Page images
PDF
EPUB

earth; whose colossal fame is only surpassed by his more colossal genius. Born in Bread street, London, in December, 1608, he enjoyed throughout early life, all the advantages which the affection and taste of cultivated parents, in affluent circumstances, could furnish. Provided with the best masters, he early showed an amazing aptitude for learning, which only grew with his growth. At the same time, he manifested a remarkable talent for versification. Let us describe the daily course of his youthful life in his own forcible English. The passage is from the Apology for Smectymnuus; and is in answer to aspersions upon his morals. .

“Those morning haunts are where they should beat home; not sleeping nor concocting the surfeits of an irregular feast, but up and stirring in winter, often ere the sound of any bell awakens men to labor or devotion; in summer, as oft with the bird that first rouses, or not much tardier, to read good authors, or cause them to be read till the attention be weary, or the memory bave its full fraught. Then with useful and generous labors, preserving the body's health and hardiness, to render lightsome, clear, and not lumpish obedience to the mind, to the cause of religion, and our country's liberty, when it shall require firm hearts in sound bodies to cover their stations, rather than see the ruin of our Protestantism, and the en. forcement of a slavish life.”

[blocks in formation]

a

It was with a noble appreciation of the ideal of literary aims, and with a wise choice of authors, that he read. He preferred, he says, “above them all, the two famous renowners of Beatrice and Laura, who never write, but to the honor of those to whom they devote their verse, displaying sublime and pure thoughts without transgression. And long it was not after, when I was confirmed in this opinion, that he who would not be frustrate of his hope to write well hereafter, in things laudable, ought himself to be a true poem ; that is a composition and pattern of the best and honorablest things; not presuming to sing high praises of heroic men, or famous cities, unless that he gave himself experience and practice of all that is praiseworthy.”

And again: “That I may tell ye whither my younger feet wandered, I betook me among those lofty fables and romances which recount in solemn cantos, the deeds of knighthood, founded by our victorious kings, and from hence had in renown over all Christendom. *

* From the laureate fraternity of poets, riper years, and the careless round of studying and reading, led me to the shady spaces of philosophy, but chiefly to the divine volumes of Plato and his equal, Xenophon; where, if I should tell ye what I learned of chastity and love-I mean that which is truly so, whose charming-cup is only virtue, which she bears in her hand to those that are worthy; the rest are cheated with a thick intoxicating potion which a certain sorcerer, the abuser of love's name, carries about-and how the first and chiefest of love begins and ends in the soul, producing those happy twins of her divine generation, knowledge and virtue. With such abstracted sublimities as these, it might be worth your listening, readers, as I may one day hope to have ye in a still time, where there shall be no chiding."

Pursuing his studies at the university of Cambridge, he took his degree at the age of three and twenty; when he gave up all thoughts of entering the profession to which he had been destined by his father; his dislike of subscription, and oaths, which in his opinion, required what he called an “accommodating conscience,” preventing his taking orders. His inability to do so gave him pain, for his father had fondly cherished the expectation of seeing his son a distinguished churchman. Obedience to his own conscience, however, fortunately produced no estrangement between his father and himself. He now retired to the family estate in the country, where he spent five years in quaffing still deeper draughts from the fountains of learning, and preparing himself by intimate and prolonged communion with the great minds of antiquity for the sublime career he was yet to

run.

When about thirty years of age, the society of the

HIS EARLY STUDIES.

113

continent threw wide its inviting portals to him. Everywhere through southern France and Italy, he was received with eager respect and cordial hospitality, and entertained by the patrons of learning and the choicest scholars, as an honored guest. Rarely had a private English gentleman received so much flattering attention as was now accorded to the author of " Comus," although he visited Galileo in the inquisitorial dungeons, and never withheld his own tongue from the utterance of his religious opinions. The wonders of art, which had made Italy the glory of the world, were now revealed probably to the first Englishman whose critical judgment and answering genius enabled him sully to appreciate them.

Architecture, painting, sculpture, music, contributed their choicest stores to enrich a nature so magnificently endowed, and already so highly cultivated. It had been his intention to continue his journey to Greece, the earlier home of the arts; but his tour was abruptly terminated, for his patriotic ear now caught the first mutterings of the storm which was gathering to break upon his beloved native land. At the crisis of the revolution, England needed every faithful son at home. Thither,

. therefore, he hastened, to do what in him lay, in the coming battle for human rights. Humble enough was the weapon at first placed within his grasp_neither the sword of a captain, nor the pike of an invincible -only a pedagogue's switch. But he that is faithful in the least, shall he not be counted worthy of the greatest ? So John Milton used the birch with a zeal rarely surpassed by a schoolmaster, as the backs of his scholars testified, and did what he could to ground them well in the knowledge of the classics.

Later, Providence summoned him to the use of another instrument, in the wielding of which he was already well versed. The hosts of England were arrayed in unbrotherly battle against each other. Cayaliers and Roundheads were joined in the fearful shock, and from the din and cloud strode forth the gigantic figure of Oliver, leading his Ironsides to victory. Cromwell's sword, like that of Gideon of old, wrought marvellous things. What that sword was in battle, was Milton's pen in controversy; the foremost and most trenchant weapon in the defence of the Revolution, and the rights of men.

A fearful antagonist was he, answering to his own magnificent description of a champion of the truth. “ Zeal,” he says, in the most fiery and vehement prose-poetry in the English language, “whose substance is ethereal, arming in complete diamond, ascends his fiery chariot drawn with two blazing meteors, figured like beasts, but of a higher breed than any the zodiac yieldsresembling two of those four which Ezekiel and St. John saw: the one visaged like a lion, to express power, high authority and indignation, the other of countenance like a man, to cast derision and scorn

а

« PreviousContinue »