תמונות בעמוד
PDF
ePub

work were written, cannot often be known. The beginning of the third book shews that he had lost his sight; and the Introduction to the seventh, that the return of the King had clouded him with diso countenance; and that he was offended by the licentious festivity of the Restoration. There are no other internal notes of time. Milton, being now cleared from all effects of his disloyalty, had nothing required from him but the common duty of living in quiet, to be rewarded with the common right of protection : but this, which, when he sculked from the approach of his King, was perhaps more than he hoped, seems not to have satisfied him ; for no sooner is he safe, than he finds himself in danger, fallen on evil days and evil tongues, and with darkness and with danger compass'd round. This darkness, had his eyes been better employed, had undoubtedly deserved coinpassion; but to add the mention of danger was ungrateful and unjust. He was fallen indeed on evil days; the time was come in which regicides could no longer boast their wickedness. But of evil tongues for Milton to complain, required impudence at least equal to his other powers; Milton, whose warmest advocates must allow, that he never spared any asperity of reproach or brutality of insolence.

But the charge itself seems to be false ; for it would be hard to recollect any reproach cast upon him, either serious or ludicrous, through the whole Temaining part of his life. He pursued his studies

or his amusements, without prosecution, molestation, or insult. Such is the reverence paid to great abilities, however misused; they who contemplated in Milton the scholar and the wit, were contented to forget the reviler of his King.

When the plague (1665) raged in London, Milton took refuge at Chalfont in Bucks; where Elwood, who had taken the house for himn, first saw a complete copy of Paradise Lost, and, having perused it, said to him, “ Thou hast said a great

deal upon Paradise Lost; what hast thou to say . upon

Paradise Found 2 Next year, “when the danger of infection had ceased, he returned to Bunhill-fields, and designed the publication of his poem. A license was necessary, and he could expect no great kindness from a chaplain of the archbishop of Canterbury. He seems, however, to have been treated with tenderness, for though objections were made to particular passages, and among them to the simile of the sun eclipsed in the first book, yet the license was granted ; and he sold his copy, April 27, 1667, to Samuel Simmons, for an immediate payment of five pounds, with a stipulation to receive five pounds more when thirteen hundred should be sold of the first edition ; and again, five pounds after the sale of the same number of the second edition ; and another five pounds after the same sale of the third. None of the three editions were to be extended beyond fifteen hundred copies.

The first edition was of ten books, in a small quarto. The titles were varied from year to year ; and an advertisement and the arguments of the books were omitted in some copies, and inserted in others.

The sale gave him in two years a right to his second payment, for which the receipt was signed April 26, 1669. The second edition was not given till 1674 ; it was printed in small octavo; and the number of books were increased to twelve, by a division of the seventh and twelfth ; and some other small improvements were made. The third edition was published in 1678 ; and the widow, to whom the copy was then to devolve, sold all her claims to Simmons for eight pounds, according to her receipt given Dec. 21, 1680. Simmons had already agreed to transfer the whole right to Brabazon Aylmer for twenty-five pounds; and Aylmer sold to Jacob Tonson half; August 17, 1683, and half, March 24, 1690, at a price considerably enlarged. In the history of Paradise Lost a de duction thus minute will rather gratify than fatigue.

The slow sale and tardy reputation of this poem have been always mentioned as evidences of neg lected merit; and of the uncertainty of literary fame ; and enquiries have been made, and conjectures offered, about the causes of its long obscurity and late reception. But has the case been truly stated ? Have not lamentation and wonder been lavished on an evil that was never felt ?

That in the reigns of Charles and James the Paradise Lost received no public acclamations, is readily confessed. Wit and literature were on the side of the Court: and who that solicited favor or fashion would venture to praise the defender of the regicides? All that he himself could think his due, from evil tongues in evil days, was that reverential silence which was generously preserved. But it cannot be inferred that his poem was not read, or not, however unwillingly, admired.

The sale, if it be considered, will justify the public. Those who have no power to judge of past times but by their own, should always doubt their conclusions. The call for books was not in Milton's age what it is in the present. To read was not then a general amusement; neither traders, nor often gentlemen, thought themselves disgraced by ignorance. The women had not then aspired to literature, nor was every house supplied with a closet of knowledge. Those indeed, who professed learning, were not less learned than at any other time; but of that middle race of students who read for pleasure or accomplishment, and who buy the numerous products of modern typography, the number was then comparatively small

. To prove the paucity of readers, it may be sufficient to remark, that the nation had been satisfied from 1623 to 1664, that is, forty-one years, with only two edi. tions of the works of Shakspeare, which probably did not together make one thousand copies.

The sale of thirteen hundred copies in two years, in opposition to so much recent enmity, and to a style of versification new to all and disgusting to many, was an uncommon example of the prevalence of genius. The demand did not immediately increase; for many more readers than were supplied at first, the nation did not afford. Only three thousand were sold in eleven years; for it forced its

way without assistance; its admirers did not dare to publish their opinion ; and the opportunities now given of attracting notice by advertisements were then very few; the means of proclaiming the publication of new books have been produced by that general literature which now pervades the nation through all its ranks.

But the reputation and price of the copy still advanced, till the Revolution put an end to the secrecy of love, and Paradise Lost broke into open view with sufficient security of kind reception.

Fancy can hardly forbear to conjecture with what temper Milton surveyed the silent progress of his work, and marked its reputation stealing its way in a kind of subterraneous current through fear and silence. I cannot but conceive him calm and cona fident, little disappointed, not at all.dejected, relying on his own merit with steady consciousness, and waiting, without impatience, the vicissitudes of opinion, and the impartiality of a future gene. ration.

In the mean time he continued his studies, and

« הקודםהמשך »