Obrázky na stránke
PDF
ePub

enced many of his subsequent feelings and opinions. In the year 1643 he had married the daughter of a gentleman of the name of Powell, a magistrate in Oxfordshire. Unfortunately for the parties, they each belonged to factions, over which political rancor exercised entire control, and Milton had scarcely been united a month, when his wife requested permission to visit her relatives. She obtained her desire, but soon after intimated that she never intended returning. This circumstance gave birth to our author's celebrated writings on the subject of divorce; and he was on the point of marrying again, when his repentant wife sought a reconciliation, and she was restored to favor. At this time also he took pupils, and by the income he thus obtained, he was enabled to support not only his family, but the father and mother of his wife, who subsequently suffered in common with the rest of the royalist party.

About the year 1649, after having been for some time laboring under an affection of the eyes, he was afflicted with the total loss of his sight, which he never recovered. But this caused no diminution to his zeal for learning, and as soon as he found himself free from the burden of public controversy, he commenced a History of England, which, however, he carried no farther than the Norman Conquest. He also prepared some portion of a Latin Thesaurus, which was published in the Cambridge Dictionary of 1693. But events were about to happen, which, however inimical to the temporal prosperity of Milton, were, it is probable, of the utmost use in concentrating the powers of his mind on an object sufficiently noble for their employment. By the restoration of the royal family, he lost his office, was driven into obscurity, and was for some time in hourly danger of suffering for the active part he had taken in the councils of the revolutionary government. But fortunately for the interests of literature, his noble genius was no longer to be occupied in the defence of political factions, or in the preparation of treaties. He was henceforth to be lest in solitude, and in the undisturbed peace of his obscure home, to hold communion with his own spirit, which had been gathering strength from worldly trouble, and with the great and awful spirit of truth which converted the splendid workings of his imaginations into revelations of her hidden glory.

The conception of Paradise Lost was not one of those flashes of genius which it would be impossible, perhaps, to trace to their cause. It bad been long growing and developing in his mind, and when the particular form of the work was determined, the vast and glorious assemblage of thoughts and visions which had been long present to his intellect, arranged themselves in a beautiful and perfect order— the creative faculty of the poet had been at work, and it wanted but the repose which is necessary to judgment to connect imagination with design. But there is an inspiration proper to the highest order of poets, which Milton enjoyed in a supreme degree, and the possession of which, he signified by those intimations he so fondly gave of his

communion with celestial visitants in his lonely chamber, and in the stillness and darkness of the night. To this mysterious elevation of nature, if it be nothing else, or to this divine gift of clear intellectual vision, are to be ascribed the deep and solemn tones of his lyre, the grandeur and splendor of his representations, the power with which he calls up from the unfathomable depths of chaos and eternity, spirits of good and evil, the glory with which every scene and object he describes is bedropped, and the calm authoritative language with which he inculcates the unchanging beauty of virtue. We have here also, it may be conjectured, a reason why Paradise Lost, and I believe it has been the case with all great poems, was the work of Milton's declining years. It was produced when every turbulent feeling of youth was subsided; when experience had had her perfect work, and when his soul could listen in quiet to the voice of the charmer, wisdom. Many of its most brilliant passages might have been produced in earlier years, but it could only be when the waywardness of thought was subdued, and the human spirit stood free from temporal hopes and wishes, that it could bear such a weight of glory; that it could look long and steadily upon the majestic vision with which it was encompassed.

Paradise Lost was completed in the year 1665, when Milton was verging towards sixty. He had at that period been suffering for several years under the distressing deprivation of sight, and an acute gout, from the torture of which he was seldom free. His fortunes also had been almost continually fluctuating, and he had witnessed as many domestic changes as fall to the lot of most men. His first wife died in child-bed, and he shortly after married the daughter of a Captain Woodcock, whom he lost in the same manner as he had done his former wife, before their union had been completed a year. From the unprotected state, however, to which he felt himself reduced by his blindness, he was tempted to enter the matrimonial state again, and he married a lady of the name of Minshull, who survived him. While these events were occurring, he changed his residence to every part of London, till at length he finally settled himself in a house in Bunhill-row.

