John Milton Biography
John Milton (1608–1674), author of Paradise Lost and other works, was an English poet. He was born in Bread Street, Cheapside, London, on the 9th of December 1608.
Milton’s Parents and Early Life
His father, known as Mr John Milton of Bread Street, scrivener, was himself an interesting man. He was a native of Oxfordshire, the son of a Richard Milton, yeoman of Stanton-St-John’s, one of the sturdiest adherents to the old Roman Catholic religion in his district, and was educated at Christ Church, Oxford, where he turned Protestant.
According to the poet’s earliest biographer, John Milton senior was disinherited in the beginning of Queen Elizabeth’s reign for reading the Bible. With a good education and good abilities, especially in music, he may have lived for some time in London by musical teaching and practice.
Not till 1595, at all events, when he must have been long past the usual age of apprenticeship, do we hear of his preparation for the profession of a scrivener; and not till February 1599-1600, when he was about thirty-seven years of age, did he become a qualified member of the Scriveners’ Company. It was then that he set up his “house and shop” at the sign of the Spread Eagle in Bread Street, and began his business of drawing up wills, marriage-settlements, and the like, with such related business as that of receiving money from clients for investment and lending it out to the best advantage.
It was at the same time that he married, not, as stated by Aubrey, a lady named Bradshaw, but Sarah Jeffrey, one of the two orphan daughters of a Paul Jeffrey, of St Swithin’s, London, “citizen and merchant-taylor,” originally from Essex, who had died before 1583. At the date of her marriage she was about twenty-eight years of age. Six children were born to the scrivener and his wife, of whom three survived infancy—Anne, who married Edward Phillips; John, the poet; and Christopher (1615-1693), who was knighted and made a judge under James II.
The first sixteen years of Milton’s life, coinciding exactly with the last sixteen of the reign of James I., associate themselves with the house in Bread Street. His father, while prospering in business, continued to be known as a man of “ingeniose” tastes, and acquired distinction in the London musical world of that time. He contributed a madrigal to Thomas Morley’s Triumph of Oriana (1601), four motets to Sir William Leighton’s Tears and Lamentations of a Sorrowful Soul (1614), and some hymn tunes—one of which, “Yor,” is still in common use—in Thomas Ravenscroft’s Whole Book of Psalms (1621).
Music was thus a part of the poet’s domestic education from his infancy. Again and again Milton speaks with gratitude and affection of the ungrudging pains bestowed by his father on his early education. “Both at the grammar school and also under other masters at home,” is the statement in one passage, “he caused me to be instructed daily.”
When Milton was ten years of age his tutor was Thomas Young (1587-1655), a Scottish divine, who afterwards became master of Jesus College, Cambridge. Young’s tutorship lasted till 1622, when he accepted the pastorship of the congregation of English merchants in Hamburg.
Already, however, for a year or two his teaching had been only supplementary to the education which the boy was receiving by daily attendance at St Paul’s public school, close to Bread Street. The headmaster of the school was Alexander Gill, an elderly Oxford divine, of high reputation for scholarship and teaching ability.
Under him, as usher or second master, was his son, Alexander Gill the younger, also an Oxford graduate of scholarly reputation, but of blustering character. Milton’s acquaintanceship with this younger Gill, begun at St Paul’s school, led to subsequent friendship and correspondence.
Far more affectionate and intimate was the friendship formed by Milton at St Paul’s with his schoolfellow Charles Diodati, the son of an Italian physician, Dr Theodore Diodati, a naturalized Englishman settled in London, and much respected, both on his own account and as being the brother of the famous Protestant divine, Jean Diodati of Geneva. Young Diodati, who was destined for his father’s profession, left the school for Trinity College, Oxford, early in 1623; but Milton remained till the end of 1624. In that year his elder sister, Anne, married Edward Phillips, a clerk in the Government office called the Crown Office in Chancery.
Milton had then all but completed his sixteenth year, and was as scholarly, as accomplished and as handsome a youth as St Paul’s school had sent forth. We learn from himself that his exercises “in English or other tongue, prosing or versing, but chiefly this latter,” had begun to attract attention even in his boyhood. Of these poems the only specimens that now remain are two copies of Latin verses, preserved in a commonplace book of his (printed by the Camden Society in 1877), and his “Paraphrase on Psalm CXIV” and his “Paraphrase on Psalm CXXXVI.”
Milton Enters College at 16
At the age of sixteen years and two months, Milton was entered as a student of Christ’s College, Cambridge, in the grade of a “Lesser Pensioner,” and he matriculated two months later, on the 9th of April 1625. The master of Christ’s was Dr Thomas Bainbrigge; and among the thirteen fellows were Joseph Meade, still remembered as a commentator on the Apocalypse, and William Chappell, afterwards an Irish bishop.
It was under Chappell’s tutorship that Milton was placed when he first entered the college. At least three students who entered Christ’s after Milton, but during his residence, deserve mention. One was Edward King, a youth of Irish birth and high Irish connexions, who entered in 1626, at the age of fourteen, another was John Cleveland, afterwards known as royalist and satirist, who entered in 1627; and the third was Henry More, subsequently famous as the Cambridge Platonist, who entered in 1631, just before Milton left. Milton’s own brother, Christopher, joined him in the college in February 1630-1631, at the age of fifteen.
Milton’s academic course lasted seven years and five months, bringing him from his seventeenth year to his twenty-fourth. The first four years were his time of undergraduateship. It was in the second of these—the year 1626—that there occurred the quarrel between him and his tutor, Chappell, which Dr Johnson, making the most of a lax tradition from Aubrey, magnified into the supposition that Milton may have been one of the last students in either of the English universities that suffered the indignity of corporal punishment. The legend deserves no credit; but it is certain that Milton, on account of some disagreement with Chappell, left college for a time, though he did not lose his term; and that when he did return, he was transferred from the tutorship of Chappell to that of Nathaniel Tovey.
From the first of the Latin elegies one infers that the cause of the quarrel was some outbreak of self-assertion on Milton’s part. We learn indeed, from words of his own elsewhere, that it was not only Chappell and Bainbrigge that he had offended by his independent demeanour, but that, for the first two or three years of his undergraduateship, he was generally unpopular, for the same reason, among the younger men of his college. They had nicknamed him “the Lady” — a nickname which the students of the other colleges took up, converting it into “the Lady of Christ’s”; and, though the allusion was chiefly to the peculiar grace of his personal appearance, it conveyed also a sneer at what the rougher men thought his unusual prudishness, the haughty fastidiousness of his tastes and morals.
A change in this state of things had certainly occurred before January 1628-1629, when, at the age of twenty, he took his B.A. degree. By that time his intellectual preëminence had come to be acknowledged. His reputation for scholarship and literary genius, extraordinary even then, was more than confirmed during the remaining three years and a half of his residence in Cambridge. A fellowship in Christ’s which fell vacant in 1630 would undoubtedly have been his had the election to such posts depended then absolutely on merit. As it was, the fellowship was conferred, by royal favour on Edward King, his junior in college standing by sixteen months. In July 1632 Milton completed his career at the university by taking his M.A. degree. Tradition still points out Milton’s rooms at Christ’s College. They are on the first floor on the first stair on the north side of the great court.
Early Literary Works
Of Milton’s skill at Cambridge, in what Wood calls “the collegiate and academical exercises,” specimens remain in his Prolusiones quaedam oratoriae. They consist of seven rhetorical Latin essays, generally in a whimsical vein, delivered by him, either in the hall of Christ’s College or in the public university schools. To Milton’s Cambridge period belong four of his Latin “Familiar Epistles,” and the greater number of his preserved Latin poems, including:
- (1) the seven pieces, written in 1626, which compose his Elegiarum liber, two of the most interesting of them addressed to his friend, Charles Diodati, and one to his former tutor, Young, in his exile at Hamburg;
- (2) the five short Gunpowder Plot epigrams, now appended to the Elegies; and
- (3) the first five pieces of the Sylvarum liber, the most important of which are the hexameter poem “In quintum novembris” (1626), and the piece entitled Naturam non pati senium (1628).
Of the English poems of the Cambridge period the following is a dated list:
- “On the Death of a fair Infant” (1625-1626), the subject being the death of the first-born child of his sister Anne Phillips;
- “At a Vacation Exercise in the College” (1628), the magnificent Christmas ode;
- “On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity ” (1629);
- the fragment called “The Passion” and the “Song on May Morning,” both probably belonging to 1630;
- the sonnet “On Shakespeare,” certainly belonging to that year, printed in the Shakespeare folio of 1632;
- the two facetious pieces “On the University Carrier” (1630-1631);
- the “Epitaph on the Marchioness of Winchester” (1631);
- the sonnet “To the Nightingale,” probably of the same year; and
- the sonnet “On arriving at the Age of twenty-three,” dating itself certainly in December 1631.
Just before Milton quitted Cambridge, his father, then verging on his seventieth year, had practically retired from his Bread Street business, leaving the active management of it to a partner, named Thomas Bower, a former apprentice of his, and had gone to spend his declining years at Horton in Buckinghamshire, a small village near Colnbrook, and not far from Windsor. Here, in a house close to Horton church, Milton mainly resided for the next six years—from July 1632 to April 1638.
Although, when he had gone to Cambridge, it had been with the intention of becoming a clergyman, that intention had been abandoned. His reasons were that “tyranny had invaded the church,” and that, finding he could not honestly subscribe the oaths and obligations required he “thought it better to preserve a blameless silence before the sacred office of speaking, begun with servitude and forswearing.” In other words, he was disgusted with the system which Laud was establishing and maintaining in the Church of England. “Church-outed by the prelates,” as he emphatically expresses it, he seems to have thought for a time of the law, but he decided that the only life possible for himself was one dedicated wholly to scholarship and literature.
His compunctions on this subject, expressed already in his sonnet on arriving at his twenty-third year, are expressed more at length in an English letter of which two drafts are preserved in Trinity College, Cambridge, sent by him, shortly after the date of that sonnet, and with a copy of the sonnet included, to some friend who had been remonstrating with him on his “belatedness” and his persistence in a life of mere dream and study. There were gentle remonstrances also from his excellent father.
Between such a father and such a son, however, the conclusion was easy. What it was may be learnt from Milton’s fine Latin poem Ad patrem. There, in the midst of an enthusiastic recitation of all that his father had done for him hitherto, it is intimated that the agreement between them on their one little matter of difference was already complete, and that, as the son was bent on a private life of literature and poetry, it had been decided that he should have his own way, and should in fact, so long as he chose, be the master of his father’s means and the chief person in the Horton household. For the six years from 1632 this, accordingly, was Milton’s position. In perfect leisure, and in a pleasant rural retirement, with Windsor at the distance of an easy walk, and London only about 17 m. off, he went through, he tells us, a systematic course of reading in the Greek and Latin classics, varied by mathematics, music, and the kind of physical science we should now call cosmography.
