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MILTON—SIGHT AND GROWTH
HERE is but one Milton,"
there is, too, but one Shakespeare,
yet John Milton, far more than William Shakespeare, stands a
lonely figure in our literature. Shakespeare was a dramatist
among dramatists. We can see how there were those who led up to
him, and others again who led away from him. From each he
differs in being greater, he outshines them all. Shakespeare was
a man among men. He loved and sinned with men, he was homely and
kindly, and we can take him to our hearts. Milton both in his
life and work was cold and lonely. He was a master without
scholars, a leader without followers. Him we can admire, but
cannot love with an understanding love. Yet although we love
Shakespeare we can find throughout all his works hardly a line
upon which we can place a finger and say here Shakespeare speaks
of himself, here he shows what he himself thought and felt.
Shakespeare understood human nature so well that he could see
through another's eyes and so forget himself. But over and over
again in Milton's work we see himself. Over and over again we
can say here Milton speaks of himself, here he shows us his own
heart, his own pain. He is one of the most self-ful of all
poets. He has none of the dramatic power of Shakespeare, he
cannot look through another's eyes, so he sees things only from
one standpoint and that his own. He stands far apart from us,
 almost inhumanly cold. That is the reason why so many of
us find him hard to love.
When, on a bleak December day in 1606, more than three hundred
years ago, Milton was born, Elizabeth was dead, and James of
Scotland sat upon the throne, but many of the great Elizabethans
still lived. Shakespeare was still writing, still acting,
although he had become a man of wealth and importance and the
owner of New Place. Ben Jonson was at the very height of his
fame, the favorite alike of Court and Commons. Bacon was just
rising to power and greatness, his Novum Organum still to come.
Raleigh, in prison, was eating his heart out in the desire for
freedom, trying to while away the dreary hours with chemical
experiments, his great history not yet begun. Of the crowd of
lyric writers some were boys at college, some but children in the
nursery, and some still unborn. Yet in spite of the many writers
who lived at or about the same time, Milton stands alone in our
John Milton was the son of a London scrivener, that is, a kind of
lawyer. He was well-to-do and a Puritan. Milton's home,
however, must have been brighter than many a Puritan home, for
his father loved music, and not only played well, but also
composed. He taught his son to play too, and all through his
life Milton loved music.
John was a pretty little boy with long golden brown hair, a fair
face and dark gray eyes. But to many a strict Puritan, beauty
was an abomination, and we are told that one of Milton's
schoolmasters "was a Puritan in Essex who cut his hair short."
No doubt to him a boy with long hair was unseemly. John was the
eldest and much beloved son of his father, who perhaps petted and
spoiled him. He was clever as well as pretty, and already at the
age of ten he was looked upon by his family as a poet. He was
very studious, for besides going to St. Paul's School he had a
private tutor. Even with that he was not satisfied,
 but studied
alone far into the night. "When he went to schoole, when he was
very young," we are told, "he studied hard and sate up very late:
commonly till twelve or one at night. And his father ordered the
mayde to sitt up for him. And in those years he composed many
copies of verses, which might well become a riper age."
imagine to ourselves the silence of the house, when all the
Puritan household had been long abed. We can picture the warm
quiet room where sits the little fair-haired boy poring over his
books by the light of flickering candles, while in the shadow a
stern-faced white-capped Puritan woman waits. She sits very
straight in her chair, her worn hands are folded, her eyes heavy
with sleep. Sometimes she nods. Then with a start she shakes
herself wide awake again, murmuring softly that it is no hour for
any Christian body to be out o' bed, wondering that her master
should allow so young a child to keep so long over his books.
Still she has her orders, so with a patient sigh she folds her
hands again and waits. Thus early did Milton begin to shape his
own course and to live a life apart from others.
At sixteen Milton went to Christ's College, Cambridge. And here
he earned for himself the name of the Lady of Christ's, both
because of his beautiful face and slender figure, and because he
stood haughtily aloof from amusements which seemed to him coarse
or bad. In going to Cambridge, Milton had meant to study for the
Church. But all through life he stood for liberty. "He thought
that man was made only for rebellion," said a later writer.
a child he had gone his own way, and as he grew older he found it
harder and harder to agree with all that the Church taught—"till
coming to some maturity of years, and perceiving what tyranny had
invaded in the Church, that he who would take orders must
subscribe slaves, and
 take an oath withal. . . . I thought it
better to prefer a blameless silence before the sacred office of
speaking, bought and begun with servitude and forswearing." Thus
was he, he says, "church-outed by the Prelates."
not, with a free conscience, become a clergyman, so having taken
his degree he went home to his father, who now lived in the
country at Horton. He left Cambridge without regrets. No thrill
of pleasure seemed to have warmed his heart in after days when he
looked back upon the young years spent beside the Cam.