Several difficulties, it is said, were found to prevent the publication of Paradise Lost after its completion. These were partly owing to the power of the licenser, who could raise whatever objections he chose to the printing of any work, and partly to the niggardliness of the booksellers and the character of the public mind at the period. The latter, it is probable, was the greatest obstacle which an author in those days had to encounter. There was no reading populace, no book-clubs, provincial libraries, or facilities for circulating literary works through the mass of the public; intelligence was in general confined to the small portion of the community who were possessed of fortune and talents, and the productions of taste had, consequently, to wait for the slow succession of those select

were, therefore, equally sure of vulgar, as of fashionable attention. The poetry of Milton, on the contrary, touched upon no topic which the lewd spirit of the age could relish; it fed no unhallowed desire, perverted no principle of morality, and gave splendor to no character which was not rendered illustrious by holiness. The comedies of the most popular authors of the period, and the licentious verses of the wits of Charles' court, were greedily devoured by all classes, but no purity of taste was required to enjoy them, and uo depth of thought to fathom their meaning. Milton's verse was a magic stream that had music for but few ears, and the levity and vicious abandonment of the times had degraded king, courtiers, and people, to the lowest character of vulgarity. Hence the comparative neglect which attended the original publication of Paradise Lost; hence the fear of the bookseller to give more than five pounds for the copyright, and the slowness of its sale, compared with that of works infinitely inferior in merit.

When, however, these circumstances are considered, there was no particular bad fortune attending the publication of this poem. It was sold, in the first instance, to one Simmons, a printer, and the real wonder is, that it was disposed of for no more than five pounds, with the agreement that five more should be paid after the sale of thirteen hundred of the first edition, and the same sum after the sale of as many of the second; which stipulation was also to extend to the third edition. All that Milton lived to receive was ten pounds, as he died the same year the second edition was published. It is impossible not to be forcibly struck with this remarkable circumstance, but when the period in which this work was published, and its particular character, are considered, its reaching to three editions in ten years is sufficient proof that it suffered no greater neglect than may be accounted for by obvious causes. In the history of literature there is more than a single instance of failure which the unfortunate author could attribute only to his own bad luck, which resulted from his want of means to make his work known, or the neglect which a production of the greatest merit will often suffer, when a writer bas not the advantage of a previously acquired reputation. Many are the works of genius which have been permitted to pass at once into oblivion from some such causes as these, and the authors of which have pined in broken-heartedness after a reputation which they only wanted some favorable accident to receive, possessing the golden ore, but wanting the amalgam that should make it valuable in the world. But Milton lost not a particle of success in this manner; the times were against him, not fortune; and his labors were as amply rewarded by public fame as any author of such a work as Paradise Lost could have expected.

About three years after the publication of Paradise Lost, the History of England, which had been written many years before, was printed, and in the following year, 1671, Paradise Regained and

Samson Agonistes. The former of these poems was owing to the advice of Elwood, a Quaker, who had been a pupil of Milton's and to whom he had shown his larger work in manuscript. On returning it the former observed, “Thou hast said much of Paradise Lost, but what hast thou to say of Paradise Found ?" "He made no answer," continues Elwood in his account of this conversation," but sat some time in a muse; then broke off that discourse, and fell upon another subject.”