It is an interesting fact that Milton’s very first public appearance in the world of English authorship was in so honourable a place as the second folio edition of Shakespeare in 1632. His enthusiastic eulogy on Shakespeare, written in 1630, was one of three anonymous pieces prefixed to that second folio. Among the poems actually written by Milton at Horton the first, in all probability, after the Latin hexameters Ad patrem, were the exquisite companion pieces L’Allegro and Il Penseroso.
There followed, in or about 1633, the fragment called Arcades. It was part of a pastoral masque performed by the young people of the noble family of Egerton before the countess-dowager of Derby, at her mansion of Harefield, about 10 m. from Horton. That Milton contributed the words for the entertainment was, almost certainly, owing to his friendship with Henry Lawes, who supplied the music.
Next in order among the compositions at Horton may be mentioned the three short pieces, “At a Solemn Music,” “On Time,” and “Upon the Circumcision”; after which comes Comus, the largest and most important of all Milton’s minor poems. The name by which that beautiful drama is now universally known was not given to it by Milton himself. He entitled it, more simply and vaguely, “A Masque presented at Ludlow Castle, 1634, on Michaelmas night, before John Earl of Bridgewater, Lord President of Wales” (1637).
The earl of Bridgewater, the head of the Egerton family, had been appointed president of the council of Wales; among the festivities on his assumption of the office, a great masque was arranged in the hall of Ludlow Castle, his official residence. Lawes supplied the music and was stage manager; he applied to Milton for the poetry; and on Michaelmas night, the 29th of September 1634, the drama furnished by Milton was performed in Ludlow Castle before a great assemblage of the nobility and gentry of the Welsh principality, Lawes taking the part of “the attendant spirit,” while the parts of “first brother,” “second brother” and “the lady,” were taken by the earl’s three youngest children, Viscount Brackley, Mr Thomas Egerton and Lady Alice Egerton.
From September 1634 to the beginning of 1637 is a comparative blank in our records. Straggling incidents in this blank are a Latin letter of date December 4, 1634, to Alexander Gill the younger, a Greek translation of “Psalm CXIV.,” a visit to Oxford in 1635 for the purpose of incorporation in the degree of M.A. in that university, and the beginning in May 1636 of a troublesome lawsuit against his now aged and infirm father. The lawsuit, which was instituted by a certain Sir Thomas Cotton, bart., nephew and executor of a deceased John Cotton, Esq., accused the elder Milton and his partner Bower, or both, of having, in their capacity as scriveners, misappropriated divers large sums of money that had been entrusted to them by the deceased Cotton to be let out at interest.
The lawsuit was still in progress when, on the 3rd of April 1637, Milton’s mother died, at the age of about sixty-five. A flat blue stone, with a brief inscription, visible on the chancel-pavement of Horton church, still marks the place of her burial. Milton’s testimony to her character is that she was “a most excellent mother and particularly known for her charities through the neighbourhood.” The year 1637 was otherwise eventful. It was in that year that his Comus, after lying in manuscript for more than two years, was published by itself, in the form of a small quarto of thirty-five pages. The author’s name was withheld, and the entire responsibility of the publication was assumed by Henry Lawes.
Milton seems to have been in London when the little volume appeared. He was a good deal in London, at all events, during the summer and autumn months immediately following his mother’s death. The plague, which had been on one of its periodical visits of ravage through England since early in the preceding year, was then especially severe in the Horton neighbourhood, while London was comparatively free. It was probably in London that Milton heard of the death of Edward King, who had sailed from Chester for a vacation visit to his relatives in Ireland, when, on the 10th of August, the ship in perfectly calm water struck on a rock and went down, he and nearly all the other passengers going down with her.
There is no mention of this event in Milton’s two Latin “Familiar Epistles” of September 1637, addressed to his friend Charles Diodati, and dated from London; but in November 1637, and probably at Horton, he wrote his matchless pastoral monody of Lycidas. It was his contribution to a collection of obituary verses, Greek, Latin and English, inscribed to the memory of Edward King by his numerous friends, at Cambridge and elsewhere. The collection appeared early in 1638. The second part contained thirteen English poems, the last of which was Milton’s monody, signed only with his initials “J. M.”
Milton was then on the wing for a foreign tour. He had long set his heart on a visit to Italy, and circumstances now favoured his wish. The vexatious Cotton lawsuit, after hanging on for nearly two years, was at an end, as far as the elder Milton was concerned, with the most absolute and honourable vindication of his character for probity, though with some continuation of the case against his partner, Bower. Moreover, Milton’s younger brother Christopher, though but twenty-two years of age, and just about to be called to the bar of the Inner Temple, had married; and the young couple had gone to reside at Horton to keep the old man company.
Before the end of April 1638 Milton was on his way across the channel, taking one English man-servant with him. At the time of his departure the last great news in England was that of the National Scottish Covenant. To Charles the news of this “damnable Covenant,” as he called it, was enraging beyond measure; but to the mass of the English Puritans it was far from unwelcome, promising, as it seemed to do, for England herself, the subversion at last of that system of “Thorough,” or despotic government by the king and his ministers without parliaments, under which the country had been groaning since the contemptuous dissolution of Charles’s third parliament ten years before.
Through Paris, where Milton received polite attention from the English ambassador, Lord Scudamore, and had the honour of an introduction to the famous Hugo Grotius, then ambassador for Sweden at the French court, he moved on rapidly to Italy, by way of Nice. After visiting Genoa, Leghorn and Pisa, he arrived at Florence, in August 1638. Enchanted by the city and its society, he remained there two months, frequenting the chief academies or literary clubs, and even taking part in their proceedings.
Among the Florentines with whom he became intimate were Jacopo Gaddi, founder of an academy called the Svogliati, young Carlo Dati, author of Vite de’ pittori antichi, Pietro Frescobaldi, Agostino Coltellini, the founder of the Academy of the Apatisti, the grammarian Benedetto Buommattei, Valerio Chimentelli, afterwards professor of Greek at Pisa, Antonio Francini and Antonio Malatesti. It was in the neighbourhood of Florence also that he “found and visited” the great Galileo, then old and blind, and still nominally a prisoner to the Inquisition for his astronomical heresy.
By way of Florence and Siena, he reached Rome some time in October, and spent about another two months there, not only going about among the ruins and antiquities and visiting the galleries, but mixing also, as he had done in Florence, with the learned society of the academies. Among those with whom he formed acquaintance in Rome were the German scholar, Lucas Holstenius, librarian of the Vatican, and three native Italian scholars, named Alessandro Cherubini, Giovanni Salzilli and a certain Selvaggi.
There is record of his having dined once, in company with several other Englishmen, at the hospitable table of the English Jesuit College. The most picturesque incident, however, of his stay in Rome was his presence at great musical entertainment in the palace of Cardinal Francesco Barberini. Here he had not only the honour of a specially kind reception by the cardinal himself, but also, it would appear, the supreme pleasure of listening to the marvellous Leonora Baroni, the most renowned singer of her age.
Late in November he left Rome for Naples. Here he met the aged Giovanni Battista Manso, marquis of Villa (1560-1645), the friend and biographer of Tasso, and subsequently the friend and patron of Marini. He had hardly been in Naples a month, however, when there came news from England which not only stopped an intention he had formed of extending his tour to Sicily and thence into Greece, but urged his immediate return home. “The sad news of civil war in England,” he says, “called me back; for I considered it base that, while my fellow-countrymen were fighting at home for liberty, I should be travelling at my ease for intellectual culture” (Defensio secunda).
In December 1638, therefore, he set his face northwards again. His return journey, however, probably because he learnt that the news he had first received was exaggerated or premature, was broken into stages. He spent a second January and February (1638-1639) in Rome, in some danger, he says, from the papal police, because the English Jesuits in Rome had taken offence at his habit of free speech, wherever he went, on the subject of religion.
From Rome he went to Florence, his second visit to the city, including an excursion to Lucca, extending over two months; and not till April 1639 did he take his leave, and proceed, by Bologna and Ferrara, to Venice. About a month was given to Venice; and thence, having shipped for England the books he had collected in Italy, he went on, by Verona and Milan, over the Alps, to Geneva. In this Protestant city he spent a week or two in June, forming interesting acquaintanceships there too, and having daily conversations with the great Protestant theologian Dr Jean Diodati, the uncle of his friend Charles Diodati. From Geneva he returned to Paris, and so to England. He was home again in August 1639, having been absent in all fifteen or sixteen months.
Milton’s Continental tour, and especially the Italian portion of it, which he describes at some length in his Defensio secunda, remained one of the chief pleasures of his memory through all his subsequent life. Nor was it without fruits of a literary kind. Besides two of his Latin Epistolae familiares, one to the Florentine grammarian Buommattei, and the other to Lucas Holstenius, there have to be assigned to Milton’s sixteen months on the Continent his three Latin epigrams Ad Leonoram Romae canentem, his Latin scazons Ad Salsillum poetam romanum aegrotantem, his fine Latin hexameters entitled Mansus, addressed to Giovanni Battista Manso, and his five Italian sonnets, with a canzone, in praise of a Bolognese lady.
His bosom friend and companion from boyhood, Charles Diodati, died in Blackfriars, London, in August 1638, not four months after Milton had gone away on his tour. The intelligence did not reach Milton till some months afterwards, probably not till his second stay in Florence; and, though he must have learnt some of the particulars from his friend’s uncle in Geneva, he did not know them fully till his return to England. How profoundly they affected him appears from his Epitaphium Damonis, then written in memory of his dead friend.
The importance of this poem in Milton’s biography cannot be overrated. It is perhaps the noblest of all his Latin poems; and, though written in the artificial manner of a pastoral, it is unmistakably an outburst of the most passionate personal grief. In this respect Lycidas, artistically perfect though that poem is, cannot be compared with it; and it is only the fact that Lycidas is in English, while the Epitaphium Damonis is in Latin, that has led to the notion that Edward King of Christ’s College was peculiarly and pre-eminently the friend of Milton in his youth and early manhood.
We should not have known, but for an incidental passage in the Epitaphium Damonis, that, at the time of his return from Italy, he had chosen a subject for a great poem from the Arthurian legend. The passage (lines 160-178) is one in which, after referring to the hopes of Diodati’s medical career so suddenly cut short by his death, Milton speaks of himself and of his own projects in his profession of literature. Milton wrote that he was meditating an epic of which King Arthur was to be the central figure, but which should include somehow the whole cycle of British and Arthurian legend. This epic was to be in English, and he had resolved that all his poetry for the future should be in the same tongue.
Not long after Milton’s return the house at Horton ceased to be the family home. Christopher Milton and his wife went to reside at Reading, taking the old gentleman with them, while Milton himself preferred London. He had first taken lodgings in St Bride’s Churchyard, at the foot of Fleet Street; but, after a while, probably early in 1640, he removed to a “pretty garden house” of his own, at the end of an entry, in the part of Aldersgate Street which lies immediately on the city side of what is now Maidenhead Court.
