Lives of the Poets, Vol. 1
Part 2 out of 10
affections are never moved: we are sometimes surprised, but never
delighted; and find much to admire, but little to approve. Still,
however, it is the work of Cowley; of a mind capacious by nature, and
replenished by study.
In the general review of Cowley's poetry it will be found, that he wrote
with abundant fertility, but negligent or unskilful selection; with much
thought, but with little imagery; that he is never pathetick, and
rarely sublime; but always either ingenious or learned, either acute or
It is said by Denham, in his elegy,
To him no author was unknown,
Yet what he writ was all his own.
This wide position requires less limitation, when it is affirmed of
Cowley, than, perhaps, of any other poet.--He read much, and yet
His character of writing was, indeed, not his own: he unhappily adopted
that which was predominant. He saw a certain way to present praise; and,
not sufficiently inquiring by what means the ancients have continued to
delight through all the changes of human manners, he contented himself
with a deciduous laurel, of which the verdure, in its spring, was bright
and gay, but which time has been continually stealing from his brows.
He was, in his own time, considered as of unrivalled excellence.
Clarendon represents him as having taken a flight beyond all that went
before him; and Milton is said to have declared, that the three greatest
English poets were Spenser, Shakespeare, and Cowley.
His manner he had in common with others; but his sentiments were his
own. Upon every subject he thought for himself; and such was his
copiousness of knowledge, that something at once remote and applicable
rushed into his mind; yet it is not likely that he always rejected a
commodious idea merely because another had used it: his known wealth was
so great, that he might have borrowed without loss of credit.
In his elegy on sir Henry Wotton, the last lines have such resemblance
to the noble epigram of Grotius on the death of Scaliger, that I cannot
but think them copied from it, though they are copied by no servile
One passage in his Mistress is so apparently borrowed from Donne, that
he probably would not have written it, had it not mingled with his own
thoughts, so as that he did not perceive himself taking it from another:
Although I think thou never found wilt be,
Yet I'm resolv'd to search for thee:
The search itself rewards the pains.
So, though the chymic his great secret miss
(For neither it in art or nature is,)
Yet things well worth his toil he gains;
And does his charge and labour pay
With good unsought experiments by the way. COWLEY.
Some that have deeper digg'd love's mine than I,
Say, where his centric happiness doth lie:
I have lov'd, and got, and told;
But should I love, get, tell, till I were old;
I should not find that hidden mystery;
Oh, 'tis imposture all!
And as no chymic yet th' elixir got,
But glorifies his pregnant pot,
If by the way to him befall
Some odoriferous thing, or medicinal,
So lovers dream a rich and long delight,
But get a winter-seeming summer's night. DONNE.
Jonson and Donne, as Dr. Hurd remarks, were then in the highest esteem.
It is related by Clarendon, that Cowley always acknowledges his
obligation to the learning and industry of Jonson; but I have found no
traces of Jonson in his works: to emulate Donne appears to have been
his purpose; and from Donne he may have learned that familiarity with
religious images, and that light allusion to sacred things, by which
readers far short of sanctity are frequently offended; and which would
not be borne, in the present age, when devotion, perhaps, not more
fervent, is more delicate.
Having produced one passage taken by Cowley from Donne, I will
recompense him by another which Milton seems to have borrowed from him.
He says of Goliah:
His spear, the trunk was of a lofty tree,
Which nature meant some tall ship's mast should be.
Milton of Satan:
His spear, to equal which the tallest pine
Hewn on Norwegian hills, to be the mast
Of some great admiral, were but a wand,
He walked with.
His diction was, in his own time, censured as negligent. He seems not to
have known, or not to have considered, that words, being arbitrary, must
owe their power to association, and have the influence, and that only,
which custom has given them. Language is the dress of thought: and,
as the noblest mien, or most graceful action, would be degraded and
obscured by a garb appropriated to the gross employments of rusticks or
mechanicks; so the most heroick sentiments will lose their efficacy, and
the most splendid ideas drop their magnificence, if they are conveyed by
words used commonly upon low and trivial occasions, debased by vulgar
mouths, and contaminated by inelegant applications.
Truth, indeed, is always truth, and reason is always reason; they have
an intrinsick and unalterable value, and constitute that intellectual
gold which defies destruction; but gold may be so concealed in baser
matter, that only a chymist can recover it; sense may be so hidden in
unrefined and plebeian words, that none but philosophers can distinguish
it; and both may be so buried in impurities, as not to pay the cost of
The diction, being the vehicle of the thoughts, first presents itself to
the intellectual eye; and, if the first appearance offends, a further
knowledge is not often sought. Whatever professes to benefit by
pleasing, must please at once. The pleasures of the mind imply something
sudden and unexpected; that which elevates must always surprise. What
is perceived by slow degrees may gratify us with the consciousness of
improvement, but will never strike with the sense of pleasure.
Of all this, Cowley appears to have been without knowledge, or without
care. He makes no selection of words, nor seeks any neatness of phrase:
he has no elegancies, either lucky or elaborate: as his endeavours were
rather to impress sentences upon the understanding than images on
the fancy, he has few epithets, and those scattered without peculiar
propriety or nice adaptation. It seems to follow from the necessity of
the subject, rather than the care of the writer, that the diction of his
heroick poem is less familiar than that of his slightest writings. He
has given not the same numbers, but the same diction, to the gentle
Anacreon and the tempestuous Pindar.
His versification seems to have had very little of his care; and, if
what he thinks be true, that his numbers are unmusical only when they
are ill read, the art of reading them is at present lost; for they are
commonly harsh to modern ears. He has, indeed, many noble lines, such as
the feeble care of Waller never could produce. The bulk of his thoughts
sometimes swelled his verse to unexpected and inevitable grandeur; but
his excellence of this kind is merely fortuitous: he sinks willingly
down to his general carelessness, and avoids, with very little care,
either meanness or asperity.
His contractions are often rugged and harsh:
One flings a mountain, and its rivers too
Torn up with 't.
His rhymes are very often made by pronouns, or particles, or the like
unimportant words, which disappoint the ear, and destroy the energy of
His combination of different measures is, sometimes, dissonant and
unpleasing; he joins verses together, of which the former does not slide
easily into the latter.
The words _do_ and _did_, which so much degrade, in present estimation,
the line that admits them, were, in the time of Cowley, little censured
or avoided; how often he used them, and with how bad an effect, at least
to our ears, will appear by a passage, in which every reader will lament
to see just and noble thoughts defrauded of their praise by inelegance
Where honour or where conscience _does_ not bind,
No other law shall shackle me;
Slave to myself I ne'er will be;
Nor shall my future actions be confin'd
By my own present mind.
Who by resolves and vows engag'd _does_ stand
For days, that yet belong to fate,
_Does_, like an unthrift, mortgage his estate,
Before it falls into his hand;
The bondman of the cloister so,
All that he _does_ receive _does_ always owe:
And still, as time comes in, it goes away,
Not to enjoy, but debts to pay!
Unhappy slave, and pupil to a bell,
Which his hour's work, as well as hours, _does_ tell!
Unhappy till the last, the kind releasing knell.
His heroick lines are often formed of monosyllables; but yet they are
sometimes sweet and sonorous.
He says of the Messiah:
Round the whole earth his dreaded name shall sound,
_And reach to worlds that must not yet be found_.
In another place, of David:
Yet bid him go securely, when he sends;
_'Tis Saul that is his foe, and we his friends.
The man who has his God, no aid can lack;
And we who bid him go, will bring him back._
Yet, amidst his negligence, he sometimes attempted an improved and
scientifick versification; of which it will be best to give his own
account subjoined to this line:
Nor can the glory contain itself in th' endless space.
"I am sorry that it is necessary to admonish the most part of readers,
that it is not by negligence that this verse is so loose, long, and,
as it were, vast; it is to paint in the number the nature of the thing
which it describes, which I would have observed in divers other places
of this poem, that else will pass for very careless verses: as before,
And overruns the neighb'ring fields with violent course.
"In the second book,
Down a precipice deep, down he casts them all.
And fell a-down his shoulders with loose care
"In the third,
Brass was his helmet, his boots brass, and o'er
His breast a thick plate of strong brass he wore.
"In the fourth,
Like some fair pine o'erlooking all th' ignobler wood.
Some from the rocks cast themselves down headlong.
"And many more: but it is enough to instance in a few. The thing is,
that the disposition of words and numbers should be such, as that,
out of the order and sound of them, the things themselves may be
represented. This the Greeks were not so accurate as to bind themselves
to; neither have our English poets observed it, for aught I can find.
The Latins (qui musas colunt severiores) sometimes did it; and their
prince, Virgil, always, in whom the examples are innumerable, and taken
notice of by all judicious men, so that it is superfluous to collect
I know not whether he has, in many of these instances, attained the
representation or resemblance that he purposes. Verse can imitate only
sound and motion. A _boundless_ verse, a _headlong_ verse, and a verse
of _brass_, or of _strong brass_, seem to comprise very incongruous
and unsociable ideas. What there is peculiar in the sound of the line
expressing _loose care_, I cannot discover; nor why the _pine_ is
_taller_ in an alexandrine than in ten syllables.
But, not to defraud him of his due praise, he has given one example of
representative versification, which, perhaps, no other English line can
Begin, be bold, and venture to be wise:
He, who defers this work from day to day,
Does on a river's bank expecting stay
Till the whole stream that stopp'd him shall be gone,
_Which runs, and, as it runs, for ever shall run on_.
Cowley was, I believe, the first poet that mingled alexandrines, at
pleasure, with the common heroick of ten syllables; and from him Dryden
borrowed the practice, whether ornamental or licentious. He considered
the verse of twelve syllables as elevated and majestick, and has,
therefore, deviated into that measure, when he supposes the voice heard
of the supreme being.
