John Milton, the son of a middle-aged scrivener, was born on Friday, December the 9th, 1608, at his father's house in Bread Street, Cheapside; and died on Sunday, November the 8th, 1674, in a small house, with but one room on a floor, in Artillery Walk, Bunhill Fields, London. Of his father the records that remain show him to have been a convinced member of the Puritan party in the Church, a man of liberal culture and intelligence, a lover of music (which taste Milton inherited), a wise and generous friend to the son who became a poet. We owe it to his wisdom rather than to his prosperity that Milton was allowed to live at home without any ostensible profession until he was thirty years of age and more.
For the first sixteen years of his life Milton was educated partly at home, by a Presbyterian tutor called Thomas Young, partly at St. Paul's School, which he attended for some years as a day-scholar. From his twelfth year onward he was an omnivorous reader, and before he left school had written some boyish verses, void of merit. The next fourteen years of his life, after leaving school, were spent at Cambridge, in Buckinghamshire, and in foreign travel, so that he was thirty years old before he lived continuously in London again.
We know pretty well how he spent his time at Cambridge and at Horton, sedulously turning over the Greek and Latin classics, dreaming of immortality. We know less about his early years in London, where there were wider and better opportunities of gaining an insight into "all seemly and generous arts and affairs." London was a great centre of traffic, a motley crowd of adventurers and traders even in those days, and the boy Milton must often have wandered down to the river below London Bridge to see the ships come in. His poems are singularly full of figures drawn from ships and shipping, some of them bookish in their origin, others which may have been suggested by the sight of ships. Now it is Satan, who, after his fateful journey through chaos, nears the world,
And like a weather-beaten vessel holds
Gladly the port, though shrouds and tackle torn.
Now it is Dalila, whom the Chorus behold approaching.
Like a stately ship
Of Tarsus, bound for the isles
Of Javan or Gadire,
With all her bravery on, and tackle trim,
Sails filled, and streamers waving,
Courted by all the winds that hold them play.
Or, again, it is Samson reproaching himself,
Who, like a foolish pilot, have shipwracked
My vessel trusted to me from above,
The bulk of Satan is compared to the great sea-beast Leviathan, beheld off the coast of Norway by
The pilot of some small night-founder'd skiff.
In his approach to the happy garden the Adversary is likened to
them who sail
Beyond the Cape of Hope, and now are past
Mozambic, off at sea north-east winds blow
Sabaean odours from the spicy shore
Of Araby the Blest, with such delay
Well pleased they slack their course, and many a league
Cheered with the grateful smell old Ocean smiles;
So entertained those odorous sweets the Fiend.
And when he draws near to Eve in the rose-thicket,
sidelong he works his way,
As when a ship, by skilful steersman wrought,
Nigh river's mouth, or foreland, where the wind
Veers oft, as oft so steers, and shifts her sail.
There is nothing here that is not within the reach of any inland reader, but Milton's choice of nautical similitudes may serve to remind us how much of the interest of Old London centred round its port. Here were to be heard those tales of far-sought adventure and peril which gave even to the boisterous life of Elizabethan London an air of triviality and security. Hereby came in "the variety of fashions and foreign stuffs," which Fynes Moryson, writing in Milton's childhood, compares to the stars of heaven and the sands of the sea for number. All sorts of characters, nationalities, and costumes were daily to be seen in Paul's Walk, adjoining Milton's school. One sort interests us pre-eminently. "In the general pride of England," says Fynes Moryson, "there is no fit difference made of degrees; for very Bankrupts, Players, and Cutpurses go apparelled like gentlemen." Shakespeare was alive during the first seven years of Milton's life, and was no doubt sometimes a visitor to the Mermaid, a stone's throw from the scrivener's house. Perhaps his cloak brushed the child Milton in the street. Milton was born in the golden age of the drama, and a score of masterpieces were put upon the London stage while he was in his cradle. But the golden age passed rapidly; the quality of the drama degenerated and the opposition to it grew strong before he was of years to attend a play. Perhaps henever saw a play by the masters during his boyhood, and his visits
to the well-trod stage anon,
