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composed at under twenty or thereabout, (for the manner is that every one must give some proof of his wit and reading there,) met with acceptance above what was looked for ; and other things which I had shifted in scarcity of books and conveniences to patch up amongst them, were received with written encomiums, which the Italian is not forward to bestow on men of this side the Alps ; I began thus far to assent both to them and divers of my friends here at home, and not less to an in-. ward prompting which now daily grew upon me, that by labour and intense study, (which I take to be my portion in this life,) joined with the strong propensity of nature, I might perhaps leave something so written to after-times, as they should not willingly let it die. These thoughts at once possessed me, and these other; that if I were certain to write as men buy leases, for three lives and downward, there ought no regard be sooner had than to God's glory, by the honour and instruction of my country. For which cause, and not only for that I knew it would be hard to arrive at the second rank among the Latins, I applied myself to that resolution, which Ariosto followed against the persuasions of Bembo, to fix all the industry and art I could unite to the adorning of my native tongue; not to make verbal curiosities the end, (that were a toilsome vanity,) but to be an interpreter and relater of the best and sagest things, among mine own citizens throughout this island in the mother dialect. That what the greatest and choicest wits of Athens, Rome, or modern Italy, and those Hebrews of old did for their country, I, in my proportion, with this over and above, of being a Christian, might do for mine . ... Time serves not now, and perhaps I might seem too profuse to give any certain account of what the mind at home, in the spacious circuits of her musing, hath liberty to propose to herself, though of highest hope and hardest attempting ; whether that epic form whereof the two poems of Homer, and those other two of Virgil and Tasso, are a diffuse, and the book of Job a brief model: or whether the rules of Aristotle herein are strictly to be kept, or nature to be followed, which in them that know art, and use judgment, is no transgression, but an enriching of art : and lastly, what king or knight before the conquest, might be chosen in whom to lay the pattern of a christian hero. And as Tasso gave to a prince of Italy his choice whether he would command him to write of Godfrey's expedition against the Infidels, or Belisarius against the Goths, or Charlemain against the Lombards; if to the instinct of nature and the emboldening of art
aught may be trusted, and that there be nothing adverse in our climate, or the fate of this age, it haply would be no rashness, from an equal diligence and inclination, to present the like offer in our own ancient stories; or whether those dramatic constitutions, wherein Sophocles and Euripides reign, shall be found more doctrinal and exemplary to a nation. . . These abilities, wheresoever they be found, are the inspired gift of God rarely bestowed, but yet to some (though most abuse) in every nation : and are of power, beside the office of a pulpit, to imbreed and cherish in a great people the seeds of virtue and public civility, to allay the perturbations of the mind, and set the affections in right tune; to celebrate in glorious and lofty hymns the throne and equipage of God's almightiness, and what he works, and what he suffers to be wrought with high providence in his church; to sing victorious agonies of martyrs and saints, the deeds and triumphs of just and pious nations, doing valiantly through faith against the enemies of Christ; to deplore the general relapses of kingdoms and states from justice and God's true worship.'
It is probable from a passage in the Mansus, written three years before, that Milton had then determined to write an epic poem upon Arthur, but his travel would seem to have unsettled this resolution. A further proof of his uncertainty at this period is found in the MSS. of this date preserved in Trinity College, Cambridge, which contain a list in Milton's own handwriting of nearly a hundred suggested subjects, and no longer for an epic, but for a tragedy. Of these sixty are scriptural subjects, one of them being ‘Samson Pursophorus, or Hybristes, or Samson marrying, or in Ramath Lechi’ (but he found when the time came for his tragedy a deeper interest in Samson); thirty-three are from British History, but with no more mention of Arthur. At the head of all, however, and with an argument drafted four successive times, stands ‘Paradise Lost'; and Professor Masson is of opinion that the first lines of Satan's Address to the Sun' (iv. 32) with which the tragedy was to have opened, and which, according to Aubrey, Milton's biographer, E. Phillips had seen about 15 or 16 yeares before ever his Poem was thought of,' were written as early as this time.