The author of the Davideis is commended by Dryden for having written it
in couplets, because he discovered that any staff was too lyrical for
an heroick poem; but this seems to have been known before by May and
Sandys, the translators of the Pharsalia and the Metamorphoses.
In the Davideis are some hemistichs, or verses left imperfect by the
author, in imitation of Virgil, whom he supposes not to have intended
to complete them: that this opinion is erroneous, may be probably
concluded, because this truncation is imitated by no subsequent Roman
poet; because Virgil himself filled up one broken line in the heat of
recitation; because in one the sense is now unfinished; and because all
that can be done by a broken verse, a line intersected by a _caesura_
and a full stop, will equally effect.
Of triplets, in his Davideis, he makes no use, and, perhaps, did not, at
first, think them allowable; but he appears afterwards to have changed
his mind, for, in the verses on the government of Cromwell, he inserts
them liberally with great happiness.
After so much criticism on his poems, the essays which accompany them
must not be forgotten. What is said by Sprat of his conversation, that
no man could draw from it any suspicion of his excellence in poetry, may
be applied to these compositions. No author ever kept his verse and his
prose at a greater distance from each other. His thoughts are natural,
and his style has a smooth and placid equability, which has never yet
obtained its due commendation. Nothing is far-sought, or hard-laboured;
but all is easy without feebleness, and familiar without grossness.
It has been observed by Felton, in his essay on the Classicks, that
Cowley was beloved by every muse that he courted; and that he has
rivalled the ancients in every kind of poetry but tragedy.
It may be affirmed, without any encomiastick fervour, that he brought to
his poetick labours a mind replete with learning, and that his pages are
embellished with all the ornaments which books could supply; that he was
the first who imparted to English numbers the enthusiasm of the greater
ode, and the gaiety of the less; that he was equally qualified for
sprightly sallies, and for lofty flights; that he was among those who
freed translation from servility, and, instead of following his author
at a distance, walked by his side; and that if he left versification
yet improvable, he left likewise, from time to time, such specimens of
excellence as enabled succeeding poets to improve it.
* * * * *
The insertion of Cowley's epitaph may be interesting to our readers.
In Ecclesia D. Petri apud Westmonasterienses
Anglorum Pindarus, Flaccus, Maro,
Deliciae, Decus, Desiderium, Aevi sui,
Hic juxta situs est.
Aurea dum volitant late tua scripta per orbem,
Et fama aeternum vivis, divine poeta,
Hic placida jaceas requie: custodiat urnam
Cana fides, vigilentque perenni lampade musae
Sit sacer iste locus; nee quis temerarius ausit
Sacrilega turbare manu venerabile bustum.
Intacti maneant; maneant per saecula dulces
Cowleii cineres, serventque immobile saxum.
Votumque suum apud posteros sacratum esse voluit
Qui viro incomparabili posult sepulchrale marmor,
Georgius Dux Buckinghamiae.
Excessit e vita Anno Aetatis suae 49° et honorifica pompa elatus
Buckinghamianis, viris illustribus omnium ordinum exequias
sepultus est die 3° M. Augusti, Anno Domini 1667.
[Footnote 6: This volume was not published before 1633, when Cowley was
fifteeyears old. Dr. Johnson, as well as former biographers, seems to
have been misled by the portrait of Cowley being, by mistake, marked with
the age of thirteen years. R.]
[Footnote 7: He was a candidate this year at Westminster school for
election to Trinity college, but proved unsuccessful.]
[Footnote 8: In the first edition of this life, Dr. Johnson wrote, "which
was never inserted in any collection of his works;" but he altered the
expression when the Lives were collected into volumes. The satire was
added to Cowley's works by the particular direction of Dr. Johnson. N.]
[Footnote 9: Consulting the Virgilian lots, Sortes Virgilianae, is a
method of divination by the opening of Virgil, and applying to the
circumstances of the peruser the first passage in either of the two pages
that he accidentally fixes his eye on. It is said, that king Charles
the first, and lord Falkland, being in the Bodleian library, made this
experiment of their future fortunes, and met with passages equally
ominous to each.
That of the king was the following:
At bello audacis populi vexatus et armis,
Finibus extorris, complexu avulsus luli,
Auxilium imploret, videatque indigna suorum
Funera, nec, cum se sub leges pacis iniquae
Tradiderit, regno aut optata luce fruatur:
Sed cadat ante diem, mediaque inhumatus arena. Aeneid. iv. 615.
Yet let a race untam'd, and haughty foes,
His peaceful entrance with dire arms oppose,
Oppress'd with numbers in th' unequal field,
His men discourag'd and himself expell'd:
Let him for succour sue from place to place,
Torn from his subjects and his son's embrace.
First let him see his friends in battle slain,
And their untimely fate lament in vain:
And when, at length, the cruel war shall cease,
On hard conditions may he buy his peace;
Nor let him then enjoy supreme command.
But fall untimely by some hostile hand,
And lie unburied on the barren sand. DRYDEN.
Non haec, O Palla, dederas promissa parenti,
Cautius ut saevo velles te credere Marti.
Haud ignarus eram, quantum nova gloria in armis,
Et praedulce decus primo certamine posset.
Primitiae juvenis miserae, bellique propinqui
Dura rudimenta, et nulli exaudita deorum,
Vota precesque meae! Aeneid. xi. 152.
O Pallas, thou hast fail'd thy plighted word,
To fight with caution, not to tempt the sword;
I warn'd thee, but in vain, for well I knew
What perils youthful ardour would pursue,
That boiling blood would carry thee too far,
Young as thou wert to dangers, raw to war.
O curst essay of arms, disastrous doom,
Prelude of bloody fields and fights to come!
Hard elements of unauspicious war,
Vain vows to heaven, and unavailing care! DRYDEN
Hoffman, in his Lexicon, gives a very satisfactory account of this
practice of seeking fates in books: and says, that it was used by the
pagans, the jewish rabbins, and even the early Christians; the latter
taking the New Testament for their oracle.]
[Footnote 10: Johnson has exhibited here us little feeling for the
neglected servant of the thankless house of Stewart, as he displayed in
the cold contempt of his sixth Rambler. An unmeaning compliment from a
worthless king was Cowley's only recompense for years of faithful and
painful services. A heart loyal and affectionate, like his, may well be
excused the utterance of its pains, when wounded by those for whom it
would so cheerfully have poured forth its blood. We repeat, that Cowley's
misfortune was his devotion to a family, who invariably forgot, in their
prosperity, those who had defended them in the day of adversity. ED.]
[Footnote 11: See Campbell's Poets, iv. 75.]
[Footnote 12: By May's poem, we are here to understand a continuation
of Lucan's Pharsalia, to the death of Julius Caesar, by Thomas May, an
eminent poet and historian, who flourished in the reigns of James
and Charles the first, and of whom a life is given in the Biographia
Britannica. The merit of Cowley's Latin poems is well examined in Censura
Literatia, vol. viii. See also Warton's Preface to Milton's Juvenile
[Footnote 13: 1663.]
[Footnote 14: Here is an error in the designation of this comedy, which
our author copied from the title page of the latter editions of Cowley's
works: the title of the play itself is without the article, "Cutter of
Coleman street," and that, because a merry sharking fellow about the
town, named Cutter, is a principal character in it.]
[Footnote 15: L'Allegro of Milton. Dr. J.]
[Footnote 16: About three hundred pounds per annum. See Campbell's Poets,
[Footnote 17: Now in the possession of Mr. Clark, alderman of London.
Dr. J.--Mr. Clark was, in 1798, elected to the important office of
chamberlain of London; and has every year since been unanimously
[Footnote 18: For metaphysical poets, see Brydges' Restituta, vol. iv.]
[Footnote 19: It is but justice to the memory of Cowley, to quote here an
exquisite stanza which Johnson has inserted in the Idler, No. 77, where
he says; "Cowley seems to have possessed the power of writing easily
beyond any other of our poets; yet his pursuit of remote thought led him
often into harshness of expression." The stanza is to a lady elaborately
Th' adorning thee with so much art
Is but a barb'rous skill,
'Tis like the pois'ning of a dart
Too apt before to kill. ED.]
[Footnote 20: Dodsley's Collection of Poems, vol. v. R.]
[Footnote 21: First published in quarto, 1669, under the title of Carmen
Pindaricum in Theatrum Sheldonianum in solennibus magnifici operis
encaeniis. Recitatum Julii die 9, anno 1669, a Corbetto Owen, A. B. Aed.
Chr. Alumno, authore. R.]
Of sir John Denham very little is known but what is related of him by
Wood, or by himself.
He was born at Dublin, 1615; the only son of sir John Denham, of
Little Horsley, in Essex, then chief baron of the exchequer in Ireland,
and of Eleanor, daughter of sir Garret More, baron of Mellefont.
Two years afterwards, his father, being made one of the barons of the
exchequer in England, brought him away from his native country, and
educated him in London.
In 1631 he was sent to Oxford, where he was considered "as a dreaming
young man, given more to dice and cards than study:" and, therefore,
gave no prognosticks of his future eminence; nor was suspected to
conceal, under sluggishness and laxity, a genius born to improve the
literature of his country.
When he was, three years afterwards, removed to Lincoln's inn, he
prosecuted the common law with sufficient appearance of application;
yet did not lose his propensity to cards and dice; but was very often
plundered by gamesters.
Being severely reproved for this folly, he professed, and, perhaps,
believed, himself reclaimed; and, to testify the sincerity of his
repentance, wrote and published an Essay upon Gaming.