His sister, whose first husband had died in 1631, had married a Mr Thomas Agar, his successor in the Crown Office; and it was arranged that her two sons by her first husband should be educated by their uncle. John Phillips, the younger of them, only nine years old, had boarded with him in the St Bride’s Churchyard lodgings; and, after the removal to Aldersgate Street, the other brother, Edward Phillips, only a year older, became his boarder also. Gradually a few other boys, the sons of well-to-do personal friends, joined the two Phillipses, whether as boarders or for daily lessons, so that the house in Aldersgate Street became a small private school.
Milton Begins Paradise Lost
The Arthurian epic had been given up, and his mind was roving among many other subjects, and balancing their capabilities. How he wavered between Biblical subjects and heroic subjects from British history, and how many of each kind suggested themselves to him, one learns from a list in his own handwriting among the Milton MSS. at Cambridge. It contains jottings of no fewer than fifty-three subjects from the Old Testament, eight from the Gospels, thirty-three from British and English history before the Conquest, and five from Scottish history.
It is curious that all or most of them are headed or described as subjects for “tragedies,” as if the epic form had now been abandoned for the dramatic. There are four separate drafts of a possible tragedy on the Greek model under the title of Paradise Lost, two of them merely enumerating the dramatis personae, but the last two indicating the plot and the division into acts. In 1641 he wrote in the Reason of Church Government that he was meditating a poem on high moral or religious subjects. But the fulfilment of these plans was indefinitely postponed. Milton became absorbed in the ecclesiastical controversies following on the king’s attempt to force the episcopal system on the Scots.
Of the first proceedings of the Long Parliament, including the trial and execution of Strafford, the impeachment and imprisonment of Laud and others, and the breakdown of the system of Thorough by miscellaneous reforms and by guarantees for parliamentary liberty, Milton was only a spectator. It was when the church question emerged distinctly as the question paramount, and there had arisen divisions on that question among those who had been practically unanimous in matters of civil reform, that he plunged in as an active adviser.
There were three parties on the church question. There was a high-church party, contending for episcopacy by divine right, and for the maintenance of English episcopacy very much as it was; there was a middle party, defending episcopacy on grounds of usage and expediency, but desiring to see the powers of bishops greatly curtailed, and a limited episcopacy, with councils of presbyters round each bishop, substituted for the existing high episcopacy; and there was the root-and-branch party, as it called itself, desiring the entire abolition of episcopacy and the reconstruction of the English Church on something like the Scottish Presbyterian model.
Since the opening of the parliament there had been a storm of pamphlets from these three parties. The manifesto of the high-church party was a pamphlet by Joseph Hall, bishop of Exeter, entitled “Humble Remonstrance to the High Court of Parliament.”
In answer to Hall, and in representation of the views of the root-and-branch party, there had stepped forth, in March 1640-1641, five leading Puritan parish ministers, the initials of whose names, clubbed together on the title-page of their joint production, made the uncouth word “Smectymnuus.” These were Stephen Marshall, Edmund Calamy, Thomas Young, Matthew Newcomen and William Spurstow.
Thomas Young was the Scottish divine who had been Milton’s tutor in Bread Street; he had returned from Hamburg in 1628, and had been appointed to the vicarage of Stowmarket in Suffolk. The famous Smectymnuan pamphlet in reply to Hall was mainly Young’s.
What is more interesting is that his old pupil Milton was secretly in partnership with him and his brother-Smectymnuans. Milton’s hand is discernible in a portion of the original Smectymnuan pamphlet; and he continued to aid the Smectymnuans in their subsequent rejoinders to Hall’s defences of himself. In May 1641 he put forth a defence of the Smectymnuan side in Of Reformation touching Church Discipline in England and the Causes that hitherto have hindered it.
He reviewed English ecclesiastical history, with an appeal to his countrymen to resume that course of reformation which he considered to have been prematurely stopped in the preceding century, and to sweep away the last relics of papacy and prelacy. Among all the root-and-branch pamphlets of the time it stood out, and stands out still, as the most thorough-going and tremendous.
It was followed by four others in rapid succession, — Of Prelatical Episcopacy and whether it may be deduced from the Apostolical Times (June 1641), Animadversions upon the Remonstrant’s Defence against Smectymnuus (July 1641), The Reason of Church Government urged against Prelaty (Feb. 1641-1642), Apology against a Pamphlet called a Modest Confutation of the Animadversions, &c. (March and April 1641-1642).
The first of these was directed chiefly against that middle party which advocated a limited episcopacy, with especial reply to the arguments of Archbishop Ussher, as the chief exponent of the views of that party. Two of the others, as the titles imply, belong to the Smectymnuan series, and were castigations of Bishop Hall. The greatest of the four, and the most important of all Milton’s anti-episcopal pamphlets after the first, is that entitled The Reason of Church Government.
It is there that Milton takes his readers into his confidence; speaking at length of himself and his motives in becoming a controversialist. Poetry, he declares, was his real vocation; it was with reluctance that he had resolved to “leave a calm and pleasing solitariness, fed with cheerful and confident thoughts, to embark in a troubled sea of noises and hoarse disputes”; but duty had left him no option. The great poem or poems he had been meditating could wait; and meanwhile, though in prose-polemics he had the use only of his “left hand,” that hand should be used with all its might in the cause of his country and of liberty. The Apology was in answer to a Modest Confutation of a Slanderous and Scurrilous Libel, the joint work of Hall and his son, attacking Milton’s personal character.
The parliament had advanced in the root-and-branch direction so far as to have passed a bill for the exclusion of bishops from the House of Lords, and compelled the king’s assent to that bill, when, in August 1642, the further struggle between Charles and his subjects took the form of civil war. The Long Parliament moved on more and more rapidly in the root-and-branch direction, till, by midsummer 1643, the abolition of episcopacy had been decreed, and the question of the future non-prelatic constitution of the Church of England referred to a synod of divines, to meet at Westminster under parliamentary authority.
Of Milton’s life through those first months of the Civil War little is known. He remained in his house in Aldersgate Street, teaching his nephews and other pupils; and the only scrap that came from his pen was the semi-jocose sonnet bearing the title “When the Assault was intended to the City.” In the summer of 1643, however, there was a great change in the Aldersgate Street household.
Marriage and Family
About the end of May, as his nephew Edward Phillips remembered, Milton went away on a country journey, without saying whither or for what purpose; and, when he returned, about a month afterwards, it was with a young wife, and with some of her sisters and other relatives in her company.
He had, in fact, been in the very headquarters of the king and the Royalist army in and round Oxford; and the bride he brought back with him was a Mary Powell, the eldest daughter of Richard Powell, of Forest Hill, near Oxford. She was the third of a family of eleven sons and daughters, of good standing, but in rather embarrassed circumstances, and was seventeen years and four months old, while Milton was in his thirty-fifth year.
However the marriage came about, it was a most unfortunate event. The Powell family were strongly Royalist, and the girl herself seems to have been frivolous, and entirely unsuited for the studious life in Aldersgate Street. Hardly were the honeymoon festivities over, when, her sisters and other relatives having returned to Forest Hill and left her alone with her husband, she pined for home again and begged to be allowed to go back on a visit. Milton consented, on the understanding that the visit was to be a brief one. This seems to have been in July 1643.
Soon, however, the intimation from Forest Hill was that he need not look ever to have his wife in his house again. The resolution seems to have been mainly the girl’s own; but, as the king’s cause was then prospering in the field, Edward Phillips was probably right in his conjecture that the whole of the Powell family had repented of their sudden connexion with so prominent a Parliamentarian and assailant of the Church of England as Milton. While his wife was away, his old father, who had been residing for three years with his younger and lawyer son at Reading, came to take up his quarters in Aldersgate Street.
Milton’s conduct under the insult of his wife’s desertion was most characteristic. Always fearless and speculative, he converted his own case into a public protest against the existing law and theory of marriage. The Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce, Restored to the good of both Sexes from the Bondage of Canon Law and other Mistakes was the title of a pamphlet put forth by him in August 1643, without his name, but with no effort at concealment, declaring the notion of a sacramental sanctity in the marriage relation to be a clerically invented superstition, and arguing that inherent incompatibility of character, or contrariety of mind, between two married persons is a perfectly just reason for divorce.
If the date, the 1st of August, is correct, the pamphlet must have been written almost immediately on his wife’s departure and before her definite refusal to return. There was no reference to his own case, except by implication; but the boldness of the speculation roused attention and sent a shock through London. It was a time when the authors of heresies of this sort, or of any sort, ran considerable risks. The famous Westminster Assembly of Divines, called by the Long Parliament, met on the 1st of July 1643.
Whether Milton’s divorce tract was formally discussed in the Assembly during the first months of its sitting is unknown; but it is certain that the London clergy, including not a few members of the Assembly, were then angrily discussing it in private. That there might be no obstacle to a more public prosecution, Milton put his name to a second and much enlarged edition of the tract, in February 1644, dedicated openly to the parliament and the assembly. Then, for a month or two, during which the gossip about him and his monstrous doctrine was spreading more and more, he turned his attention to other subjects.
Among the questions in agitation in the general ferment of opinion brought about by the Civil War was that of a reform of the national system of education and especially of the universities. To this question Milton made a contribution in June 1644, in a small treatise, Of Education, in the form of a letter to Samuel Hartlib, a German then resident in London and interesting himself busily in all philanthropic projects and schemes of social reform.
In the very next month, however, July 1644, he returned to the divorce subject in a pamphlet addressed specially to the clergy and entitled The Judgment of Martin Bucer concerning Divorce. The outcry against him then reached its height. He was attacked in pamphlets; he was denounced in pulpits all through London, and especially by Herbert Palmer in a sermon preached on the 13th of August, before the two Houses of Parliament; strenuous efforts were made to bring him within definite parliamentary censure.
In the cabal formed against him for this purpose a leading part was played, at the instigation of the clergy, by the Stationers’ Company of London, which had a plea of its own against him on the ground that his doctrine was not only immoral, but had been put forth in an illegal manner. His first divorce treatise, though published immediately after the “Printing Ordinance” of the parliament of the 14th of June 1643, requiring all publications to be licensed for press by one of the official censors, and to be registered in the books of the Stationers’ Company, had been issued without license and without registration. Complaint to this effect was made against Milton, with some others liable to the same charge of contempt of the printing ordinance, in a petition of the Stationers of the House of Commons in August 1644; and the matter came before committee both in that House and in the Lords.
It is to this circumstance that the world owes the most popular and eloquent, if not the greatest, of all Milton’s prose writings, his famous Areopagitica, a Speech of Mr John Milton for the Liberty of Unlicensed Printing, to the Parliament of England. It appeared on the 25th of November 1644, deliberately unlicensed and unregistered, and was a remonstrance addressed to the parliament, as if in an oration to them face to face, against their ordinance of June 1643 and the whole system of licensing and censorship of the press. Nobly eulogistic of the parliament in other respects, it denounced their printing ordinance as utterly unworthy of them, and of the new era of English liberties which they were initiating, and called for its repeal.
