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I. CRITICAL COMMENTS.
WORDSWORTH'S SONNET TO MILTON.1
And give us manners, virtue, freedom, power.
Thou hadst a voice whose sound was like the sea:
Pure as the naked heavens, majestic, free,
[Brooke, English Literature, pp. 161–168.2]
John Milton was the last of the Elizabethans, and, except Shakespeare, far the greatest of them all. Born
1 This, Milton's own On the Late Massacre in Piedmont, and Keats's On First Looking into Chapman's Homer are among the best sonnets in our language. For some comments on the first line of the present sonnet, see the introductory essay in Ernest Myers's Selected Prose Writings of John Milton.
2 For some strictures on Brooke's criticism as it was originally published, see Matthew Arnold's essay entitled A Guide to English Literature. xi
in 1608, in Bread Street (close by the Mermaid Tavern), he may have seen Shakespeare, for he remained till he was sixteen in London. His literary life may be said to begin with his entrance into Cambridge, in 1625, the year of the accession of Charles I. Nicknamed the "Lady of Christ's ' from his beauty, delicate taste, and moral life, he soon attained a reputation by his Latin poems and discourses, and by his English poems which revealed as clear and original a genius as that of Chaucer and Spenser. Of Milton even more than of the two others, it may be said that he was "whole in himself, and owed to none." The Ode to the Nativity, 1629, the third poem he composed, while it went back to the Elizabethan age in beauty, in instinctive fire, went forward into a new world of art, the world where the architecture of the lyric is finished with majesty and music. The next year heard the noble sounding strains of At a Solemn Music; and the sonnet, On Attaining the Age of Twenty-three, reveals in dignified beauty that intense personality which lives, like a force, through every line he wrote. He left the university in 1632, and went to live at Horton, near Windsor, where he spent five years, steadily reading the Greek and Latin writers, and amusing himself with mathematics and music. Poetry was not neglected. The Allegro and Penseroso were written in 1633 and probably the Arcades; Comus was acted in 1634, and Lycidas composed in 1637. They prove that though Milton was Puritan in heart his Puritanism was of that earlier type which disdained neither the arts nor letters. But they represent a growing revolt from the Court and the Church. The Penseroso prefers the contemplative life to the mirthful, and Comus, though a masque, rose into a celestial poem to the glory of temperance, and under its allegory attacked the Court. Three years later, Lycidas interrupts its exqui
site stream of poetry with a fierce and resolute onset on the greedy shepherds of the Church. Milton had taken his Presbyterian bent.
In 1638 he went to Italy, the second home of so many of the English poets, visited Florence where he saw Galileo, and then passed on to Rome. At Naples he heard the sad news of civil war, which determined him to return; "inasmuch as I thought it base to be traveling at my ease for amusement, while my fellow-countrymen at home were fighting for liberty." At the meeting of the Long Parliament we find him in a house in Aldersgate, where he lived till 1645. He had projected while abroad a great epic poem on the subject of Arthur, but in London his mind changed, and among a number of subjects, tended at last to Paradise Lost, which he meant to throw into the form of a Greek Tragedy with lyrics and choruses.
Suddenly his whole life changed, and for twenty years 1640-60 — he was carried out of art into politics, out of poetry into prose. Most of the Sonnets, however, belong to this time. Stately, rugged, or graceful, as he pleased to make them, some with the solemn grandeur of Hebrew psalms, others having the classic ease of Horace, some of his own grave tenderness, they are true, unlike those of Shakespeare and Spenser, to the correct form of this difficult kind of poetry. But they were all he could now do of his true work. Before the Civil War began in 1642, he had written five vigorous pamphlets against Episcopacy. Six more pamphlets appeared in the next two years. One of these was the Areopagitica; or, Speech for the Liberty of Unlicensed Printing, 1644, a bold and eloquent attack on the censorship of the press by the Presbyterians. Another, remarkable, like the Areopagitica, for its finer prose, was a tract On Education. The four pamphlets in which he advo