He seems to have divided his studies between law and poetry; for, in
1636, he translated the second book of the Aeneid. Two years after, his
father died; and then, notwithstanding his resolutions and professions,
he returned again to the vice of gaming, and lost several thousand
pounds that had been left him.
In 1641, he published the Sophy. This seems to have given him his first
hold of the publick attention; for Waller remarked, "that he broke out
like the Irish rebellion, three score thousand strong, when nobody was
aware, or in the least suspected it;" an observation which could have
had no propriety had his poetical abilities been known before.
He was after that pricked for sheriff of Surrey, and made governour
of Farnham castle for the king; but he soon resigned that charge, and
retreated to Oxford, where, in 1643, he published Cooper's Hill.
This poem had such reputation as to excite the common artifice by which
envy degrades excellence. A report was spread, that the performance was
not his own, but that he had bought it of a vicar for forty pounds. The
same attempt was made to rob Addison of his Cato, and Pope of his Essay
In 1647, the distresses of the royal family required him to engage in
more dangerous employments. He was intrusted, by the queen, with a
message to the king; and, by whatever means, so far softened the
ferocity of Hugh Peters, that, by his intercession, admission was
procured. Of the king's condescension he has given an account in the
dedication of his works.
He was, afterwards, employed in carrying on the king's correspondence;
and, as he says, discharged this office with great safety to the
royalists: and, being accidentally discovered by the adverse party's
knowledge of Mr. Cowley's hand, he escaped happily both for himself and
He was yet engaged in a greater undertaking. In April, 1648, he conveyed
James, the duke of York, from London into France, and delivered him
there to the queen and prince of Wales. This year he published his
translation of Cato Major. He now resided in France, as one of the
followers of the exiled king; and, to divert the melancholy of their
condition, was sometimes enjoined by his master to write occasional
verses; one of which amusements was probably his ode, or song, upon the
Embassy to Poland, by which he and lord Crofts procured a contribution
of ten thousand pounds from the Scotch, that wandered over the kingdom.
Poland was, at that time, very much frequented by itinerant traders,
who, in a country of very little commerce and of great extent, where
every man resided on his own estate, contributed very much to the
accommodation of life, by bringing to every man's house those little
necessaries which it was very inconvenient to want, and very troublesome
to fetch. I have formerly read, without much reflection, of the
multitude of Scotchmen that travelled with their wares in Poland; and
that their numbers were not small, the success of this negotiation gives
About this time, what estate the war and the gamesters had left him was
sold, by order of the parliament; and when, in 1652, he returned to
England, he was entertained by the earl of Pembroke.
Of the next years of his life there is no account. At the restoration he
obtained that which many missed, the reward of his loyalty; being made
surveyor of the king's buildings, and dignified with the order of the
Bath. He seems now to have learned some attention to money; for Wood
says, that he got by this place seven thousand pounds.
After the restoration, he wrote the poem on Prudence and Justice, and,
perhaps, some of his other pieces; and as he appears, whenever any
serious question comes before him, to have been a man of piety, he
consecrated his poetical powers to religion, and made a metrical version
of the psalms of David. In this attempt he has failed; but in sacred
poetry who has succeeded?
It might be hoped that the favour of his master, and esteem of the
publick, would now make him happy. But human felicity is short and
uncertain; a second marriage brought upon him so much disquiet, as, for
a time, disordered his understanding; and Butler lampooned him for his
lunacy. I know not whether the malignant lines were then made publick,
nor what provocation incited Butler to do that which no provocation can
His phrensy lasted not long; and he seems to have regained his full
force of mind; for he wrote afterwards his excellent poem upon the death
of Cowley, whom he was not long to survive; for, on the 19th of March,
1668, he was buried by his side.
Denham is deservedly considered as one of the fathers of English poetry.
"Denham and Waller," says Prior, "improved our versification, and
Dryden perfected it." He has given specimens of various compositions,
descriptive, ludicrous, didactick, and sublime.
He appears to have had, in common with almost all mankind, the ambition
of being, upon proper occasions, _a merry fellow_, and, in common with
most of them, to have been by nature, or by early habits, debarred from
it. Nothing is less exhilarating than the ludicrousness of Denham; he
does not fail for want of efforts; he is familiar, he is gross; but he
is never merry, unless the Speech against Peace in the close Committee
be excepted. For grave burlesque, however, his imitation of Davenant
shows him to have been well qualified.
Of his more elevated occasional poems, there is, perhaps, none that does
not deserve commendation. In the verses to Fletcher, we have an image
that has since been often adopted:
But whither am I stray'd? I need not raise
Trophies to thee from other men's dispraise;
Nor is thy fame on lesser ruins built,
Nor need thy juster title the foul guilt
Of eastern kings, who, to secure their reign,
Must have their brothers, sons, and kindred, slain.
After Denham, Orrery, in one of his prologues,
Poets are sultans, if they had their will;
For ev'ry author would his brother kill.
Should such a man, too fond to rule alone,
Bear like the Turk no brother near the throne.
But this is not the best of his little pieces: it is excelled by his
poem to Fanshaw, and his elegy on Cowley.
His praise of Fanshaw's version of Guarini contains a very sprightly and
judicious character of a good translator:
That servile path thou nobly dost decline,
Of tracing word by word and line by line.
Those are the labour'd births of slavish brains,
Not the effect of poetry but pains;
Cheap vulgar arts, whose narrowness affords
No flight for thoughts, but poorly stick at words,
A new and nobler way thou dost pursue,
To make translations and translators too,
They but preserve the ashes; thou the flame,
True to his sense, but truer to his fame.
The excellence of these lines is greater, as the truth which they
contain was not, at that time, generally known.
His poem on the death of Cowley was his last, and, among his shorter
works, his best performance: the numbers are musical, and the thoughts
Cooper's Hill is the work that confers upon him the rank and dignity of
an original author. He seems to have been, at least among us, the author
of a species of composition that may be denominated _local poetry_,
of which the fundamental subject is some particular landscape, to be
poetically described with the addition of such embellishments as may be
supplied by historical retrospection, or incidental meditation.
To trace a new scheme of poetry, has, in itself, a very high claim to
praise, and its praise is yet more, when it is apparently copied by
Garth and Pope; after whose names little will be gained by an
enumeration of smaller poets, that have left scarcely a corner of the
island not dignified either by rhyme or blank verse.
Cooper's Hill, if it be maliciously inspected, will not be found without
its faults. The digressions are too long, the morality too frequent, and
the sentiments, sometimes, such as will not bear a rigorous inquiry.
The four verses, which, since Dryden has commended them, almost every
writer for a century past has imitated, are generally known:
O could I flow like thee, and make thy stream
My great example, as it is my theme!
Though deep, yet clear; though gentle, yet not dull;
Strong without rage, without o'erflowing full.
The lines, are, in themselves, not perfect; for most of the words,
thus artfully opposed, are to be understood simply on one side of the
comparison, and metaphorically on the other; and, if there be any
language which does not express intellectual operations by material
images, into that language they cannot be translated. But so much
meaning is comprised in so few words; the particulars of resemblance are
so perspicaciously collected, and every mode of excellence separated
from its adjacent fault by so nice a line of limitation; the different
parts of the sentence are so accurately adjusted; and the flow of
the last couplet is so smooth and sweet; that the passage, however
celebrated, has not been praised above its merit. It has beauty peculiar
to itself, and must be numbered among those felicities which cannot be
produced at will by wit and labour, but must rise unexpectedly in some
hour propitious to poetry.
He appears to have been one of the first that understood the necessity
of emancipating translation from the drudgery of counting lines, and
interpreting single words. How much this servile practice obscured the
clearest, and deformed the most beautiful parts of the ancient authors,
may be discovered by a perusal of our earlier versions; some of them
are the works of men well qualified, not only by critical knowledge,
but by poetical genius, who yet, by a mistaken ambition of exactness,
degraded, at once, their originals and themselves.
Denham saw the better way, but has not pursued it with great success.
His versions of Virgil are not pleasing; but they taught Dryden to
please better. His poetical imitation of Tully on Old Age has neither
the clearness of prose, nor the sprightliness of poetry.
The "strength of Denham," which Pope so emphatically mentions, is to
be found in many lines and couplets, which convey much meaning in few
words, and exhibit the sentiment with more weight than bulk.
On the Thames.
Though with those streams he no resemblance hold,
Whose foam is amber, and their gravel gold;
His genuine and less guilty wealth t' explore,
Search not his bottom, but survey his shore.
His wisdom such, at once, it did appear
Three kingdoms' wonder, and three kingdoms' fear.
While single he stood forth, and seem'd, although
Each had an army, as an equal foe;
Such was his force of eloquence to make
The hearers more concern'd than he that spake:
Each seem'd to act that part he came to see,
And none was more a looker-on than he;
So did he move our passions, some were known
To wish, for the defence, the crime their own.
Now private pity strove with public hate,
Reason with rage, and eloquence with fate.
To him no author was unknown,
Yet what he wrote was all his own;
Horace's wit, and Virgil's state,
He did not steal, but emulate!
And, when he would like them appear,
Their garb, but not their clothes, did wear.
As one of Denham's principal claims to the regard of posterity arises
from his improvement of our numbers, his versification ought to
be considered. It will afford that pleasure which arises from the
observation of a man of judgment naturally right, forsaking bad copies
by degrees, and advancing towards a better practice, as he gains more
confidence in himself.
In his translation of Virgil, written when he was about twenty-one
years old, may be still found the old manner of continuing the sense
ungracefully from verse to verse:
Then all those
Who in the dark our fury did escape,
Returning, know our borrow'd arms, and shape,
And differing dialect; then their numbers swell
And grow upon us; first Choroebus fell
Before Minerva's altar; next did bleed
Just Ripheus, whom no Trojan did exceed
In virtue, yet the gods his fate decreed.