Though that effect did not follow, the pamphlet virtually accomplished its purpose. The licensing system had received its death-blow; and, though the Stationers returned to the charge in another complaint to the House of Lords, Milton’s offence against the press ordinance was condoned. He was still assailed in pamphlets, and found himself “in a world of disesteem”; but he lived on through the winter of 1644/5 undisturbed in his house in Aldersgate Street. To this period there belong, in the shape of verse, only his sonnets ix. and x., the first to some anonymous lady, and the second “to the Lady Margaret Ley,” with perhaps the Greek lines entitled Philosophus ad regem quendam. His divorce speculation, however, still occupied him; and in March 1644/5 he published simultaneously his Tetrachordon: Expositions upon the four chief places of Scripture which treat of Marriage, and his Colasterion, a Reply to a nameless Answer against the Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce. In these he replied to his chief recent assailants, lay and clerical, with merciless severity.
Through the latter part of 1644, Milton had been saved from the penalties which his Presbyterian opponents would have inflicted on him by the general championship of liberty of opinion by Cromwell and the army Independents. Before the middle of 1645 he, with others who were on the black books of the Presbyterians as heretics, was safer still. Milton’s position after the battle of Naseby may be easily understood.
Though his first tendency on the Church question had been to some form of a Presbyterian constitution for the Church, he had parted utterly now from the Scots and Presbyterians, and become a partisan of Independency, having no dread of “sects and schisms,” but regarding them rather as healthy signs in the English body-politic. He was, indeed, himself one of the most noted sectaries of the time, for in the lists of sects drawn out by contemporary Presbyterian writers special mention is made of one small sect who were known as Miltonists or Divorcers.
So far as Milton was concerned personally, his interest in the divorce speculation came to an end in July or August 1645, when, by friendly interference, a reconciliation was effected between him and his wife. The ruin of the king’s cause at Naseby had suggested to the Powells that it might be as well for their daughter to go back to her husband after their two years of separation. It was not, however, in the house in Aldersgate Street that she rejoined him, but in a larger house, which he had taken in the adjacent street called Barbican, for the accommodation of an increasing number of pupils.
The house in Barbican was tenanted by Milton from about August 1645 to September or October 1647. Among his first occupations there must have been the revision of the proof sheets of the first edition of his collected poems. It appeared as a tiny volume, copies of which are now very rare, with the title, Poems of Mr John Milton, both English and Latin, compos’d at several times. Printed by his true Copies. The songs were set in Musick by Mr Henry Lawes. . . . The title-page gives the date 1645, but the and of January 1645/6 seems to have been the exact day of its publication.
Whether because his pedagogic duties now engrossed him or for other reasons, very few new pieces were added in the Barbican to those that the little volume had thus made public. In English, there were only the four sonnets now numbered xi.-xiv., the first two entitled “On the Detraction which followed upon my writing certain Treatises,” the third “To Mr Henry Lawes on his Airs,” and the fourth “To the Religious Memory of Mrs Catherine Thomson,” together with the powerful anti-Presbyterian invective or “tailed sonnet” entitled “On the New Forcers of Conscience under the Long Parliament”; and in Latin there were only the ode Ad Joannem Rousium, the Apologus de Rustico et Hero, and one interesting “Familiar Epistle” (April 1647) addressed to his Florentine friend Carlo Dati.
Some family incidents of importance belong to this time of residence in Barbican. The fall of Oxford in 1646 compelled the whole of the Powell family to seek refuge in London, and most of them found shelter in Milton’s house. His first child, a daughter named Anne, was born there on the 29th of July that year; on the 1st of January 1646/7 his father-in-law Richard Powell died there, leaving his affairs in confusion; and in the following March his own father died there, at the age of eighty-four, and was buried in the adjacent church of St Giles, Cripplegate.
From Barbican Milton removed, in September or October 1647, to a smaller house in that part of High Holborn which adjoins Lincoln’s Inn Fields. His Powell relatives had now left him, and he had reduced the number of his pupils, or perhaps kept only his two nephews. But, though thus more at leisure, he did not yet resume his projected poem, but occupied himself rather with three works of scholarly labour which he had already for some time had on hand.
One was the compilation in English of a complete history of England, or rather of Great Britain, from the earliest times; another was the preparation in Latin of a complete system of divinity, drawn directly from the Bible; and the third was the collection of materials for a new Latin dictionary. Milton had always a fondness for such labours of scholarship and compilation. Of a poetical kind there is nothing to record, during his residence in High Holborn, but an experiment in psalm-translation, in the shape of Ps. lxxx.-lxxxviii. done into service-metre in April 1648, and the sonnet to Fairfax, written in September of the same year.
The crushing defeat of the Scottish army by Cromwell in the three days’ battle of Preston (1648) and the simultaneous suppression of the English Royalist insurrection in the south-east counties by Fairfax’s siege and capture of Colchester, left King Charles at the mercy of the victors. Milton’s sonnet “On the Lord General Fairfax, at the siege of Colchester,” attested the exultation of the writer at the triumph of the parliamentary cause. His exultation continued through what followed.
When the king was beheaded (1649) the first Englishman of mark out of parliament to attach himself openly to the new republic was John Milton. This he did by the publication of his pamphlet entitled “Tenure of Kings and Magistrates, proving that it is lawful, and hath been held so in all ages, for any who have the power, to call to account a Tyrant or wicked King, and, after due conviction, to depose and put him to death, if the ordinary Magistrate have neglected or denied to do it.”
It was out within a fortnight after the king’s death, and was Milton’s last performance in the house in High Holborn. The chiefs of the new republic could not but perceive the importance of securing the services of a distinguished man who had so opportunely and so powerfully spoken out in favour of their tremendous act. In March 1649, accordingly, Milton was offered, and accepted, the secretaryship for foreign tongues to the council of state of the new Commonwealth. The salary was to be £288 a year (worth about £1000 a year now).
To be near his new duties in attendance on the council, which held its daily sittings for the first few weeks in Derby House, close to Whitehall, but afterwards regularly in Whitehall itself, he removed at once to temporary lodgings at Charing Cross. In the very first meetings of council which Milton attended he must have made personal acquaintance with President Bradshaw, Fairfax, Cromwell himself, Sir Henry Vane, Whitelocke, Henry Marten, Haselrig, Sir Gilbert Pickering and the other chiefs of the council and the Commonwealth, if indeed he had not known some of them before. After a little while, for his greater convenience, official apartments were assigned him in Whitehall itself.
At the date of Milton’s appointment to the secretaryship he was forty years of age. His special duty was the drafting in Latin of letters sent by the council of state, or sometimes by the Rump Parliament, to foreign states and princes, with the examination and translation of letters in reply, and with personal conferences, when necessary, with the agents of foreign powers in London, and with envoys and ambassadors.
As Latin was the language employed in the written diplomatic documents, his post came to be known indifferently as the secretaryship for foreign tongues or the Latin secretaryship. In that post, however, his duties, more particularly at first, were very light in comparison with those of his official colleague, Walter Frost, the general secretary. Foreign powers held aloof from the English republic as much as they could; and, while Frost had to be present in every meeting of the council, keeping the minutes, and conducting all the general correspondence, Milton’s presence was required only when some piece of foreign business turned up.
Hence, from the first, his employment in very miscellaneous work. Especially, the council looked to him for everything in the nature of literary vigilance and literary help in the interests of the struggling Commonwealth. He was employed in the examination of suspected papers, and in interviews with their authors and printers; and he executed several great literary commissions expressly entrusted to him by the council.
The first of these was his pamphlet entitled Observations on the Articles of Peace (between Ormonde and the Irish). It was published in May 1649, and was in defence of the republic against a complication of Royalist intrigues and dangers in Ireland. A passage of remarkable interest in it is one of eloquent eulogy on Cromwell. More important still was the Eikonoklastes (which may be translated “Image-Smasher”), published by Milton in October 1649, by way of counterblast to the famous Eikon Basilike (“Royal Image”), which had been in circulation in thousands of copies since the king’s death, and had become a kind of Bible in all Royalist households, on the supposition that it had been written by the royal martyr himself.
In the end of 1649 there appeared abroad, under the title of Defensio regia pro Carolo I., a Latin vindication of the memory of Charles, with an attack on the English Commonwealth. As it had been written, at the instance of the exiled royal family, by Salmasius, or Claude de Saumaise, of Leiden, then of enormous celebrity over Europe as the greatest scholar of his age, it was regarded as a serious blow to the infant Commonwealth.
Milton threw his whole strength into a reply through the year 1650, interrupting himself only by a new and enlarged edition of his Eikonoklastes. His Latin Pro populo anglicano defensio (1651), ran at once over the British Islands and the Continent, and was received by scholars as an annihilation of Salmasius. Through the rest of 1651 the observation was that the two agencies which had co-operated most visibly in raising the reputation of the Commonwealth abroad were Milton’s books and Cromwell’s battles.
Through the eventful year 1651, in addition to the other duties of his secretaryship, Milton acted as licenser and superintending editor of the Mercurius politicus, a newspaper issued twice a week, of which Marchamont Nedham was the working editor and proprietor. Milton’s hand is discernable in some of the leading articles.
Milton’s Blindness and Later Work
About the end of 1651 Milton left his official rooms in Whitehall for a “garden house” he had taken on the edge of St James’s Park in what was then called Petty France, Westminster, but is now York Street. The house, afterwards 19 York Street, was occupied by James Mill and William Hazlitt in succession, and was not pulled down till 1877. Milton had now more to do in the special work of his office, in consequence of the increase of correspondence with foreign powers. But he had for some time been in ailing health; and a dimness of eyesight which had been growing upon him gradually for ten years had been settling rapidly, since his labour over the answer to Salmasius, into total blindness.
Before or about May 1652, when he was but in his forty-fourth year, his blindness became total, and he could go about only with some one to lead him. Hence a rearrangement of his secretarial duties. Such of these duties as he could perform at home, or by occasional visits to the Council Office near, he continued to perform; but much of the routine work was done for him by an assistant, a well-known German, George Rudolph Weckherlin, succeeded later by Philip Meadows and, eventually, by Andrew Marvell. Precisely to this time of a lull in Milton’s secretaryship on account of his ill-health and blindness we have to refer his two great companion sonnets “To the Lord General Cromwell” and “To Sir Henry Vane the Younger.”
In 1652 died his only son, who had been born at Whitehall in the March of the preceding year. His wife died in 1653/4, just after she had given birth to his third daughter, Deborah. With the three children thus left him—Anne, but six years old, Mary, not four, and the infant Deborah—the blind widower lived on in his house in Petty France in such desolation as can be imagined.
He had recovered sufficiently to resume his secretarial duties; and the total number of his dictated state letters for the single year 1652 is equal to that of all the state letters of his preceding term of secretaryship put together. To the same year there belong also three of his Latin “Familiar Epistles.” In December 1652 there was published Joannis Philippi Angli responsio ad apologiam anonymi cujusdam tenebrionis, being a reply by Milton’s younger nephew, John Phillips, but touched up by Milton himself, to one of several pamphlets that had appeared against Milton for his slaughter of Salmasius.
