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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." 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
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. It has 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
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,
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
"The Prelude," iii. 283-292.