Milton went home to his father's house without any settled plan
of life. He had not made up his mind what he was to be, he was
only sure that he could not be a clergyman. His father was well
off, but not wealthy. He had no great estates to manage, and he
must have wished his eldest son to do and be something in the
world, yet he did not urge it upon him. Milton himself, however,
was not quite at rest, as his sonnet On his being arrived to the
age of twenty-three shows:—
"How soon hath Time, the subtle thief of youth,
Stolen on his wing my three-and-twentieth year:
My hasting days fly on with full career,
But my late Spring no bud or blossom show'th.
Perhaps my semblance might deceive the truth,
That I to manhood am arriv'd so near,
And inward ripeness doth much less appear,
That some more timely happy spirits endu'th.
Yet be it less or more, or soon or slow,
It shall be still in strictest measure even
To that same lot, however mean, or high,
Toward which Time leads me; and the Will of Heaven;
All is, if I have grace to use it so,
As ever in my great Task-Master's eye."
Yet dissatisfied as he sometimes was, he was very sure of
himself, and for five years he let his wings grow, as he
said. But these years were not altogether lost, for if both day
and night Milton roamed the meadows about his home in seeming
idleness, he was drinking in all the beauty of earth and sky,
flower and field, storing his memory with sights and sounds that
were to be a treasure to him in after days. He studied hard,
too, ranging at will through Greek and Latin literature. "No
delay, no rest, no care or thought almost of anything holds me
aside until I reach the end I am making for, and round off, as it
were, some great period of my studies," he says to a friend. And
as the outcome of these five fallow years Milton has left us some
of his most beautiful poems. They have not the stately grandeur
of his later works, but they are natural and easy, and at times
full of a joyousness which we never find in him again. And
before we can admire his great poem which he wrote later, we may
love the beauty of L'Allegro, Il Penseroso, and Lycidas, which he
L'Allegro and Il Penseroso are two poems which picture two moods
in which the poet looks at life. They are two moods which come
to every one, the mirthful and the sad. L'Allegro pictures the
happy mood. Here the man "who has, in his heart, cause for
contentment" sings. And the poem fairly dances with delight of
being as it follows the day from dawn till evening shadows fall.
It begins by bidding "loathed Melancholy" begone " 'Mongst horrid
shapes, and shrieks, and sights unholy," and by bidding come
"Haste, thee, nymph, and bring with thee
Jest and youthful Jollity,
Quips and cranks, and wanton wiles,
Nods and becks, and wretchéd smiles.
Such as hang on Hebe's cheek,
And love to live in dimple sleek;
Sport that wrinkled Care derides,
And Laughter holding both his sides.
Come, and trip it as ye go
On the light fantastic toe.
To hear the lark begin his flight,
And singing startle the dull night,
From his watch-tower in the skies,
Till the dappled dawn doth rise."
These are a few lines from the opening of the poem which you must
read for yourselves, for if I quoted all that is beautiful in it
I should quote the whole.
Il Penseroso pictures the thoughtful mood, or mood of gentle
Melancholy. Here Mirth is banished, "Hence fair deluding joys,
the brood of Folly, and hail divinest Melancholy." The poem
moves with more stately measure, "with even step, and musing
gait," from evening through the moonlit night till morn. It ends
with the poet's desire to live a peaceful studious life.
"But let my due feet never fail
To walk the studious cloisters pale;
And love the high embowéd roof,
With antique pillars massy proof,
And storied windows richly dight,
Casting a dim religious light.
There let the pealing organ blow
To the full-voic'd choir below,
In service high, and anthem clear,
As may with sweetness through mine ear,
Dissolve me into ecstacies,
And bring all Heaven before mine eyes."
In Lycidas Milton mourns the death of a friend who was drowned
while crossing the Irish Channel. He took the name from an
Italian poem, which told of the sad death of another Lycidas.
The verse moves with even more stately measure than Il Penseroso.
"Bitter constraint, and sad occasion dear,
Compels me to disturb your season due:
For Lycidas is dead, dead ere his prime,
Young Lycidas, and hath not left his peer:
Who would not sing for Lycidas? he knew
Himself to sing, and build the lofty rhyme.