In December 1653 Cromwell’s formal sovereignty began under the name of the Protectorate, passing gradually into more than kingship. This change from Government by the Rump and its council to government by a single military lord protector and his council was regarded by many as treason to the republican cause, and divided those who had hitherto been the united Commonwealth’s men into the “Pure Republicans,” represented by such men as Bradshaw and Vane, and the “Oliverians,” adhering to the Protector.
Milton, whose boundless admiration of Cromwell had shown itself already in his Irish tract of 1649 and in his recent sonnet, was recognized as one of the Oliverians. He remained in Oliver’s service and was his Latin secretary through the whole of the Protectorate. For a while, indeed, his Latin letters to foreign states in Cromwell’s name were but few—Thurloe, as general secretary, officiating as Oliver’s right-hand man in everything, with a Philip Meadows under him, at a salary of £200 a year, as deputy for the blind Milton in foreign correspondence and translations.
The reason for this temporary exemption of Milton from routine duty may have been that he was then engaged on an answer to the pamphlet from the Hague entitled Regii sanguinis clamor ad coelum adversus parricidas anglicanos (March 1652). Salmasius was now dead, and the Commonwealth was too stable to suffer from such attacks; but no Royalist pamphlet had appeared so able or so venomous as this in continuation of the Salmasian controversy. All the rather because it was in the main a libel on Milton himself did a reply from his pen seem necessary.
It came out in May 1654, with the title Joannis Miltoni Angli pro populo anglicano defensio secunda (Second Defence of John Milton, Englishman, for the People of England) . The author of Regii sanguinis clamor was Dr Peter du Moulin the younger, a naturalized French Presbyterian minister, then moving about in English society, close to Milton; but, as that was a profound secret, and the work was universally attributed on the Continent to an Alexander More or Morus, a French minister of Scottish descent then a professor at Middelburg, who had certainly managed the printing in consultation with the now deceased Salmasius, and had contributed some portion of the matter—Milton made More the responsible person and the one object of his invective.
The savage attack on More’s personal character, however, is but part of the Defensio secunda. It contains passages of singular autobiographical and historical value, and includes laudatory sketches of such eminent Commonwealth’s men as Bradshaw, Fairfax, Fleetwood, Lambert and Overton, together with a long panegyric on Cromwell himself and his career, which remains to this day unapproached for elaboration and grandeur by any estimate of Cromwell from any later pen.
From about the date of the publication of the Defensio secunda to the beginning of 1655 the only specially literary relics of Milton’s life are his translations of Ps. i.-viii. in different metres, done in August 1654, his translation of Horace’s Ode, i. 5, done probably about the same time, and two of his Latin “Familiar Epistles.”
The most active time of his secretaryship for Oliver was from April 1655 onwards. In that month, in the course of a general revision of official salaries under the Protectorate, Milton’s salary of £288 a year hitherto was reduced to £200 a year, with a kind of redefinition of his office, recognizing it, we may say, as a Latin secretaryship extraordinary. Philip Meadows was to continue to do all the ordinary Foreign Office work, under Thurloe’s inspection; but Milton was to be called in on special occasions.
Hardly was the arrangement made when a signal occasion did occur. In May 1655 all England was horrified by the news of the massacre of the Vaudois Protestants (Waldenses) by the troops of Emanuele II., duke of Savoy and prince of Piedmont, in consequence of their disobedience to an edict requiring them either to leave their native valleys or to conform to the Catholic religion. Cromwell and his council took the matter up with all their energy; and the burst of indignant letters on the subject despatched in that month and the next to the duke of Savoy himself, Louis XIV. of France, Cardinal Mazarin, the Swiss cantons, the states-general of the United Provinces, and the kings of Sweden and Denmark, were all by Milton.
His famous sonnet “On the Late Massacre in Piedmont” was his more private expression of feeling on the same occasion. This sonnet was in circulation, and the case of the Vaudois Protestants was still occupying Cromwell, when, in August 1655, there appeared the last of Milton’s Latin pamphlets. It was his Pro se defensio . . . in answer to an elaborate self-defence which More had put forth on the Continent since Milton’s attack on his character. In that year also appeared Milton’s Scriptum domini protectoris . . . contra hispanos.
Through the rest of Cromwell’s Protectorate, Milton’s life was of comparatively calm tenor. He was in much better health than usual, bearing his blindness with courage and cheerfulness; he was steadily busy with important despatches to foreign powers on behalf of the Protector, then in the height of his great foreign policy; and his house in Petty France seems to have been, more than at any previous time since the beginning of his blindness, a meeting-place for friends and visitors, and a scene of pleasant hospitalities.
The four sonnets now numbered xix.-xxii., one of them to young Lawrence, the son of the president of Cromwell’s council, and two of the others to Cyriack Skinner, once his pupil, belong to this time of domestic quiet, as do also no fewer than ten of his Latin “Familiar Epistles.” His marriage with Katherine Woodcock on the 12th of November 1656 brought him a brief period of domestic happiness; but, after only fifteen months, he was again a widower, by her death in childbirth in February 1657/8. The child dying with her, only the three daughters by the first marriage remained.
The touching sonnet which closes the series of Milton’s Sonnets is sacred tribute to the memory of his second marriage and the virtues of the wife he had so soon lost. Even after that loss we find him still busy for Cromwell. The poet Andrew Marvell succeeded Meadows in September 1657, much to Milton’s satisfaction, as his assistant secretary; but this had by no means relieved him from duty. Some of his greatest despatches for Cromwell, including letters, of the highest importance, to Louis XIV., Mazarin and Charles Gustavus of Sweden, belong to the year 1658.
There is, unfortunately, no direct record to show what Cromwell thought of Milton; but there is ample record of what Milton thought of Cromwell. “Our chief of men,” he had called Cromwell in his sonnet of May 1652; and the opinion remained unchanged. He thought Cromwell the greatest and best man of his generation, or of many generations; and he regarded Cromwell’s assumption of the supreme power, and his retention of that power with a sovereign title, as no real suppression of the republic, but as absolutely necessary for the preservation of the republic, and for the safeguard of the British Islands against a return of the Stuarts.
Nevertheless, under this prodigious admiration of Cromwell, there were political doubts and reserves. Milton was so much of a modern radical of the extreme school in his own political views and sympathies that he cannot but have been vexed by the growing conservatism of Cromwell’s policy through his Protectorate. To his grand panegyric on Oliver in the Defensio secunda of 1654 he had ventured to append cautions against self-will, over-legislation and over-policing; and he cannot have thought that Oliver had been immaculate in these respects through the four subsequent years.
The attempt to revive an aristocracy and a House of Lords, on which Cromwell was latterly bent, cannot have been to Milton’s taste. Above all, Milton dissented in toto from Cromwell’s church policy. It was Milton’s fixed idea, almost his deepest idea, that there should be no such thing as an Established Church, or state-paid clergy, of any sort or denomination or mixture of denominations, in any nation, and that, as it had been the connexion between church and state, begun by Constantine, that had vitiated Christianity in the world, and kept it vitiated, so Christianity would never flourish as it ought till there had been universal disestablishment and disendowment of the clergy, and the propagation of the gospel were left to the zeal of voluntary pastors, self-supported, or supported modestly by their flocks.
Milton had at one time looked to Cromwell as the likeliest man to carry this great revolution in England. But Cromwell, after much meditation on the subject in 1652 and 1653, had come to the opposite conclusion. The conservation of the Established Church of England, in the form of a broad union of all evangelical denominations of Christians, whether Presbyterians, or Independents, or Baptists, or moderate Old Anglicans, that would accept state-pay with state-control, had been the fundamental notion of his Protectorate, persevered in to the end. This must have been Milton’s deepest disappointment with Cromwell’s rule.
Cromwell’s death on the 3rd of September 1658 left the Protectorship to his son Richard. Milton and Marvell continued in their posts, and a number of the Foreign Office letters of the new Protectorate were of Milton’s composition. In October 1658 appeared a new edition of his Defensio prima, and, early in 1659, a new English pamphlet, entitled Treatise of Civil Power in Ecclesiastical Causes showing that it is not lawful to compel in Matters of Religion, in which he advocated the separation of Church and State. To Richard’s Protectorate also belongs one of Milton’s Latin “Familiar Epistles.”
The last of his known official performances in his Latin secretaryship are two letters in the name of William Lenthall, as the speaker of the restored Rump, one to the king of Sweden and one to the king of Denmark, both dated the 15th of May 1659.
Under the restored Rump, if ever, he seemed to have a chance for his notion of church-disestablishment; and accordingly, in August 1659, he put forth, with a prefatory address to that body, a pamphlet entitled Considerations touching the likeliest means to remove Hirelings out of the Church. The restored Rump had no time to attend to such matters. They were in struggle for their own existence with the army chiefs; and to prevent the restoration of the monarchy, to argue against it and fight against it to the last, was the work to which Milton set himself; the preservation of the republic in any form, and by any compromise of differences within itself, had become his one thought, and the study of practical means to this end his most anxious occupation.
In a Letter to a Friend concerning the Ruptures of the Commonwealth, written in October 1659, he had propounded a scheme of a kind of dual government for reconciling the army chiefs with the Rump; through the following winter, marked only by two of his Latin “Familiar Epistles,” his anxiety over the signs of the growing enthusiasm throughout the country for the recall of Charles II. had risen to a passionate vehemence which found vent in a pamphlet entitled The Ready and Easy Way to Establish a Free Commonwealth, and the Excellence thereof compared with the Inconveniences and Dangers of readmitting Kingship to this Nation.
An abridgment of this pamphlet was addressed by him to General Monk in a letter entitled “The Present Means and Brief Delineation of a Free Commonwealth” (March 1660). Milton’s proposal was that the central governing apparatus of the British Islands for the future should consist of one indissoluble grand council or parliament, which should include all the political chiefs, while there should be a large number of provincial councils or assemblies sitting in the great towns for the management of local and county affairs.
Not even when the king’s cause was practically assured would Milton be silent. In Brief Notes upon a late Sermon, published in April 1660, in reply to a Royalist discourse by a Dr Matthew Griffith, he made another protest against the recall of the Stuarts, even hinting that it would be better that Monk should become king himself; and in the same month he sent forth a second edition of his Ready and Easy Way, more frantically earnest than even the first, and containing additional passages of the most violent denunciation of the royal family, and of prophecy of the degradation and disaster they would bring back with them.
This was the dying effort. On the 25th of April the Convention Parliament met; on the 1st of May they resolved unanimously that the government by King, Lords and Commons should be restored; and on the 29th of May, Charles II. made his triumphal entry into London. The chief republicans had by that time scattered themselves, and Milton was hiding in an obscure part of the city.
How Milton escaped the scaffold at the Restoration is a mystery now, and was a mystery at the time. The Commons voted that he should be taken into custody by the serjeant-at-arms, for prosecution by the attorney-general on account of his Eikonoklastes and Defensio prima, and that all copies of those books should be called in and burnt by the hangman.
There was a story that Milton had once protected Davenant and now owed his immunity to him; but it is more likely that he was protected by the influence of Marvell, by Arthur Annesley, afterwards earl of Anglesey, and by other friends who had influence at court. At all events, on the 29th of August 1660, when the Indemnity Bill did come out complete, with the king’s assent, Milton did not appear as one of the exceptions on any ground or in any of the grades.
