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C.D. Warner, et al., comp. The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

Critical and Biographical Introduction by Ehrman Syme Nadal (1843–1922)

By John Milton (1608–1674)

MILTON was born in London, on December 9th, 1607; the son of John Milton, who had amassed a competency as a scrivener. The elder Milton, besides his professional success, attained to considerable eminence as a musician. This talent, we know, descended to his son; and it may be that this inheritance had some bearing upon the genius of the poet, who was gifted with perhaps the finest ear possessed by any English writer, and whom critics have described as a musical rather than a picturesque poet. Milton tells us that he was instructed early, both at grammar schools and by private masters, “as my age would suffer.” It was at St. Paul’s School, however, which he had entered by the year 1620, that he began that career of diligent study which he was to pursue through life. “From my twelfth year of age,” he says, “I scarcely ever went from my studies to bed before midnight.” Milton left school at the end of 1624, when he was sixteen; as Mr. Masson says, “as scholarly, as accomplished, and as handsome a youth as St. Paul’s School has sent forth.” Early in the following year he entered Christ’s College, Cambridge. It has been supposed that his career at college was not a happy one; and there was a story, now discarded, to which Johnson lent some kind of countenance, from which it appeared that he was one of the last students of the university to undergo corporal punishment. He was of a rebellious disposition, and may have found much to condemn both in the system of instruction then followed in the university and in his instructors. There is also evidence that the “lady of Christ’s College,” as he was termed in allusion to his beauty and the purity of his morals, was not popular with his fellow collegians. He however took his degree in due course, and remained at the university some years after graduation. Among the incidents of his college life was his friendship with Edward King, the young poet celebrated in ‘Lycidas.’ He added French, Italian, and Hebrew to the university Greek and Latin; and he became an expert swordsman.

It was in 1632, at the end of his seven years’ life at Cambridge, that he went to live with his father, who had just removed from London to the small village of Horton in Buckinghamshire, not far from Windsor. The idea with which he entered college, that of being a priest, had been abandoned, and he had decided upon a life devoted to learning and the pursuit of literature. He lived at Horton for the next six years. At Horton he wrote, besides other poetry, ‘L’Allegro,’ ‘Il Penseroso,’ ‘Comus,’ and ‘Lycidas.’ ‘Comus,’ like much of his poetry, was the result of an occasion. The musician Lawes, who was his friend, had been employed to write a masque to be played at Lord Bridgewater’s place in Wales; and for this entertainment Milton wrote the words. There is perhaps not in all our literature so perfect an expression as ‘Comus’ of the beauty of a youthful mind filled with lofty principles; and this quality of the poem is all the more impressive, because we know that the ideals cherished in those days of hope and health and lettered enthusiasm are to be re-asserted with deeper emphasis amid the tragic circumstances of the closing period of his career. It was the loss of his friend Edward King, by the foundering of a ship in the Irish Channel, which was the occasion of ‘Lycidas,’ a poem which is throughout a treasury of literary beauty.

His mother died in 1637, and his brother and his wife came to live with his father; and Milton now felt that he might carry out his long-contemplated project of a journey to Italy. He started upon this journey in 1637, and passed fifteen months on the Continent. This period was one of the brightest of his life, and is one of the most pleasing chapters of literary biography. After having visited Paris, Florence, Rome, Naples, and Geneva,—at all of which places he was received with a distinction and kindness due more, no doubt, to his character and accomplishments and his engaging personal qualities than to his fame, which could not at that time have been great,—he returned to England. It was the alarming state of affairs at home which determined him to bring this charming episode of his career to an end. The words in which he stated the motive for this decision are significant of the abrupt change which was about to take place in his life:—“I considered it to be dishonorable to be enjoying myself at my ease in foreign lands while my countrymen were striking a blow for freedom.”

