Page images

afterwards, on a visit to her friends, from which she long delayed, and eventually refused to return to his house. Under this injury, the indignant husband wrote four tracts “On the Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce," in which, endeavouring, with as much labour in vain as could be desired, to press into the service of an infirm cause, scripture authorities and antiquated precedents, he hazarded sentiments which gave great offence to honest and ingenuous minds, unaccustomed to deceive themselves with specious sophistry, and fearing to be deceived by doctors of that school, more learned and subtle than themselves. To the Christian, there can be but one law on the subject—that which is laid down by our Saviour himself—Matthew v. 6.

After various negociations, into particulars of which there is neither room nor need to enter, the poet's wife returned to him; he received her kindly, and they lived together till her death, nine years afterwards. By her, Milton had three daughters; and Dr. Johnson, whose memoir contains scarcely a paragraph without a sarcasm or a slanderous hint against his noble victim's principles, or his conduct in public or private life-even Dr. Johnson adds on this subject—" It were injurious to omit, that Milton afterwards received her father and mother into his house, when they were distressed with other royalists.” The Doctor himself might have made many meritorious omissions in his biographical narrative, and the accompanying strictures, which abound with assertions, assumptions, and inuendoes, cruelly injurious to the memory of him to whom it was his duty to do justice, and who, had he been living, would not have accepted mercy at the hands of so inveterate an enemy.

Milton was now blind, and in need of a helpmate. He, therefore, soon afterwards, married Catharine, the daughter of Captain Woodcock, of Hackney. She, too, as his former wife, died in childbirth, within twelve months, and her husband honoured her memory with what Dr. Johnson calls “

a poor sonnet.

Be this as it may, it would not be easy to show, by examples, that a hundred wives, since the days of Adam and Eve, have

ensepulchred” in verse, which cannot be cancelled, " that (queens) for such a tomb might wish to die!” He speaks of her as his “late deceased saint," who appeared to him in a dream, her semblance being such

been so


-as yet once more I trust to have Full sight of her in heaven, without restraint." Moreover, she

“Came vested all in white, pure as her mind :

Her face was veil'd; yet, to my fancied sight,
Love, sweetness, goodness, in her person

So clear, as in no face with more delight:
But, oh! as to embrace me she inclined,

I woke—she fled—and day brought back my night.” There is nothing more tender and delicate in all Petrarch's sonnets. To compensate for this loss, Milton entered a third time into the bands of matrimony with Elizabeth Minshull, of a good family in Cheshire, but “probably without a fortune,” says Dr. Johnson. She has been represented as being a harsh mother-in-law to his children; and, unhappily, some circumstances of litigation between her and them, relative to the disposal of the poet's small property, on his decease, give colour to the imputation.

After the death of Cromwell, the retirement of his son Richard, and the restoration of Charles II., Milton was too conspicuous an object for retributive

vengeance, not to fear a heavy visitation for his republican offences. He escaped, however, rather by being overlooked, than unsought for, if the contradictory statements are at all to be reconciled to truth or probability. Sir William Davenant, his brother-poet, and a zealous cavalier, had owed his life to the friendship of Milton, during the commonwealth's reign of terror; and now, on the turning of the scale, he repaid the obligation in kind, by interposing to save his quondam protector. This story is worth repeating, though, perhaps, not worth believing ; yet (if apocryphal) it is one of those things concerning which we should not like to be undeceived. Another tradition, in a work called “A History of England” (Cunningham's) is, that, during the first keen search for victims, “Milton, Latin secretary to Cromwell, distinguished by his writings in favour of the rights and liberties of the people, pretended to be dead, and had a public funeral procession. The king applauded his policy in escaping the punishment of death by a seasonable show of dying." That the “merry monarch” would have laughed heartily at the hoax, if it had been successfully practised, is far more probable than that it was at all attempted.

It is pleasing to find that Dr. Johnson himself manifests something of kindly feeling, on this occasion, towards the man whom he openly or insidiously persecutes in every other stage of public or private life; though he ungraciously affects to disguise that very feeling from himself, saying, " it is not certain that Milton's life ever was in danger;" and, under this notion, adds—"it required no great interest to exempt Milton from a censure little more than verbal. Something may be reasonably ascribed to veneration and compassion; to veneration of his abilities, and compassion for his distresses, which made it fit to forgive his malice for his

[blocks in formation]

learning. He was now poor and blind, and who would pursue with violence an illustrious enemy, depressed by fortune, and disarmed by nature ?”—There is another plea why it should be "fit to forgive the malice for the learning," not of Milton only, but of his biographer himself, throughout this whole memoir. Both probably sinned “of malice prepense,” but each, it may now be believed, acted conscientiously. In the courtesy of common charity, the sincerity of neither can be questioned ; and here, at least, it may be forgiven to their present censor if he no longer seeks to “ draw the frailties" of either illustrious offender “ from their dread abode."

Milton now turned the whole force of his genius to the completion of his earliest project-an heroic poemalways in his eye, never out of his mind, though the form of it was frequently changing, but not fully undertaken till he had been driven from the field of politics and controversy. Thus, till he had reached his sixtieth year, so little impatient was he of securing celebrity by the exercise of that very gift on which he most valued himself, that the whole bulk of his published poems scarcely amounted to a hundred pages of print; and when, at length, his greatest work was achieved, he committed it to its fate as confidently as though he had foreseen its posthumous fortune

“ In the clear mirror of his ruling star."

And, if that was still to be a hope deferred," it made not his heart sick ;' for he felt that it was within him

dy, like the desire when it cometh"--the quickened germ tree of life," under the shadow of whose boughs millions should sit with delight, and with the fruits of which generations unborn should be feasted.

Paradise Lost was published in 1667; Paradise

of a

Regained, and Samson Agonistes, a tragedy, three years afterwards. These, with L'Allegro, Il Penseroso, Lycidas, Ca us, and a series of Sonnets, with a few Juvenilia, in Latin, Italian, and English, completed his poetical works. Thus, though so early and passionately attached to the Muses, the products of his leisure till his thirtieth year were few and small ; while, from that date, till he had nearly doubled the term, he neither published, nor has there been recovered from the spoils of time a single composition beyond the length of a psalm or a sonnet. Hence it appears that his youth and his old age he devoted to himself and his fame—his middle life to his country. The flower and the fruit of his genius were put forth and ripened in retirement; but, after the flower had fallen, and while the fruit was maturing, he stood as thick of foliage, and as unpicturesque in appearance, as any orchard-tree in the dog-days; while-for here the metaphor must be dropped-he exerted, not expended his noble rage, and wielded, yet without exhaustion, his gigantic powers in polemical warfare and official drudgery as Latin secretary to Cromwell.

He died, in 1674, at his house in Bunhill-fields, and was buried next to his father, in the chancel of St. Giles, at Cripplegate.

The limits of this essay preclude any review of our author's numerous prose compositions. A few brief extracts, principally to illustrate his poetical character, may, however, be given.

In one of his bitterest controversial tracts, Apology for Smectymnuus," occur frequent passages of consummate beauty, referring to his early life and writings. of his personal habits he thus speaks, in answer to his calumniators—“Those morning haunts are where they should be at home; not sleeping or

- The

« PreviousContinue »