However this may be it was not until 'about 2 yeares before the K. came in' that Milton found leisure to set about his life's work. All the interval, from his twenty-second to his fiftieth year, was spent in politics. To which side in the conflict Milton's sympathies would carry him, the reader of Lycidas could conjecture. Both sides of the man, the poet and the patriot, are there clearly represented, and the passion is on the side of the patriot; though Pattison points out, “it would have been not unnatural that the admirer of Shakespeare and the old romances, the pet of Italian academies, the poet-scholar, himself the author of two masks, who was nursing his wings for a new flight into the realms of verse, should have sided with the Cavaliers against the Puritans, with the party of culture and the humanities against the party which shut up the theatres and despised profane learning. But there was passion in Milton deeper even than his passion for art, the passion for liberty. He had come back from his travels without seeing Greece, because, as he said, he deemed it dishonourable to be enjoying himself at his ease in foreign lands, while his countrymen were striking a blow for freedom. And it was in the cause of freedom that all his blows were struck. 'He defended religious liberty against the prelates, civil liberty against the crown, the liberty of the press against the executive, liberty of conscience against the Presbyterians, and domestici liberty against the tyranny of canon law. (Pattison's Milton, p. 69.) When the cause of freedom should triumph, then he would resume the purpose of his life; meanwhile in pamphlet after pamphlet he renews his pledge with the public. But 1649
In 1643 Milton married Mary Powell, the daughter of an Oxfordshire squire, and before the honeymoon was over he had written his first tractate on Divorce. Of the history of this unfortunate match we need not here speak; nor need we stay to criticise Milton's general view of women; it is sufficiently prominent in the later part of Paradise Lost, but does not enter into the first book. Milton was married three times in all; the 18th sonnet is to his second wife his last wife survived him, and lived to a great age.
came, and victory, and the death of Charles, but instead of Paradise Lost only Eikonoclastes, a sufficiently ribald attack on the King's memory, by way of answer to the Eikon Basilike, noticeable now only for one phrase by which the new Latin Secretary does not scruple to make what Puritan capital he may out of the King's liking for one whom we well know was the closest companion of these his solitudes, William Shakespeare.' The final loss of his sight in the controversy in which by order of the council he engaged with Salmasius, a professor of Leyden, who had published an apology for Charles (1651), did not abate his furious zeal; another controversy followed with Morus (Alexander More, whom he supposed to be author of a book called Regii Sanguinis Clamor ad Caelum), a controversy disgraceful to all concerned in it; and even after Cromwell's death, when the Republican cause was doomed, he poured forth tract upon tract, the last of which, printed in the year of the Restoration, was A Ready and Easy Way to establish a free Commonwealth.
It was a golden year for English poetry when the restoration of a Stuart King to the throne made it impossible for Milton to further indulge his passion for liberty by publishing pamphlets which then and since have had no influence on affairs. Like Charles himself, Milton recovered dignity with defeat. The Milton of our imagination is not the vehement and too scurrilous pamphleteer in a cause however noble, but the prophet musing amid the ruins of the temple which he had spent twenty years in building. His loss was our gain. The failure of his own schemes for the welfare of the nation turned his thoughts once more to the large movements of the Divine Providence, which, though for a time it might seem to connive at iniquity and oppression, would not in the end be found wanting to its own cause. And so he leaves the world of men, and contemplates instead, almost in abstraction, the great purposes of God and the eternal conflict of good and evil ; contemplates them on a stage where the issue is not doubtful, and where though man indeed plays a part, yet the part he piays is seen in its due proportion, in its proper dependence on the great powers of the universe. Man lost Paradise, but it was by Satan it was lost; it has been regained, but it was the Son of God who regained it. Only afterwards, when he has once more purged his eyesight by gazing on the pattern of the eternal victory, does he redescend to earth, and exhibit in the tragedy of Samson how here also on the temporary stage of a single conflict, the defeat of the good, if it be defeated, may be due not at all to its own inherent weakness but to the folly of its champion, and that although he may deservedly perish, there is for the future more than hope.
Paradise Lost was written partly at Milton's house in Bunhill Row, and partly at Chalfont St. Giles, in Buckinghamshire, whither he had retired from the plague. His manner of life is thus described by Aubrey. 'He was an early riser, sc. at 4 o'clock mane. He had a man read to him. The first thing that he read was the Hebrew Bible, then he contemplated. At 7 his man came to him again, and then read to him and wrote till dinner. The writing was as much as the reading. His daughter Deborah could read to him Latin, Ital., and French and Greek. After dinner he used to walk three or four hours at a time (he always had a garden where he lived); went to bed about nine. Temperate; rarely drank between meals. Extremely pleasant in his conversation, and at dinner, supper, &c.; but satirical. He had an organ in his house ; he played on that most. The poem was finished, according to Aubrey, about three years after the K's restauracion,' i.e. about 1663. In 1671 were published together Paradise Regained and Samson Agonistes. After that, till his death in 1674, he wrote no more poetry.
Epic poetry begins with Homer. In other words, it was the genius of Homer which raised the heroic sagas of Greece to the rank of works of art. Accordingly when Aristotle in his Poetics is investigating the rules of heroic poetry, it is to the Iliad and