On reaching England he went to live in London, receiving into his house as pupils his two nephews and some other boys, to whom he gave instruction. He of course continued his life of study; but he wrote no poetry. His exertions from now on to the time of the Restoration were to be mainly those of the pamphleteer and the politician. In the ranks of the triumphant party, which had successfully opposed the purposes of Charles and Laud, there had arisen several divisions, mainly over the question of Episcopacy. Milton belonged to what was termed the “root and branch party,” which wished to do away with the bishops altogether. In answer to a manifesto published by the High Church division of the party, five Puritan ministers had issued a pamphlet signed “Smectymnuus,”—a word made up of the initials of its five authors. Milton wrote during 1641 and 1642 a number of pamphlets in support of the views of this party. In 1643 he issued a pamphlet the motive of which was chiefly personal. In May of that year he had taken a journey into the country, and had brought back with him a wife. She was Mary Powell, a girl of seventeen, the daughter of a Royalist gentleman of Oxfordshire. The honeymoon was scarcely over before the young girl, who had found the abode of the Puritan scholar not so pleasant a place to live as the free and easy cavalier house in Oxfordshire, went to her family on a visit; and Milton was presently informed that she had no intention of returning. It was in the following August that he wrote his ‘Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce,’ in which he attacked the accepted views of marriage, and expressed the hope that Parliament would legislate for the relief of persons in his situation. This, of course, Parliament failed to do; and Milton made few converts to his views upon this subject, although among the numerous sects of the day there was one known as Miltonists or Divorcers. In 1645 Milton’s wife returned to him. The triumph of the Puritan party had brought ruin to her family. Milton received into his house the entire family, twelve in all, including the mother-in-law, who had been the chief cause of the quarrel. Mary Powell was the mother of his three children. She died nine years later.

In 1644 Milton published, without a license, a second edition of his pamphlet on ‘Divorce.’ The criticisms made upon this disregard of the license law resulted in his writing, in the same year, his famous ‘Areopagitica,’ perhaps the most magnificent and the most known and admired of all his prose writings. There now seems to have succeeded a period of inactivity, which lasted till 1649. On January 30th of that year the King was beheaded, and within a fortnight Milton published a pamphlet in defense of the act. It may have been owing to his having written this pamphlet that he was, in the following month, made Latin Secretary to the Council of State, which governed the country. His business in this new office was to translate from and into Latin the communications received from abroad by the Council, and those sent in reply. But he had other duties, of an indefinite character. One was that of official pamphleteer for the new government, in which capacity he was to defend it from its critics at home and abroad. If the Irish Presbyterians attacked the government, Milton, who belonged to the Independents and favored toleration, must answer them in behalf of Cromwell and his Council, who were also Independents. His special duty, however, proved to be that of replying to assaults made in the interests of the monarchy. When the ‘Eikon Basilike’ (Royal Image) was published, a pamphlet believed to be written by the King, the Council directed Milton to reply. This he did in the ‘Eikonoklastes’ (Image Breaker). Charles II. was at that time living at The Hague, and he employed the learned Salmasius, the great ornament of the University of Leyden, to write a defense of his father. Milton, having been ordered by the Council to answer Salmasius, wrote his ‘Defense of the English People.’ His labors in preparing this pamphlet were the cause of his blindness. He had been warned by his doctor that such would be the result, but he considered it to be his duty to make a deliberate sacrifice of his eyesight in the fulfillment of this task. He thus became blind at the age of forty-three. Another monograph, ‘Regii Sanguinis Clamor’ (Cry of the Royal Blood), having been issued from The Hague, Milton wrote his ‘Second Defense’—a paper of extraordinary interest and eloquence, spoiled however by fanaticism, and by a simplicity of combativeness which at times seems to approach the borders of puerility. We get some idea of the heroic elements and proportions of the scene which it discloses, when we hear the blind sage and patriot exclaim of Cromwell that he “had either extinguished, or by habit had learned to subdue, the whole host of vain hopes, fears, and passions which infest the soul.” One incident of Milton’s domestic life during this period should be mentioned: in 1656 he had married Katherine Woodcock, the “late espousèd saint” of the sonnet, and with her had fifteen months of great happiness, which her death terminated. The aspect of public affairs soon began, from Milton’s point of view, to darken. From the time of Oliver’s death the tide of reaction was setting in, bearing irresistibly in the direction of a return of the monarchy. This result Milton set himself to the work of fighting with desperate energy. It is interesting to see that his proposal for the cure of the disorders of the time was the establishment of some such scheme of federal government as was destined more than a century later to be devised in the Constitution of the United States. How Milton succeeded in escaping the scaffold, after the Restoration had been accomplished, is not clear. But his escape was probably due to his literary eminence and to the secret services of friends and admirers. He was for a time in hiding, but from 1660 was without fear of molestation. He was then indeed “fallen on evil days.” Besides his public causes of unhappiness, he was miserable at home. He found himself neglected by daughters whom he had failed to educate. He was not a worldly-wise man, nor a man of common worldly prudence: witness many facts of his life,—such, for instance, as his thinking that an article was worth the sacrifice of his eyes, and his scheme of education founded on the belief that any boy could do what he did at school. In 1663 Milton married his third wife, a woman thirty years younger than himself,—a marriage which proved fortunate. In his loneliness he was still visited by a few friends who were faithful to him, such as Andrew Marvell and Cyriac Skinner.

