesty,
Wherewith He wont at Heav'n's high Council-table
To sit the midst of Trinal Unity,
He laid aside ; and, here with us to be,

Forsook the Courts of everlasting Day,
And chose with us a darksome house of mortal clay.

III
Say, heav'nly Muse, shall not thy sacred vein
Afford a present to the Infant-God ?
Hast thou no verse, no hymn or solemn strain,
To welcome Him to this His new abode,
Now while the heav'n, by the Sun's team untrod,

Hath took no print of the approaching light, And all the spangled hosts keep watch in squadrons bright?

IV
See, how from far, upon the eastern road,
The star-led wisards haste with odours sweet !
Oh, run, prevent them with thy humble ode,
And lay it lowly at His blessed feet ;
Have thou the honour first thy Lord to greet,

And join thy voice unto the Angel quire,
From out His secret altar touched with hallowed fire.

THE HYMN

I
It was the winter wild,
While the Heav'n-born Child

All meanly wrapt in the rude manger lies :
Nature, in awe, to Him
Had doffed her gaudy trim,.

With her great Master so to sympathize :
It was no season then for her.
To wanton with the Sun, her lusty paramour.

« ZurückWeiter »