Then Hypanis and Dymas, wounded by
Their friends; nor thee, Pantheus, thy piety,
Nor consecrated mitre, from the same
Ill fate could save; my country's funeral flame
And Troy's cold ashes I attest, and call
To witness for myself, that in their fall
No foes, no death, nor danger, I declin'd,
Did, and deserv'd no less, my fate to find.
From this kind of concatenated metre he afterwards refrained, and taught
his followers the art of concluding their sense in couplets; which has,
perhaps, been with rather too much constancy pursued.
This passage exhibits one of those triplets which are not unfrequent in
this first essay, but which it is to be supposed his maturer judgment
disapproved, since, in his latter works, he has totally forborne them.
His rhymes are such as seem found without difficulty, by following the
sense; and are, for the most part, as exact, at least, as those of other
poets, though now and then the reader is shifted off with what he can
O how _transform'd!_
How much unlike that Hector, who _return'd_
Clad in Achilles' spoils!
From thence a thousand lesser poets _sprung_
Like petty princes from the fall of _Rome_.
Sometimes the weight of rhyme is laid upon a word too feeble to sustain
Troy confounded falls
From all her glories: if it might have stood
By any power, by this right hand it _shou'd_.
--And though my outward state misfortune _hath_
Deprest thus low, it cannot reach my faith.
--Thus, by his fraud and our own faith o'ercome,
A feigned tear destroys us, against _whom_
Tydides nor Achilles could prevail,
Nor ten years' conflict, nor a thousand sail.
He is not very careful to vary the ends of his verses; in one passage
the word _die_ rhymes three couplets in six.
Most of these petty faults are in his first productions, when he was
less skilful, or, at least, less dexterous in the use of words; and
though they had been more frequent, they could only have lessened the
grace, not the strength of his composition. He is one of the writers
that improved our taste, and advanced our language, and whom we ought,
therefore, to read with gratitude, though, having done much, he left
much to do.
[Footnote 22: In Hamilton's memoirs of count Grammont, sir John Denham
is said to have been seventy-nine, when he married Miss Brook, about the
year 1664; according to which statement he was born in 1585. But Dr.
Johnson, who has followed Wood, is right. He entered Trinity college,
Oxford, at the age of sixteen, in 1631, as appears by the following
entry, which I copied from the matriculation book.
"1631. Nov. 18. Johannes Denham, Essex. filius J. Denham de Horsley-parva
in com. praedict. militis, annos natus 16. MALONE".]
[Footnote 23: In the ninth and tenth chapters of the Mémoires de
Grammont, in Andrew Marvell's works, and in Aubrey's letters, ii. 319,
many scandalous anecdotes respecting Denham, are reported. ED.]
[Footnote 24: It is remarkable that Johnson should not have recollected,
that this image is to be found in Bacon. Aristoteles, more otthomannorum,
regnare se haud tuto posse putabat, nisi fratres suos omnes
contrucidasset. De Augment. Scient. lib. 3.]
[Footnote 25: By Garth, in his poem on Claremont: and by Pope, in his
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 musick, 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 literature,
as his son addresses him in one of his most elaborate Latin poems. He
married 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
awhile 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
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
authentick account of his domestick 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 tuition, 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, Feb. 12,1624.
He was, at this time, eminently skilled in the Latin 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
publick 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. I 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 classick elegance.
If any exceptions can 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,
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 publick indignity of corporal correction.
It was, in the violence of controversial hostility, objected to him,
that he was expelled: 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 dismission into the country, with,
perhaps, the loss of a term:
Me tenet urbs, reflua quam Thamesis alluit unda,
Meque nec invitum patria dulcis habet.
Jam nec arundiferum mihi cura revisere Camum,
Nec dudum _vetiti_ me _laris_ angit amor.
Nec duri libet usque minas perferre magistri,
Caeteraque ingenio non subeunda meo.
Si sit hoc _exilium_ patrios adiise penates,
Et vacuum curis otia grata sequi,
Non ego vel _profugi_ nomen sortemve recuso,
Laetus et _exilii_ conditione fruor.
I cannot find any meaning but this, which even kindness and reverence
can give to the term "vetiti laris," 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 Bachelor 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
governours, or his own captious perverseness. The cause cannot now be
known, but the effect appears in his writings. His 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
tithes, by the latter, may, by the help of the former, become worthy
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 antick and
dishonest gestures of Trincalos, 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 academicks.
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 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 forswearing."
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 fantastick 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
fitness 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 derived 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, James, and Charles. King was much a favourite at
Cambridge, and many of the wits joined to do honour to his memory.
Milton's acquaintance with the Italian writers may be discovered by a
mixture of longer and shorter verses, according to the rules of Tuscan
poetry, and his malignity to the church by some lines which are
interpreted as threatening its extermination.
He is supposed about this time to have written his Arcades; for, while
he lived at Horton, he used sometimes to steal from his studies a few
days, which he spent at Harefield, the house of the countess dowager of
Derby, where the Arcades made part of a dramatick entertainment.
He began now to grow weary of the country, and had some purpose of
taking chambers in the inns of court, when the death of his mother set
him at liberty to travel, for which he obtained his father's consent,
and sir Henry Wotton's directions; with the celebrated precept of
prudence, "i pensieri stretti, ed il viso sciolto;" thoughts close, and
In 1638 he left England, and went first to Paris; where, by the favour
of lord Scudamore, he had the opportunity of visiting Grotius, then
residing at the French court, as ambassadour from Christina of Sweden.
From Paris he hasted into Italy, of which he had, with particular
diligence, studied the language and literature; and, though he seems
to have intended a very quick perambulation of the country, staid two
months at Florence; where he found his way into the academies, and
produced his compositions with such applause, as appears to have exalted
him in his own opinion, and confirmed him in the hope, that, "by labour
and intense study, which," says he, "I take to be my portion in this
life, joined with a strong propensity of nature," he might "leave
something so written to aftertimes, as they should not willingly let it
die." It appears, in all his writings, that he had the usual concomitant
of great abilities, a lofty and steady confidence in himself, perhaps
not without some contempt of others; for scarcely any man ever wrote so
much, and praised so few. Of his praise he was very frugal; as he set
its value high, and considered his mention of a name, as a security
against the waste of time, and a certain preservative from oblivion.
At Florence he could not, indeed, complain that his merit wanted
distinction: Carlo Dati presented him with an encomiastick inscription,
in the tumid lapidary style; and Francini wrote him an ode, of which the
first stanza is only empty noise; the rest are, perhaps, too diffuse on
common topicks; but the last is natural and beautiful.
From Florence he went to Sienna, and from Sienna to Rome, where he was
again received with kindness by the learned and the great. Holstenius,
the keeper of the Vatican library, who had resided three years at
Oxford, introduced him to cardinal Barberini; and he, at a musical
entertainment, waited for him at the door, and led him by the hand into
the assembly. Here Selvaggi praised him in a distich, and Salsilli in a
tetrastick; neither of them of much value. The Italians were gainers
by this literary commerce; for the encomiums with which Milton repaid
Salsilli, though not secure against a stern grammarian, turn the balance
indisputably in Milton's favour.
Of these Italian testimonies, poor as they are, he was proud enough to
publish them before his poems; though he says, he cannot be suspected
but to have known that they were said, "non tam de se, quam supra se."
At Rome, as at Florence, he staid only two months; a time, indeed,
sufficient, if he desired only to ramble with an explainer of its
antiquities, or to view palaces and count pictures; but certainly too
short for the contemplation of learning, policy, or manners.
From Rome he passed on to Naples in company of a hermit, a companion
from whom little could be expected; yet to him Milton owed his
introduction to Manso, marquis of Villa, who had been before the patron
of Tasso. Manso was enough delighted with his accomplishments to honour
him with a sorry distich, in which he commends him for every thing but
his religion: and Milton, in return, addressed him in a Latin poem,
which must have raised an high opinion of English elegance and
His purpose was now to have visited Sicily and Greece; but, hearing of
the differences between the king and parliament, he thought it proper to
hasten home, rather than pass his life in foreign amusements, while his
countrymen were contending for their rights. He, therefore, came back to
Rome, though the merchants informed him of plots laid against him by the
jesuits, for the liberty of his conversations on religion. He had sense
enough to judge that there was no danger, and, therefore, kept on his
way, and acted as before, neither obtruding nor shunning controversy. He
had, perhaps, given some offence by visiting Galileo, then a prisoner in
the inquisition for philosophical heresy; and at Naples he was told by
Manso, that, by his declarations on religious questions, he had excluded
himself from some distinctions which he should otherwise have paid him.
But such conduct, though it did not please, was yet sufficiently safe;
and Milton staid two months more at Rome, and went on to Florence
From Florence he visited Lucca. He afterwards went to Venice; and,
having sent away a collection of musick and other books, travelled to
Geneva, which he, probably, considered as the metropolis of orthodoxy.
Here he reposed, as in a congenial element, and became acquainted with
John Diodati and Frederick Spanheim, two learned professors of divinity.
From Geneva he passed through France; and came home, after an absence of
a year and three months.
At his return he heard of the death of his friend Charles Diodati; a
man, whom it is reasonable to suppose, of great merit, since he was
thought, by Milton, worthy of a poem, entitled Epitaphium Damonis,
written with the common, but childish, imitation of pastoral life.
He now hired a lodging at the house of one Russet, a tailor, in St.
Bride's church-yard, and undertook the education of John and Edward
Philips, his sister's sons. Finding his rooms too little, he took a
house and garden in Aldersgate street, which was not then so much
out of the world as it is now; and chose his dwelling at the upper end
of a passage, that he might avoid the noise of the street. Here he
received more boys, to be boarded and instructed.
