« ZurückWeiter »
I refer to this matter now because it comes up naturally in connection with the subject of Milton's third marriage. It has been suggested that in the portrayal of Eve he took his wife as a kind of painter's model. As regards physical features as, for example, the "golden tresses " which she and Eve had in common-this can scarcely have been, for of course he never saw her. But it is more than possible that many of her qualities of mind and heart may have been deliberately incorporated by him in his study of ideal womanhood.
Unfortunately, the happiness which Milton thus found in his wife he quite failed to find in his daughters, who were, indeed, the chief cause of the domestic sorrow which still clouded his declining years. They figure in his life-story as hard and undutiful young women, who had no sympathy for him in his affliction, cared nothing for his genius, and rebelliously grumbled when he turned to them for help. A fair consideration of all the circumstances compels us, indeed, to temper the judgment which we are inclined to pass upon them. The fault was by no means wholly on their side. The great poet was selfabsorbed, stern, exacting; he had sadly neglected their education; and yet, though he had not troubled in the least to develop their intellectual interests, he had been at immense pains to train them to read aloud to him in five or six languages, not one word of which they understood. That they should have grown restive beneath the burden of such monotonous
drudgery can be readily understood; nor can we marvel that they should have resented their father's habit of calling upon them to write to his dictation at any hour of the day or even of the night, when the poetic impulse came upon him. Yet when all possible allowances have been made, their behaviour must still be pronounced unnatural and cruel. Whatever hardships their conditions involved, they might still have remembered that their father was blind, dependent, and in broken health and spirits, and have treated him with pity and forbearance. They chose rather to distress him not only by insubordination and neglect, but also by conduct which is even more obviously open to reproach; for they connived with the maidservant "to cheat him in his marketings," and sold some of his books, behind his back, to the ragwoman. For some five or six years after his marriage, in spite of all the conciliatory efforts of his wife, this state of things continued, with everincreasing bickerings and complaints. Then the strain became intolerable, and the girls, having been taught embroidery at his expense, went from their father's home into the world to earn their living on their own account. It is painful to have to linger over these sordid domestic details. They are, however, necessary to a complete understanding of the circumstances of Milton's life at the time when his greatest work was being done.
If, however, his daughters refused to give him the indispensable assistance of eye and hand,
there were not wanting those outside the family circle who were only too glad to take their place. Various young friends, who recognised his genius and revered his character, came to him regularly day by day, read to him, and acted as his amanuenses: among them, Cyriack Skinner, who has already been mentioned, and the young Quaker, Thomas Ellwood, in whom he found sympathetic companionship as well as practical help. It is from this Ellwood, and from one or two of his more casual visitors, who were numerous, that we learn a good deal that is interesting about Milton's personal habits during these last years of his life. Rising early-at four in summer, at five in winter-he began the day by listening to a chapter or two from the Hebrew Scriptures. "Then," says John Aubrey, in his account of the poet, "he contemplated. At seven his man "his paid secretary" came to him again, and then read to him and wrote till dinner." Exercise, chiefly in the form of walking in his garden, followed. The afternoon was commonly devoted to music, of which he was still passionately fond; he played both the bass-viol and the organ, and sometimes he would sing himself, and sometimes his wife would sing to him. After this, he again listened to reading till six ; and between six and eight he received his friends. Conversation he greatly enjoyed; his own talk, we are told, was "extreme pleasant"; his youngest daughter, Deborah, the only one of his children who ever spoke of him with any
tenderness, declared that he was "delightful company, the soul of conversation," by reason of "a flow of subject, and an unaffected cheerfulness and civility." It is perhaps a little surprising to learn that a vein of humour often lightened his talk. At eight he took his supper" of olives or some light thing," for in eating and drinking he was exceedingly abstemious-and, having smoked a pipe of tobacco and drunk a glass of water, he went to bed at nine. Such was his simple and quiet way of life. As to his mode of work, we know that the poetic inspiration visited him very fitfully. Sometimes he would lie awake the whole night, vainly labouring to make a single line; at other times, the verses came unsought and flowed fast and freely-the "easy" and "unpremeditated verses of which he speaks. Night was often a favourite time with him for composition; but often, too, he would think out a passage, perhaps of twenty, or thirty, or forty lines, while walking up and down in the garden; and then he would return to the house that it might be put on paper by “ any one that was near and could write." We have a memorable picture of the great poet dictating-" leaning backward obliquely in an easy chair, with his leg flung over the elbow of it." Another picture we are equally glad to remember has been left us by a Dr. Wright, a Dorsetshire clergyman. "He found John Milton, then growing old, in a small chamber, hung with rusty green, sitting in an elbow chair, and dressed neatly in black; pale,
but not cadaverous; his hands and fingers gouty and with chalk-stones. He used also to sit in a gray coarse cloth coat, at the door of his house near Bunhill Fields, in warm sunny weather to enjoy the fresh air. And so, as well as in his room, he received the visits of people of distinguished parts, as well as quality." Despite age, physical infirmities, and the mental sufferings which had left their mark upon him, he was still a strikingly handsome man, with his white hair falling over his shoulders and his sightless eyes shining with undiminished lustre. Nor, as Mr. Stopford Brooke has well reminded us, must we think of him in these last years as an object of our pity." None can read 'Paradise Lost' without wonder at the fulness of creative power which must have made him happy"; while dwelling as he so largely did in the highest regions of thought and imagination, he had consolations which the petty miseries of private life and the evils rampant in the world outside were alike powerless to destroy.
For at length he had leisure and opportunity to carry out his long-cherished purpose, and to realise the noble ambition which the enforced occupations of so many years had compelled him to lay aside. The great epic, projected in all the freshness and vigour of youth, was in this period of failing health and bitter disappointment to become an accomplished fact.
Something must now be said about the history of Milton's design, for this will be found to throw much light for us not only upon the