« ZurückWeiter »
speaking, bought and begun with servitude and forswearing."i Here we have the first indication of Milton's quarrel with the ecclesiasticism of his time. The Church abandoned, he thought next of the Law ; but he thought of it only to dismiss it from his mind. Thereupon he determined to devote himself, not to practical life under any of its aspects, or to the amassing of wealth, but to study, self-culture, and poetry. That in poetry he now saw, as he believed, his true calling, is evident; nor is it less evident that he had already a strong conviction of his fast-growing powers ; he knew nothing of false modesty, and again and again in autobiographical passages in his writings his superb self-confidence is frankly expressed. Fortunately for him, his father was willing, and, owing to his comfortable circumstances, was also able, to allow him to take his own course. No outside pressure appears to have been brought to bear upon him, and he was left to shape his career in accordance with his personal desires and aims. Few poets standing on the threshold of life have been as happily placed as Milton was in respect of immediate conditions and opportunities.
The elder Milton, now retired from business, had bought a country house in the village of Horton, Buckinghamshire, some seventeen miles from London. It was in this rural spot, set in the midst of a beautiful and peaceful landscape, that Milton now took up his abode, and here, “ The Reason of Church Government" (1641).
from July 1632 to April 1638, he spent nearly six years of scholarly seclusion. During this time, he tells us, he “ occasionally visited the metropolis, either for the sake of purchasing books or of learning something new in mathematics or in music”;? but save for these slight interruptions, life at Horton was placid and uneventful-a life of steady industry passed day by day and week by week “ in the quiet air of delightful studies.” If, as I have said, he had already come to regard poetry as the great business to which all his genius and energies were to be given, it is now important to add that no poet before or since has ever devoted himself more ardently, more persistently, more singleheartedly to self-preparation for his future work. The range of his reading was enormous, comprehending the whole field of history and all that was best in ancient and modern literatures; and his learning was accurate as well as wide. Nor was he satisfied, like the mere scholar, simply to absorb. He read always with mind alert and vigilant, thus making his studies fruitful in personal growth. Many years later he wrote:
Deep vers’d in books, and shallow in himself.2 Milton knew from personal experience and his long years of patient self-discipline the difference
1 "Defensio Secunda." : “Paradise Regained,” IV. 322-326.
between the right way of using books and the wrong way. With him extending scholarship meant at the same time increase in power and depth. His learning thus became part and parcel of himself ; it was, as Hartley Coleridge put it, amalgamated and consubstantiated with his native thought; and when he employed it in his poetry with, as most of us are rather humiliated to feel, too little respect for the ignorance of the average reader, still he employed it in no pedantic spirit, and simply because it was for him a natural instrument of expression. It is quite true that he often abused his scholarship. But let us understand how it came to be so distinctive a feature of his poetic work. His mind was literally stored with varied learning, and when this learning was touched and fired by the imagination, it poured out, flood-like, into his verse. It is evident that in later life, when the total eclipse" of blindness had fallen upon him, he loved to let his memory travel far and wide over the vast fields of knowledge which he had formerly explored, and that it gave him the keenest pleasure to recall his early studies, and to draw upon the treasures which as a young man he had amassed. Hence the learned borrowings and illustrations, the bookish analogies and metaphors, the long erudite digressions and disquisitions, which abound in “Paradise Lost.” We call Milton a scholar-poet, as we call Spenser and Gray, Tennyson and Longfellow, scholar-poets, not because he was a scholar who also wrote poetry,
but because his poetry is everywhere interpenetrated by his scholarship and enriched by it.
Thus far we have spoken of these six years of retirement as a time only of self-culture and of preparation for future work. But they were years of production also, and the poems which Milton now wrote, even if “ Paradise Lost” had never followed, would in themselves have sufficed to give him a high place among the greatest masters of our literature. It is to these poems of what is commonly called his Horton period that we have now to turn.
The list opens with a sonnet as beautiful in its own way as that which had so fittingly closed his Cambridge life, but in character very different from this. Of the circumstances which inspired it we know nothing for certain ; we do not even know if it had its source in any personal experience; but it is natural to conjecture that the young poet's heart was touched either by tender passion or by the vague lovelonging which comes so easily to youth, and that he is not feigning emotion or speaking with accents of mere convention when he describes himself as, for the moment, servant alike of the Muse and of Love. At any rate, whatever interpretation we may put upon the poem, the reader will cherish it simply for its intrinsic grace and charm. As a matter of detail we should remember that, as Masson points out, there is in it“ a recollection of the superstition that he who hears the nightingale before he hears the cuckoo will woo fortunately before the year is over."
TO THE NIGHTINGALE O Nightingale, that on yon bloomy spray
Warbl'st at eve, when all the woods are still ;
Thou with fresh hope the lover's heart dost fill,
First heard before the shallow cuckoo's bill,
Have linked that am'rous pow'r to thy soft lay,
Foretell my hopeless doom in some grove nigh ;
As thou from year to year hast sung too late
Whether the Muse, or Love, call thee his mate,
We are probably safe in assigning this sonnet to 1632. The next year Milton wrote two of the best-known and best-loved of all English minor poems—the exquisite connected idylls “L'Allegro" and “Il Penseroso."
For the mere enjoyment of these poems in all the beauty of their descriptions and the rare felicity of their diction and versification little preliminary explanation is called for. Every reader will note for himself that, though each is complete and perfect within its own limits, they are conceived and wrought as studies in contrast, and that their full meaning can be apprehended only when they are taken together. Nature, art, and human life are interpreted in them as they are seen through the atmosphere of two opposed moods—the mood of gladness and the