Let not our veneration for Milton forbid us to look with some degree
of merriment on great promises and small performance, on the man who
hastens home, because his countrymen are contending for their liberty,
and, when he reaches the scene of action, vapours away his patriotism in
a private boarding-school. This is the period of his life from which all
his biographers seem inclined to shrink. They are unwilling that Milton
should be degraded to a schoolmaster; but, since it cannot be denied
that he taught boys, one finds out that he taught for nothing, and
another, that his motive was only zeal for the propagation of learning
and virtue; and all tell what they do not know to be true, only to
excuse an act which no wise man will consider as in itself disgraceful.
His father was alive; his allowance was not ample; and he supplied its
deficiencies by an honest and useful employment.
It is told, that in the art of education he performed wonders; and a
formidable list is given of the authors, Greek and Latin, that were read
in Aldersgate street, by youth between ten and fifteen or sixteen years
of age. Those who tell or receive these stories should consider, that
nobody can be taught faster than he can learn. The speed of the horseman
must be limited by the power of the horse. Every man, that has ever
undertaken to instruct others, can tell what slow advances he has been
able to make, and how much patience it requires to recall vagrant
inattention, to stimulate sluggish indifference, and to rectify absurd
The purpose of Milton, as it seems, was to teach something more solid
than the common literature of schools, by reading those authors that
treat of physical subjects; such as the georgick, and astronomical
treatises of the ancients. This was a scheme of improvement which seems
to have busied many literary projectors of that age. Cowley, who had
more means than Milton of knowing what was wanting to the embellishments
of life, formed the same plan of education in his imaginary college.
But the truth is, that the knowledge of external nature, and the
sciences which that knowledge requires or includes, are not the great or
the frequent business of the human mind. Whether we provide for action
or conversation, whether we wish to be useful or pleasing, the first
requisite is the religious and moral knowledge of right and wrong; the
next is an acquaintance with the history of mankind, and with those
examples which may be said to embody truth, and prove, by events,
the reasonableness of opinions. Prudence and justice are virtues
and excellencies of all times and of all places; we are perpetually
moralists, but we are geometricians only by chance. Our intercourse
with intellectual nature is necessary; our speculations upon matter
are voluntary, and at leisure. Physiological learning is of such rare
emergence, that one may know another half his life, without being able
to estimate his skill in hydrostaticks or astronomy; but his moral and
prudential character immediately appears.
Those authors, therefore, are to be read at schools that supply most
axioms of prudence, most principles of moral truth, and most materials
for conversation; and these purposes are best served by poets, orators,
and historians. Let me not be censured for this digression, as pedantick
or paradoxical; for, if I have Milton against me, I have Socrates on my
side. It was his labour to turn philosophy from the study of nature to
speculations upon life; but the innovators whom I oppose are turning off
attention from life to nature. They seem to think, that we are placed
here to watch the growth of plants, or the motions of the stars.
Socrates was rather of opinion, that what we had to learn was, how to do
good, and avoid evil:
'Oti toi en megaroisi kakon t agathon te tetukta']
Of institutions we may judge by their effects. From this wonder-working
academy, I do not know that there ever proceeded any man very eminent
for knowledge: its only genuine product, I believe, is a small history
of poetry, written in Latin by his nephew Philips, of which, perhaps,
none of my readers has ever heard.
That in his school, as in every thing else which he undertook, he
laboured with great diligence, there is no reason for doubting. One part
of his method deserves general imitation. He was careful to instruct his
scholars in religion. Every Sunday was spent upon theology; of which
he dictated a short system, gathered from the writers that were then
fashionable in the Dutch universities.
He set his pupils an example of hard study and spare diet; only now and
then he allowed himself to pass a day of festivity and indulgence with
some gay gentlemen of Gray's inn.
He now began to engage in the controversies of the times, and lent
his breath to blow the flames of contention. In 1641, he published a
treatise of Reformation, in two books, against the established church;
being willing to help the puritans, who were, he says, "inferior to the
prelates in learning."
Hall, bishop of Norwich, had published an Humble Remonstrance, in
defence of episcopacy; to which, in 1641, five ministers, of whose
names the first letters made the celebrated word Smectymnuus, gave their
answer. Of this answer a confutation was attempted by the learned Usher;
and to the confutation Milton published a reply, entitled, of Prelatical
Episcopacy, and whether it may be deduced from the Apostolical Times, by
virtue of those testimonies which are alleged to that purpose in some
late treatises, one whereof goes under the name of James, lord bishop of
I have transcribed this title to show, by his contemptuous mention of
Usher, that he had now adopted the puritanical savageness of manners.
His next work was, the Reason of Church Government urged against
Prelacy, by Mr. John Milton, 1642. In this book he discovers, not with
ostentatious exultation, but with calm confidence, his high opinion of
his own powers; and promises to undertake something, he yet knows not
what, that may be of use and honour to his country. "This," says he, "is
not to be obtained but by devout prayer to that eternal spirit that can
enrich with all utterance and knowledge, and sends out his seraphim,
with the hallowed fire of his altar, to touch and purify the lips of
whom he pleases. To this must be added, industrious and select reading,
steady observation, and insight into all seemly and generous arts and
affairs; till which in some measure be compast, I refuse not to sustain
this expectation." From a promise like this, at once fervid, pious, and
rational, might be expected the Paradise Lost.
He published, the same year, two more pamphlets, upon the same question.
To one of his antagonists, who affirms that he was "vomited out of the
university," he answers, in general terms: "The fellows of the college,
wherein I spent some years, at my parting, after I had taken two
degrees, as the manner is, signified, many times, how much better it
would content them that I should stay. As for the common approbation or
dislike of that place, as now it is, that I should esteem or disesteem
myself the more for that, too simple is the answerer, if he think to
obtain with me. Of small practice were the physician who could not
judge, by what she and her sister have of long time vomited, that the
worser stuff she strongly keeps in her stomach, but the better she is
ever kecking at, and is queasy; she vomits now out of sickness; but,
before it will be well with her, she must vomit by strong physick. The
university, in the time of her better health, and my younger judgment, I
never greatly admired, but now much less."
This is surely the language of a man who thinks that he has been
injured. He proceeds to describe the course of his conduct, and
the train of his thoughts; and, because he has been suspected of
incontinence, gives an account of his own purity: "That if I be justly
charged," says he, "with this crime, it may come upon me with tenfold
The style of his piece is rough, and such, perhaps, was that of his
antagonist. This roughness he justifies, by great examples, in a long
digression. Sometimes he tries to be humorous: "Lest I should take him
for some chaplain in hand, some squire of the body to his prelate, one
who serves not at the altar only, but at the court-cupboard, he will
bestow on us a pretty model of himself; and sets me out half a dozen
ptisical mottoes, wherever he had them, hopping short in the measure of
convulsion fits; in which labour the agony of his wit having escaped
narrowly, instead of well-sized periods, he greets us with a quantity of
thumb-ring poesies. And thus ends this section, or rather dissection,
of himself." Such is the controversial merriment of Milton; his gloomy
seriousness is yet more offensive. Such is his malignity, "that hell
grows darker at his frown." His father, after Reading was taken by
Essex, came to reside in his house; and his school increased. At
Whitsuntide, in his thirty-fifth year, he married Mary, the daughter of
Mr. Powel, a justice of the peace in Oxfordshire. He brought her to town
with him, and expected all the advantages of a conjugal life. The lady,
however, seems not much to have delighted in the pleasures of spare
diet and hard study; for, as Philips relates, "having for a month led a
philosophick life, after having been used at home to a great house, and
much company and joviality, her friends, possibly by her own desire,
made earnest suit to have her company the remaining part of the summer;
which was granted, upon a promise of her return at Michaelmas."
Milton was too busy to much miss his wife: he pursued his studies; and
now and then visited the lady Margaret Leigh, whom he has mentioned in
one of his sonnets. At last Michaelmas arrived; but the lady had no
inclination to return to the sullen gloom of her husband's habitation,
and, therefore, very willingly forgot her promise. He sent her a letter,
but had no answer: he sent more with the same success. It could be
alleged that letters miscarry; he, therefore, despatched a messenger,
being by this time too angry to go himself. His messenger was sent back
with some contempt. The family of the lady were cavaliers.
In a man whose opinion of his own merit was like Milton's, less
provocation than this might have raised violent resentment. Milton soon
determined to repudiate her for disobedience; and, being one of those
who could easily find arguments to justify inclination, published, in
1644, the Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce; which was followed by the
Judgment of Martin Bucer concerning Divorce; and the next year, his
Tetrachordon, expositions upon the four chief places of scripture which
treat of marriage.
This innovation was opposed, as might be expected, by the clergy, who,
then holding their famous assembly at Westminster, procured that the
author should be called before the lords; but "that house," says Wood,
"whether approving the doctrine, or not favouring his accusers, did soon
There seems not to have been much written against him, nor any thing by
any writer of eminence. The antagonist that appeared, is styled by
him "a serving man turned solicitor." Howell, in his Letters, mentions
the new doctrine with contempt: and it was, I suppose, thought more
worthy of derision than of confutation. He complains of this neglect
in two sonnets, of which the first is contemptible and the second not
From this time it is observed, that he became an enemy to the
presbyterians, whom he had favoured before. He that changes his party
by his humour, is not more virtuous than he that changes it by his
interest: he loves himself rather than truth.
His wife and her relations now found that Milton was not an unresisting
sufferer of injuries; and, perceiving that he had begun to put
his doctrine in practice, by courting a young woman of great
accomplishments, the daughter of one doctor Davis, who was, however, not
ready to comply, they resolved to endeavour a reunion. He went sometimes
to the house of one Blackborough, his relation, in the lane of St.
