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MILTON'S CONCEPTION OF HIS CALLING.
jurious,—that by Dr. Johnson. With every variety of opinion--poetical, political, moral, and theological, -are these biographies tinctured. They have issued from the pens of poets, of antiquaries, of divines, of scholars, of painters, from Churchmen and Dissenters, from infidels, from the high-toned aristocrat, the Whig, and the Chartist.
Milton is a vast and varied theme. He may be viewed in his chief glory as a poet. Again, so eventful was his life, that a worthy subject of study is his character as a man. And if, in the endeavour to promote the cause of English literature, I should ever be led to enter upon the series of great prose writers in our language, high among them, along with Bacon and Clarendon, Hooker and Jeremy Taylor and Burke, as among the poets, would be found the name of Milton. Closely as these three representations of the character of Milton are connected, — each giving its illustration to the other,—the subject to which our thoughts are now to be directed is the genius of his poetry.
Important as were many of the other labours of Milton's, it can be shown that at no period—in the buoyancy of youth, in the bitterness of controversy, in the toil of state services, whether vindicating his private good name or standing forth to defend the English people, in favour, or in poverty and persecution--did he forget that the great business of his existence was to give utterance to the promptings of imagination. Poetry was his imperial theme,-the controlling and harmonizing idea of his life ; and the aspirations of his inmost nature may be traced throughout all his writings, no matter how unpromising their topic. The art enters into his scheme of education, “not as,” he protests, “the prosody of a verse among the rudiments of grammar, but that sublime art which would soon show what despicable creatures our common rhymers and play-writers be; and what religious-what glorious and magnificent- :-use might be made of poetry, both in divine and human things.” It is impressive to hear the boy Milton, in his early verses, pleading with his father that poetry is a holy thing; and, again, to hear him in the prime of manhood, amid the stern words of one of his controversial publications, announcing that “the great achievements of poetry must rest on devout prayer to that Eternal Spirit who can enrich with all utterance and knowledge, and sends out his seraphim with the hallowed fire of his altar, to touch and purify the lips of whom he pleases.” So sublime was Milton's conception of his chief calling, that no occasion of public moment is suffered to transcend it in his thoughts. When he addresses the Parliament,--that noted Parliament composed of such stern stuff as filled the breasts of Cromwell and Pym, and Hollis and Haslerig,-he is true to the laureate fraternity, and cites as
authority to that tribunal the imaginative lore of “our sage and serious poet Spenser.” And when, nearly thirty years before its consummation, the idea of his “adventurous song " broke the bonds of silence, in anticipation that, at some distant day, “ he might take up the harp and sing an elaborate song to generations,”-and when he spoke of being led by the genial power of nature to another task than his polemics, and of the inward promptings that, by labour and intense study, joined with the strong propensity of nature, he might, perhaps, leave something so written to after-times as “they should not willingly let die,”all, not less than his immortal epic, show his deep belief that the highest aim of human intellect is poetry ;-that the things “ of highest hope and hardest attempting proposed by the mind in the spacious circuit of her musings” are to be wrought out by the imagination.
So far back as we are able to penetrate into Milton's early life, there may be discovered in his very boyhood traces of a consciousness that he was endowed with an imagination for which mighty works were in prospect;
;-an endowment recognised as a trust committed to him by his Creator, and therefore to be cherished sedulously, and held sacred from the pressure of outward circumstances changing the direction of his intellectual destiny. His whole existence was a preparation for the stupendous achievement of the “ Paradise Lost.” There was no precipitancy,--no rash forwardness of a youthful, misjudging ambition ; but a reserve and dignity, in which the voice of his genius seemed to be whispering that his hour was not yet come. In studying this subject, I have been deeply impressed with a sense of the magnanimity to be traced in Milton's childhood,—the largeness of soul belonging to the little boy. And how does this appear? In various passages of his prose writings, as well as of his poetry, he has told the history of his mind almost as far back as his memory could travel, disclosing how the foundations of his genius were laid; and it is clear that, in those early years, the heaven-inspired endowment of a poet's spirit was there, with all the cravings of an imagination outstripping its own creative powers. There was in Milton's young bosom a poet's heart, with aspirations after ideal grandeur and goodness and beauty, transcending its early strength, and therefore seeking its nourishment, not in crude and forced fruits of his own imagination, but in the majestic growth of the high poetry of all ages. The proof of the might of Milton's youthful genius was his silence ;-the high-minded reserve of one who, keeping the hope of achievement in a distant day, knew that it ill became him to thrust forward the rash and unformed ambitions of boyhood. The vast idea of the functions of poetry which early took possession of him forbade
MILTON'S YOUTHFUL GENIUS.
