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LIFE OF JOHN MILTON.
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, is not known; 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 music, 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 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 a while 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 necessary.
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 in structed at first by private tuition under the care of Thomas Young, who was afterwards chaplain co the English merchants at Hamburg, 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 six
teenth year, to Christ-College, in Cambridge, where he was adınitted a pensioner, 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, 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.
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 public 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. Mr. Hampton, the translator of Polybius, remarked that Milton was the first Englishman who, after the revival of letters, wrote Latin verses with classic elegance.
Of the exercises, which the rulers of the University required, some were published by him in his maturer years. They had been undoubtedly applauded; for they were such as few could 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. He took how. ever both the usual degrees; that of Bachelor in 1628, and that of Master in 1632. 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.
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, 'thoughts close, and looks loose.'
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 Ambassador 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 aftertiines, as they should not willingly let it die.'
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 tetrastic ; 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 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 lie commends him for every thing but his religion : and Milton, in return, addressed him in a Latin poem, which must have raised a high opinion of English elegance and literature.
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 lasten home, rather than pass his life in foreign amusements while his countrymer 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 without molestation.
Froın Florence he visited Lucca. He afterwards went to Venice; and, having sent away a collection of music 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, intituled Epitaphium Damonis,' written with the common but childish imitation of pastoral life.
He now hired a lodging at the house of one Russel, 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 garden house 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.
He now began to engage in the controversies of the times, and lent his breath to blow the flames of conten.