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JOHN MILTON was born in Bread Street, in the city of London, December 9, 1608. He was descended of an ancient family of that name at Milton, near Abingdon, in Oxfordshire, where there still exists a monument of the family in the parish church. During the bloody contests between the Houses of York and Lancaster, his ancestors allied themselves to the weaker side, and nearly all the family estates were forfeited. The father of Milton was a man of considerable ability, a great proficient in music, and by profession a scrivener—an honourable occupation at that period, and one by which he speedily acquired a considerable fortune. His parents were bigotedly attached to the Romish faith; and upon his abjuring its errors, and embracing the Protestant religion, he was disinherited by them.
Johnson begins his biography by remarking, that the life of Milton has been already written in so many forms, and with such minute inquiry, that a new one is almost superfiuous; yet with all this, the account that has been preserved of his early years is so meagre, as scarcely to present a single characteristic incident.
Doubtless, under the instructions of a father who had suffered for conscience-sake, Milton early acquired those high views of civil and religious liberty which he advocated so strenuously throughout the whole period of his life. His mother also is said to have been “a woman of incomparable virtue and goodness," so that he enjoyed the highest advantages of domestic education and example. He early exhibited a lively fancy, and quick powers of perception; his
progress in every department of knowledge within his reach was so rapid as to outstrip the efforts of his instructors. Even at the premature age of twelve he manifested such a thirst for learning that it required restraint rather than encouragement, and he seldom forsook his studies till midnight.
Milton's father was himself a student of Oxford, and he early destined his son for a scholar. His education was at first pursued at home, under the care of Thomas Young, a Puritan, who was afterwards appointed chaplain to the English merchants at Hamburgh. The opinions of his tutor would tend to confirm him in the views already inculcated by his father; and this may in some degree furnish a clue to his public life, and the unchanging hostility he afterwards manifested to the intolerance of the established government in Church and State.
From the instructions of his domestic tutor, young Milton passed to St. Paul's School, and from thence, at the age of fifteen, he proceeded to Christ's College, Cambridge, there to acquire the higher branches of education. Even thus early he gave evidence of his poetic genius, and during the first two years of his residence at Cambridge, he composed his poem on the Gunpowder Plot, with other productions in verse, that have led an eminent critic to say of him—“Milton's writings show him to have been a man from his childhood." There he continued his studies till he attained his twenty-fourth year; when, having taken his degree of Master of Arts, he finally quitted the university, carrying with him the esteem and admiration of all who knew him.
After visiting London for a short period, he retired to his father's estate at Horton, in Buckinghamshire, and there he spent the greater portion of the next five years of his life, occupied with the study of the ancient classics, and the finest works of modern European literature, and giving full play to all the powers of his fine intellect, amid the sweet scenes of rural retirement-a period of literary leisure and quiet domestic enjoyment, that may justly be regarded as the happiest of his life. He inherited from his father a passionate love of music, which afforded him the means of pleasing relaxation; and long after, when shut out for ever from the light of day, it solaced the declining years of the great poet.
During this period of quiet seclusion, Milton gave up his mind to the delightful task of poetic composition, and furnished in the Mask of Comus a splendid record of the early development of his poetic genius in all its power. This Mask was represented by the Lady Alice Egerton and her brothers, the younger members of the Earl of Bridgewater's family, at Ludlow Castle, on Michaelmas Eve, 1634. The story is stated by Symmons to have been suggested by the circumstance of the Lady Alice having been separated from her company in the night, and having wandered alone for some time in the forest of Haywood, as she was returning from a distant visit, to meet her father, on his taking possession of his newly intrusted sceptre, as President of Wales. The composition and acting of masks were favourite amusements of some of the greatest men of the best era of English literature, and even the character of Comus had been introduced already by Ben Jonson and others; but none of them surpasses this in its richness of poetic thought and fine chaste simplicity. The high estimation it secured is best shown by the fact of so many of its lines having become as it were the current change of thought, so that thousands who now use them are unconscious of their source. This is no less characteristic of all the poetic productions of this period of retirement;--the Arcades, the Lycidas, L'Allegro, and Il Penseroso, were all written within these five years; and the reader wło peruses them for the first time will be astonished to find how familiar he already is with many of their finest thoughts, which have excited such universal sympathy and admiration, that they have become common household words throughout The land.