It was this period of his life which he occupied with the composition of ‘Paradise Lost.’ During the long interval which had elapsed since ‘Lycidas,’ Milton’s only poems had been the sonnets; which, among the noblest poems of our language as they are, relate chiefly to the incidents of the political life in which he was throughout that time immersed. In 1658, the last year of Cromwell’s Protectorate, Milton had taken up ‘Paradise Lost.’ But the beginnings of the work far antedate that time. As early as 1638 he had determined to make the composition of a great poem the chief work of his life. His intention at that time was to take the subject of the poem from the legend of King Arthur. In 1640–42 he was debating the subject and manner of the poem. More than ninety possible themes—the greater part of them Biblical, although some were historical—were considered by him. After his selection of the theme of ‘Paradise Lost’ as the subject, his first intention was that the form of the poem should be dramatic. About 1642 he worked upon parts of it. Satan’s Address to the Sun was written at that time, and repeated by Milton to his nephew, Edward Philips. When in 1658 the poem was resumed, it was under the epic form. It was finished in 1665 and published in 1666.

It is not possible within the limits of this article to attempt a description or criticism of ‘Paradise Lost.’ It is of course one of the world’s great epics. The drama and story are of the grandest, especially in the first two books, and the entire subject and scenery of the work have entered into and profoundly influenced the mind of the English-speaking world. Nevertheless a story which concerns spirits is at a disadvantage by the side of stories which concern men, as the other great epics do. To most readers the work is perhaps lyrical rather than epic; a wonderful strain of music, rising now and again into still grander harmonies, rather than a relation of incidents. It is the splendid bursts of poetry scattered through the work, and expressing the mind of the poet, that interest us even more than the story. The poet himself is as much before us as in his more strictly lyrical productions. He is never absent from our thoughts. Thus, when the newly erected Pandemonium is likened to the pipes of an organ, we have before us the blind musician of the little house in Jewin Street. When we find the gods of Olympus among the hosts of hell, it is with a feeling of regret to see the friends of the young scholar of Horton in such company. What else than the most beautiful lyric poetry is the pathetic opening of the third book?

A word should be said of the scheme of the physical universe which the story of ‘Paradise Lost’ supposes. How is it that Satan in going from hell to earth at one time flies downward? How is it that in this journey he passes the gate of heaven? Milton supposes all space to be divided into two halves, an upper and a lower, the upper heaven and the lower chaos. From the floor of heaven is hung our starry universe, a hollow sphere with a hard crust, with the earth in the center and the sun and stars revolving round it. It was so our starry universe (solar system, as we should now call it) was regarded by the Ptolemaic astronomy, which Milton selected as the cosmogony of ‘Paradise Lost.’ When Satan and his angels are cast out of heaven they fall to the bottom of chaos and are there inclosed in hell, which is roofed over. Between heaven and hell is the rest of chaos. Our starry universe, as has been said, hangs from the floor of heaven near the gate of heaven. At this point there is a hole in the crust of our universe, which is the place of entrance to it. Satan gets out of hell, finds his way through chaos, passes near the gate of heaven, enters the aperture in the crust of our universe, and thence drops to the earth.

It was Ellwood, the young Quaker to whom Milton had shown ‘Paradise Lost,’ who suggested ‘Paradise Regained.’ He said to Milton on returning the MS., “Thou hast said much here of Paradise Lost, but what hast thou to say of Paradise Found?” Ellwood, in relating the interview, says, “He made no answer, but sat some time in a muse.” It is probable that at this time Milton conceived the idea of writing ‘Paradise Regained.’ This was published in 1671. It is a poem upon which its author set great store; and which, whatever may be its deficiencies, has great beauties. It is especially a correct poem, very devoid of ornament. ‘Samson Agonistes,’ the concluding poem of his life, has a sad autobiographical interest as the poem of his old age. To that old age many elements of sadness contributed. Blind and ill, neglected by his daughters at home, he was witnessing the triumph without of the enemies of all he held sacred. The poem is an exact picture of such an old age.