If Jonson's learned sock be on,
Or sweetest Shakespeare, Fancy's child,
Warble his native woodnotes wild,
were either excursions of the imagination or belong to his later occasional sojourns in London. In his Eikonoklastes he quotes certain lines from Richard III., and here and there in his prose, as well as in his verse, there are possibly some faint reminiscences of Shakespearian phrases. So, for instance, in The Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce, he seems to echo a famous speech of Macbeth, while he claims that his remedy of free divorce "hath the virtue to soften and dispel rooted and knotty sorrows, and without enchantment." But these are doubtless the memories of reading. In the Apology for Smectymnuus, when he has to reply to the charge that he "haunted playhouses" during his college days, he retorts the charge, it is true, rather than denies it. Yet the retort bespeaks a certain severity and preciseness in judging of plays and their actors, which can hardly have found gratification in the licenses and exuberances of the contemporary drama. It was not difficult, he remarks, to see plays, "when in the Colleges so many of the young divines, and those in next aptitude to divinity, have been seen so often upon the stage, writhing and unboning their clergy limbs to all the antic and dishonest gestures of Trinculoes, buffoons, and bawds." "If it be unlawful," he continues, "to sit and behold a mercenary comedian personating that which is least unseemly for a hireling to do, how much more blameful is it to endure the sight of as vile things acted by persons either entered, or presently to enter into the ministry; and how much more foul and ignominious for them to be the actors!"
It was, at least, a happy chance that the first of Milton's verses to appear in print should have been An Epitaph on the Admirable Dramatick Poet, W. Shakespeare, contributed to the Second Folio in 1632. The main interests of the household at the Spread Eagle in Bread Street must have been far enough remote from the doings of the companies of players. John Milton the elder would probably have agreed with Sir Thomas Bodley, who called plays "riffe-raffes," and declared that they should never come into his library. The Hampton Court Conference, the Synod of Dort, the ever-widening divisions in the Church, between Arminian and Calvinist, between Prelatist and Puritan, were probably subjects of a nearer interest, even to the poet in his youth, than the production of new or old plays upon the stage. Milton's childhood was spent in the very twilight of the Elizabethan age; it was greatly fortunate for him, and for us, that he caught the after-glow of the sunset upon his face. He read Spenser while Spenser was still the dominant influence in English poetry. "He hath confessed to me," said Dryden, "that Spenser was his original,"--an incredible statement unless we understand "original" in the sense of his earliest admiration, his poetic godfather who first won him to poetry. He read Shakespeare and Jonson in the first editions. He read Sylvester's translation ofDu Bartas, His Divine Weekes and Workes; and perhaps thence conceived the first vague idea of a poem on a kindred subject. It is necessary to insist on his English masters, because, although the greater part of his time and study was devoted to the classics, the instrument that he was to use was learned in a native school. His metre, his magnificent vocabulary, his unerring phraseology, took learning and practice. He attached a high value to his study of English poetry. When he spoke of "our sage and serious Spenser (whom I dare be known to think a better teacher than Scotus or Aquinas)," he was conscious that he was maintaining what seemed a bold paradox in an age when scholasticism still controlled education. It is pleasant to think of Milton during these early years, whether in London or at Christ's College, in his "calm and pleasing solitariness, fed with cheerful and confident thoughts," before ever he had a hint that he must perforce "embark in a troubled sea of noises and hoarse disputes, put from beholding the bright countenance of truth in the quiet and still air of delightful studies." From the first, we may be sure, he read the poets as one poet reads another, and apprenticed himself to them for their craft. He was never drawn out of the highroad of art by the minuter and more entangling allurements of scholarship. In one of his Divorce pamphlets he tells, with the inevitable touch of pride, how he never could delight in long citations, much less in whole traductions, "whether it be natural disposition or education in me, or that my mother bore me a speaker of what God made mine own, and not a translator."