Martin-le-grand, and at one of his usual visits was surprised to see his
wife come from another room, and implore forgiveness on her knees. He
resisted her entreaties for awhile; "but partly," says Philips, "his own
generous nature, more inclinable to reconciliation than to perseverance
in anger or revenge, and partly the strong intercession of friends on
both sides, soon brought him to an act of oblivion and a firm league of
peace." It were injurious to omit, that Milton afterwards received her
father and her brothers in his own house, when they were distressed,
with other royalists.
He published, about the same time, his Areopagitica, a speech of Mr.
John Milton, for the liberty of unlicensed printing. The danger of
such unbounded liberty, and the danger of bounding it, have produced a
problem in the science of government, which human understanding seems,
hitherto, unable to solve. If nothing may be published but what civil
authority shall have previously approved, power must always be the
standard of truth; if every dreamer of innovations may propagate his
projects, there can be no settlement; if every murmurer at government
may diffuse discontent, there can be no peace; and if every skeptick in
theology may teach his follies, there can be no religion. The remedy
against these evils is to punish the authors; for it is yet allowed
that every society may punish, though not prevent, the publication of
opinions which that society shall think pernicious; but this punishment,
though it may crush the author, promotes the book; and it seems not more
reasonable to leave the right of printing unrestrained, because writers
may be afterwards censured, than it would be to sleep with doors
unbolted, because by our laws we can hang a thief.
But whatever were his engagements, civil or domestick, poetry was never
long out of his thoughts. About this time (1645) a collection of his
Latin and English poems appeared, in which the Allegro and Penseroso,
with some others, were first published.
He had taken a large house in Barbican, for the reception of scholars;
but the numerous relations of his wife, to whom he generously granted
refuge for awhile, occupied his rooms. In time, however, they went away;
"and the house again," says Philips, "now looked like a house of the
muses only, though the accession of scholars was not great. Possibly
his having proceeded so far in the education of youth may have been the
occasion of his adversaries calling him pedagogue and schoolmaster;
whereas, it is well known he never set up for a publick school, to
teach all the young fry of a parish; but only was willing to impart his
learning and knowledge to his relations, and the sons of gentlemen who
were his intimate friends, and that neither his writings, nor his way of
teaching, ever savoured in the least of pedantry."
Thus laboriously does his nephew extenuate what cannot be denied, and
what might be confessed without disgrace. Milton was not a man who could
become mean by a mean employment. This, however, his warmest friends
seem not to have found; they, therefore, shift and palliate. He did
not sell literature to all comers, at an open shop; he was a chamber
milliner, and measured his commodities only to his friends.
Philips, evidently impatient of viewing him in this state of
degradation, tells us that it was not long continued; and, to raise his
character again, has a mind to invest him with military splendour: "He
is much mistaken," he says, "if there was not, about this time, a design
of making him an adjutant-general in sir William Waller's army. But the
new modelling of the army proved an obstruction to the design." An
event cannot be set at a much greater distance than by having been only
"designed about some time," if a man "be not much mistaken." Milton
shall be a pedagogue no longer; for, if Philips be not much mistaken,
somebody at some time designed him for a soldier.
About the time that the army was new-modelled, (1645,) he removed to
a smaller house in Holborn, which opened backward into Lincoln's inn
fields. He is not known to have published any thing afterwards, till
the king's death, when, finding his murderers condemned by the
presbyterians, he wrote a treatise to justify it, and "to compose the
minds of the people."
He made some Remarks on the Articles of Peace between Ormond and the
Irish Rebels. While he contented himself to write, he, perhaps, did only
what his conscience dictated; and if he did not very vigilantly watch
the influence of his own passions, and the gradual prevalence of
opinions, first willingly admitted, and then habitually indulged; if
objections, by being overlooked, were forgotten, and desire superinduced
conviction; he yet shared only the common weakness of mankind, and might
be no less sincere than his opponents. But, as faction seldom leaves a
man honest, however it might find him, Milton is suspected of having
interpolated the book called Icon Basilike, which the council of state,
to whom he was now made Latin secretary, employed him to censure, by
inserting a prayer taken from Sidney's Arcadia, and imputing it to the
king; whom he charges, in his Iconoclastes, with the use of this prayer,
as with a heavy crime, in the indecent language with which prosperity
had emboldened the advocates for rebellion to insult all that is
venerable or great: "Who would have imagined so little fear in him of
the true all-seeing deity, as, immediately before his death, to pop into
the hands of the grave bishop that attended him, as a special relique of
his saintly exercises, a prayer, stolen word for word, from the mouth of
a heathen woman, praying to a heathen god?"
The papers which the king gave to Dr. Juxon, on the scaffold, the
regicides took away, so that they were, at least, the publishers of this
prayer; and Dr. Birch, who had examined the question with great care,
was inclined to think them the forgers. The use of it, by adaptation,
was innocent; and they who could so noisily censure it, with a
little extension of their malice, could contrive what they wanted to
King Charles the second, being now sheltered in Holland, employed
Salmasius, professor of polite learning at Leyden, to write a defence of
his father and of monarchy; and, to excite his industry, gave him, as
was reported, a hundred Jacobuses. Salmasius was a man of skill in
languages, knowledge of antiquity, and sagacity of emendatory criticism,
almost exceeding all hope of human attainment; and having, by excessive
praises, been confirmed in great confidence of himself, though he
probably had not much considered the principles of society, or the
rights of government, undertook the employment without distrust of his
own qualifications; and, as his expedition in writing was wonderful, in
1649, published Defensio Regis.
To this Milton was required to write a sufficient answer; which he
performed (1651) in such a manner, that Hobbes declared himself unable
to decide whose language was best, or whose arguments were worst. In my
opinion, Milton's periods are smoother, neater, and more pointed; but he
delights himself with teasing his adversary, as much as with confuting
him. He makes a foolish allusion of Salmasius, whose doctrine he
considers as servile and unmanly, to the stream of Salmacis, which,
whoever entered, left half his virility behind him. Salmasius was a
Frenchman, and was unhappily married to a scold: "Tu es Gallus," says
Milton, "et, ut aiunt, minium gallinaceus." But his supreme pleasure is
to tax his adversary, so renowned for criticism, with vitious Latin. He
opens his book with telling that he has used _persona_, which, according
to Milton, signifies only a _mask_, in a sense not known to the Romans,
by applying it as we apply _person_. But, as Nemesis is always on the
watch, it is memorable that he has enforced the charge of a solecism by
an expression in itself grossly solecistical, when, for one of those
supposed blunders, he says, as Ker, and, I think, some one before him,
has remarked, "propino te grammatistis tuis _vapulandum_." From
_vapulo_, which has a passive sense, _vapulandus_ can never be derived.
No man forgets his original trade: the rights of nations, and of kings,
sink into questions of grammar, if grammarians discuss them.
Milton, when he undertook this answer, was weak of body and dim of
sight; but his will was forward, and what was wanting of health was
supplied by zeal. He was rewarded with a thousand pounds, and his book
was much read; for paradox, recommended by spirit and elegance, easily
gains attention; and he, who told every man that he was equal to his
king, could hardly want an audience.
That the performance of Salmasius was not dispersed with equal rapidity,
or read with equal eagerness, is very credible. He taught only the stale
doctrine of authority, and the unpleasing duty of submission; and he had
been so long not only the monarch, but the tyrant, of literature, that
almost all mankind were delighted to find him defied and insulted by a
new name, not yet considered as any one's rival. If Christina, as is
said, commended the Defence of the People, her purpose must be to
torment Salmasius, who was then at court; for neither her civil station,
nor her natural character, could dispose her to favour the doctrine, who
was by birth a queen, and by temper despotick.
That Salmasius was, from the appearance of Milton's book, treated with
neglect, there is not much proof; but to a man, so long accustomed to
admiration, a little praise of his antagonist would be sufficiently
offensive, and might incline him to leave Sweden, from which, however,
he was dismissed, not with any mark of contempt, but with a train of
attendance scarcely less than regal.
He prepared a reply, which, left as it was imperfect, was published by
his son in the year of the restoration. In the beginning, being probably
most in pain for his Latinity, he endeavours to defend his use of the
word _persona_; but, if I remember right, he misses a better authority
than any that he has found, that of Juvenal in his fourth satire:
Quid agas, cum dira et foedior omni
Crimine _persona_ est?
As Salmasius reproached Milton with losing his eyes in the quarrel,
Milton delighted himself with the belief that he had shortened
Salmasius's life, and both, perhaps, with more malignity than reason.
Salmasius died at the spa, Sept. 3, 1653; and, as controvertists are
commonly said to be killed by their last dispute, Milton was flattered
with the credit of destroying him.
Cromwell had now dismissed the parliament by the authority of which he
had destroyed monarchy, and commenced monarch himself, under the title
of protector, but with kingly, and more than kingly, power. That his
authority was lawful, never was pretended: he himself founded his right
only in necessity; but Milton, having now tasted the honey of publick
employment, would not return to hunger and philosophy, but, continuing
to exercise his office, under a manifest usurpation, betrayed to his
power that liberty which he had defended. Nothing can be more just than
that rebellion should end in slavery; that he, who had justified the
murder of his king, for some acts which seemed to him unlawful, should
now sell his services, and his flatteries, to a tyrant, of whom it was
evident that he could do nothing lawful.
He had now been blind for some years; but his vigour of intellect
was such, that he was not disabled to discharge his office of Latin
secretary, or continue his controversies. His mind was too eager to be
diverted, and too strong to be subdued.
