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LIFE OF MILTON,
BY DR. JOHNSON.
THE life of Milton has been already written in so many forms, and with such minute inquiry, that I might perhaps more properly have contented myself with the addition of a few notes on Mr. Fenton's elegant abridgment, but that a new narrative was thought necessary to the uniformity of this edition.
JOHN MILTON was by birth a gentleman, descended from the proprietors of Milton near Thame in Oxfordshire, one of whom forfeited his estate in the times of York and Lancaster. Which side he took I know not; his descendant inherited no veneration for the White Rose.
His grandfather John was keeper of the forest of Shotover, a zealous papist, who disinherited his son because he had forsaken the religion of his ancestors.
His father, John, who was the son disinherited, had recourse for his support to the profession of a scrivener. He was a man eminent for his skill in music, many of his compositions being still to be found; and his reputation in his profession was such, that he grew rich, and retired to an estate. He had probably more than common lite. rature, as his son addresses him in one of his most elaborate Latin poems. He mar ried a gentlewoman of the name of Caston, a Welsh family, by whom he had two sons, John, the poet, and Christopher, who studied the law, and adhered, as the law taught him, to the king's party, for which he was a while persecuted, but having, by his brother's interest, obtained permission to live in quiet, he supported himself so honourably by chamber-practice, that, soon after the accession of king James, he was knighted, and made a judge; but, his constitution being too weak for business, he retired before any disreputable compliances became necessary.
He had likewise a daughter Anne, whom he married with a considerable fortune to Edward Philips, who came from Shrewsbury, and rose in the Crown-office to be secondary: by him she had two sons, John and Edward, who were educated by the poet, and from whom is derived the only authentic account of his domestic manners.
John, the poet, was born in his father's house, at the Spread-Eagle, in Bread-street, Dec. 9, 1608, between six and seven in the morning. His father appears to have been very solicitous about his education; for he was instructed at first by private tui tion under the care of Thomas Young, who was afterwards chaplain to the English merchants at Hamburgh, and of whom we have reason to think well, since his scholar considered him as worthy of an epistolary elegy.
He was then sent to St. Paul's School, under the care of Mr. Gill; and removed, in the beginning of his sixteenth year, to Christ's College in Cambridge, where he entered a sizar 1, Feb. 12, 1624.
He was at this time eminently skilled in the Latiu tongue; and he himself, by annexing the dates to his first compositions, a boast of which the learned Politian had given him an example, seems to commend the earliness of his own proficiency to the notice of posterity. But the products of his vernal fertility have been surpassed by many, and particularly by his contemporary Cowley. Of the powers of the mind it is difficult to form an estimate: many have excelled Milton in their first essays, who never rose to works like Paradise Lost.
At fifteen, a date which he uses till he is sixteen, he translated or versified two Psalms, 114 and 136, which he thought worthy of the public eye; but they raise no great expectations: they would in any numerous school have obtained praise, but not excited wonder.
Many of his elegies appear to have been written in his eighteenth year, by which it appears that he had then read the Roman authors with very nice discernment. 1 once heard Mr. Hampton, the translator of Polybius, remark, what I think is true, that Milton was the first Englishman who, after the revival of letters, wrote Latin verses with classic elegance. If any exceptions cau be made, they are very few: Haddon and Ascham, the pride of Elizabeth's reign, however they have succeeded in prose, no sooner attempt verse than they provoke derision. If we produced any thing worthy of notice before the elegies of Milton, it was perhaps Alabaster's Roxana 2.
Of the exercises which the rules of the university required, some were published by him in his maturer years. They had been undoubtedly applauded, for they were such as few can perform; yet there is reason to suspect that he was regarded in his college with no great fondness. That he obtained no fellowship is certain; but the unkindness with which he was treated was not merely negative. I am ashamed to relate what I fear is true, that Milton was one of the last students in either university that suffered the public indignity of corporal correction,
It was, in the violence of controversial hostility, objected to him, that he was ex. pelled this he steadily denies, and it was apparently not true; but it seems plain, from his own verses to Diodati, that he had incurred rustication, a temporary dis. mission into the country, with perhaps the loss of a term:
In this assert on Dr. Johnson was mistaken. Milton was admitted a pensioner, and not a sizar, as will appear by the following extract from the college register: Johannes Milton Londinensis, filios Johannis, institutus fuit in literarum elementis sub Mag'ro Gill Gymnasii Paulini præfecto; admissus est Pensionarius Minor Feb. 12°, 1624, sub M'ro Chappell, solvitq. pro lngr. £.0 108, d. R.
2 Published 1632. R.
I cannot find any meaning but this, which even kindness and reverence can give the term vetiti laris, C6 a habitation from which he is excluded;" or how exile can be otherwise interpreted. He declares yet more, that he is weary of enduring the threats of a rigorous master, and something else, which a temper like his cannot undergo. What was more than threat was probably punishment. This poem, which mentions his exile, proves likewise that it was not perpetual; for it concludes with a resolution of returning some time to Cambridge. And it may be conjectured, from the willingness with which he has perpetuated the memory of his exile, that its cause was such as gave him no shame.
