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LIVES OF SACRED POETS.
JOHN MILTON. It is not only in the character of our sublimest poet, that the history of Milton attracts and demands our attention; while sorrowing over the darker pages of his life, we may admire the lofty composure of his genius, his resignation under suffering, and his unshaken confidence in the sacred promise of a holier, a serener, and a happier existence.
JOHN MILTON was born on the 9th of December, 1608, in Bread Street, Allhallows, London, and baptized the 20th of the same month in the church of that parish. His father, having been disinherited for his attachment to the reformed religion, embraced the lucrative profession of a scrivener, and succeeded in realizing, by the honourable exercise of his abilities, a respectable competence. He had been educated at Christ Church, Oxford, and united to other acquirements a considerable proficiency in music. The poet's mother was descended, according to Wood, from the ancient family of the Bradshaws, although her grandson Philips says that she was a Castor. The point is of minor importance. We have the more valuable and interesting assurance of her son that she was distinguished by her charity and virtues. Under the watchful care of such parents, the talents of their gifted child were rapidly developed. His first preceptor was Thomas Young, a puritan minister of great learning and probity; to whom he always manifested a warm attachment. His studies were chiefly poetical ; Aubrey says that he was a poet before he was ten years old. Fortunately for the gratification of his boyish taste, Humphrey Lownes, the puritan printer, resided in the same street, and from him he is likely to have obtained the works of Spenser, and Sylvester's translation of Du Bartas. The reputation of this now almost forgotten writer was then, as it continued for some years later, widely diffused. Bishop Hall styled him his worthy friend, and commended his muse, “ drenched in the sacred spring of Sion;" Drayton speaks of his hallowed labours; Drummond of Hawthornden notices his “happy translations ;" and Wood informs us that Queen Elizabeth had a respect for him, James a greater, and Prince Henry a greater than all. His influence upon Milton was at least salutary. Poetical genius is of uncertain growth, but the verdure of its spring has commonly foretold the fertility of its maturer years. “I will endeayour that my youth may be studious, and flowered over with the blossoms of learning and observation,” was the remark of Bishop Hall. Cowley, we are informed by Spratt, gave proofs of poetical power in early childhood; Pope, we know, lisped in numbers, and began an epic when only twelve years old ; Schiller in his fourteenth year wrote a poem on Moses; Klopstock commenced his Messiah at seventeen; Tasso, before he was nineteen, produced Rinaldo, and sketched the three first cantos of Jerusalem Delivered ; and, not to multiply instances which crowd upon the memory, Boccacio composed little stories in his ninth year, and the amusement of the infant Bentham was Rapin's History of England. But a genius so young as Milton's, naturally desired to lean upon some one. The epithets in the translations from the Psalms, regarded by Dr. Symmons as “the shootings of the infant oak which in later times was to overshadow the forest,” were principally borrowed from Sylvester; the paraphrase of the 136th Psalm, written when he was fifteen, is a very animated and surprising composition, and heightened by epithets of peculiar felicity and force.
Hayley thinks that the portrait of Milton in his tenth year by Cornelius Jansen was intended to stimulate him to greater exertion. It certainly shows the affectionate pride with which the beautiful and promising child was regarded by his parents, for Jansen was rising into eminence, and his price for a portrait was “ five broad pieces.”
In 1623 Young quitted England, and Milton is supposed to have been shortly after admitted into St. Paul's School, under Alexander Gill, to whose son three of his Familiar Letters are addressed. His passion for study continued to increase. We gather from Aubrey “ that he sat up very late, commonly till twelve or one o'clock, and that his father ordered the maid to sit up for him.” He did not, however, remain long at St. Paul's, for on the 12th of February, 1624–5, he was entered a Pensioner of Christ's College, Cambridge. That his academical career was attended with some annoyances we learn from a passage . in his first Elegy, but that he underwent corporal punishment is highly improbable, although we possess no conclusive contradiction of the report. The anecdote originally came from Aubrey, on whose authority alone : it depends, and Wood, who had access to the Aubrey Papers, and was actuated by no friendly feeling towards Milton, has not introduced it into his life of the poet. Yet it should not be forgotten that Aubrey derived his information from the poet's brother. Milton, with his glowing and enthusiastic feelings was likely to view with aversion the system of collegiate instruction as it then prevailed. The painful frivolities of an intricate sophistry could not fail to displease one who looked upon moral and religious virtue as the great objects of all learning. That his