From that moment, therefore, he could emerge from his hiding, and go about as a free man. Not that he was yet absolutely safe. There were several public burnings by the hangman at the same time of Milton’s condemned pamphlets; and the appearance of the blind man himself in the streets, though he was legally free, would have caused him to be mobbed and assaulted. Though the special prosecution ordered against him by the Commons had been quashed by the subsequent Indemnity Bill, the serjeant-at-arms had taken him into custody. Entries in the Commons journals of the 17th and 19th of December show that Milton complained of the exorbitant fees charged by the serjeant-at-arms for his release, and that the matter was referred to a committee at the instance of Andrew Marvell.
Milton did not return to Petty France. For the first months after he was free he lived as closely as possible in a house near what is now Red Lion Square, Holborn. Thence he removed, apparently early in 1661, to a house in Jewin Street, in his old Aldersgate Street and Barbican neighbourhood. In Jewin Street Milton remained for two or three years, or from 1661 to 1664. This is the time of which he says:—
On evil days though fallen, and evil tongues,
In darkness, and with dangers compassed round,
The “evil days” were those of the Restoration in its first or Clarendonian stage, with its revenges and reactions, its return to high Episcopacy and suppression of every form of dissent and sectarianism, its new and shameless royal court, its open proclamation and practice of anti-Puritanism in morals and in literature no less than in politics.
For the main part of this world of the Restoration Milton was now nothing more than an infamous outcast, the detestable blind republican and regicide who had, by too great clemency, been left unhanged. The friends that adhered to him still, and came to see him in Jewin Street, were few in number, and chiefly from the ranks of those nonconforming denominations, Independents, Baptists or Quakers, who were themselves under similar obloquy.
Besides his two nephews, the faithful Andrew Marvell, Cyriack Skinner and some others of his former admirers, English or foreign, we hear chiefly of a Dr Nathan Paget, who was a physician in the Jewin Street neighbourhood, and of several young men who would drop in upon him by turns, partly to act as his amanuenses, and partly for the benefit of lessons from him — one of them a Quaker youth, named Thomas Ellwood.
With all this genuine attachment to him of a select few, Milton could truly enough describe his condition after the Restoration as one of “solitude.” Nor was this the worst. His three daughters, on whom he ought now to have been able principally to depend, were his most serious domestic trouble. The poor motherless girls, the eldest in her seventeenth year in 1662, the second in her fifteenth and the youngest in her eleventh, had grown up, in their father’s blindness and too great self-absorption, ill-looked-after and but poorly educated; and the result now appeared. They “made nothing of neglecting him”; they rebelled against the drudgery of reading to him or otherwise attending on him; they “did combine together and counsel his maid-servant to cheat him in her marketings”; they actually “had made away some of his books, and would have sold the rest.”
It was to remedy this state of things that Milton consented to a third marriage. The wife found for him was Elizabeth Minshull, of a good Cheshire family, and a relative of Dr Paget. They were married on the 24th of February 1662/3, the wife being then only in her twenty-fifth year, while Milton was in his fifty-fifth. She proved an excellent wife; and the Jewin Street household, though the daughters remained in it, must have been under better management from the time of her entry into it.
Meanwhile, he had found some solace in renewed industry of various kinds among his books and tasks of scholarship, and more particularly he had been building up his Paradise Lost. He had begun the poem in earnest, we are told, in 1658 at his house in Petty France, not in the dramatic form contemplated eighteen years before, but deliberately in the epic form.
He had made but little way when there came the interruption of the anarchy preceding the Restoration and of the Restoration itself; but the work had been resumed in Jewin Street and prosecuted there steadily, by dictations of twenty or thirty lines at a time to whatever friendly or hired amanuensis chanced to be at hand. Considerable progress had been made in this way before his third marriage; and after that the work proceeded apace, his nephew, Edward Phillips, who was then out in the world on his own account, looking in when he could to revise the growing manuscript.
It was not in the house in Jewin Street, however, that Paradise Lost was finished. Not very long after the third marriage, probably in 1664, he removed to another house, with a garden, in “Artillery Walk, leading to Bunhill Fields.” Here Paradise Lost was certainly finished before July 1665 — Aubrey says in 1663 — for when Milton and his family, to avoid the Great Plague of London, went into temporary country-quarters in a cottage in Chalfont St Giles, Buckinghamshire, the finished manuscript was taken with him, in probably more than one copy.
This we learn from Thomas Ellwood, who had taken the cottage for him, and was allowed to take a copy of the manuscript way with him for perusal, during Milton’s stay at Chalfont (Life of Thomas Ellwood, 1714). The delay in the publication of the poem may be explained partly by the fact that the official licenser hesitated before granting the necessary imprimatur to a book by a man of such notorious republican antecedents, and partly by the paralysis of all business in London by the Great Fire of September 1666.
It was not till the 27th of April 1667 that Milton concluded an agreement, still preserved in the British Museum, with Samuel Simmons, printer, of Aldersgate Street, London, to dispose of the copyright for £5 down, the promise of another £5 after the sale of the first edition of 1300 copies, and the further promise of two additional sums of £5 each after the sale of two more editions of the same size respectively.
It was as if an author now were to part with all his rights in a volume for £17, 10s. down, and a contingency of £52, 10s. more in three equal instalments. The poem was duly entered by Simmons as ready for publication in the Stationers’ Registers on the 20th of the following August; and shortly after that date it was out in London as a neatly printed small quarto, with the title Paradise Lost: A Poem written in Ten Books: By John Milton.
The reception accorded to Paradise Lost has been quoted as an example of the neglect of a great work, but the sale of an edition of 1300 copies in eighteen months proves that the poem found a wide circle of readers.
“This man cuts us all out, and the ancients too” is the saying attributed to Dryden on the occasion; and it is the more remarkable because the one objection to the poem which at first, we are told, “stumbled many” must have “stumbled” Dryden most of all.
Except in the drama, rhyme was then thought essential in anything professing to be a poem; blank verse was hardly regarded as verse at all; Dryden especially had been and was the champion of rhyme, contending for it even in the drama. That, notwithstanding this obvious blow struck by the poet at Dryden’s pet literary theory, he should have welcomed the poem so enthusiastically and proclaimed its merits so emphatically, says much at once for his critical perception and for the generosity of his temper.
According to Aubrey, Dryden requested Milton’s leave to turn the poem into a rhymed drama, and was told he might “tag his verses if he pleased.” The result is seen in Dryden’s opera, The Slate of Innocence and the Fall of Man(1675). One consequence of Milton’s renewed celebrity was that visitors of all ranks again sought him out for the honour of his society and conversation. His obscure house in Artillery Walk, Bunhill, we are told, became an attraction now, “much more than he did desire,” for the learned notabilities of his time.
Accounts have come down to us of Milton’s personal appearance and habits in his later life. They describe him as to be seen every other day led about in the streets in the vicinity of his Bunhill residence, a slender figure, of middle stature or a little less, generally dressed in a grey cloak or overcoat, and wearing sometimes a small silver-hilted sword, evidently in feeble health, but still looking younger than he was, with his lightish hair, and his fair, rather than aged or pale, complexion.
He would sit in his garden at the door of his house, in warm weather, in the same kind of grey overcoat, “and so, as well as in his room, received the visits of people of distinguished parts, as well as quality.” Within doors he was usually dressed in neat black. He was a very early riser, and very regular in the distribution of his day, spending the first part, to his midday dinner, always in his own room, amid his books, with an amanuensis to read for him and write to his dictation.
Music was always a chief part of his afternoon and evening relaxation, whether when he was by himself or when friends were with him. His manner with friends and visitors was extremely courteous and affable, with just a shade of stateliness. In free conversation, either at the midday dinner, when a friend or two happened, by rare accident, to be present, or more habitually in the evening and at the light supper which concluded it, he was the life and soul of the company, from his “flow of subject” and his “unaffected cheerfulness and civility,” though with a marked tendency to the satirical and sarcastic in his criticisms of men and things.
This tendency to the sarcastic was connected by some of those who observed it with a peculiarity of his voice or pronunciation. “He pronounced the letter r very hard,” Aubrey tells us, adding Dryden’s note on the subject: “litera canina, he dog-letter, a certain sign of a satirical wit.” He was extremely temperate in the use of wine or any strong liquors, at meals and at all other times; and when supper was over, about nine o’clock, “he smoked his pipe and drank a glass of water, and went to bed.”
He suffered much from gout, the effects of which had become apparent in a stiffening of his hands and finger-joints, and the recurring attacks of which in its acute form were very painful. His favourite poets among the Greeks were Homer and the Tragedians, especially Euripides; among the Latins, Virgil and Ovid; among the English, Spenser and Shakespeare.
Among his English contemporaries, he thought most highly of Cowley. He had ceased to attend any church, belonged to no religious communion, and had no religious observances in his family. His reasons for this were a matter for curious surmise among his friends, because of the profoundly religious character of his own mind; but he does not seem ever to have furnished the explanation. The matter became of less interest perhaps after 1669, when his three daughters ceased to reside with him, having been sent out “to learn some curious and ingenious sorts of manufacture that are proper for women to learn, particularly embroideries in gold or silver.” After that the household in Bunhill consisted only of Milton, his wife, a single maid-servant, and the “man” or amanuensis who came in for the day.
The remaining years of Milton’s life, extending through that part of the reign of Charles II. which figures in English history under the name of the “Cabal Administration,” were by no means unproductive. In 1669 he published, under the title of Accedence commenced Grammar, a small English compendium of Latin grammar that had been lying among his papers.
In 1670 there appeared, with a prefixed portrait of him by Faithorne, done from the life, his History of Britain . . . to the Norman Conquest, being all that he had been able to accomplish of his intended complete history of England; and in the same year a Latin digest of Ramist logic, entitled Artis logicae plenior institutio, of no great value, and doubtless from an old manuscript of his earlier days.
In 1671 there followed his Paradise Regained and Samson Agonistes, bound together in one small volume, and giving ample proof that his poetic genius had not exhausted itself in the preceding great epic. In 1673, at a moment when the growing political discontent with the government of Charles II. and the conduct of his court had burst forth in the special form of a “No-Popery” agitation and outcry, Milton ventured on the dangerous experiment of one more political pamphlet, in which, under the title “Of True Religion, Heresy, Schism, Toleration, and what best means may be used against the growth of Popery,” he put forth, with a view to popular acceptance, as mild a version as possible of his former principles on the topics discussed. In the same year appeared the second edition of his Poems . . . both English and Latin, which included, with the exception of the Sonnets to Cromwell, Fairfax, Vane and the second address to Cyriack Skinner, all the minor poems.
Thus we reach the year 1674, the last of Milton’s life. One incident of that year was the publication of the second edition of Paradise Lost, with the poem rearranged as now into twelve books, instead of the original ten. Another was the publication of a small volume containing his Latin Epistolae familiares, together with the Prolusiones oratoriae of his student-days at Cambridge — these last thrown in as a substitute for his Latin state-letters in his secretaryship for the Commonwealth and the Protectorate, the printing of which was stopped by order from the Foreign Office.
