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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume VII. Cavalier and Puritan.

V. Milton.

§ 1. Milton’s life at Cambridge and Horton.


THE “overdated ceremony,” as Milton himself might have called it, of protesting that the best record of a great writer’s life is in his works can, at least, plead this in its favour, that it applies to hardly any two persons in quite the same way. In Milton’s case, especially, its application has a peculiarity partaking of that strong separation from ordinary folk which is one of the great Miltonic notes. We are not, in his case, without a fairly large amount of positive biographical information; and that information was worked up and supplemented by David Masson with heroic diligence, with lavish provision of commentary and without that undue expatiation into “may-have-beens” and “probablys” and “perhapses” which, despite the temptation to it which exists in some cases, is irritating to the critically minded and dangerously misleading to the uncritical. But, in order to understand the external information, we need unusually constant and careful recurrence to the internal, and, on the other hand, we are likely to misread not a little of the work if we do not know the life. Nor is this double process one requiring mere care. The ordinary conception of Milton, among people more than fairly educated, may be fairly uniform and reasonably clear; but it does not follow that it is either correct or complete. He may not so absolutely “evade our question” as does Shakespeare. The contradictions or inconsistencies in him may not be trivial and exoteric as in Bacon. But, like Dante, whom, of all other writers of the highest class, he most resembles, Milton gives us his life and his work, to explain each other, it may be, but offering not a few puzzles and pitfalls in the course of the explanation. Although, therefore, the immense mass of detail which has been accumulated about Milton defies distillation and condensation in such a chapter as this, it has been thought important to give all the principal points, while excluding those proper to a full “life,” or a critical edition of the “works” in extenso.   1
  The life itself was not extraordinarily eventful, but it was unusually so when compared with the average lives of men of letters; and, though the unusualness was partly due to the times, it was largely increased by Milton’s own attitude towards those times, during the last forty years of his life. In the circumstances of his birth and origin, he reflected the peculiar ecclesiastical—which meant, also, the political—history of England for the past three generations. He was born on 9 December, 1608, in the city of London, at The Spread Eagle, Bread street, Cheapside, where his father (and namesake) carried on the business of a scrivener—that is to say, a lawyer of the inferior branch, who had specially to do with the raising, lending and repayment of money on landed or other security. The sign of the office or shop was the crest of the family—an Oxfordshire one of the upper yeomanry; and the reason of the elder John’s taking to business was that he had been disinherited by his father for abandoning Roman Catholicism and conforming to the church of England. The poet’s younger brother Christopher reversed the process, became a judge and a knight under James II and (probably on that account, for we know very little else about him) has been generally spoken of in a depreciatory manner by biographers and historians. But the brothers seem always to have been on good terms. There was also an elder sister, Anne, who married, and became the mother of John and Edward Phillips, both men of letters, in their way, the latter our chief original source of information about his uncle. Of the poet’s mother, we hear but little, and it is by inference rather than on direct evidence that her name is supposed to have been Sarah Jeffrey or Jeffreys.   2
  Milton’s father, however, was not only a prosperous man of business, but one of rather unusual culture. His son derived from him his interest in music; and that the father was not indifferent to poetry—perhaps not to romance—is evident from his connection with a contemporary version of Guy of Warwick, which exists in MS. and to which he contributed a sonnet. He sent his son to St. Paul’s school, giving him, also, a private tutor, Thomas Young, who was a good scholar but an acrid presbyterian and, later, the “ty” of Smectymnuus. And Milton seems to have had no objection to being “brought on” in the Blimberian sense—working by himself when a boy of twelve, till the small hours. Although it is impossible to deny the indebtedness of some of the good qualities of his work to this “overpressure,” it must have had bad results in various directions, moral and physical. And, though his blindness cannot have been actually caused by this over-exertion of his eyes, it was certainly not staved off by the process. For the time, however, all went well.   3
