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MILTON'S LIFE AND WRITINGS.
The celebrated subject of this Memoir was born Dec. 9, 1608. His father, who was a scrivener, soon after obtained a sufficient fortune to retire from his profession, but resided, at the birth of the poet, in Bread-street, London. After having received considerable advantage from the instructions of private tutors, Milton was sent to St. Paul's school, where he made a remarkable progress in classical literature; and from whence he was sent to Christ's College, Cambridge. In 1628 he took his B. A., and in 1632 his M. A. degree; after receiving which, and declining to take holy orders, he retired to his father's house at Horton, near Colebroke, in Buckinghamshire. During the five years he resided here, he pursued his studies with an ardor and diligence which have seldom been equalled ; and besides making many acquisitions in learning, he produced his exquisite poems of Comus, Lycidas, and some other minor pieces.
About the year 1638 his mother died, and he obtained the consent of his father to make a tour on the continent; he accordingly set forth, and very few travelers could be found possessing the qualifications for profiting by their journey which Milton had acquired in his retirement. In the different parts of the continent, therefore, which he visited, he was received with the greatest attention by the most celebrated men of the age, and he returned to England, after an absence of fifteen months, with the acquisition of many honorable friendships, and an important addition to his stock of knowledge and accomplishments. It had been his intention to prolong his tour by a visit to Greece, but the civil commotions which preceded the establishment of the Commonwealth, were commencing, and he conceived it his duty to lift up his voice in a struggle to which his love of liberty gave the highest interest.
Almost immediately after Cromwell had obtained an established ascenda: cy, Milton was appointed Latin secretary to the government, ami in this situation, besides performing the proper duties of his office, he distinguished himself by several works written in defence of republican principles, and of the conduct of the men who had rendered themselves most conspicuous in the late contest. Before, however, he acquired this situation, he passed through some troubles of a domestic nature, which, it is probable, materially inft!
enced many of his subsequent feelings and opinions. In the year 1643 he had married the daughter of a gentleman of the name of Powell, a magistrate in Oxfordshire. Unfortunately for the parties, they each belonged to factions, over which political rancor exercised entire control, and Milton had scarcely been united a month, when his wife requested permission to visit her relatives. She obtained her desire, but soon after intimated that she never intended returning. This circumstance gave birth to our author's celebrated writings on the subject of divorce; and he was on the point of marrying again, when his repentant wife sought a reconciliation, and she was restored to favor. At this time also he took pupils, and by the income he thus obtained, he was enabled to support not only his family, but the father and mother of his wife, who subsequently suffered in common with the rest of the royalist party.
About the year 1649, after having been for some time laboring under an affection of the eyes, he was afflicted with the total loss of his sight, which he never recovered. But this caused no diminution to his zeal for learning, and as soon as he found himself free from the burden of public controversy, he commenced a History of England, which, however, he carried no farther than the Norman Conquest. He also prepared some portion of a Latin Thesaurus, which was published in the Cambridge Dictionary of 1693. But events were about to happen, which, however inimical to the temporal prosperity of Milton, were, it is probable, of the utmost use in concentrating the powers of his mind on an object sufficiently noble for their employment. By the restoration of the royal family, he lost his office, was driven into obscurity, and was for some time in hourly danger of suffering for the active part he had taken in the councils of the revolutionary government. But fortunately for the interests of literature, his noble genius was no longer to be occupied in the defence of political factions, or in the preparation of treaties. He was henceforth to be left in solitude, and in the undisturbed peace of his obscure home, to hold communion with his own spirit, which had been gathering strength from worldly trouble, and with the great and awful spirit of truth which converted the splendid workings of his imaginations into revelations of her hidden glory. The conception of Paradise Lost was not one of those flashes of genius which it would be impossible, perhaps, to trace to their cause. It bad been long growing and developing in his mind, and when the particular form of the work was determined, the vast and glorious assemblage of thoughts and visions which had been long present to his intellect, arranged themselves in a beautiful and perfect order— the creative faculty of the poet had been at work, and it wanted but the repose which is necessary to judgment to connect imagination with design. But there is an inspiration proper to the highest order of poets, which Milton enjoyed in a supreme degree, and the possession of which, he signified by those intimations he so fondly gave of his
communion with celestial visitants in his lonely chamber, and in the stillness and darkness of the night. To this mysterious elevation of nature, if it be nothing else, or to this divine gift of clear intellectual vision, are to be ascribed the deep and solemn tones of his lyre, the grandeur and splendor of his representations, the power with which he calls up from the unfathomable depths of chaos and eternity, spirits of good and evil, the glory with which every scene and object he describes is bedropped, and the calm authoritative language with which he inculcates the unchanging beauty of virtue. We have here also, it may be conjectured, a reason why Paradise Lost, and I believe it has been the case with all great poems, was the work of Milton's declining years. It was produced when every turbulent feeling of youth was subsided; when experience had had her perfect work, and when his soul could listen in quiet to the voice of the charmer, wisdom. Many of its most brilliant passages might have been produced in earlier years, but it could only be when the waywardness of thought was subdued, and the human spirit stood free from temporal hopes and wishes, that it could bear such a weight of glory; that it could look long and steadily upon the majestic vision with which it was encompassed.
Paradise Lost was completed in the year 1665, when Milton was verging towards sixty. He had at that period been suffering for several years under the distressing deprivation of sight, and an acute gout, from the torture of which he was seldom free. His fortunes also had been almost continually fluctuating, and he had witnessed as many domestic changes as fall to the lot of most men. His first wife died in child-bed, and he shortly after married the daughter of a Captain Woodcock, whom he lost in the same manner as he had done his former wife, before their union had been completed a year. From the unprotected state, however, to which he felt himself reduced by his blindness, he was tempted to enter the matrimonial state again, and he married a lady of the name of Minshull, who survived him. While these events were occurring, he changed his residence to every part of London, till at length he finally settled himself in a house in Bunhill-row.
Several difficulties, it is said, were found to prevent the publication of Paradise Lost after its completion. These were partly owing to the power of the licenser, who could raise whatever objections he chose to the printing of any work, and partly to the niggardliness of the booksellers and the character of the public mind at the period. The latter, it is probable, was the greatest obstacle which an author in those days had to encounter. There was no reading populace, no book-clubs, provincial libraries, or facilities for circulating literary works through the mass of the public; intelligence was in general confined to the small portion of the community who were possessed of fortune and talents, and the productions of taste had, consequently, to wait for the slow succession of those select