Milton was intended by his family, and by his own early resolves, for the service of the Church. The growing unrest, therefore, in matters ecclesiastical during the early part of the seventeenth century could not but affect him. The various parties and tendencies in the Church of England had never, since the Reformation, attained to a condition of stable equilibrium. But the settlement under Elizabeth was strengthened, and the parties bound together for thirty years, by the ever-present fear of Rome. When that fear was allayed, and the menace that hung over the very existence of the nation removed by the defeat of the Armada, the differences within the Church broke out afresh, and waxed fiercer every year. Shakespeare grew to manhood during the halcyon years between the Marian persecutions and the Marprelate pamphlets--a kind of magic oasis, which gave us our English Renaissance. Milton's youth breathed a very different air. The Church, as it was, pleased hardly any party. Much of the old temple had been hastily pulled down; the new government offices that were to replace it had as yet been but partially built, and commanded no general approval. Considered as a social organisation, moreover, the Church throughout large parts of the country had fallen into a state not unlike decay. Richard Baxter, whose testimony there is no sufficient reason to reject, tells of its state in Shropshire during the years of his youth, from 1615 onwards:--"We lived in a country that had but little preaching at all: In the Village where I was born there was four Readers successively in Six years time, ignorant Men, and two of them immoral in their lives; who were all my School-masters. In the Village where my Father lived, there was a Reader of about Eighty years of Age that never preached, and had two Churches about Twenty miles distant: His Eyesight failing him, he said Common-Prayer without Book; but for the Reading of the Psalms and Chapters he got a Common Thresher and Day-Labourer one year, and a Taylor another year: (for the Clerk could not read well): And at last he had a Kinsman of his own (the excellentest Stage-player in all the Country, and a good Gamester and good Fellow) that got Orders and supplied one of his Places.... After him another Neighbour's Son took Orders, when he had been a while an Attorney's Clerk, and a common Drunkard, and tipled himself into so great Poverty that he had no other way to live.... These were the School-masters of my Youth ... who read Common Prayer on Sundays and Holy Days, and taught School and tipled on the Weekdays, and whipt the Boys when they were drunk, so that we changed them very oft. Within a few miles about us were near a dozen more Ministers that were near Eighty years old apiece, and never preached; poor ignorant Readers, and most of them of Scandalous Lives." Some few there were, Baxter admits, who preached in the neighbourhood, but any one who went to hear them "was made the Derision of the Vulgar Rabble under the odious Name of a Puritane."
In one of his Latin letters written from Cambridge, Milton himself speaks of the ignorance of those designed for the profession of divinity, how they knew little or nothing of literature and philosophy. The high prelacy and ritualism of Laud on the one hand, the Puritan movement on the other, each in some measure a protest against this state of things, were at fierce variance with each other, and Milton's ear, from his youth upward, was "pealed with noises loud and ruinous." The age of Shakespeare was irrecoverably past, and it was impossible for any but a few imperturbable Cyrenaics, like Herrick, to "fleet the time carelessly, as they did in the golden world." The large indifference of Shakespeare to current politics was impossible for Milton. "I had as lief be a Brownist as a politician," said the folly of Sir Andrew Aguecheek and the wisdom of Shakespeare. But now the Brownists and the politicians had it their own way; and Milton was something of both.
His notable early poems, written at College and during his retreat in Buckinghamshire, have therefore a singular interest and pathos. He was not long for the world in which these poems move with so ineffable a native grace. They are the poems of his youth, instinct with the sensibility of youth, and of a delicate and richly nurtured imagination. But they are also the poems of an age that was closing, and they have a touch of the sadness of evening. "I know not," says Dr. Johnson, speaking of L'Allegro and Il Penseroso, "whether the characters are kept sufficiently apart. No mirth can indeed be found in his melancholy, but I am afraid that I always meet some melancholy in his mirth." It is true; for both characters are Milton himself, who embodies in separate poems the cheerful and pensive elements of his own nature--and already his choice is made. There is something disinterested and detached about his sketches of the merriment which he takes part in only as a silent onlooker, compared with the profound sincerity of the lines--
And may at last my weary age
Find out the peaceful hermitage,
The hairy gown and mossy cell,
Where I may sit and rightly spell
Of every star that heaven doth shew,
And every herb that sips the dew,
Till old experience do attain
To something like prophetic strain.