Fame is the spur that the clear spirit doth raise,
(That last infirmity of noble minds)
To scorn delights, and live laborious days;
But the fair guerdon when we hope to find,
And think to burst out into sudden blaze,
Comes the blind Fury with th' abhorréd shears,
And slits the thin-spun life."
It was during these early years spent at Horton, too, that Milton
wrote his masque of Comus. It is strange to find a Puritan poet
writing a masque, for Puritans looked darkly on all acting. It
is strange to find that, in spite of the Puritan dislike to
acting, the last and, perhaps, the best masque in our language
should be written by a Puritan, and that not ten years before all
the theaters in the land were closed by Puritan orders. But
although, in many ways, Milton was sternly Puritan, these were
only the better ways. He had no hatred of beauty, "God has
instilled into me a vehement love of the beautiful," he says.
The masque of Comus was written for a great entertainment given
by the Earl of Bridgewater, at Ludlow Castle, and three of his
children took part in it. In a darksome wood, so the story runs,
the enchanter, Comus, lived with his rabble rout, half brute,
half man. For to all who passed through the wood Comus offered a
glass from which, if any drank, —
"Their human countenance,
Th' express resemblance of the gods, is changed
Into some brutish form of wolf, or bear,
Or ounce, or tiger, hog, or bearded goat,
All other parts remaining as they were."
And they, forgetting their home and friends, henceforth live
riotously with Comus.
 Through this wood a Lady and her two brothers pass, and on the
way the Lady is separated from her brothers and loses her way.
As she wanders about she is discovered by Comus who, disguising
himself as a shepherd, offers her shelter in his "low but loyal
cottage." The Lady, innocent and trusting, follows him. But
instead of leading her to a cottage he leads her to his palace.
There the Lady is placed in an enchanted chair from which she
cannot rise, and Comus tempts her to drink from his magic glass.
The Lady refuses, and with his magic wand Comus turns her to
Meanwhile the brothers have met a Guardian Spirit, also disguised
as a shepherd, and he warns them of their sister's danger.
Guided by him they set out to find her. Reaching the palace,
they rush in, sword in hand. They dash the magic glass to the
ground and break it in pieces and put Comus and his rabble to
flight. But though the Lady is thus saved she remains motionless
and stony in her chair.
"What, have ye let the false enchanter scape?" the Guardian
Spirit cries. "Oh, ye mistook, ye should have snatched his wand
and bound him fast." Without his rod reversed and backward-
muttered incantation they cannot free the Lady. Yet there is
another means. Sabrina, the nymph of the Severn, may save her.
So the Spirit calls upon her for aid.
Listen where thou art sitting
Under the glassy, cool, translucent wave,
In twisted braids of lilies knitting
The loose train of thy amber-dropping hair,
Listen for dear honour's sake,
Goddess of the silver lake,
Listen and save."
Sabrina comes, and sprinkling water on the Lady, breaks the
"Brightest Lady, look on me;
Thus I sprinkle on thy breast
Drops that from my fountain pure
I have kept of precious cure,
Thrice upon thy fingers' tip,
Thrice upon thy rubied lip;
Next this marble venomed seat,
Smeared with gums of glutinous heat,
I touch with chaste palms moist and cold:
Now the spell hath lost its hold."
The Lady is free and, greatly rejoicing, the Guardian Spirit
leads her, with her brothers, safe to their father's home.
All these poems of which I have told you, Milton wrote during the
quiet years spent at Horton. But at length these days came to an
end. He began to feel his life in the country cramped and
narrow. He longed to go out into the great wide world and see
something of all the beauties and wonder of it. Italy, which had
called so many of our poets, called him. Once more his kindly
father let him do as he would. He gave him money, provided him
with a servant, and sent him forth on his travels. For more than
a year Milton wandered, chiefly among the sunny cities of Italy.
He meant to stray still further to Sicily and Greece, but news
from home called him back, "The sad news of Civil War." "I
thought it base," he said, "that while my fellow-countrymen were
fighting at home for liberty, I should be traveling abroad at
When Milton returned home he did not go back to Horton, but set
up house in London. Here he began to teach his two nephews, his
sister's children, who were boys of nine and ten. Their father
had died, their mother married again, and Milton not only taught
the boys, but took them to live with him. He found pleasure, it
would seem, in teaching, for soon his little class grew, and he
began to teach other boys, the sons of friends.
 Milton was a good master, but a severe one. The boys were kept
long hours at their lessons, and we are told that in a year's
time they could read a Latin author at sight, and within three
years they went through the best Latin and Greek poets. But "as
he was severe on one hand, so he was most familiar and free in
his conversation to those to whom most sour in his way of
education." He himself showed the example of "hard study and
spare diet," for besides teaching the boys he worked and wrote
steadily, study being ever the "grand affair of his life."
