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In the latter part of the sixteenth century a Mr. John Milton (or Mylton, for thus was the name spelled in the baptismal register of the poet at a subsequent date) held 'the appointment of Under-Ranger of the royal Forest of Shotover, near Oxford. The family, which was one of very creditable standing, traced its origin from a town bearing the same name in Oxfordshire. This Mr. John Milton was a zealous Roman Catholic; and his son John, having cmbraced the reformed religion at an early age, was disinherited, and left to shift for himself. The son came to London, and entered on the profession of a scrivener— much the same sort of thing as the "Notaire" so familiar to us in the French comedy of Moliere and others; a position combining something of what we now call a notary with a good deal of the attorney. The junior Milton throve in his profession, and amassed a competent estate on which he lived in his later years. He had received his education at Oxford, and was a man of superior acquirements, especially in music: some specimens of his compositions are given in Burney's History of Music. Nor did he entirely abstain from dabbling in verse. He had turned the age of forty when he married a lady of good Welsh family, Sarah Caston (or perhaps Bradshaw, for some degree of uncertainty exists on the point). Two sons and three daughters were the fruit of this union. It is to the second child and first son that the name of Milton owes its immortality.
John Milton the future poet was born in Bread Street, London, on the 9th of December 1608. Nature had done her choicest for him, both in person and in mind; and at. a very early age he began to raise in his father uncommon hopes of his future capabilities. Some symptoms of poetic gifts were discernible when he was but ten years old. The father engaged a domestic tutor for his instruction, Mr. Thomas Young : the boy entered from the first into study with extraordinary ardour, and thus began that course of overstraining and weakening of the eyes which ended in total blindness. Next he went to St. Paul's School, under the tuition of Dr. Gill; and was soon afterwards, on the 12th of February 1625, transferred to Christ College, Cambridge. Here he distinguished himself in many ways, including the writing of Latin verses : he took his degree as M.A. in 1632.
Milton's father had now quitted bis profession and London, to pass the evening of life in comfortable retirement at Horton in Buckinghamshire. Hither the son returned upon leaving college. He continued his studies, reading over all the Greek and Latin classics. The choice of a vocation in life was before him. Both the church and the bar were meditated and rejected; the former because Milton, a young man already of a severe rectitude of mind, intolerant of all snug expediencies and shifty compromises, considered the yoke of the church, as then established, tyrannous, and the oaths to be taken unendurable. It was apparently at Horton that he wrote his first poems plainly fated not to die—the Allegro, Penseroso, Comus, and Lycidas. These poems had, however, had various forerunners still holding their place amid the body of Milton's works. His paraphrases of the 114th and 126th Psalms were done at the age of fifteen: his earliest known original verses were those On the Death of a Fair Infant, dating in 1625, his seventeenth year. There is something very pleasurable to contemplate in the earnest studiousness, and leisurely rounded productivity, of Milton's early manhood. He is in no hurry to live through his career,—only to lay the solid foundations of an exalted structure of work, and to make each successive portion of it clearly and unmistakeably right, not needing re-doing or repentance. It is indeed highly probable that in these early years he wrote many poems, of a less positive measure of excellence, which have not come down to us : but whatever has come down from the Horton period is of its class a masterpiece. For stately discrimination of language, Lycidas is a model unsuperseded to the present day; the Allegro and Penseroso are almost the first-fruits of descriptive poetry in English; Comus is both unlike and higher than any work that had preceded it under the designation of a "masque." This semi-dramatic work was performed in 1634 at Ludlow Castle before the Earl of Ludlow, then Lord President of Wales. It was printed in 1637, and Lycidas in 1638. From about this time, therefore, we may assume that, by the cultivated among his reading countrymen, Milton was understood to be a preeminent poet; although for many years thence ensuing his work, and his consequent general celebrity, lay in very different directions.