The rising tide of political passion submerged the solemn Arcadia of his early fancies. Like Lycidas, he was carried far from the flowers and the shepherds to visit "the bottom of the monstrous world." Hence there may be made a whole index of themes, touched on by Milton in his early poems, as if in promise, of which no fulfilment is to be found in the greater poems of his maturity. His political career under the Commonwealth is often treated, both by those who applaud and by those who lament it, as if it were the merest interlude between two poetic periods. It was not so; political passion dominates and informs all his later poems, dictating even their subjects. How was it possible for him to choose King Arthur and his Round Table for the subject of his epic, as he had intended in his youthful days; when chivalry and the spirit of chivalry had fought its last fight on English soil, full in the sight of all men, round the forlorn banner of King Charles? The policy of Laud and Stratford kept Milton out of the Church, and sent him into retirement at Horton; the same policy, it may be plausibly conjectured, had something to do with the change in the subject of his long-meditated epic. From the very beginning of the civil troubles contemporary events leave their mark on all his writings. The topical bias (so to call it) is very noticeable in many of the subjects tentatively jotted down by him on the paper that is now in the library of Trinity College, Cambridge. The corrupted clergy, who make so splendid and, as some think, so irrelevant an appearance in Lycidas, figure frequently, either directly or by implication, in the long list of themes.
Without misgiving or regret, when the time came, Milton shut the gate on the sequestered paradise of his youth, and hastened downward to join the fighters in the plain. Before we follow him we may well "interpose a little ease" by looking at some of the beauties proper to the earlier poems, and listening to some of the simple pastoral melodies that were drowned when the organ began to blow. L'Allegro is full of them--
Sometimes, with secure delight,
The upland hamlets will invite,
When the merry bells ring round,
And the jocund rebecks sound
To many a youth and many a maid
Dancing in the chequered shade,
And young and old come forth to play
On a sunshine holiday.
That is Merry England of Shakespeare's time. But already the controversy concerning the Book of Sports had begun to darken the air. Already the Maypole, that "great stinking idol," as an Elizabethan Puritan called it, had been doomed to destruction. Some years before L'Allegro was written, a bard, who hailed from Leeds, had lamented its downfall in the country of his nativity--
Happy the age, and harmelesse were the dayes,
(For then true love and amity was found)
When every village did a May-pole raise,
And Whitson Ales and May games did abound;
And all the lusty Yonkers in a rout
With merry Lasses danced the rod about;
Then friendship to their banquets bid the guests,
And poor men far'd the better for their feasts.
The next verse recalls that scene in The Winter's Tale where Shakespeare draws a vivid picture of Elizabethan country merrymaking--
The Lords of Castles, Manners, Townes, and Towers
Rejoyc'd when they beheld the Farmers flourish,
And would come down unto the Summer-Bowers
To see the Country gallants dance the Morrice,
And sometimes with his tenant's handsome daughter
Would fall in liking, and espouse her after
Unto his Serving-man, and for her portion
Bestow on him some farme, without extortion.
Alas poore Maypoles, what should be the cause
That you were almost banish't from the earth?
You never were rebellious to the lawes,
Your greatest crime was harmelesse honest mirth;
What fell malignant spirit was there found
To cast your tall Piramides to ground?
* * * * *
And you my native towne, which was of old,
(When as thy Bon-fires burn'd and May-poles stood,
And when thy Wassell-cups were uncontrol'd)
The Summer Bower of Peace and neighbourhood,
Although since these went down, thou ly'st forlorn,
By factious schismes and humours over-borne,
Some able hand I hope thy rod will raise,
That thou maist see once more thy happy daies.
The hopes of the bard of Leeds were fulfilled at the Restoration. Merriment, of a sort, came back to England; but it found no congenial acceptance from Milton. The Court roysterers, the Hectors, Nickers, Scourers, and Mohocks, among whom were numbered Sedley and Rochester, and others of the best poets of the day, are celebrated by him incidentally in those lines, unsurpassable for sombre magnificence, which he appends to his account of Belial--
In courts and palaces he also reigns,
And in luxurious cities, where the noise
Of riot ascends above their loftiest towers,
And injury and outrage; and, when night
Darkens the streets, then wander forth the sons
Of Belial, flown with insolence and wine.
The public festivals of these later days are glanced at in Samson Agonistes--
Lords are lordliest in their wine;
And the well-feasted priest then soonest fired
With zeal, if aught religion seem concerned;
No less the people on their holy-days
Impetuous, insolent, unquenchable.
