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“On the University Carrier;" “ Epitaph on the Marchicness of Winchester ;” “Sonnet to the Nightingale ;” “Sonnet on Arriving at the Age of Twenty-three " (1631). Of these, the most interesting, for different reasons, are the “Ode on the Nativity,” which, despite some fantastic conceits which Milton's maturer judgment would have rejected, is an excellent specimen of a class of poetry of which very few cxcellent specimens exist; the lines on Shakespeare, prefixed, along with other verses, to the second folio edition, published in 1632, and thus the first printed of Milton's English poems, which show that Milton had not yet become fully imbued with the spirit of Puritanism, and could look on all forms of art with a more catholic spirit than he afterwards showed; and the epitaph on Hobson, the University carrier, which proves how totally destitute Milton was of humour. His witticisms, as has been more than once remarked, resemble the gambollings of his own“ unwieldy elephant," who,
"To make them mirth, used all his might, and wreathed
His lithe proboscis.” Lastly, the “Sonnet on Arriving at the Age of Twenty-three" is of deep personal interest. It was accompanied by a letter to an unknown friend, explaining why Milton declined to enter the Church, the profession for which he had been destined by his friends, and which he himself had at one time intended to pursue.
On leaving the University, Milton went to reside at Horton, a small village in Buckinghamshire, where his father, having retired from business, had taken a country-house. There he remained for five years," wholly intent," he writes, “through a period of absolute leisure, on a steady perusal of the Greek and Latin writers, but still so that I occasionally exchanged the country for the city, either for the purpose of buying books, or for that of learning anything new in mathematics or in music, in which I then took delight.” During his seclusion in this pretty pastoral spot, surrounded by woods, orchards, cornfields, streams, and all country sights and sounds, Milton
wrote the finest of his smaller poems—the “ Allegro " and “Penseroso," the “ Arcades” and “ Comus.” The dates of the three former poems are not quite certain ; “Comus" was represented in 1634. The "Allegro," beginning with morn and ending with night, represents things as they appear to a man of cheerful mood; the “ Penseroso,” beginning with night and ending with morn, represents things as they appear to a man of melancholy mood. Both poems are triumphs of versification ; rarely or never was sense better linked to sound than in some of their lines. The Arcades,” part of a masque presented before the Countess-Dowager of Derby at Hanfield, does not call for special notice. Much more remarkable is “ Comus,” both for its intrinsic merits, and as throwing light on Milton's tone of thought. The dignity of its blank verse, weighted with deep thought, the beauty of the lyrics interspersed, the almost passionate praise of purity, the scorn manifested for those who indulge in sensual delights, sufficed to prove that a new poet, unique alike in his imaginative and in his moral power, had arisen in England. It was published anonymously by Milton's friend Lawes, the musical composer, in 1637. Sir Henry Wotton's opinion of it was doubtless that of most cultivated men into whose hands it came : “A dainty piece of entertainment, wherein I should much commend the tragical part, if the lyrical did not ravish me with a certain Doric delicacy in your songs and odes, whereunto I must plainly confess to have seen yet nothing parallel in our language.”
“Lycidas," the last poem of Milton's Horton period, was written in 1637. It commemorates the death of a college companion of his, Edward King, who met his death by shipwreck while crossing the Irish Sea, and was published in 1638 in a volume of memorial verses by various writers, designed to commemorate the sad event. In form it is a pastoral ; first there is an introduction, then the monody of the shepherd lamenting his lost friend, then an epilogue. There are no traces in the poem of such deep emotion as we find in “In Memoriam ;" the careful artist is more visible in it than the
sorrowing friend. Many writers, especially those who have an intimate acquaintance with the ancient classics, have agreed with Lord Macaulay in regarding the appreciation of " Lycidas” as a test of one's insight into the most poetical aspects of poetry. But this may reasonably be doubted. It has been well remarked that minds trained upon the old models seem incapable of understanding how cold and artificial sounds the strain to uneducated but not unpoetical persons which treats of Arethuse and Mincius in speaking of a gentleman drowned in the Irish Channel, and which describes a Fellow of Christ's College as tending flocks and singing for the edification of old Damætas. In “ Lycidas” Milton at length appears as a Puritan full-fledged ; "he has thrown away the last relics of Church and State, and is Presbyterian.” The scathing passage in which he denounced
“ Such as, for their bellies' sake,
doubtless found an echo in many a stern heart in England at that time, when Laud and his policy were causing wide. spread revolt.