Soon after the death of his mother, Milton in 1638 went abroad. He was absent about a year and a quarter. His journey lay through France and Italy : he had intended to visit Sicily and Greece as well, but this purpose remained still unfulfilled when events recalled him to England. In Paris he was introduced to Grotius; in Florence, to Galileo, then kept under the custody of the Inquisition; in Naples, to Manso, Marquis of Villa, now a very aged man who had been the admirer, friend, and biographer, of Tasso. He saw also Venice and Geneva. In all these cities—some of them conspicuously luxurious—he lived, as he afterwards solemnly asseverated in one of his controversial writings, free from all vice. He was back in England in August 1639; having expedited his return through a patriotic disinclination to be abroad when events of such vital importance to the future of his country, in religion and politics, were in progress.
He now engaged a house in Aldersgate Street, and undertook the education of the two sons of his sister, married to a Mr. Philips; and soon afterwards he received also some other youths as pupils, all of them seemingly the sons of his friends. He boarded and lodged them, and subjected them to a strict course of discipline. The books which he used in teaching them the classical languages were such as conveyed some solid instruction, and they form a list very extraordinary to modern eyes, especially as being the selection of so great a poet and master of written style. There is no Homer and no Virgil; but there are Oppian, Elian's Tactics, Palladius, Celsus, Vitruvius, and the Stratagems of Frontinus. The only poets of the first order are Hesiod and Lucretius. Hebrew, mathematics, and astronomy, were also included in the range of instruction, with French and Italian (these, along with Spanish, were the modern languages known to Milton); nor was he lax in prescribing martial and other exercises subsidiary to the full scope of life of a well-trained citizen.
In 1641 he stepped into the lists of controversy as a prose writer, beginning the series of works which, far more than his poetry, gave him his conspicuous public standing during his lifetime, and have doubtless bereaved the world of many an immortal verse which it would otherwise have to treasure. His first prose work was a treatise on the Reformation in England; followed by three other treatises, the chief of which was The Reason of Church Government urged against Prelaty. In the succeeding year, 1642, he continued the same controversy with his Apology for Smectymnuus—the name Smectymnuus being the pseudonym under which five puritan ministers had already published a book of cognate subject-matter. The initials of their names (Stephen Marshall, Edmund Calamy, Thomas Young, Matthew Newcomen, and William [Uuilliam] Spurstow) made up this formidable vocable.
Milton had nearly reached the typical mid age of man, thirty-five, before he entered the state of marriage. In the year 1643, he wedded Mary, the daughter of Richard Powell, of Forest Hill, Oxfordshire, a gentleman of some estate, whose political principles and connexions were wholly contrary to the poet's. The marriage soon became an obviously unhappy one; and, though the differences were shortly patched up, it probably never altered very much in essential character. A cohabitation of about a month seems to have been enough to convince Mrs. Milton that her bridegroom was not quite the man for her, nor she the woman for him. She went to her father's house, to spend there the residue of the summer: then, when Milton requested her return, she paid no attention to his applications. This was not Milton's notion of the matrimonial relation. He turned up his Bible, and soon discovered that divorce is lawful to an extent and under conditions not theretofore ratified by English or other Christian legislation. In 1644, he published The Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce; and in 1645, Tetrachordon, or Expositions upon the Four chief Places in Scripture which treat of Marriage, and another pamphlet besides. Nor did he stop here, but proceeded without more ado to court a young lady of great sense and beauty, the daughter of Dr. Davies, and would no doubt (supposing her consent obtained) have made a match of it, unindebted to any sort of church authorization. But a timely submission on his wife's part dispersed these bold schemes. One day, when Milton was at the house of a relative, she made her appearance, and implored forgiveness. Milton relented. However austere and unbending may have been his tone of character and mind in some relations, one cannot but recognize here a noble leonine clemency ; and when one considers his legitimate grounds of complaint against his wife, and how far his feelings and plans stood committed with Miss Davies, a lofty spirit of self-denial as well. Milton would not be generous by halves. Having received back his absentee wife,