In speaking of Milton’s literary characteristics, it is natural to mention first the subject of style, in which he is perhaps the greatest of English writers. He has that power, which only the greatest poets have, of commanding a beautiful style, no matter what may be the nature of the subject. It should, of course, be within the power of a true poet to write well upon a theme which is of a character to awaken his feeling and imagination; for the excited feeling then prompts him to a style worthy of the subject. But to write in a fine style upon themes which are not in their nature dignified is far more difficult. It is done only by the great poets. It is no doubt true that Milton does not have occasion to exhibit this power as often as Homer and Virgil. But when the occasion comes, he is equal to it. It does not seem to be in his power to speak meanly or weakly. Even in passages where the subject is not only not poetical but seems to border upon the ridiculous,—as for instance, that in which he describes the inhabitants of hell as having the capacity to reduce their bulk at will to the smallest dimensions,—even in such passages the style does not falter. When we come to his manner of expression in treating great subjects, we find a dignity, a splendor, and a grace which are unequaled in English literature. In particular, there is a loveliness of elegance in which no English poet approaches him. Here he is unique; and like

  • “That self-begotten bird
  • In Arabian woods embost,”
  • of ‘Samson Agonistes,’ “no second knows nor third.” A hundred examples crowd upon the memory or disclose themselves as we turn the pages. It is perhaps better, by the way, not to know such passages by heart; since a verbal familiarity with them may deprive you of that surprise with which the mind at each fresh perusal recognizes their incomparable, their almost miraculous felicity.

    Matthew Arnold, the English writer of our day who has had the best things to say upon literature, has selected Milton as the one English poet whose style resembles what he calls the “grand style,” as seen in the great epic poets of antiquity and in Dante, and through whom the great mass of English readers must know that style if they are to know it at all. This resemblance may be due in part to the fact that Milton’s mind had been deeply influenced by the study of these great models. It is certainly true that no other English poetry so suggests the spirit of antiquity as his does. The result of his studies had been to infuse a classic essence into his words and sentences. A similar education has produced a similar quality in other English poets; in Gray, for instance,—the English poet who in this respect most resembles him. Milton was deeply versed in ancient literature, because in his time that was the chief literature; and he had great devotion to literature and profound faith in it. Literature was for him education rather than acquisition. For mere extent of reading he had no great respect, nor did he consider books interesting and valuable because written in an antique tongue. He wisely selected from among the writings of all time the worthiest and best, and diligently studied them; bringing to the appreciation of them the powers of his profound nature. He had indeed a special practical aim in these studies. They were pursued with a conscious purpose of fitting him for the work of poetry. To literature he went rather than to the world and nature for this preparation, although of course he was a student of both. He indeed considers them to be in a sense one and the same; for he says, “Whichever thing we see or hear sitting, walking, traveling, or conversing, may be fitly called our book.” The result of his absorption in literature is that he sees everything by the light of literature, even nature. He does not seem to look at nature directly and immediately, but rather as remembered in the library. Thus, Milton’s sun is not the sun as Shakespeare saw it, as in “Jocund day stands tiptoe on the misty mountain-tops.” Take for instance this passage, of such richness and splendor,—which, by the way, came near being lost to us because the censor of the Restoration hesitated at the suggestion of monarchs being perplexed:

  • “As when the sun, new risen,
  • Looks through the horizontal misty air,
  • Shorn of his beams; or from behind the moon,
  • In dim eclipse, disastrous twilight sheds
  • On half the nations, and with fear of change
  • Perplexes monarchs.”
  • Here we have the sun indeed, but the sun as seen through the medium of literature and history. A very accomplished man to whom I had mentioned this characteristic of Milton (it has no doubt been observed by many writers on Milton,—by Pattison, among the rest) thought it was to be noticed in his later writings, and was due to blindness; but not in the earlier writings. As to blindness, surely even when blind, Milton might yet see with the eye of memory and imagination. “Yet not the more cease I to wander where the Muses haunt clear spring,” etc. But I find the same characteristic in the earlier poems. This description of the sun from ‘Lycidas’—one of the finest passages of the poem (what lovely vagueness in the phrase “repairs his drooping head”!)—is not so much the real sun as the sun reflected from the mirror of literature and art:—
  • “So sinks the day-star in the ocean bed,
  • And yet anon repairs his drooping head,
  • And tricks his beams, and with new-spangled ore
  • Flames in the forehead of the morning sky.”
  • Even those “high lawns” which appeared “under the opening eyelids of the morn” are not so much beheld with the direct vision as seen through some ethereal medium of the poet’s fancy, under the influence of a literary and classic enchantment. It should not, however, be thought that Milton contradicts nature. This indeed has been charged. His description of the pine as “rooted deep as high,” when that tree does not send its roots deep into the ground, and his use of the beautiful epithet “star-proof” as applied to the elm, which has not a thick foliage, have been said to indicate an eye inattentive to nature. But a poet is not of necessity a naturalist. Poets differ greatly in their manner of looking at nature. Milton saw nature closely enough for his purposes and for our enjoyment. We think there can be no question that in going to literature for his preparation, he chose the best education for himself. Had he not done so, we might have lost the most perfect of English literary artists without gaining a great poet of nature and the world. His chief strength did not lie in the portraiture of the visible world, whether of nature or humanity. We have seen his manner of regarding nature; at man he looked rather with the disposition of the priest than of the dramatic or epic poet. He had not the variety and humor, the play of mind, the pliant and many-sided sympathies, of that English poet in whose pages nature and the world were already mirrored.

