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Wissenschaftliche Beilage zum Programm der Luisenschule.
A Sketch of the Life and Works of John Milton
(from a course of lectures held at the Victoria Lyceum during the winter
of 1885 – 1886).
Oberlehrer an der Luisenschule zu Berlin, Honorary Master of Arts of the University of Oxford.
Life and Works of Milton.
1. Milton's Youth and Early Manhood. 1608—1639. The family of John Milton probably derives its name from the parish of Great Milton near Thame in Oxfordshire. The grandfather of the poet was a yeoman at Stanton St. John, about five miles from Oxford, and at the same time under-ranger of the forest of Shotover. His son, John by name, joined the_Anglican church and was in consequence disinherited by the father who remained faithful to Rome. John Milton then went up to London where he set up in business as a scrivener, a position in which he performed the functions of a solicitor of our own day. He succeeded, and acquired a considerable fortune which he owed to his industry and intelligence. He lived in the heart of the City, Bread Street, Cheapside, in a house which bore the sign of the Spread Eagle. Here, John Milton the poet, was born on the gth of December 1608. His childhood was happy and rich in promise. From his father who was an excellent musician and distinguished himself even as a composer, he learned the art which was destined to distract and to soothe him in his blindness; his private tutor, Thomas Young, as well as the headmaster of St. Paul's School which he afterwards frequented as a day scholar, Alexander Gill, were men of note, the latter especially was one of the best scholars and the greatest pedagogue of his time. Young Milton studied with extraordinary zeal, reading deep into the night, whereby he sowed already when a boy the seeds of that malady which was to destroy his eyesight. At sixteen he went to college, being admitted as a pensioner of Christ's Cambridge in 1625. Here he continued his comprehensive reading for seven years, taking his degrees of B. A. and M. A. in due time. How beautiful he was at this time of his life, and how gentle were his manners is attested by the nickname which his rougher companions gave him, calling him „the Tady of the college“. At Cambridge he felt the first stirrings of his genius. Besides a number of Latin poems which far surpass the ordinary college exercises, he wrote some fine sonnets and his Ode on the Nativity, -- at Christmas 1629,- a poem full of promise but at the same time somewhat laboured and in some passages chilled by conceit.
In the mean time his father had retired from business and had fixed his abode in the little village of Horton, in the southern part of Buckinghamshire, the very heart of the sweet rural scenery of Central England. Here he was, in 1632, joined by the young student from Cambridge, who, though already 24 years old, had not yet formed
any fixed plan as to his future profession. He only seemed desirous of devoting some more years to a process of quiet and steady preparation for some great purpose, having a mind „made and set wholly on the accomplishment of greatest things“. Few poets have been as fortunate as young Milton who was able to add to his seven years of academical studies five years of persevering self-education in the retirement of a comfortable home, in the midst of delightful scenery. Here we find no trace of that struggle for existence, those hardships, humiliations, disappointments, and guilty passions which mark and mar the lives of many poets both in England and in Germany.
In this quiet retreat the poet deepens and enlarges his studies whilst his human sympathies expand. The sweet charm of the English landscape delights his eyes grown dull in the college shades; his power of observation is developed. He does not however study nature with the keen glance of the scientific observer; he looks at her with the eye of the poet and the artist, enjoying light and colour, the beauty and harmony of outline, the sweet sounds and smells of wood and field, the sublime grandeur of the starry heavens. The English love of the country, of life in the open air breathes also in Milton's poetry, nor did it ever forsake him; twenty years later when he sat in total darkness amidst the brick and mortar of London, those fair scenes returned in all their freshness to his mind's eye in Paradise Lost.
This sojourn at Horton is the happiest period of Milton's life; the poetical gift of purest fancy has perhaps never asserted itself with more power and abundance in Milton's works than in the poems of his early manhood: (L'Allegro, Il Penseroso, Comus, and Lycidas.
The two first of these poems are the most beautiful idyls in the English language; they breathe the sweet fragrance of fields and meadows, they reveal that keen perception and enjoyment of nature, not of the rustic who lives in the country, but of the student who leaves his narrow chamber, the close discussion, and the dusty books, on a holiday, to draw in with swelling breast and thirsty eyes the light, the wide air, the glory of the fair world. But the subject of these two poems is Man in the two contrasted moods of joyous emotion and of grave reflection, — but the joy is innocent, and the reflection is free from sour misanthropy. We need not assume two different types of character, — the light-hearted, life-enjoying youth and the stern and melancholy man , far less need we see in these poems an intentional contrast of the two great factions then forming in England, — the gay cavalier and the sombre puritan; -- the same man, perhaps Milton himself, may pass and has passed through such varying moods seeing at one time only the bright side of things, keenly enjoying all that is beautiful, treading the air, as it were with head erect, regarding at another time the reverse of the medal, conscious of the dark sides of existence, of the great unsolved problems that surround us. No doubt the former mood is more peculiar to sanguine youth, the latter to manhood saddened by experience, and there are moments in history when a whole nation passes through such a transition as England at that time, when the bright sky of the merry old country was rapidly overcast. Milton, having now arrived on the threshold of mature manhood, joining moreover in that movement of the whole English people, gives eloquent utterance to either of these moods, passing from a rapid, life-stirring, and sparkling allegro to an impassioned, soulful, and solemn adagio.
In the Allegro the poet invokes ,heart-easing Mirth" as his muse to bring with her jest and youthful jollity:
„Come, and trip it, as you go,
On the light fantastic toe.“ Then he describes the unreproved pleasures free to which she is to introduce him calling him out into the sweet fields to listen
„how the hounds and horn Cheerly rouse the slumbering morn, From the side of some hoar hill,
Through the high wood echoing shrill.“ And then he sallies forth to enjoy the sights and sounds of hill and dale, watches neat-handed Phillis dressing the rustic meal and binding the sheaves, joins in the frolics of the country dance, and listens over the spicy nut-brown ale" to the stories about Queen Mab and the drudging goblin.
,,Tower'd cities please us then,
And the busy hum of men," and he enjoys the sight of brilliant revelries and masquerades and sits spell-bound in the theatre,
„If Jonson's learned sock be on,
Warble his native wood- notes wild.“
„on soft Lydian airs,
The melting voice through mazes running.“
„These delights if thou canst give,
Mirth, with thee I mean to live.“ In the Penseroso the poet calls upon divine Melancholy, the daughter of Vesta and Saturn, to come to him in
„sable stole of cypress lawn
Thy rapt soul sitting in thine eyes.“ She is to come accompanied by Peace, Leisure, and the divine cherub Contemplation; no sound may be heard
„'Less Philomel will deign a song
Smoothing the rugged brow of Night;“ whilst the moon rides in the high heaven
„oft as if her head she bowed
Stooping through a fleecy cloud,“ – or the pensive Goddess may approach the poet in his solitary chamber by the glowing embers of the hearth where, by the light of the lamp, Plato's immortal pages may absorb the interest of the reader or