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A single passage will indicate their spirit. Often carried away by excess of zeal, we may be sure that at bottom Milton diverted his time and energy from poetry and study, because he saw in other work his duty, if not his desire.
To descant on the misfortunes of a person fallen from so high a dignity, who hath also paid his final debt, both to nature and his faults, is neither in itself a thing commendable, nor the intention of this discourse. Neither was it fond ambition, nor the vanity to get a name, present or with posterity, by writing against a king. I never was so thirsty after fame, nor so destitute of other hopes and means, better and more certain to attain it; nevertheless, for their sakes, who, through custom, simplicity, or want of better teaching, have no more seriously considered kings, than in the gaudy name of majesty, and admire them and their doings as if they breathed not the same breath with other mortal men, I shall make no scruple to take up (for it seems to be the challenge both of him and all his party), to take up this gauntlet, though a king's, in the behalf of liberty and the commonwealth.” (“Eikonoklastes,” Works, i. 307.)
But the study and work which he undertook for the public good, as he conceived it, was the cause of most immense misfortune to him: For some time his sight had been failing; the work upon the "Second Defence” is said to have been the final cause of his blindness; in it he writes:
“Thus, therefore, when I was publickly solicited to write a reply to the defence of the royal cause, when I had to contend with the pressure of sickness, and with the apprehension of soon losing the sight of my remaining eye, and when my medical attendants clearly announced, that if I did engage in the work, it would be irreparably lost, their premonitions caused no hesitation, and inspired no delay.
I considered that many had purchased a less
"As Charles I.
good by a greater evil, the meed of glory by the loss of life; but that I might procure great good by little suffering; that though I am blind, I might still discharge the most honorable duties, the performance of which, as it is something more durable than glory, ought to be an object of superior admiration and esteem; I resolved, therefore, to make the short interval of sight, which was left me to enjoy, as beneficial as possible to the public interest.' (“* Second Defence,” Works, i. 238.)
To which may be added a passage from " Paradise Lost;" it is from the address to Light in the Third Book.
“ Thee I revisit safe,
Of Nature's works, to me expunged and rased,
(Book iii. 21-55.)
As it was,
In spite of his loss of sight, however, he was revolving in his mind a great work. And with the close of his public activity and his return to poetry we may date the third and last period of Milton's life. Of the origin of “Paradise Lost” he has not himself spoken in detail, although, as we have seen, he had looked forward to some worthy work. There had early been in his mind the ambition to write a great poem; he would have undertaken it on his return from Italy, had it not been for public events. he revolved it in his mind: he thought first of a poem with King Arthur as hero, but in time his mind turned to the idea of the Fall of Man, a subject on which many had touched before, although none had conceived it fully or carried it to noble execution. His poem on King Arthur was to have been an epic; “Paradise Lost” he conceived first as a drama. So early as 1641 he had written, as it is thought, some lines which still stand in the poem. But the times were too pressing, and he put the work aside.
In the year 1659 Oliver Cromwell died, and his son succeeded him as Lord Protector. There was no stability to his government, however, and we can now readily see that the re-establishment of the royal power was a matter of a very short time. In the last year of the Commonwealth, Milton once more turned to pamphleteering, and put forth quickly one and another piece of suggestion and counsel. But it was of no avail. Charles II. came back, and Milton was for a time in danger even of his life. A few words in
Paradise Lost" seem to have been written with the
thought of this time when further resistance was impose sible.
“Servant of God, well done! Well hast thou fought
The better fight, who singly hast maintained
(Book vi. 29–37.)
The new power was not bloodthirsty, however, and Milton soon came out of hiding and lived peacefully and quietly for fourteen years more. He was at last able to devote himself to poetry and learning, and in these years put forth several works in prose, of which the memory remains only with students, and also his greatest poems,in 1667, “Paradise Lost;" in 1671, “Paradise Regained,” and “Samson Agonistes."
The end of his life was quiet and retired: his greatness as a poet was recognized by men of letters and by the reading public, and although he never had part, never could have had part with the gay crowd of Restoration writers, yet his days must have passed largely as he would have wished. He had lived a life which, in spite of some unfortunate elements, was distinctly a life of duty, of devotion to the task that came to his hand. The duty came to an end, the task ceased to be possible; he was able to devote himself to the work that was the desire of his heart. For a man like John Milton, it would seem incongruous to wish anything more.
He died November 8, 1674.
So much of Milton, more or less, can we learn from his own writings, and in this way we get an idea of him suffi
ciently definite for the reader of his poetry. The student, however, will require something more; not only will he require more detail concerning the facts already indicated, but he will require something about Milton's place in literary history, something of his relation to other men of letters, of the relation of his work to the rest of English literature. More detail concerning the facts already indicated is hardly consistent with the plan of this book,1 but we may well take a page or two to state very briefly Milton's historical position.
As far as the history of literature is concerned, Milton occupies a curious position. Less than any other poet of the first rank does he stand in relation to the main currents of development of English Literature. Chaucer stood in the full course of the literature of his time. Shakespeare was surrounded by a great number of dramatists, whose work had so much the same character as his own that contemporaries made no great difference between them. Pope was the chief of a school, and his work has definite relations to the work of Dryden and of Goldsmith. Scott, Byron, Wordsworth, Shelley, Keats, however different from each other, stand together in the history of literature as significant of a movement. Milton, however, stands alone, so far, at least, as his greatest work is concerned. He had no predecessors, and although his influence has been great, he had no followers, as Chaucer, Pope, Wordsworth had followers. His early poems came at what we may call the very end of the Elizabethan period, but we cannot call Milton an Elizabethan, as we may call his contemporary, Herrick. His later poems came at the beginning of the Restoration period, but we can see nothing of the Restoration in Milton, as we can in his contemporary, Waller. Milton belongs to no group or school: he stands by himself.
Not that Milton's work would have been what it is, had *Except so far as may be gained from the Chronological Table, p. lxx.