The temperate mode of living, which Milton had early adopted, was such as is generally rewarded by a long and healthy life; but he suffered under an hereditary gout, and his sedentary habits and unceasing application, all contributed to weaken a constitution which had never been robust. Few men of letters either have ever suffered so greatly from the wear and tear of public life. From what we know of Milton's character there is reason to think that the ordinary passions of our nature were, from the first dawn of manhood, subdued in his bosom. There was a calmness and tranquility, amounting to sternness, in his conduct and demeanor. He was sincere and constant in his friendships, but he wrote to and of his friends with classical precision, and seemed to find a greater relish in the intercourse when the learned spirit of antiquity assisted it. Love of woman never warmed him sufficiently to make him for a moment forget the severe assertion of authority, and in his character of child and father no melting tenderness, no irresistible flow of domestic joy, entered into its composition. It would, perhaps, be refining too much, but I am inclined to think that this austerity of nature may be observed in the coldness with which he seems to have regarded the objects to which private memory gives a sanctity and beauty. His poems are singularly devoid of any occasional interest derived from this source. There are no signs of that deep rich stream of inner feeling which memory calls up in gentler breasts. We hear him uttering no lament over things which have passed away, because they were associated with some home-thought, or old familiar object. Whenever he leaves the present for the past, it is to hasten far beyond the bounds where history ceases to have a daily interest; it was not with the generation of his fathers, but with the patriarchs of the world he held communion, and when his heart warmed at any recollection of the past, it was his admiration, not his sympathy, that was awakened. The ordinary passions of our nature had, therefore, not much influence over Milton. Those which fever the heart had little, those which contract it had less. But there was one grand and mighty feeling which kept him in a state of strong excitement when every other was subdued; it was his ardent love of freedom, his lofty aspiration after a liberty which should render all men equal by exalting all. Amid his tranquil meditations, in the loneliest retirement of his home, when oppressed with care and blindness, and wearied with the vicissitudes of for

tune, this passion was still as hurning as in his earliest youth; the evil days and times on which he was fallen bowed his spirit, but diminished not his thirst for freedom; and when he saw his fondest hopes disappointed in the destruction of the commonwealth, he appears to have cherished a bitterness of feeling, as well as a heavy wearing sorrow, that must have materially assisted in shortening his days. The death of this illustrious man took place on the 10th of November, 1674, at his residence in Bunhill-row. He was buried in St. Giles's, Cripplegate, in the chancel of the church, and the funeral was attended by a great number of noblemen, as well as by a large concourse of the populace. In 1737 a monument was raised to his memory in Westminster Abbey, and a few years back, another small one was placed in the church where he lies interred.

Milton's person is described as of the middle size, and his countenance as remarkable for mildness and beauty of expression. When at Cambridge, he was called the lady of Christ's College, and there is an anecdote told of his having captivated, by his singular beauty, the heart of some unknown female of rank, who happened to see him sleeping under a tree. In his advanced age he suffered so acutely that his hands became almost deformed with chalk stones, and his face of a sickly paleness. His habits were, as it has been said, extremely temperate, and those of a diligent student to the last year of his life. He was accustomed to retire to rest about nine, and to rise at four in the summer and five in winter. The first thing which he did on getting up, was to hear a chapter of the Hebrew Bible read to him; he then studied the subjects he was occupied upon till twelve, after which he took an hour's exercise and then dined. With playing on the organ, an hour or two's further study, and the evening's conversation with his friends, the remainder of the day was concluded, and having eaten a few olives, smoked his pipe, and drunk a glass of water, he retired to rest.

Milton had five children; four by his first and one by his second wife; of these, the three daughters whom he had by the former survived him, the others died in infancy. The last surviving of the daughters died in August, 1727. She was married to a Spitalfields' weaver of the name of Clarke, by whom she had seven sons and three daughters. Of these, only two had children; and there is at present no lineal descendant of the poet living.

But I turn from this brief review of the poet's life to as brief a consideration of the magnificent talents by which his immortality is established. The genius of Milton has not yet, perhaps, met with its proper observer. His great fame has made him too sacred an object in the eyes of general readers to let them think of any thing but implicit veneration; and the men of letters who have been professedly his critics, have been more intent on correcting or illustrating the text by their leaming, than on unfolding the veil which par

« PredošláPokračovať »