Milton had long wished to improve his knowledge by observing the customs and institutions of other countries; the death of his mother in 1637, by removing one of the strongest domestic ties, seems to have set him at liberty to prosecute his favourite object; and, accordingly, he obtained his father's consent in the following year, and proceeded on a European tour. He received at this time a friendly letter of advice from the celebrated Sir Henry Wotton, formerly ambassador to the Republic of Venice, in which he intimates his knowledge of the authorship of Comus, adding, “that he had seen yet nothing parallel to it in our language.”
On his arrival at Paris, he was introduced by Lord Scudamore to the celebrated Grotius, then ambassador from Christina, Queen of Sweden. The French capital, however, seems to have possessed few attractions for him; and, after a very brief stay, he proceeded on his route, visiting Nige, Genoa, Pisa, and Florence. The last city excited his liveliest admiration. The place, the language and manners of the people, and the interesting circle of literary men to whom he was introduced, all afforded him a high source of gratification. He continued there above two months, and afterwards kept up frequent correspondence with several eminent men of learning, to whom he had been introduced.
From Florence he proceeded to Rome, which impressed his mind as strongly by its decaying monuments of the past, as Florence did by its living beauty; there also he was at once admitted to the society of the most learned men of the day, and derived the highest gratification from the rich stores of classical learning which were thrown open to him in the library of the Vatican.
After visiting Naples, he was preparing to continue his travels through Sicily and Greece, when the news of the state of affairs at home, just then tending to the outbreak of the first civil war, induced him to direct his course homeward, “deeming it,” says his nephew, "a thing unworthy of him to be diverting himself in security abroad, when his countrymen were contending with an insidious monarch for their liberty.” On his way home he again spent some time both at Rome and Florence, though against the advice of some friends, who feared he had rendered himself obnoxious to the machinations of the Romanists by the free expressions of his opinions. It little coincided with the courage and nobleness of his mind, either to shun such danger, or, by a line of duplicity, to avoid such offence. Without courting controversy, he never hesitated freely to express opinions when circumstances seemed to require it, and, though not without some danger, he returned home in safety, with his mind stored with enlarged views, and his imagination filled with the grandeur and beauty derived from beholding the noble remains of ancient Rome, and the most splendid creations of modern art. He had visited and conversed with the great Galileo, then a prisoner in the Inquisition, and, in spite of his religion, and the bold expression of his opinions, he had formed lasting friendships with some of the most eminent men in the south of Europe, and had received from all marks of honour and esteem.
After an absence of about fifteen months, Milton arrived in England, just as Charles I. was setting out on his second expedition against the Scots. On his return, he undertook the education of two of his nephews; and soon after he was induced by some of his friends to admit their sons to the same privilege. On this Dr. Johnson remarks, “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 boardingschool.” This unworthy sneer is easily confuted. Milton knew his own intellectual powers too well—even had he possessed the necessary bodily strength—to imagine that the only, or even the most useful, course that lay open for him in the cause of liberty, was the profession of arms; and his labours with his pen during the long continuance of the contest, afford the best evidence that he lent his energies with no grudging hand to the cause of liberty.
They must be very ignorant of the history of England at this period, who imagine that Milton was avoiding the post of danger in thus taking up the pen as his weapon of war. Laud had already organized that systematic persecution of the Puritans, which, by the cruel lawlessness with which it was pursued, needed the evils of a revolution to wipe away the stain from the nation; and the unhappy king, with his high notions of prerogative, had abundantly shown that he would permit no law to stand between him and his opponents. The cruelties enforced by the Star-Chamber on such victims as Prynne, Bastwick, and Le may afford some conception of the dangers that Milton voluntarily dared in