  Alexander Gill, high master of St. Paul’s, was an excellent teacher, and his son continued to be a great friend of Milton when Gill went to Oxford and Milton to Cambridge. There, he was admitted at Christ’s on 12 February, 1625, when he had just entered his seventeenth year; and he began to keep terms at Easter. His college sojourn begins the Milton legend and controversy—tedious and idle like all controversial legends and to be kept down as much as possible. He certainly did not get on with his tutor Chappell, and was sent away from college; though not technically “sent down” or rusticated, inasmuch as he did not lose a term. And his transference to another tutor has been held (though the fact is not quite conclusive) as proof that there were faults on both sides. He himself admits “indocility” and grumbles that he was not allowed to choose his own studies. That he was unpopular with his fellow undergraduates is not certain, though it is not improbable. The celebrated nickname “the lady of Christ’s” admits of—and has been fitted with—both interpretations—that of a compliment to his beauty and that of a sneer at him as a milksop. He certainly must have been as different as possible from the “Square-Cap” of his contemporary Cleiveland’s lively glorification of the graduates and undergraduates of Cambridge. But he protested, later, that the Fellows treated him “with more than ordinary respect” and wished him to stay up at the end of his seven years, when, in 1632, he took the M.A. degree. The upshot of the whole seems to be that he was studious, reserved and not quite like other people—once, at least, and, probably, more than once, becoming definitely “refractory.” He was always to be studious, reserved and not like other people; and, in his nearly seventy years, the times of truce were not very common and the times of war very frequent.   4
  It is impossible to say what he would have done if his father had not been unusually, though by no means unwisely, indulgent, and of means sufficient to exercise indulgence. That Milton could work hard at mere routine when it suited him, the disastrous secretaryship afterwards showed; but it is impossible to imagine him in any ordinary profession. He had been “destined of a child” to the church. But, though there is no positive evidence of anti-Anglican feeling in his work before Lycidas, and, though Lycidas itself might have been written, in a quite possible construction, by an orthodox and even high Anglican who was an ardent church reformer, Milton’s discipleship to Young and the Gills, his difficulties with Chappell, who was a Laudian, and his whole subsequent conduct and utterance, explain his abandonment of orders.   5
  No (or only the slightest) obstacles were put in his way, and no force was used to urge him out of it. His father had given up business, and settled at Horton in the south of Bucks, less than twenty miles from London, on the river Colne, within sight of Windsor, and in a pretty, though not wildly romantic, neighbourhood. Here Milton lived, and read, and thought, and annotated, and wrote, for five years, directing his attention chiefly to linguistic, literary and historical study, but, at last, setting seriously to work at poetry itself. Besides smaller pieces, Comus (1634) and Lycidas (1637) certainly date from this time; and the ingenious attempts of Mrs. Byse  1  can hardly be allowed to carry L’Allegro and Il Penseroso on to the period that followed. In 1635, he was admitted ad eundem as M.A. at Oxford.   6
  Milton had thus twelve years—counting together his Cambridge and his Horton sojourn—of literary concentration; in the first seven, he was somewhat, but probably not much, interfered with: in the second five, he was completely undisturbed. It is quite clear from various passages of his works and letters, earlier and later, that these years were definitely and deliberately employed on “getting his wedding garment ready”—on preparing himself for the great career in poetry upon which he actually entered in the last of these years, but which was subsequently interrupted. In a sense, nothing could be more fortunate. Solitude, and the power of working as one pleases and when one pleases only, are among the greatest of intellectual luxuries; they are, perhaps, more than luxuries—positive necessities—to exceptional poetic temperaments. The moral effect of both may be more disputable. It certainly did not, in Milton’s case, lead to dissipation, in any sense, even to that respectable but deplorable and not uncommon form of literary dissipation which consists in always beginning and never finishing. In such a temperament as his, it may have fostered the peculiar arrogance—too dignified and too well suited to the performance to offend, but only not to be regretted by idle partisans—the morose determination to be different, the singular want of adaptability in politics and social matters generally, which has been admitted even by sympathisers with his political and religious views.   7

Note 1. See bibliography. [ back ]

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