He took both the usual degrees; that of batchelor in 1628, and that of master in 1632; but he left the university with no kindness for its institution, alienated either by the injudicious severity of his governors, or his own captious perverseness. The cause cannot now be known, but the effect appears in his writings. Ilis scheme of education, inscribed to Hartlib, supersedes all academical instruction, being intended to comprise the whole time which men usually spend in literature, from their entrance upon grammar, "till they proceed, as it is called, masters of arts." And in his Discourse " on the likeliest Way to remove Hirelings out of the Church," he ingeniously proposes, that "the profits of the lands forfeited by the act for superstitious uses should be applied to such academies all over the land where languages and arts may be taught together; so that youth may be at once brought up to a competency of learning and an honest trade, by which means such of them as had the gift, being enabled to support themselves (without tythes) by the latter, may, by the help of the former, become worthy preachers."
One of his objections to academical education, as it was then conducted, is, that men designed for orders in the church were permitted to act plays, "writhing and unboning their clergy limbs to all the antic and dishonest gestures of Trincalos 3, buffoons, and bawds, prostituting the shame of that ministry which they had, or were near having, to the eyes of courtiers and court ladies, their grooms and mademoiselles.
This is sufficiently peevish in a man who, when he mentions his exile from the college, relates, with great luxuriance, the compensation which the pleasures of the theatre afford him. Plays were therefore only criminal when they were acted by
3 By the mention of this name, he evidently refers to Albumazar, acted at Cambridge in 1614. Ignoranius and other plays were performed at the same time. The practice was then very frequent. The last dramatic performance at either university was The Grateful Fair, written by Christopher Smart, and represented at Pembroke College, Cambridge, about 1747. R.
He went to the university with a design of entering into the church, but in time altered his mind; for he declared, that whoever became a clergyman must "subscribe slave, and take an oath withal, which, unless he took with a conscience that could not retch, he must straight perjure himself. He thought it better to prefer a blameless silence before the office of speaking, bought and begun with servitude and for swearing."
These expressions are, I find, applied to the subscription of the articles; but it seems more probable that they relate to canonical obedience. I know not any of the articles which seem to thwart his opinions: but the thoughts of obedience, whether canonical or civil, raised his indignation.
His unwillingness to engage in the ministry, perhaps not yet advanced to a settled resolution of declining it, appears in a letter to one of his friends, who had reproved his suspended and dilatory life, which he seems to have imputed to an insatiable curiosity, and fantastic luxury of various knowledge. To this he writes a cool and plausible answer, in which he endeavours to persuade him, that the delay proceeds not from the delights of desultory study, but from the desire of obtaining more fit. ness for his task; and that he goes on, not taking thought of being late so it gives advantage to be more fit.
When he left the university, he returned to his father, then residing at Horton in Buckinghamshire, with whom he lived five years, in which time he is said to have read all the Greek and Latin writers. With what limitations this universality is to be understood, who shall inform us?
It might be supposed, that he who read so much should have done nothing else: but Milton found time to write the Masque of Comus, which was presented at Ludlow, then the residence of the lord president of Wales, in 1634; and had the honour of being acted by the earl of Bridgewater's sons and daughter. The fiction is de rived from Homer's Circe ; but we never can refuse to any modern the liberty of borrowing from Homer:
a quo ceu fonte perenni Vatum Pieriis ora rigantur aquis.
His next production was Lycidas, an elegy, written in 1637, on the death of Mr. King, the son of sir John King, secretary for Ireland in the time of Elizabeth,
4 It has nevertheless its foundation in reality. The earl of Bridgewater being president of Wales in the year 1634, had his residence at Ludlow-castle in Shropshire, at which time lord Brackly and Mr. Egerton, his sons, and lady Alice Egerton, his daughter, passing through a place called the Hay-wood Forest, or Haywood in Herefordshire, were benighted, and the lady for a short time lost: this accident being related to their father upon their arrival at his castle, Milton at the request of his friend Henry Lawes, who taught music in the family, wrote this masque. Lawes set it to music, and it was acted on Michaelmas night; the two brothers, the young lady, and Lawes himself, bearing each a part in the representation.
The lady Alice Egerton became afterwards the wife of the earl of Carbury, who, at his seat called Golden-grove, in Caermarthenshire, harboured Dr. Jeremy Taylor in the time of the Usurpation. Among the doctor's scrions is one on her death, in which her character is finely portrayed. Her sister, lady Mary, was given in marriage to lord Herbert of Cherbury.
Notwithstanding Dr. Johnson's assertion, that the fiction is derived from Homer's Circe, it may be conjectured, that it was rather taken from the Comus of Erycius Puteanus, in which, under the fiction of a dream, the characters of Comus and his attendants are delineated, and the delights of sensualists exposed and reprobated. This little tract was published at Louvain in 1611, and afterwards at Oxford in 1634, the very year in which Milton's Comus was written. H.
Milton evidently was indebted to the Old Wives Tale of George Peele for the plan of Comus. R.