There is no relaxation, no trace of innocent lightheartedness, in any of the later poems. Even the garden of Paradise, where some gentle mirth might perhaps be permissible, is tenanted by grave livers, majestic, but not sprightly. In L' Allegro the morning song of the milk-maid is "blithe," and the music of the village dance is "jocund." But Eve is described as "jocund" and "blithe" only when she is intoxicated by the mortal fruit of the tree; and the note of gaiety that is heard faintly, like a distant echo, in the earlier poems, is never sounded again by Milton.
So it is also with other things. The flowers scattered on the laureate hearse of Lycidas make a brighter, more various, and withal a homelier display than ever meets the eye in the Hesperian wildernesses of Eden. Or take the world of fairy lore that Milton inherited from the Elizabethans--a world to which not only Shakespeare, but also laborious and arrogant poet-scholars like Jonson and Drayton had free right of entry. Milton, too, could write of the fairies--in his youth--
With stories told of many a feat,
How Faery Mab the junkets eat.
But even in Comus the most exquisite passage of fairy description is put into the mouth of Comus himself, chief of the band of ugly-headed monsters in glistering apparel--
The sounds and seas, with all their finny drove,
Now to the moon in wavering morrice move;
And on the tawny sands and shelves
Trip the pert fairies and the dapper elves.
By dimpled brook and fountain-brim,
The wood-nymphs decked with daisies trim,
Their merry wakes and pastimes keep:
What hath night to do with sleep?
The song and the dance are broken off, never to be resumed, when the staid footfall of the lady is heard approaching. Milton cannot draw ugliness; it turns into beauty or majesty on his hands. Satan has a large and enthusiastic party among readers of Paradise Lost. Comus, we are told, stands for a whole array of ugly vices--riot, intemperance, gluttony, and luxury. But what a delicate monster he is, and what a ravishing lyric strain he is master of! The pleasure that Milton forswore was a young god, the companion of Love and Youth, not an aged Silenus among the wine-skins. He viewed and described one whole realm of pagan loveliness, and then he turned his face the other way, and never looked back. Love is of the valley, and he lifted his eyes to the hills. His guiding star was not Christianity, which in its most characteristic and beautiful aspects had no fascination for him, but rather that severe and self-centred ideal of life and character which is called Puritanism. It is not a creed for weak natures; so that as the nominal religion of a whole populace it has inevitably fallen into some well-merited disrepute. Puritanism for him was not a body of law to be imposed outwardly on a gross and timid people, but an inspiration and a grace that falls from Heaven upon choice and rare natures--
Nor do I name of men the common rout,
That, wandering loose about,
Grow up and perish as the summer fly,
Heads without name, no more remember'd;
so sings the Chorus in Samson Agonistes--
But such as thou hast solemnly elected,
With gifts and graces eminently adorned,
To some great work, thy glory,
And people's safety, which in part they effect.
Under one form or another Puritanism is to be found in almost all religions, and in many systems of philosophy. Milton's Puritanism enabled him to combine his classical and Biblical studies, to reconcile his pagan and Christian admirations, Stoicism, and the Quakers. It was with no sense of incongruity that he gave to the Christ a speech in praise of--
Quintus, Fabricius, Curius, Regulus,...
Who could do mighty things, and could contemn
Riches, though offered from the hand of Kings.
To reject common ambitions, to refuse common enticements, to rule passions, desires, and fears, "neither to change, nor falter, nor repent,"--this was the wisdom and this the virtue that he set before himself. There is no beatific vision to keep his eyes from wandering among the shows of earth. Milton's heaven is colder than his earth, the home of Titans, whose employ is political and martial. When his imagination deals with earthly realities, the noble melancholy of the Greeks lies upon it. His last word on human life might be translated into Greek with no straining and no loss of meaning--
His servants He, with new acquist
Of true experience from this great event,
With peace and consolation hath dismissed,
And calm of mind, all passion spent.
