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from the period during which the Puritan cause was slowly but surely winning its way in England, through the whole period of its political ascendancy, and onward into the period of its overthrow with the Stuart restoration. As Green put it, Milton was born when “Puritanism began to exercise a direct power over English politics and English religion ; he died when its effort to mould them into its own shape was over, and when it had again sunk into one of the many influences to which we owe our English character." We shall find that the recognition of these facts and a constant sense of the intimate relations between the poet and the large public movements of his time are essential to any proper understanding of Milton and his work.
HOUGH, like Chaucer, Spenser, Ben Jon
son, Pope, Gray, and Keats, a Londoner
by birth, John Milton came of an Oxfordshire yeoman stock. His father, whose name also was John, had been disowned by his family upon his abandonment of Roman Catholicism for the reformed faith. He had thereupon settled in the metropolis, where he presently became a scrivener. A man distinguished by intellectual ability as well as by “ the wonderful integrity of his life,'2 he prospered in his calling, but, after
1 The profession of scrivener included, along with money-lending, many of the functions now performed by solicitors.
: Milton's "Defensio Secunda" (Bohn's edition of his “Prose Works," vol. i.).
the fashion of the time, continued to live over his place of business, at the sign of the Spread Eagle, in Bread Street, Cheapside. It was there, on December 9, 1608, that his eldest son, the future poet, first saw the light. It is interesting to remember that not far away, though on the other side of the street, stood the Mermaid Tavern, famous as the meeting-place of Shakespeare, Jonson, Beaumont, Fletcher, and other wits of the day. Shakespeare left London for Stratford when Milton was only three or four years old ; but it is just barely possible that in passing along Bread Street he may have seen the lovely child whose name was, in after-times, to stand second only to his own on the splendid bead-roll of our English poets.
The elder Milton, though of pronounced Puritan proclivities, did not share the antipathy of the extremists of his party to literature and art ; he was, in fact, an accomplished musician and a composer of some standing among his contemporaries; and his love of music embraced madrigals as well as psalms. Life in the Bread Street home, while characteristically sober and even a little austere, was by no means lacking in the influences of liberal culture and refinement; and it was thus in a singularly favourable atmosphere that Milton's nature began to expand. He grew up a wonderfully beautiful boy; as
as we look at his portrait, painted when he was ten by the skilful artist Cornelius Jansen, we instinctively feel that he must indeed have been the pride of his mother's heart. Like all other poets, he fell in after-life into the habit of transferring his own experiences to his dramatic characters, and there can, I think, be little question that he was recalling his childhood in the words which, as an old man, he put upon the lips of Jesus in “ Paradise Regained":
When I was yet a child, no childish play
That the scrivener very early recognised his son's genius seems clear ; my father,” Milton records, " destined me from a child to the pursuit of literature." His education as a boy was the best that London afforded. At first he received private lessons from an excellent tutor, Thomas Young, afterwards well known as a Puritan divine ; and when presently he was sent to St. Paul's School, his regular training there was still supplemented by instruction at home. From the beginning he devoted himself to his studies with tireless enthusiasm, thus as a boy laying the firm foundations of his immense erudition, and also unfortunately of that complaint of the eyes which was by-and-by to end in total blindness. “My appetite for knowledge," he says, was so voracious, that from
twelve years of age I hardly ever left my studies, or went to bed before midnight. This primarily led to my loss of sight. My eyes were naturally weak, and I was subject to frequent headaches, which, however, could not chill the ardour of my curiosity, or retard the progress of my development."i In this way, he tells us," he acquired a proficiency in various languages.” The Latin and Greek classics were, of course, the chief subjects of his attention ; but he probably made a beginning also with French and Italian, and even perhaps with Hebrew, for in 1625, just before he went to Cambridge, he wrote acknowledging a “ desirable present of a Hebrew Bible," which he had “long since received ” from his former tutor, Young. Nor was English neglected. Whether as yet he had read Shakespeare in the great first folio edition of 1623 is a matter of conjecture only ; but he certainly knew Spenser, whom he afterwards praised as a better moral teacher than Scotus or Aquinas, and Sylvester's translation of Du Bartas' sacred poem, “ Divine Weeks and Words.” As this poem deals with the creation and the fall of man the interest of his early acquaintance with it is apparent.
It is, of course, not in the least surprising that while still a schoolboy Milton also tried his hand at poetic composition. This is only what we should expect. But so far as we are able to judge, his first attempts gave no unusual promise. Two have been preserved; they are his
" Defensio Secunda."
paraphrases,“ done by the author,” according to his own note, “at fifteen years old," of Psalms 114 and 136. The latter, beginning
Let us, with a gladsome mind,
keeps its place in our hymn-books. fluency and some grace, but is certainly in no way remarkable. Perhaps the most interesting thing about it to the student of Milton's poetic development is the fact that in such lines as those about the golden-tressèd sun” and “the hornèd moon
amongst her spangled sisters bright," he touches the plain simplicity of the original poem with ideas derived from classical mythology and quite foreign to the temper of the Hebrew mind. We have here a first slight indication of that union of the Hebraic and the classical which, as we shall see, was afterwards so marked a feature of his work. For the time being, however, his powers were shown rather in the accumulation of knowledge than in creation or self-expression.
When at the age of sixteen Milton entered Christ's College, Cambridge, his scholastic acquirements were indeed such that the university authorities, without lowering their standards, might have given him his degree at the outset. He remained at Cambridge seven years, becoming Bachelor of Arts in 1629 and Master in 1632. At the beginning of his academic