A third publication of the same year, and probably the very last thing dictated by Milton, was a translation of a Latin document from Poland, relating to the recent election of the heroic John Sobieski to the throne of that kingdom, with the title A Declaration or Letters Patents of the Election of this present King of Poland, John the Third. It seems to have been out in London in August or September 1674. On Sunday the 8th of the following November Milton died, in his house in Bunhill, of “gout struck in,” at the age of sixty-five years and eleven months. He was buried, the next Thursday, in the church of St Giles, Cripplegate, beside his father; a considerable concourse attending the funeral.
Before the Restoration, Milton—what with his inheritance from his father, what with the official income of his Latin secretaryship—must Family.have been a man of very good means indeed. Family Since then, however, various heavy losses, and the cessation of all official income, had greatly reduced his estate, so that he left but £900 (worth about or over £2700 now) besides furniture and household goods.
By a word-of-mouth will, made in presence of his brother Christopher, he had bequeathed the whole to his widow, on the ground that he had done enough already for his “undutiful” daughters, and that there remained for them his interest in their mother’s marriage portion of £1000, which had never been paid, but which their relatives, the Powells of Forest Hill, were legally bound for, and were now in circumstances to make good.
The daughters, with the Powells probably abetting them, went to law with the widow to upset the will; and the decision of the court was that they should receive £100 each. With the £600 thus left, the widow, after some further stay in London, retired to Nantwich in her native Cheshire. There, respected as a pious member of a local Baptist congregation, she lived till 1727, having survived her husband fifty-three years.
By that time all the three daughters were also dead. The eldest, Ann Milton, who was somewhat deformed, had died not long after her father, having married “a master-builder,” but left no issue; the second, Mary Milton, had died, unmarried, before 1694; and only the third, Deborah, survived as long as her step-mother.
Having gone to Ireland, as companion to a lady, shortly before her father’s death, she had married an Abraham Clarke, a silk-weaver in Dublin, with whom she returned to London about 1684, when they settled in the silk-weaving business in Spitalfields, rather sinking than rising in the world, though latterly some public attention was paid to Deborah, by Addison and others, on her father’s account. One of her sons, Caleb Clarke, had gone out to Madras in 1703, and had died there as “parish-clerk of Fort George” in 1719, leaving children, of whom there are some faint traces to as late as 1727, the year of Deborah’s death.
Except for the possibility of further and untraced descent from this Indian grandson of Milton, the direct descent from him came to an end in his granddaughter, Elizabeth Clarke, another of Deborah’s children. Having married a Thomas Foster, a Spitalfields weaver, but afterwards set up a small chandler’s shop, first in Holloway and then in Shoreditch, she died at Islington in 1754, not long after she and her husband had received the proceeds of a performance of Comus got up by Dr Johnson for her benefit. All her children had predeceased her, leaving no issue.
Milton’s brother Christopher, who had always been on the opposite side in politics, rose to the questionable honour of a judgeship and knighthood in the latter part of the reign of James II. He had then become a Roman Catholic—which religion he professed till his death in retirement at Ipswich in 1692. Descendants from him are traceable a good way into the 18th century.
Milton’s two nephews and pupils, Edward and John Phillips, both of them known as busy and clever hack-authors before their uncle’s death, continued the career of hack-authorship, most industriously and variously, though not very prosperously, through the rest of their lives: Edward in a more reputable manner than John, and with more of enduring allegiance to the memory of his uncle. Edward died about 1695; John was alive till 1706. Their half-sister, Ann Agar, the only daughter of Milton’s sister by her second husband, had married, in 1673, a David Moore, of Sayes House, Chertsey; and the most flourishing of all the lines of descent from the poet’s father was in this Agar-Moore branch of the Miltons.
Of masses of manuscript that had been left by Milton, some portions saw the light posthumously. Prevented, in the last year Posthumous Publications.of his life from publishing his Latin State Letters in the same volume with his Latin Familiar Epistles, he had committed the charge of the State Letters, prepared for the press, together with the completed manuscript of his Latin Treatise of Christian Doctrines, to a young Cambridge scholar, Daniel Skinner, who had been among the last of his amanuenses, and had, in fact, been employed by him especially in copying out and arranging those two important MSS.
Negotiations were on foot, after Milton’s death, between this Daniel Skinner and the Amsterdam printer, Daniel Elzevir, for the publication of both MSS., when the English government interfered, and the MSS. were sent back by Elzevir, and thrown aside, as dangerous rubbish, in a cupboard in the State Paper Office.
Meanwhile, in 1676, a London bookseller, named Pitt, who had somehow got into his possession a less perfect, but still tolerably complete, copy of the State Letters, had brought out a surreptitious edition of them, under the title Literae pseudo-senatus anglicani, Cromwellii . . . nomine et jussu conscriptae a Joanne Miltono.
No other posthumous publications of Milton’s appeared till 1681, when another bookseller put forth a slight tract entitled Mr John Milton’s Character of the Long Parliament and Assembly of Divines, in 1641, consisting of a page or two, of rather dubious authenticity, said to have been withheld from his History of Britain in the edition of 1670.
In 1682 appeared A Brief History of Moscovia, and of other less-known Countries lying Eastward of Russia as far as Cathay . . . undoubtedly Milton’s, and a specimen of those prose compilations with which he sometimes occupied his leisure. Of the fate of his collections for a new Latin Dictionary, which had swelled to three folio volumes of MS., all that is known is that, after having been used by Edward Phillips for his Enchiridion and Speculum, they came into the hands of a committee of Cambridge scholars, and were used for that Latin dictionary of 1693, called The Cambridge Dictionary, on which Ainsworth’s Dictionary was based. In 1698 there was published in three folio volumes, under the editorship of John Toland, the first collective edition of Milton’s prose works, professing to have been printed at Amsterdam, though really printed in London.
A very interesting folio volume, published in 1743 by “John Nickolls, junior,” under the title of Original Letters and Papers of State addressed to Oliver Cromwell, consists of a number of intimate Cromwellian documents that had somehow come into Milton’s possession immediately after Cromwell’s death, and were left by him confidentially to the Quaker Ellwood. Finally, a chance search in the London State Paper Office in 1823 having discovered the long-lost parcel containing the MSS. of Milton’s Latin State Letters and his Latin Treatise of Christian Doctrine, as these had been sent back from Amsterdam a hundred and fifty years before, the Treatise on Christian Doctrine was, by the command of George IV., edited and published in 1825 by the Rev. C. R. Sumner, keeper of the Royal Library, and afterwards bishop of Winchester, under the title of Joannis Miltoni Angli de doctrina christiana libri duo posthumi. An English translation, by the editor, was published in the same year. Those state papers of Milton which had not been already printed were edited by W. D. Hamilton for the Camden Society, in 1859.
Assessment of Milton’s Literary Achievements
Milton’s literary life divides into three almost mechanically distinct periods: (1) the time of his youth and minor poems, (2) his middle twenty years of prose polemics, and (3) the time of his later Muse and greater poems.
Had Milton died in 1640, when he was in his thirty-second year, and had his literary remains been then collected, he would Characteristics.have been remembered as one of the best Latinists of his generation and one of the most exquisite of minor English poets.
In the latter character, more particularly, he would have taken his place as one of that interesting group or series of English poets, coming in the next forty years after Edmund Spenser, who, because they all acknowledged a filial relationship to Spenser, may be called collectively the Spenserians.
In this group or series, counting in it such other true poets of the reigns of James I. and Charles I. as Phineas and Giles Fletcher, William Browne and Drummond of Hawthornden, Milton would have been entitled, by the small collection of pieces he had left, and which would have included his Ode on the Nativity, his L’Allegro and Il Penseroso, his Comus and his Lycidas, to recognition as indubitably the very highest and finest.
There was in him that peculiar Spenserian something which might be regarded as the poetic faculty in its essence, with a closeness and perfection of verbal finish not to be found in the other Spenserians, or even in the master himself. Few as the pieces were, and owning discipleship to Spenser as the author did, he was a Spenserian with a difference belonging to his own constitution—which prophesied, and indeed already exhibited, the passage of English poetry out of the Spenserian into a kind that might be called the Miltonic.
This Miltonic something, distinguishing the new poet from other Spenserians, was more than mere perfection of literary finish. It consisted in an avowed consciousness already of the os magna soniturum, “the mouth formed for great utterances,” that consciousness resting on a peculiar substratum of personal character that had occasioned a new theory of literature.
“He who would not be frustrate of his hope to write well hereafter on laudable things ought himself to be a true poem” was Milton’s own memorable expression afterwards of the principle that had taken possession of him from his earliest days; and this principle of moral manliness as the true foundation of high literary effort, of the inextricable identity of all literary productions in kind, and their coequality in worth, with the personality in which they have their origin, might have been detected, in more or less definite shape, in all or most of the minor poems. It is a specific form of that general Platonic doctrine of the invincibility of virtue which runs through his Comus.
That a youth and early manhood of such poetical promise should have been succeeded by twenty years of all but incessant prose polemics has been a matter of regret with many. But this is to ignore his political and social side. If Burke, whose whole public career consisted in a succession of speeches and pamphlets, is looked back upon as one of the greatest men of his century on their account, why should there be regret over the fact that Milton, after having been the author of Comus and Lycidas, became for a time the prose orator of his earlier and more tumultuous generation?
Milton was not only the greatest pamphleteer of his generation—head and shoulders above the rest—but there is no life of that time, not even Cromwell’s, in which the history of the great Revolution in its successive phases, so far as the deep underlying ideas and speculations were concerned, may be more intimately and instructively studied than in Milton’s.
Then, on merely literary grounds, what an interest in those prose remains! Not only of his Areopagitica, admired now so unreservedly because its main doctrine has become axiomatic, but of most of his other pamphlets, even those the doctrine of which is least popular, it may be said confidently that they answer to his own definition of “a good book,” by containing somehow “the precious life-blood of a master-spirit.” From the entire series there might be a collection of specimens, unequalled anywhere else, of the capabilities of that older, grander and more elaborate English prose of which the Elizabethans and their immediate successors were not ashamed.
Nor will readers of Milton’s pamphlets continue to accept the hackneyed observation that his genius was destitute of humour. Though his prevailing mood was the severely earnest, there are pages in his prose writings, both English and Latin, of the most laughable irony, reaching sometimes to outrageous farce, and some of them as worthy of the name of humour as anything in Swift. Here, however, we touch on what is the worst feature in some of the prose pamphlets—their measureless ferocity, their boundless licence in personal scurrility.
While it is wrong to regard Milton’s middle twenty years of prose polemics as a degradation of his genius, and while the fairer contention might be that the youthful poet of Comus and Lycidas actually promoted himself, and became a more powerful agency in the world and a more interesting object in it for ever, by consenting to lay aside his “singing robes” and spend a portion of his life in great prose oratory, who does not exult in the fact that such a life was rounded off so miraculously at the close by a final stage of compulsory calm, when the “singing robes” could be resumed, and Paradise Lost, Paradise Regained and Samson Agonistes could issue in succession from the blind man’s chamber?