He is therefore one of the few English poets (alone in this respect among the greatest) who have not sung of Love. His only English love-poem, the sonnet To the Nightingale, is his earliest and poorest sonnet. He elected in his later poems to sing of Marriage, its foundation in reason, its utility, its respectability and antiquity as an institution, and, above all, its amazing dangers. He has thus lost the devotion of the young, who, while they read poetry by the ear and eye for its sonorous suggestions, and its processions of vague shapes, love Milton; but when they come to read it for its matter and sentiment, leave him--in most cases never to return. The atmosphere of his later poems is that of some great public institution. Heaven is an Oriental despotism. Hell is a Secession parliament. In the happy garden itself there is no privacy, no individualism; it is the focus of the action, the central point of the attack and the defence; and a great part of the conversation of its inhabitants turns on the regulations under which they live. They never forget that they are all mankind, and when their psalm goes up in grateful adoration to their Creator, it is like the unanimous voice of all nations and kindreds and people and tongues.
"The plan of Paradise Lost" says Johnson, "has this inconvenience, that it comprises neither human actions nor human manners. The man and woman who act and suffer are in a state which no other man and woman can ever know. The reader finds no transaction in which he can be engaged; beholds no condition in which he can by any effort of imagination place himself; he has, therefore, little natural curiosity and sympathy." Milton, he goes on to explain, "knew human nature only in the gross, and had never studied the shades of character, nor the combinations of concurring or the perplexity of contending passions."
He knew human nature only in the gross. He treated nothing less momentous than the fortunes of the race. It is precisely from this cause that the incomparable grandeur of Milton's characters and situations springs. The conversations that he records are like international parleyings. Eve is the official Mother of mankind. Adam walks forth to meet the angel, in ambassadorial dignity, the accredited representative of the human race--
Without more train
Accompanied than with his own complete
Perfections; in himself was all his state,
More solemn than the tedious pomp that waits
On princes, when their rich retinue long
Of horses led and grooms besmeared with gold
Dazzles the crowd and sets them all agape.
And if the other characters of Paradise Lost have this generic stamp, it is because the chief character of all has it--the character of the poet himself. It lends a strange dignity to the story of Milton's life that in all his doings he felt himself to be a "cause," an agent of mighty purposes. This it is that more than excuses, it glorifies, his repeated magniloquent allusions to himself throughout the prose works. Holding himself on trust or on commission, he must needs report himself, not only to his great Taskmaster, but also from time to time to men, his expectant and impatient beneficiaries. Even in Lycidas he is thinking of himself as much as of his dead companion--
So may some gentle Muse
With lucky words favour my destined urn,
And as he passes turn,
And bid fair peace be to my sable shroud.
What if he die young himself? Are his dreams and hopes for his own future an illusion? He agonises with the question in the famous digression on poetry and poetic fame. But he consoles himself by appeal to a Court where the success and the fame of this world are as straw in the furnace; and then, having duly performed the obsequies of his friend, with reinvigorated heart he turns once more to the future--"To-morrow to fresh woods and pastures new." A singular ending, no doubt, to an elegy! But it is blind and hasty to conclude that therefore the precedent laments are "not to be considered as the effusion of real passion." A soldier's burial is not the less honoured because his comrades must turn from his grave to give their thought and strength and courage to the cause which was also his. The maimed rites, interrupted by the trumpet calling to action, are a loftier commemoration than the desolating laments of those who "weep the more because they weep in vain." And in this way Milton's fierce tirade against the Church hirelings, and his preoccupation with his own ambitions support and explain each other, and find a fit place in the poem. He is looking to his equipment, if perchance he may live to do that in poetry and politics, which Edward King had died leaving unaccomplished. When his own time came he desired to be lamented in no other way--
Come, come; no time for lamentation now,
Nor much more cause. Samson hath quit himself
Like Samson, and heroicly hath finished
A life heroic, on his enemies
This overmastering sense of the cause breathes through all his numerous references to himself. He stands in the Forum,
Disturbed, yet comely, and in act
Raised, as of some great matter to begin;
and addresses himself, as he boasts in The Second Defence of the People of England, to "the whole collective body of people, cities, states, and councils of the wise and eminent, through the wide expanse of anxious and listening Europe." Having sacrificed the use of his eyes to the service of the commonweal, he bates not a jot of heart or hope--
What supports me, dost thou ask?
