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He grew up also in a time when there were mutterings of the rising storm which was to shake England to its centre. He must have heard much in his boyhood of the attempt made by King James to marry his son to a Spanish princess, an heir to the throne of Protestant England, and a daughter of the house which was the stanch defender of the Pope, and the great rival and enemy of England in the days of Elizabeth. He must have been aware also of the widening breach between King and Parliament. He was seventeen years
old when Charles I. ascended the throne. When this took place, Milton had just been entered at Christ's College, Cambridge. His schooldays had been spent in London at St. Paul's school. The great studies in which Milton was nurtured were Latin and Greek. The latter had been generally studied in school only for a generation or so. It was a new study, very much as science is a new study now. Hebrew also was taught, and Milton studied it. Moreover, by his father's advice he learned to read and speak French and Italian. But besides his learned studies, Milton was a reader of English poetry. The first folio of Shakespeare's plays was published in 1623, when Milton was fifteen, and it is clear from his own writing that he knew Shakespeare well; but after all, Shakespeare was a great dramatist, and Milton was born out of the days when the drama was the great form. The poetry of English origin which he loved best was that of Edmund Spenser, whose Faerie Queene was published in 1590. Spenser has sometimes been called the poet's poet. He was Milton's at all events, and when we consider that the body of great English poetry which we know to-day consisted in Milton's time of Chaucer, Spenser, and Shakespeare, and that two of these poets were very modern to him, — for Milton to read Spenser was like our reading Tennyson, we can see how largely he drew his poetic nourishment from classic literature.
He gained distinction at the university. He was in favor
with the authorities, but unpopular, at first, with his fellow students, who nicknamed him “The Lady,” both for the delicacy of his appearance and for a certain reserve of demeanor. There is a picture extant of the poet at the age of ten. It is described as showing a grave, fair boy with auburn hair, having a neat lace frill and a black braided dress which fitted closely round his chest and arms. He was already called a little poet, and his father took the greatest pride in him, and taught him the music which he himself loved and knew well. This home-nurtured boy was the reserved, delicate-minded student, who kept aloof from coarse companionship as he had taken little part in boyish games. He was thought vain by his fellows, and there is no doubt that he did set a high value on his scholarly and poetic tastes. There is another picture of the poet, taken at the age of twenty-one, which shows him a singularly clear-faced and handsome fellow.
His father evidently intended John Milton to be a priest of the Church of England, but there were two forces which were at work in the student forbidding this. He was acquiring a certain independence of mind which made him out of sympathy with the growing ecclesiasticism, and he was cherishing a noble ambition to devote himself to high poetry. So, since his father had now retired from business and taken himself to a little village named Horton about seventeen miles west of London, here in the midst of green fields intersected by numberless brooks and small streams, he lived quietly and studiously for half a dozen years. It was during this musing country life in the flush of his opening power that he wrote the minor poems which would have given him a great place in English literature had he never written Paradise Lost ; for here he wrote the lovely pair of poems, L'Allegro and Il Penseroso, here he penned the playful fancies which gave poetic dignity to festivals, Arcades and Comus, and here he wrote the elegy Lycidas, which rose above a personal lament into the place of a noble burst of patriotism.
The last line of Lycidas seems to intimate a design on Milton's part to engage in new poetic enterprises, but if he had such design he laid it aside for a while to carry out a long-cherished plan of travel on the Continent. In the spring of 1638, he set out by easy stages for Italy, and in the fall he was in Florence. With his mind steeped in ancient literature and feeding eagerly on the new Italian literature and art, Milton seems to have had an intellectual feast, and the companionship which he held with the fore. most men in the cities he visited was of the same sort which he held with books. He demanded the best, and by his own attainments made himself welcomed by the best. He visited Galileo, then blind and living in retirement, and was constantly with men of scholarship and culture. At Rome he gave himself up to the life of the ancient city, and he was planning further journeys when news came to him at Naples that turned him homeward.
“While I was desirous,” he says, “to cross into Sicily and Greece, the sad news of civil war coming from England called me back; for I considered it disgraceful that, while
my fellow countrymen were fighting at home for liberty, I should be travelling abroad at ease for intellectual purposes.” The civil war did more than break
Milton's plans for travel ; it changed the whole course of his life as he had laid it out. For twenty years the poet was lost to view in the patriot, the scholar, the man of public affairs.
During this stormy period Milton maintained himself as a schoolmaster, but gave his energy to his writings. The volume of his prose greatly exceeds that of his poetry, but it is like the editorial work of newspapers, very effective for its purpose at the time when written and published, but quite lost to sight afterward. There are one or two of his books, however, especially the one called Areopagitica; or the Liberty of Unlicensed Printing, which are still read for their noble English and their great thoughts. For the most part, however, his pamphlets were crowded with argu
ments and invective meant to do execution in the heat of wordy warfare. During the latter part of the period he was Latin Secretary of the Commonwealth under Cromwell; that is, it was his business to translate dispatches to and from foreign governments. In the midst of all this clamorous din of public affairs, there came from him those noble spontaneous sonnets which were prompted by the massacre in Piedmont, and by his friendship for Cromwell and Vane.
There is an affecting sonnet also on his blindness, for in 1652, when he was forty-three years old, a gradual failing of sight had ended in total blindness. Thus when the end of his hopes for England seemed to have come and the kingdom was restored in 1660, Milton was a poor, blind man, driven into obscurity by the incoming to power of those he had opposed all his life. How strongly he felt this is seen in his dramatic piece, Samson Agonistes.
For a while Milton was in hiding, and he was forced to give up much of what property he had. He lost besides by fire, but though poor in worldly goods and blind, his mind to him a kingdom was, and so, bidding good-by to courts and the whirl of public life, he returned to a scholar's ways.
The stream which had been diverted returned to the channel of poetry, and the story of his last years is the story of writing Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained. He listened to readers and he dictated his poems. In his youth he had pondered over large schemes of verse. Now in his old age, after taking part in a revolution which had been set in motion by love of liberty and a deep religious earnestness, he took the great theme of the human race in its relation to God. The largeness of the poet's ideal, a largeness which had been before him all his life, finds expression in this great epic, just as the beauty which he loved finds expression in the group of poems printed in this little collection.
Milton died November 8, 1674.