Only now and again he went to see "young sparks" of his
acquaintance, "and now and then to keep a gawdy-day."
scarce to be imagined that a gawdy-day in which John Milton took
part could have been very riotous.
Then after Milton had been leading this severe quiet life for
about four years, a strange thing happened. One day he set off
on a journey. He told no one why he went. Every one thought it
was but a pleasure jaunt. He was away about a month, then "home
he returns a married man that went out a bachelor."
imagine how surprised the little boys would be to find that their
grave teacher of thirty-four had brought home a wife, a wife,
too, who was little more than a girl a few years older than
themselves. And as it was a surprise to them it is still a
surprise to all who read and write about Milton's life to this
day. With the new wife came several of her friends, and so the
quiet house was made gay with feasting and merriment for a few
days; for strange to say, Milton, the stern Puritan, had married
a Royalist lady, the daughter of a cavalier. After these few
merry days the gay friends left, and the young bride remained
behind with her grave and learned husband, in her new quiet home.
But to poor little Mary Milton, used to a great house and much
merry coming and going, the life she now led seemed dull beyond
 bearing. She was not clever; indeed, she was rather stupid, so
after having led a "philosophical life" for about a month, she
begged to be allowed to go back to her mother.
Milton let he go on the understanding that she should return to
him in a month or two. But the time appointed came and went
without any sign of a returning wife. Milton wrote to her and
got no answer. Several times he wrote, and still no answer.
Then he sent a messenger. But the messenger returned without an
answer, or at least without a pleasing one. He had indeed been
"dismissed with some sort of contempt."
It would seem the cavalier family regretted having given a
daughter in marriage to the Puritan poet. The poet, on his side,
now resolved to cast out forever from his heart and home his
truant wife. He set himself harder than before to the task of
writing and teaching. He hid his aching heart and hurt pride as
best he might beneath a calm and stern bearing. But life had
changed for him. Up to this time all had gone as he wished.
Ever since, when a boy of twelve, he had sat till midnight over
his books with a patient waiting-maid beside him, those around
had smoothed his path in life for him. His will had been law
until a girl of seventeen defied him.
Time went on, the King's cause was all but hopeless. Many a
cavalier had lost all in his defense, among them those of Mary
Milton's family. Driven from their home, knowing hardly where to
turn for shelter, they bethought them of Mary's slighted husband.
He was on the winning side, and a man of growing importance.
Beneath his roof Mary at least would be safe.
The poor little runaway wife, we may believe, was afraid to face
her angry husband. But helped both by his friends and her own a
meeting was arranged. Milton had a friend to whose house he
often went, and in this
 house his wife was hid one day when the
poet came to pay a visit. While Milton waited for his friend he
was surprised, for when the door opened there came from the
adjoining room, not his friend, but "one whom he thought to have
never seen more." Mary his wife came to him, and sinking upon
her knees before him begged to be forgiven. Long after, in his
great poem, Milton seems to describe the scene when he makes Adam
cry out to Eve after the Fall, "Out of my sight, thou serpent!
That name best befits thee."
Not so repulsed, with tears that ceased not flowing,
And tresses all disordered, at his feet
Fell humble, and, embracing them, besought
His peace; and thus proceeded in her plaint:
'Forsake me not thus, Adam! Witness, Heaven,
What love sincere, and reverence in my heart
I bear thee, and unweeting have offended,
Unhappily deceived! Thy suppliant
I beg, and clasp thy knees. Bereave me not,
Whereon I live, thy gentle looks, thy aid,
Thy counsel in this uttermost distress,
My only strength and stay. Forlorn of thee,
Whither shall I betake me? where subsist?
While yet we live, scarce one short hour perhaps,
Between us two let there be peace.'
She ended weeping; and her lowly plight,
Immovable till peace obtained from fault
Acknowledged and deplored, in Adam wrought
Commiseration. Soon his heart relented
Towards her, his life so late and sole delight,
Now at his feet submissive in distress,
Creature so fair his reconcilement seeking,
His counsel, whom she had displeased, his aid;
As one disarmed, his anger all he lost,
And thus with peaceful words upraised her soon."
Milton thus took back to his home his wandering wife
 and not her
only, but also her father, mother, and homeless brothers and
sisters. So although he had moved to a larger house, it was now
full to overflowing, for besides all this Royalist family he had
living with him his pupils and his own old father.