The conscience, friend, to have lost them overplied
In Liberty's defence, my noble task,
Of which all Europe talks from side to side.
And while thus his fighting years are filled with the exaltation of battle, as he plumes and lifts himself upon the cause that is going forward, the story of his closing years has in it much of the pathos of a lost cause. It was remarked by Johnson that there is in the Paradise Lost little opportunity for the pathetic; only one passage, indeed, is allowed by him to be truly deserving of that name. But the description of the remorse and reconcilement of Adam and Eve, which Johnson doubtless intended, will not compare, for moving quality, with the matchless invocation to the Seventh Book--
More safe I sing with mortal voice, unchanged
To hoarse or mute, though fallen on evil days,
On evil days though fallen, and evil tongues,
In darkness, and with dangers compassed round,
And solitude; yet not alone, while thou
Visit'st my slumbers nightly, or when Morn
Purples the East. Still govern thou my song,
Urania, and fit audience find, though few.
Then the noise that he had heard, in imagination only, thirty years earlier, assails his bodily ears; as evening sets in, the wonted roar is up, not in the wild woods of fancy inhabited by the sensual magician and his crew, but in the unlighted streets of Restoration London, as a chorus of cup-shotten brawlers goes roaring by. The king is enjoying his own again; and the poet, hunted and harassed in his last retreat, raises his petition again to the Muse whom he had invoked at the beginning of his task,--not Clio nor her sisters, but the spirit of heavenly power and heavenly wisdom; his mind reverts to that story of Orpheus which had always had so singular and personal a fascination for him; of Orpheus, who, holding himself aloof from the mad amorists of Thrace, was by them torn to pieces during the orgy of the Dionysia, and sent rolling down the torrent of the Hebrus; and he prays to his goddess and guardian--
But drive far off the barbarous dissonance
Of Bacchus and his revellers, the race
Of that wild rout that tore the Thracian bard
In Rhodope, where woods and rocks had ears
To rapture, till the savage clamour drowned
Both harp and voice; nor could the Muse defend
Her son. So fail not thou, who thee implores;
For thou art heavenly, she an empty dream.
Disappointed of all his political hopes, living on neglected and poor for fourteen years after the Restoration, and dying a private citizen, passably obscure, Milton yet found and took a magnanimous revenge upon his enemies. They had crippled only his left hand in silencing the politician, but his right hand, which had hung useless by his side for so many years while he served the State, was his own still, and wielded a more Olympian weapon. In prose and politics he was a baffled man, but in poetry and vision he found his triumph. His ideas, which had gone a-begging among the politicians of his time, were stripped by him of the rags of circumstance, and cleansed of its dust, to be enthroned where they might secure a hearing for all time. The surprise that he prepared for the courtiers of the Restoration world was like Samson's revenge, in that it fell on them from above; and, as elsewhere in the poem of Samson Agonistes, Milton was thinking not very remotely of his own case when he wrote that jubilant semi-chorus, with the marvellous fugal succession of figures, wherein Samson, and by inference Milton himself, is compared to a smouldering fire revived, to a serpent attacking a hen-roost, to an eagle swooping on his helpless prey, and last, his enemies now silent for ever, to the phœnix, self-begotten and self-perpetuating. The Philistian nobility (or the Restoration notables) are described, with huge scorn, as ranged along the tiers of their theatre, like barnyard fowl blinking on their perch, watching, not without a flutter of apprehension, the vain attempts made on their safety by the reptile grovelling in the dust below--
But he, though blind of sight,
Despised, and thought extinguished quite,
With inward eyes illuminated,
His fiery virtue roused
From under ashes into sudden flame,
And as an evening dragon came,
Assailant on the perchèd roosts
And nests in order ranged
Of tame villatic fowl, but as an eagle
His cloudless thunder bolted on their heads.
So Virtue, given for lost,
Depressed and overthrown, as seemed,
Like that self-begotten bird
In the Arabian woods embost,
That no second knows nor third,
And lay erewhile a holocaust,
From out her ashy womb now teemed,
Revives, reflourishes, then vigorous most
When most unactive deemed;
And, though her body die, her fame survives.
A secular bird, ages of lives.