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On the ninth day of December, 1608, John Milton was born in London.
It was near the close of the golden age of England. Spenser had been dead ten years. SHAKSPEARE was alive, but had ceased to write. Bacon was in the meridian of his power, but as known already to be one of the meanest of mankind, and neither his genius nor his station secured respect.
The father of Milton had been disinherited for becoming a Protestant; but not until the completion of his studies at Oxford, where he was distinguished for his scholarship, taste and accomplishments. Deprived of his patrimony, he adopted the profession of a scrivener, in the practice of which he was so successful as to be able to give his son a liberal education, and at an early age to retire with a competence into the country.
The instruction of Milton was carefully attended to: his private tutor was Thomas Young, a Puritan minister, who remained with him until compelled on account of his religious opinions to leave the kingdom. In 1624, soon after entering upon his sixteenth year, he was sent to Cambridge, where he was committed to ihe tuition of Mr. Chappell, afterwards a bishop, and the reputed author of The Whole Duty of Man. He had already made astonishing progress in learning. He was familiar with several languages, and with the most abstruse books in philosophy. Before he was eighteen, he studied critically the best Greek and Roman authors, and wrote more elegant Latin verses than were ever before produced by an Englishman.
After remaining seven years at the university, where he took the degrees of bachelor and master of arts, he returned to his father's house, at Horton, near Colebrook, whither, he says, he was accompanied by the regrets of most of the fellows of his college, who showed him no common marks of friendship and esteem. In the malignant and envious life of Milton by Dr. JOHNSON, there is an endeavour to prove that he was expelled from Cambridge for some misdemeanor, or that he went away in discontent because unable to obtain preferment, to spend his time in the company of lewd women, and in the play-houses of London. All this is false. It is evident from what has been written on the subject, that he committed no act deserving punishment or regret. He left Cambridge because his theological opinions, and his views of ecclesiastical independence, not permitting him to enter the church, a longer stay there was not required. He believed that he who would accept orders, “must subscribe himself slave, and take an oath withal, which unless he took with a conscience that would retch, he must either straight perjure himself, or split his faith ;” and he deemed it “ better to prefer a blameless silence, before the learned office of speaking, bought and begun with servitude and forswearing.”
On his father's estate Milton passed happily five years of uninterrupted leisure, occasionally visiting London to enjoy the theatres and the conversation of his friends, or to learn something new in mathematics or music. He wrote here the Mask of Comus, and Lycidas, the Arcades, L'Allegro, and Il Penseroso, a series of poems alike extraordinary for the sublimity and beauty of their conception, and for the exquisite finish of their execution.
* He was a skilful musician, and ranked honourably among contemporary composers Allusion to this circumstance is made in the following beautiful lines from Ad Patrem :
“Nec tu perge precor, sacras contemnere Musas,