About this time his first wife died in childbed, having left him three
daughters. As he probably did not much love her, he did not long
continue the appearance of lamenting her; but, after a short time,
married Catharine, the daughter of one captain Woodcock, of Hackney; a
woman, doubtless, educated in opinions like his own. She died, within a
year, of childbirth, or some distemper that followed it; and her husband
honoured her memory with a poor sonnet.
The first reply to Milton's Defensio Populi was published in 1651,
called Apologia pro Rege et Populo Anglicano, contra Johannis
Polypragmatici, alias Miltoni, Defensionem destructivam Regis et Populi.
Of this the author was not known; but Milton and his nephew, Philips,
under whose name he published an answer, so much corrected by him that
it might be called his own, imputed it to Bramhal; and, knowing him no
friend to regicides, thought themselves at liberty to treat him as if
they had known what they only suspected.
Next year appeared Regii Sanguinis Clamor ad Coelum. Of this the author
was Peter du Moulin, who was afterwards prebendary of Canterbury; but
Morus, or More, a French minister, having the care of its publication,
was treated as the writer by Milton in his Defensio Secunda, and
overwhelmed by such violence of invective, that he began to shrink under
the tempest, and gave his persecutors the means of knowing the true
author. Du Moulin was now in great danger; but Milton's pride operated
against his malignity; and both he and his friends were more willing
that Du Moulin should escape than that he should be convicted of
In this second defence he shows that his eloquence is not merely
satirical; the rudeness of his invective is equalled by the grossness
of his flattery. "Deserimur, Cromuelle, tu solus superes, ad te summa
nostrarum rerum rediit, in te solo consistit, insuperabili tuae virtuti
cedimus cuncti, nemine vel obloquente, nisi qui aequales inaequalis ipse
honores sibi quaerit, aut digniori concessos invidet, aut non intelligit
nihil esse in societate hominum magis vel Deo gratum, vel rationi
consentaneum, esse in civitate nihil aequius, nihil utilius, quam potiri
rerum dignissimum. Eum te agnoscunt omnes, Cromuelle, ea tu civis
maximus et gloriosissimus, dux publici consilii, exercituum
fortissimorum imperator, pater patriae gessisti. Sic tu spontanea
bonorum omnium, et animitus missa voce salutaris."
Caesar, when he assumed the perpetual dictatorship, had not more servile
or more elegant flattery. A translation may show its servility; but
its elegance is less attainable. Having exposed the unskilfulness or
selfishness of the former government, "We were left," says Milton,
"to ourselves: the whole national interest fell into your hands, and
subsists only in your abilities. To your virtue, overpowering and
resistless, every man gives way, except some who, without equal
qualifications, aspire to equal honours, who envy the distinctions of
merit, greater than their own, or who have yet to learn, that, in the
coalition of human society, nothing is more pleasing to God, or more
agreeable to reason, than that the highest mind should have the
sovereign power. Such, sir, are you by general confession; such are the
things achieved by you, the greatest and most glorious of our countrymen,
the director of our publick councils, the leader of unconquered armies,
the father of your country; for by that title does every good man hail
you with sincere and voluntary praise."
Next year, having defended all that wanted defence, he found leisure to
defend himself. He undertook his own vindication against More, whom he
declares, in his title, to be justly called the author of the Regii
Sanguinis Clamor. In this there is no want of vehemence or eloquence,
nor does he forget his wonted wit: "Morus est? an Momus? an uterque idem
est?" He then remembers that Morus is Latin for a mulberry-tree, and
hints at the known transformation:
"Poma alba ferebat
Quae post nigra tulit Morus."
With this piece ended his controversies; and he, from this time, gave
himself up to his private studies and his civil employment.
As secretary to the protector, he is supposed to have written the
declaration of the reasons for a war with Spain. His agency was
considered as of great importance; for, when a treaty with Sweden was
artfully suspended, the delay was publickly imputed to Mr. Milton's
indisposition; and the Swedish agent was provoked to express his wonder,
that only one man in England could write Latin, and that man blind.
Being now forty-seven years old, and seeing himself disencumbered
from external interruptions, he seems to have recollected his former
purposes, and to have resumed three great works, which he had planned
for his future employment; an epick poem, the history of his country,
and a dictionary of the Latin tongue.
To collect a dictionary, seems a work of all others least practicable
in a state of blindness, because it depends upon perpetual and minute
inspection and collation. Nor would Milton probably have begun it, after
he had lost his eyes; but, having had it always before him, he continued
it, says Philips, "almost to his dying-day; but the papers were so
discomposed and deficient, that they could not be fitted for the press."
The compilers of the Latin dictionary, printed at Cambridge, had the use
of those collections in three folios; but what was their fate afterwards
is not known.
To compile a history from various authors, when they can only be
consulted by other eyes, is not easy, nor possible, but with more
skilful and attentive help than can be commonly obtained; and it was
probably the difficulty of consulting and comparing that stopped
Milton's narrative at the conquest; a period at which affairs were not
yet very intricate, nor authors very numerous.
For the subject of his epick poem, after much deliberation, long
choosing, and beginning late, he fixed upon Paradise Lost; a design so
comprehensive, that it could be justified only by success. He had once
designed to celebrate king Arthur, as he hints in his verses to Mansus;
but "Arthur was reserved," says Fenton, "to another destiny."
It appears, by some sketches of poetical projects left in manuscript,
and to be seen in a library at Cambridge, that he had digested his
thoughts on this subject into one of those wild dramas which were
anciently called Mysteries; and Philips had seen what he terms part
of a tragedy, beginning with the first ten lines of Satan's address to
the sun. These mysteries consist of allegorical persons; such as
Justice, Mercy, Faith. Of the tragedy or mystery of Paradise Lost,
there are two plans:
Chorus of Angels.
Eve, } with the Serpent.
Discontent, } Mutes.
with others; }
Divine Justice, Wisdom, Heavenly Love.
The Evening Star, Hesperus.
Chorus of Angels.
Discontent, } Mutes.
Moses [Greek: prologizei], recounting how he assumed his true body; that
it corrupts not, because it is with God in the mount: declares the like
of Enoch and Elijah; besides the purity of the place, that certain pure
winds, dews, and clouds, preserve it from corruption; whence exhorts to
the sight of God; tells they cannot see Adam in the state of innocence,
by reason of their sin.
Justice, } debating what should become of man, if he fall.
Chorus of angels singing a hymn of the creation.
Chorus sings the marriage song, and describes Paradise.
Lucifer contriving Adam's ruin.
Chorus fears for Adam, and relates Lucifer's rebellion and fall.
Adam, } fallen.
Conscience cites them to God's examination.
Chorus bewails, and tells the good Adam has lost.
Adam and Eve driven out of Paradise.
------presented by an angel with
Labour, Grief, Hatred, Envy, War, Famine, }
Pestilence, Sickness, Discontent, Ignorance, } Mutes.
Fear, Death, }
To whom he gives their names. Likewise Winter, Heat,
Hope, }comfort him, and instruct him.
Chorus briefly concludes.
Such was his first design, which could have produced only an allegory,
or mystery. The following sketch seems to have attained more maturity.
The angel Gabriel, either descending or entering; showing, since
this globe was created, his frequency as much on earth as in heaven;
describes Paradise. Next, the chorus, showing the reason of his coming
to keep his watch in Paradise, after Lucifer's rebellion, by command
from God; and withal expressing his desire to see and know more
concerning this excellent new creature, man. The angel Gabriel, as by
his name signifying a prince of power, tracing Paradise with, a more
free office, passes by the station of the chorus, and, desired by them,
relates what he knew of man; as the creation of Eve, with their love
and marriage. After this, Lucifer appears; after his overthrow, bemoans
himself, seeks revenge on man. The chorus prepares resistance at his
first approach. At last, after discourse of enmity on either side, he
departs: whereat the chorus sings of the battle and victory in heaven,
against him and his accomplices: as before, after the first act, was
sung a hymn of the creation. Here again may appear Lucifer, relating and
exulting in what he had done to the destruction of man. Man next, and
Eve, having by this time been seduced by the serpent, appears confusedly
covered with leaves. Conscience, in a shape, accuses him; justice cites
him to the place whither Jehovah called for him. In the mean while, the
chorus entertains the stage, and is informed by some angel the manner of
the fall. Here the chorus bewails Adam's fall; Adam then and Eve return;
accuse one another; but especially Adam lays the blame to his wife; is
stubborn in his offence. Justice appears, reasons with him, convinces
him. The chorus admonisheth Adam, and bids him beware Lucifer's example
of impenitence. The angel is sent to banish them out of Paradise; but
before, causes to pass before his eyes, in shapes, a mask of all the
evils of this life and world. He is humbled, relents, despairs; at last
appears Mercy, comforts him, promises the Messiah; then calls in Faith,
Hope, and Charity; instructs him; he repents, gives God the glory,
submits to his penalty. The chorus briefly concludes. Compare this with
the former draught.
These are very imperfect rudiments of Paradise Lost; but it is pleasant
to see great works in their seminal state, pregnant with latent
possibilities of excellence; nor could there be any more delightful
entertainment than to trace their gradual growth and expansion, and to
observe how they are sometimes suddenly advanced by accidental hints,
and sometimes slowly improved by steady meditation.
Invention is almost the only literary labour which blindness cannot
obstruct, and, therefore, he naturally solaced his solitude by the
indulgence of his fancy, and the melody of his numbers. He had done what
he knew to be necessary previous to poetical excellence; he had made
himself acquainted with "seemly arts and affairs;" his comprehension was
extended by various knowledge, and his memory stored with intellectual
treasures. He was skilful in many languages, and had, by reading and
composition, attained the full mastery of his own. He would have wanted
little help from books, had he retained the power of perusing them.