In 1638 Milton took that journey to the Continent which he had long meditated. Taking letters of introduction with him, he passed through Paris (where he saw Grotius), Nice, Genoa, Leghorn, Pisa, and settled at Florence, where he remained for two months. There he made the acquaintance of many learned men, some of them well known in Italian literary history, and "found and visited the famous Galileo, grown old, a prisoner to the Inquisition for thinking in astronomy otherwise than the Franciscan and Dominican licensers thought.” From Florence he went to Rome, where also he received a very warm reception from cultivated society.
After staying about two months there, he spent a short time in Naples. From Naples it was his intention to travel to Italy and Greece, but the sad news of the Civil War in England called him back ;“ for I thought it base that I should be travelling abroad for pleasure while my fellow-countrymen at home were fighting for liberty." He returned to England by slow stages, arriving there in August, 1639. Soon after his father's household at Horton was broken up, and Milton took lodgings in St. Bride's Churchyard, where he acted as tutor to his two nephews, John and Edward Phillips, and busied himself in literary projects-amongst others, in drafting schemes for a poem on the subject of "Paradise Lost.” But stirring times had now arrived, and Milton was not the man to see his countrymen struggle for liberty and quietly remain buried in literary meditations. For twenty years, from 1640 to 1660, his life is not that of a poet, but of a strenuous combatant, constantly engaged in controversy, the most exhausting, the most hurtful, the most evanescent of all modes of composition.
Is this to be regretted ? From a literary point of view undoubtedly it is. There are splendid passages in Milton's prose works-passages where we are carried away by torrents of gorgeous eloquence; but in prose, as he himself said, “he had only the use of his left hand;" and the natural acerbity of his temper, quickened by the insults of his assailants, often led him to indulge in the most vulgar railing. “For the mass of his prose treatises, miserable discussions is the final and right word,” says Mr. Matthew Arnold, who quotes with approbation the remarks on them by the distinguished French critic M. Scherer :-"In all of them the manner is the same. The author brings into play the treasures of his learning, heaping together testimonies from Scripture, passages from the Fathers, quotations from the poets; laying all antiquity, sacred and profane, under contribution ; entering into subtle discussions on the sense of this or that Hebrew or Greek word. But not only by his undigested erudition, and by his absorption in religious controversy, does Milton belong to his age; he belongs to it too by the personal tone of his polemics." But there are other than literary grounds from which the question ought to be regarded. If Milton thought that by the services his pen could render, the cause of justice, and liberty, and good government could be advanced, most assuredly he did well to use it as he did during those twenty eventful years.
Milton's prose writings, and the circumstances which led to their publication, we can only very briefly touch on. He began his career as a controversialist by five pamphlets against the Episcopal form of Church government, all published in 1641 and 1642. The preface to the second book of the fourth of these, The Reason of Church Government urged against Prelacy,” is one of the finest pieces of Milton's prose, besides being of high biographical importance. He there gives a sketch of his life, of his work, and of his aim at some future period, when quieter times came, to produce a work “which the world would not willingly let die.” “Neither do I think it shame," he says, “ to covenant with any knowing reader that for some few years yet I may go on trust with him towards the payment of what I am now indebted, as being a work not to be raised from the heat of youth or the vapours of wine, like that which flows at waste from the pen of some vulgar amourist or the trencher fury of a rhyming parasite; not to be obtained by the invocation of Dame Memory and her siren daughters, but by devout prayer to that Eternal Spirit who can enrich with all utterance and knowledge, and sends out His seraphim with the hallowed fire of His altar to touch and purify the lips of whom He pleases: to this must be added industrious and select reading, steady observation, insight into all seemly and generous arts and affairs; till which in some measure be compassed, at mine own peril and cost I refuse not to sustain this expectation from as many as are not loth to hazard so much credulity upon the best pledges which I can give them." From this proud self-confidence a great result might have been augured, and a great result was achieved, for that result was Paradise Lost."
The second series of Milton's pamphlets was written with a purely personal object. About Whitsuntide 1643, Milton,