the thought that anything he could then produce could even approach the standard of his own conception. He felt that he must await his time, and was far too strong-minded to spend his efforts in juvenile effusions, and then to hang over them with the weak and self-enamoured delusion of an author's vanity. The glory of Milton's youth is not precocious poetry, but the self-sacrificing devotion of a student. Before the twelfth year of his life, the child's tender eyesight had received, from intense and midnight study, the first fatal injury which brought in its train the dark calamity of hopeless blindness. There is no period of Milton's long career more finely characteristic of his genius than when, in youth and early manhood, he may be imagined seated in silence at the feet of the great masters of song who had gone before him. It was their voices alone, and not the tender notes of his own, that could fill the large spaces of his heart. The noblest sounds of all poetry-whether of a remote antiquity or of a nearer day and of his own landpetually sweeping over his spirit, not mingling with any utterance of his young imagination, but passing on into futurity on the wings of hope, to meet strains of equal glory, that were yet, in the far distance, to rise up in the poetry of the “Paradise Lost.” It was in the sacred stream of Hebrew poetry that the youthful genius of Milton was baptized : it was the divine imagery of the Psalmist, the prophets, and of him who saw the Apocalypse, which deep-dyed the colour of his imagination. Nor did his mind, in the amazing activity of his youth, stop there, but, winging its flight over profane as well as sacred soil, held conimunion with all the remnant glory of classical poetry; and then, after having thus travelled into the ancient inspirations of Palestine, of Greece, and Rome, it dwelt, too, in spirit with the poets of modern Italy, and still more fervently with the great ones of his own England. The poetry of every age and of every land was breathing upon his soul, feeding and fanning the inward fire that was deeply burning there.
Of Milton's juvenile poems—which are composed mostly in Latinthe one which, perhaps, has chief interest is that addressed to his father; not so much because of any extraordinary poetic merit, as for its thoughtful strain of filial gratitude. Parental care over the course of a child's intellect was never more feelingly, more honourably acknowledged. Some few misgivings appear to have crossed the mind of Milton's father, that the bent of his genius might divert him from the useful pursuits of active life; but the uncalculating enthusiasm of the youth's larger spirit was solicitous, not so much to plead with his parent against such opinions, as to vindicate him from them—to persuade him that such thoughts did not in truth belong to one who had
so congenially cherished his child's imaginative studies. Cowper's translation of the poem may furnish one brief passage :
“No! howsoe'er the semblance thou assume
Didst place me happy at Apollo's side.” After Milton's childhood in London and his collegiate career of several years, in the discipline of which there appears to have been something at variance with his temperament, he came back in the prime of manhood to the home of his father's house. That home was now transferred from the thronged thoroughfares of the metropolis to the tranquil repose of a country residence. The seven cloistered years in the calm retreats of one of the ancient British universities were followed by five equally studious and happier years spent beneath his father's rural roof at Horton. This was probably the happiest period of his life; and when, in anticipation, I reflect how, at an advanced stage of his existence, his imagination gathered the vast accumulations of his erudition and made them all subservient to the purposes of poetry, I cannot but consider these rural years as among the most influential on his genius. There was shining upon him the light of the happy faces of both parents,
-a father whose strong passion for music was inherited by the poet, a mother full of that goodness which, like the charitable deeds of the pious George Herbert, gave thoughts which proved music at midnight. The bright vision of an English landscape was ever before him; and still, year after year, was his mind travelling farther and farther into the limitless regions of poetic invention, imbuing his imagination with the spirit of all that was beautiful and sublime in Hebrew song and in classical and chivalrous poetry.
Amid all his acquirements, the one volume for ever foremost and uppermost in his thoughts was the Bible. In what I may call uninspired inspiration, his favourites were Homer and Pindar; and perhaps more than either was the drama of Euripides, “sad Electra's poet," and Dante, Petrarch, and Tasso, and the three iilustrious predecessors in his own language, with whom he was soon to take rank,-Chaucer,
POETIC GENIUS IMPROVED BY STUDY.
Spenser, and Shakspeare. His studies roamed, too, through the shady spaces of Philosophy, catching from the divine volumes of the best of the Athenian schools that Platonic spirit which may be traced in much of the early English poetry, and stored his memory with all that history recorded, and not less with the lofty fables and romances which recount the deeds of knighthood. It was to those five tranquil happy years at Horton, beneath the unanxious shelter which the paternal roof alone can give, that the vast opulence of Milton's intellect was chiefly owing, -the rich amalgamation of poetry, sacred and profane, of theology, philosophy, history, fable, of science, in the severe and exact knowledge of abstractions, and in the fit harmonies of music. The important moral to be drawn from this part of Milton's life is, not that education can ever originate the natural endowment of a poet's genius, but how that gift of imagination, by study and meditative communion outward and inward, may be strengthened, enriched, and expanded; and how false is the notion that, when a poet speaks, he speaks as it were from some lawless, thoughtless, ungovernable frenzy.
The intensity of Milton's studies at his rural retreat appears to have been relieved by occasional visits to the metropolis, where he refreshed his spent spirits by witnessing the theatrical representations of the English drama, then so copiously supplied by the fresh and abundant growth in the times of Queen Elizabeth's and the first of the Stuarts' reigns. For two of the great English dramatic poets Milton's admiration is recorded in a well-known passage in one of his shorter poems, referring to Jonson's learned sock and the “native wood-notes wild ” of Shakspeare. His visits to London and its theatres are mentioned in one of his Latin poems, in a few lines. I may quote to you from Cowper's English version, with the remark that it will be no forced fancy to apply the allusions at the close to the tragic fate of Romeo, and to Banquo's appalling presence in the banquet-scene in Macbeth :
“If impassion'd Tragedy wield high
and grieve, still cherishing my grief.
Fills the assassin's heart with vengeful woe.”