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
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 literature.
John Milton was the son of a London scrivener, that is, a kind of
lawyer. He was
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
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 slave, 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,
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
Yet dissatisfied as he sometimes was, he was very sure of himself, and for five years he let his wings grow, as he himself 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 wrote now.
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 "loathéd Melancholy" begone " 'Mongst horrid
shapes, and shrieks, and sights unholy," and by bidding come
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.
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.
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
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 seeming stone.
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.
Sabrina comes, and sprinkling water on the Lady, breaks the charm.
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 ease."
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
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
Milton let her 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
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."
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.