But while his greater designs were advancing, having now, like many
other authors, caught the love of publication, he amused himself, as he
could, with little productions. He sent to the press, 1658, a manuscript
of Raleigh, called, the Cabinet Council; and next year gratified
his malevolence to the clergy, by a Treatise of Civil Power in
Ecclesiastical Cases, and the Means of removing Hirelings out of the
Oliver was now dead; Richard was constrained to resign: the system of
extemporary government, which had been held together only by force,
naturally fell into fragments, when that force was taken away; and
Milton saw himself and his cause in equal danger. But he had still hope
of doing something. He wrote letters, which Toland has published, to
such men as he thought friends to the new commonwealth; and, even in the
year of the restoration, he "bated no jot of heart or hope," but was
fantastical enough to think that the nation, agitated as it was, might
be settled by a pamphlet, called, a ready and easy Way to establish a
free Commonwealth: which was, however, enough considered to be both
seriously and ludicrously answered.
The obstinate enthusiasm of the commonwealth-men was very remarkable.
When the king was apparently returning, Harrington, with a few
associates as fanatical as himself, used to meet, with all the gravity
of political importance, to settle an equal government by rotation; and
Milton, kicking when he could strike no longer, was foolish enough
to publish, a few weeks before the restoration, notes upon a sermon
preached by one Griffiths, entitled, the Fear of God and the King.
To these notes an answer was written by L'Estrange, in a pamphlet,
petulantly called, No Blind Guides.
But whatever Milton could write, or men of greater activity could do,
the king was now about to be restored with the irresistible approbation
of the people. He was, therefore, no longer secretary, and was,
consequently, obliged to quit the house which he held by his office;
and, proportioning his sense of danger to his opinion of the importance
of his writings, thought it convenient to seek some shelter, and hid
himself, for a time, in Bartholomew close, by West Smithfield.
I cannot but remark a kind of respect, perhaps unconsciously, paid to
this great man by his biographers: every house in which he resided is
historically mentioned, as if it were an injury to neglect naming any
place that he honoured by his presence.
The king, with lenity of which the world has had, perhaps, no other
example, declined to be the judge or avenger of his own or his father's
wrongs; and promised to admit into the act of oblivion all, except those
whom the parliament should except; and the parliament doomed none to
capital punishment, but the wretches who had immediately cooperated in
the murder of the king. Milton was certainly not one of them; he had
only justified what they had done.
This justification was, indeed, sufficiently offensive; and, June 16, an
order was issued to seize Milton's Defence, and Goodwin's Obstructers of
Justice, another book of the same tendency, and burn them by the common
hangman. The attorney-general was ordered to prosecute the authors; but
Milton was not seized, nor, perhaps, very diligently pursued.
Not long after, August 19, the flutter of innumerable bosoms was stilled
by an act, which the king, that his mercy might want no recommendation
of elegance, rather called an act of oblivion, than of grace. Goodwin
was named, with nineteen more, as incapacitated for any publick trust;
but of Milton there was no exception.
Of this tenderness shown to Milton, the curiosity of mankind has not
forborne to inquire the reason. Burnet thinks he was forgotten; but this
is another instance which may confirm Dalrymple's observation, who
says, "that whenever Burnet's narrations are examined, he appears to be
Forgotten he was not; for his prosecution was ordered; it must be,
therefore, by design that he was included in the general oblivion. He is
said to have had friends in the house, such as Marvel, Morrice, and
sir Thomas Clarges: and, undoubtedly, a man like him must have
had influence. A very particular story of his escape is told by
Richardson in his Memoirs, which he received from Pope, as delivered
by Betterton, who might have heard it from Davenant. In the war between
the king and parliament, Davenant was made prisoner and condemned to
die; but was spared at the request of Milton. When the turn of success
brought Milton into the like danger, Davenant repayed the benefit by
appearing in his favour. Here is a reciprocation of generosity and
gratitude so pleasing, that the tale makes its own way to credit. But,
if help were wanted, I know not where to find it. The danger of Davenant
is certain, from his own relation; but of his escape there is no
account. Betterton's narration can be traced no higher; it is
not known that he had it from Davenant. We are told that the benefit
exchanged was life for life; but it seems not certain that Milton's life
ever was in danger. Goodwin, who had committed the same kind of crime,
escaped with incapacitation; and, as exclusion from publick trust is a
punishment which the power of government can commonly inflict, without
the help of a particular law, it required no great interest to exempt
Milton from a censure little more than verbal. Something may be
reasonably ascribed to veneration and compassion; to veneration of his
abilities, and compassion for his distresses, which made it fit to
forgive his malice for his learning. He was now poor and blind; and who
would pursue with violence an illustrious enemy, depressed by fortune,
and disarmed by nature?
The publication of the act of oblivion put him in the same condition
with his fellow subjects. He was, however, upon some pretence, not now
known, in the custody of the serjeant, in December; and when he was
released, upon his refusal of the fees demanded, he and the serjeant
were called before the house. He was now safe within the shade of
oblivion, and knew himself to be as much out of the power of a griping
officer, as any other man. How the question was determined is not known.
Milton would hardly have contended, but that he knew himself to have
right on his side.
He then removed to Jewin street, near Aldersgate street; and being
blind, and by no means wealthy, wanted a domestick companion and
attendant; and, therefore, by the recommendation of Dr. Paget, married
Elizabeth Minshul, of a gentleman's family in Cheshire, probably without
a fortune. All his wives were virgins; for he has declared that he
thought it gross and indelicate to be a second husband: upon what
other principles his choice was made cannot now be known; but marriage
afforded not much of his happiness. The first wife left him in disgust,
and was brought back only by terrour; the second, indeed, seems to have
been more a favourite, but her life was short. The third, as Philips
relates, oppressed his children in his lifetime, and cheated them at his
Soon after his marriage, according to an obscure story, he was offered
the continuance of his employment, and, being pressed by his wife to
accept it, answered: "You, like other women, want to ride in your coach;
my wish is to live and die an honest man." If he considered the Latin
secretary as exercising any of the powers of government, he that had
shared authority, either with the parliament or Cromwell, might have
forborne to talk very loudly of his honesty; and, if he thought the
office purely ministerial, he certainly might have honestly retained
it under the king. But this tale has too little evidence to deserve a
disquisition; large offers and sturdy rejections are among the most
common topicks of falsehood.
He had so much either of prudence or gratitude, that he forbore to
disturb the new settlement with any of his political or ecclesiastical
opinions, and, from this time, devoted himself to poetry and literature.
Of his zeal for learning, in all its parts, he gave a proof by
publishing, the next year, 1661, Accidence commenced Grammar; a little
book, which has nothing remarkable, but that its author, who had been
lately defending the supreme powers of his country, and was then writing
Paradise Lost, could descend from his elevation to rescue children from
the perplexity of grammatical confusion, and the trouble of lessons
About this time Elwood, the quaker, being recommended to him, as one who
would read Latin to him for the advantage of his conversation, attended
him every afternoon, except on Sundays. Milton, who, in his letter to
Hartlib, had declared, that "to read Latin with an English mouth is as
ill a hearing as law French," required that Elwood should learn and
practise the Italian pronunciation, which, he said, was necessary, if he
would talk with foreigners. This seems to have been a task troublesome
without use. There is little reason for preferring the Italian
pronunciation to our own, except that it is more general; and to teach
it to an Englishman is only to make him a foreigner at home. He who
travels, if he speaks Latin, may so soon learn the sounds which every
native gives it, that he need make no provision before his journey; and
if strangers visit us, it is their business to practise such conformity
to our modes as they expect from us in their own countries. Elwood
complied with the directions, and improved himself by his attendance;
for he relates, that Milton, having a curious ear, knew, by his voice,
when he read what he did not understand, and would stop him, and "open
the most difficult passages."
In a short time he took a house in the Artillery walk, leading to
Bunhill fields; the mention of which concludes the register of Milton's
removals and habitations. He lived longer in this place than in any
He was now busied by Paradise Lost. Whence he drew the original design
has been variously conjectured, by men who cannot bear to think
themselves ignorant of that which, at last, neither diligence nor
sagacity can discover. Some find the hint in an Italian tragedy.
Voltaire tells a wild and unauthorized story of a farce seen by Milton,
in Italy, which opened thus: "Let the rainbow be the fiddlestick of
the fiddle of heaven." It has been already shown, that the first
conception was of a tragedy or mystery, not of a narrative, but a
dramatick work, which he is supposed to have begun to reduce to its
present form about the time (1655) when he finished his dispute with the
defenders of the king.
He, long before, had promised to adorn his native country by some great
performance, while he had yet, perhaps, no settled design, and was
stimulated only by such expectations as naturally arose from the survey
of his attainments, and the consciousness of his powers. What he should
undertake, it was difficult to determine. He was "long choosing, and
While he was obliged to divide his time between his private studies and
affairs of state, his poetical labour must have been often interrupted;
and, perhaps, he did little more in that busy time than construct the
narrative, adjust the episodes, proportion the parts, accumulate images
and sentiments, and treasure in his memory, or preserve in writing, such
hints as books or meditation would supply. Nothing particular is known
of his intellectual operations while he was a statesman; for, having
every help and accommodation at hand, he had no need of uncommon
Being driven from all publick stations, he is yet too great not to be
traced by curiosity to his retirement; where he has been found, by Mr.
Richardson, the fondest of his admirers, sitting "before his door in a
grey coat of coarse cloth, in warm sultry weather, to enjoy the fresh
air; and so, as well as in his own room, receiving the visits of the
people of distinguished parts, as well as quality." His visiters of
high quality must now be imagined to be few; but men of parts might
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