Of these three poems, and what they reveal of Milton, no need here to speak at length. Paradise Lost is one of the few monumental works of the world, with nothing in modern epic literature comparable to it except the great poem of Dante. This is best perceived by those who penetrate beneath the beauties of the merely terrestrial portion of the story, and who recognize the coherence and the splendour of that vast symbolic phantasmagory by which, through the wars in heaven and the subsequent revenge of the expelled archangel, it paints forth the connexion of the whole visible universe of human cognisance and history with the grander, pre-existing and still environing world of the eternal and inconceivable.
To this great epic Paradise Regained is a sequel, and it ought to be read as such. The legend that Milton preferred the shorter epic to the larger is quite incorrect. All that is authentic on the subject is the statement by Edward Phillips that, when it was reported to his uncle that the shorter epic was “generally censured to be much inferior to the other,” he “could not hear with patience any such thing.” The best critical judgment now confirms Milton’s own, and pronounces Paradise Regained to be not only, within the possibilities of its briefer theme, a worthy sequel to Paradise Lost, but also one of the most artistically perfect poems in any language.
Finally, the poem in which Milton bade farewell to the Muse, and in which he reverted to the dramatic form, proves that to the very end his right hand had lost none of its power or cunning. Samson Agonistes is the most powerful drama in the English language after the severe Greek model, and it has the additional interest of being so contrived that, without any deviation from the strictly objective incidents of the Biblical story which it |width=”50%” valign=”top”| enshrines, it is yet the poet’s own epitaph and his condensed autobiography.
Much light is thrown upon Milton’s mind in his later life, and even upon the poems of that period, by his posthumous Latin Treatise of Christian Doctrine. It differs from all his other prose writings of any importance in being cool, abstract and didactic. Professing to be a system of divinity derived directly from the Bible, it is really an exposition of Milton’s metaphysics and of his reasoned opinions on all questions of philosophy, ethics and politics.
The general effect is to show that, though he is rightly regarded as the very genius of English Puritanism, its representative poet and idealist, yet he was not a Puritan of what may be called the first wave, or that wave of Calvinistic orthodoxy which broke in upon the absolutism of Charles and Laud, and set the English Revolution agoing. He belonged distinctly to that larger and more persistent wave of Puritanism which, passing on through Independency, and an endless variety of sects, many of them rationalistic and freethinking in the extreme, developed into what has ever since been known as English Liberalism. The treatise makes clear that, while Milton was a most fervid theist and a genuine Christian, believing in the Bible, and valuing the Bible over all the other books in the world, he was at the same time one of the most intrepid of English thinkers and theologians. (D. Ma.;X.)
Portraits of Milton
Considerable interest attaches among collectors to the variety of prints representing portraits of Milton. So far as the original Portraits.contemporary portraits are concerned, which have inspired the large number of engravings, the following may be mentioned: (1) The existing Janssen painting, 1618 (“aetatis suae 10”), which belonged to Mrs Milton. (2) An unknown painting of 1623 (?1620), from which was taken an engraving in the Gentleman’s Magazinefor September 1787 (“aet. suae 12”). (3) The “Onslow” painting of Milton when a Cambridge scholar (lost), which belonged to Mrs Milton and in 1794 was in Lord Onslow’s possession; a copy by Van der Gucht was made for Lord Harcourt and is still at Nuneham. (4) William Marshal’s engraved frontispiece to Moseley’s edition of the poems (1645). (5) William Faithorne’s engraving of Milton from life, at the age of sixty-two, in Milton’s History of Britain (1670). (6) Faithorne’s original drawing for the above, belonging in 1909 to Sir R. H. Hobart. (7) The Bayfordbury (or Tonson) drawing (probably by Faithorne, or (?) by White or Richardson) at Bayfordbury Park near Hertford. (8) A drawing by George Vertue in Dr Williamson’s collection. (9) A clay bust (? by Pierce or Simon) at Christ’s College. (10) A miniature by Cooper (1653), which is, however, considered by Dr G. C. Williamson not to be of Milton at all. (11) A painting by Pieter Van der Plas (d. 1704) in the National Portrait Gallery. (12) An oil painting at Christ’s College. (13) The “Woodcock” miniature of Milton when about forty-eight. In Poets’ Corner, Westminster Abbey, a bust by Rysbrack was put up in 1737. A monument in St Giles, Cripplegate, by John Bacon, R.A., was erected by Samuel Whitbread in 1793; and a modern statue by Horace Montford also stands there. A memorial window in St Margaret’s, Westminster, with an inscription by J. G. Whittier, was presented by G. W. Childs, of Philadelphia.
MSS. of the poems of Milton’s earlier period in his own handwriting are preserved in the library of Trinity College, Cambridge. These are not enumerated among the gifts made by Sir Henry Newton Puckering in 1691, but presumably belonged to him, and came to the library at his death in 1700, as they were found by Charles Mason, a fellow of the college, among papers and books which had been his. They were bound in a folio volume by the care of Thomas Clarke, afterwards Master of the Rolls, in 1736. Besides the poems, with many interlineations and corrections, the MS. contains suggestions, and in some cases fully developed plans, for works generally dramatic in form. This manuscript volume, invaluable as an index to Milton’s methods of work, was reproduced in facsimile (Cambridge, 1899) by W. Aldis Wright.
The first complete edition of The Poetical Works of Mr John Milton . . . was printed by Jacob Tonson in 1695. In 1732 Richard Bentley put forward a curious edition of Paradise Lost in which long passages were rejected and placed in the margin on the ground that they were interpolations made possible by Milton’s blindness.
The Latin and Italian poems, with a translation by William Cowper, were printed by W. Hayley in 1808. The most important of the numerous later editions of Milton’s poetical works are by H. J. Todd (6 vols., 1801); J. Mitford (“Aldine edition,” 3 vols., 1832); T. Keightley (2 vols., 1859), whose notes are most original and interesting; D. Masson (“Library” or “Cambridge” edition, 3 vols., 1874; of which a new edition appeared in 1890, with memoir, introduction, notes and an essay on Milton’s English and versification); John Bradshaw (new “Aldine edition,” 2 vols., 1892); also a careful reprint retaining the peculiarities of the earlier printed copies, by H. C. Beeching (“Oxford edition,” 1904); and another, with variant readings, by W. Aldis Wright (Cambridge University Press, 1903). The prose works were first partially collected in 1697. They were edited by J. Toland (3 vol., 1698), by C. Symmons (7 vols., 1806), by Pickering (8 vols., 1851) with the poetical works, and by J. A. St John for Bohn’s “Libraries” (5 vols., 1848-1853). There are numerous annotated editions of separate works.
The earliest life of Milton is contained in Wood MS. D. 4 in the Bodleian Library, Oxford, and was printed in the Eng. Hist. Review for January 1902, also by E. S. Parsons in Colorado College Studies, No. X (1903). The author, who sympathized with the poet’s political views, is unknown, but the name of Milton’s friend, Dr Nathan Paget, is suggested. His account formed the basis of the life given by Anthony à Wood in Fasti oxonienses (1691). Wood was also indebted to John Aubrey, whose Brief Lives were not printed until later. The life by his nephew Edward Phillips was prefixed to the Letters of State printed in 1694, and reprinted by William Godwin in his Lives of E. and J. Phillips (1815). Samuel Johnson’s famous Life of Milton (1779), which contains some valuable criticism, is written from a somewhat unfriendly standpoint.
The records of Milton’s official life, available in the State Papers, were first made use of by H. J. Todd in a third edition (1829) of his Milton. All the available information was gathered in Professor Masson’s Life of John Milton; narrated in Connexion with the Political, Ecclesiastical and Literary History of his Time (6 vols., 1859-1880, with index, 1894; new ed. of vol. i., 1881) which contains ample reference to original authorities. Shorter works are Milton und seine Zeit (2 pts., 1877, 1879), by Alfred Stern; Milton (1879), by Mark Pattison in the “English Men of Letters” series, and Life of John Milton (1890) by Dr Richard Garnett in the “Great Writers” series, with a bibliography by J. P. Anderson.
The sources of Paradise Lost have given rise to much discussion. It has been supposed to owe something to Adamo, a comedy by Giovanni Battista Andreini (1578-1652), to the Paraphrase associated with the name of Caedmon which was printed at Amsterdam in 1655 by Francis Junius, and to the Lucifer and other plays of Joost van den Vondel. Parallelisms between Vondel and Milton were pointed out by Mr Edmund Gosse in Literatures of Northern Europe (1879), and the comparison was carried further in Mr G. Edmundson’s Milton and Vondel; A Curiosity of Literature (1885), a book which aroused much discussion. A valuable contribution to Miltonic criticism was made in 1893 by Mr Robert Bridges in an essay on Milton’s Prosody. This was reprinted in 1901, with some additional matter and an essay on “Classical Metres in English Verse” by W. J. Stone. Amongst other critical essays should be mentioned essays by Macaulay (Edinburgh Review, 1825); Walter Bagehot (Literary Studies, vol. i., 1879); S. T. Coleridge (Seven Lectures on Shakespeare and Milton 1856); Edward Dowden (Transcripts and Studies, 1888); Edmond Scherer (Études sur la litterature contemporaine, vol. vi., 1882); Augustine Birrell (Obiter dicta, second series 1887); Walter Raleigh (Milton, 1900); E. Allodoli, Giovanni Milton e l’Italia (Prato, 1907).
Concordances of Milton’s Poetical Works were compiled by G. L. Prendergast (Madras, 1856-1857); by C. J. Cleveland (1867), based on a verbal index used in an American edition 1853, of the Poetical Works; by John Bradshaw (1894), by L. E. Lockwood, Lexicon to the English Poetical Works of John Milton (New York, 1907).
The tercentenary of Milton’s birth was celebrated in 1908 in Cambridge, London and elsewhere. An exhibition of the portraits of Milton, authentic and supposed, with a great collection of valuable editions of the poet’s works, was held in June and July at Christ’s College, Cambridge. The catalogue of this exhibition, drawn up by Dr G. C. Williamson, forms a valuable bibliography and iconography of the poet. A collection of Milton autographs, early editions and portraits was also held in December at the British Museum, and the anniversary itself was celebrated by a special meeting of the British Academy, at which papers by Professors W. J. Courthope, Edward Dowden and others were read. There was a religious service at St Mary-le-Bow, Cheapside, and a banquet at the Mansion House.
- See the preface to Book II. of his Reason of Church Government (1641-1642), which is of great biographical interest.
- This interview forms the subject of one of W. S. Landor’s Imaginary Conversations.
- Milton’s cottage here is still standing, and is open to visitors.
- Joannis Miltonii Angli epistolarum familiarum liber unus; quibus accesserunt ejusdem (jam olim in collegia adolescentis) prolusiones quaedam oratoriae (1674; translation by J. Hall, 1829).