    Milton’s prose has the greatness of his verse,—the same greatness both of style and mind. The style often has a splendid way of advancing; the reader having the same sense of buoyant and powerful movement which he feels when he commits himself to the full tide and river of the verse. It is true that the prose has not the exquisite care of the verse. The language is frequently difficult. The sentence sometimes runs down a good part of the page; and if you would understand it, you must first go through the labor of finding subject and predicate, and correctly distinguishing principal and subordinate clauses. It does not often happen, however, that this is necessary; and even when it is necessary, the result is of course well worth the labor. That “cloth of gold,” as Macaulay termed it, is thick with imagery, passion, thought, and splendid phrases. As one reads, one gets very near to the greatness of the man’s intellect and nature,—to his heroic ardor,—and very near to some qualities which whether great or not, are surely not to be applauded. We see also much of him in one character in which he less often appears in verse,—that of the satirist. There was in Milton the making of a satirist like Juvenal or Swift; for he had that insight into mind which is a chief condition of satire. The writer of this paper was once taken to task for having expressed the opinion that Byron had not the insight or weight of mind for satire,—that his greatness lay elsewhere than in the intellect. Now Milton, to my thinking, had the constitution of mind fitted to write satire. He could see a state of mind, seize it, and hold it in his strong imagination as in a vise. It is for this reason that his phrases cut to the bone as they do. The point of the blade is infinitely fine and sharp, but there is in the implement immense weight and force. Another characteristic of Milton’s prose is that the thought is frequently more novel than that of his verse, which tends rather to the expression with unequal perfection of truths that are universal and important, and for that reason have been often uttered.

    From the time of the publication of ‘Paradise Lost’ till his death in 1674, Milton seemed to enjoy, so far as his afflictions and the public prejudice against him would permit, a kind of Indian summer, such as sometimes comes at the close of the lives of celebrated men. The astonishment produced by the work was very great; although one would think that anything might have been expected from the author of the earlier poems, of which an edition had been published in 1645. The accounts we have of the personal appearance, manners, habits, etc., of Milton date mostly from this time. We know from the touching vanity of the allusion to the subject in his ‘Second Defense’ that his eyes were “externally uninjured”; his answer to the indecent taunts of his antagonists being:—“They shine with an unclouded light, like the eyes of one whose vision is perfect.” That insults could pass between men of education upon such a subject, seems to indicate that men’s hearts and manners have got gentler with the spread and advance of that democratic civilization of which Milton was one of the chief friends and leaders. The accounts of the time, given by Mr. Masson, describe him as led about the street near his Bunhill house, a slender man, slightly under middle height, dressed in a gray cloak and wearing sometimes a small silver-hilted sword; looking in feeble health, but with his fair complexion and lightish hair, younger than he was. He was to be seen sitting in his garden near the door in warm weather, wearing a gray overcoat. Within doors his dress was neat black. He rose very early, giving his mornings to study and writing. Music was his chief afternoon and evening relaxation. “His manner with friends and visitors,” says Mr. Masson, “was extremely courteous and affable, with just a shade of stateliness.” Nevertheless there was a marked tendency in his talk to be sarcastic and satirical. He had a habit of pronouncing hard the letter r, the litera canina of the Romans, a characteristic which Dryden thought “a sure sign of a satirical disposition.” In these days his house was frequented by persons of learning and rank, it is said, “much more than he did desire.” Up to the time of his death he was a diligent student and writer. It is scarcely necessary to enumerate the prose writings with which Milton occupied himself in the years just previous to his death. An incident of the last year of his life, 1674, was the rearrangement of ‘Paradise Lost’ into twelve books, in the place of the original ten in which it was first published. He died on November 8th of that year, which was a Sunday, and was buried in the church of St. Giles, Cripplegate, by the side of his father.