Milton’s grandfather was a Roman Catholic, who was fined sixty pounds in 1601 for skipping Anglican services, and who disinherited his son for abandoning the Roman Church. This disowned John Milton earned a good living as a London scrivener—a penman skilled in writing or copying manuscripts, charters, and legal documents. He loved music, composed madrigals, had many musical instruments, including an organ, in his home; and this feeling for music passed down to the poet, who would have agreed that to write well one must have music in his soul and in his mental ear. The mother, Sarah Jeffrey, daughter of a merchant tailor, gave her husband six children, of whom our John was the third. A younger brother, Christopher, became a Stuart royalist and High Church man; John became a Cromwellian Puritan republican. The home in Bread Street was a Puritan establishment, serious and devout but not puritanic; the Renaissance love of the beautiful mingled here with the Reformation passion for the good.
John senior bought realty, prospered, engaged tutors (Puritan) for John junior, and sent him, aged eleven, to St. Paul’s School. There the boy learned Latin, Greek, French, Italian, and some Hebrew. He read Shakespeare, but preferred Spenser; we note in passing that he was much impressed by an English translation of Du Bartas’ La Semaine (1578), an epic describing the creation of the world in seven days.
My appetite for knowledge was so voracious that from twelve years of age I hardly ever left my studies, or went to bed before midnight. This primarily led to my loss of sight. My eyes [like his mother’s] were naturally weak, and I was subject to frequent headaches, which, however, could not chill the ardor of my curiosity, or retard the progress of my improvement. 26
At sixteen he passed to Christ’s College, Cambridge. There his quarrel with a tutor led to fisticuffs. Samuel Johnson was “ashamed to relate what I fear is true, that Milton was one of the last students in either university that suffered the public indignity of corporal correction.” 27 Milton was expelled for a term, then was allowed to return. Already he was writing good poetry. In 1629, aged twenty-one, he celebrated with a magnificent ode “the Morning of Christ’s Nativity,” and a year later he composed a sixteen-line “Epitaph,” which was later accepted for publication in the Second Folio edition (1632) of Shakespeare’s works:
What needs my Shakespeare for his honoured bones
The labour of an Age in pilèd stones,
Or that his hallow’d Reliques should be hid
Under a Star-ypointing Pyramid?
Dear Sonne of Memory, great Heire of Fame,
What need’st thou such dull witnesse of thy Name?*
Milton stayed eight years at Cambridge, taking the bachelor’s degree in 1628, the master’s in 1632; then he left without the usual affection for the scene of one’s college years. His father had expected him to enter the ministry, but the proud youth refused to take the oath of loyalty to the Anglican creed and liturgy:
Perceiving what tyranny had invaded the Church—that he who would take orders must subscribe slave, and take an oath withal, which unless he took with a conscience that would retch, he must either straight perjure or split his faith—I thought it better to prefer a blameless silence before the sacred office of speaking, bought . . . with servitude and forswearing. 29
He retired to his father’s country house at Horton, near Windsor; there, apparently, he was paternally maintained while he pursued his studies, chiefly classical. He became familiar with even the most minor of the Latin authors. He wrote Latin poems that won the praise of a Roman Catholic cardinal; soon he was to make Europe resound with his Latin defenses of Cromwell’s policies. Even when he wrote English prose he wrote Latin, bending the English to classical inversions and convolutions, but achieving a strange and fascinating sonority.
Probably it was at Horton, amid the lush fields and greenery of an English countryside, that he composed (1632?) the companion pieces that celebrated in turn the careless joys and melancholy moods of his passing youth. Almost every line of “L’Allegro” cries out to be sung. Allegro is the “daughter fair, . . . buxom, blithe, and debonair,” born of “Zephyr with Aurora playing.” Everything in the rural scene now delights the poet: the lark startling the night, the cock strutting before his dames, the hounds leaping at the blowing of the hunter’s horn, the sun rising “in flames and amber light,” the singing milkmaid and the nibbling flocks, the dance of youth and maiden on the grass, the evening by the hearth or at the theater.
If Jonson’s learnèd sock be on,
Or sweetest Shakespeare, Fancy’s child,
Warble his native wood-notes wild;
Untwisting all the chains that tie
The hidden soul of harmony; . . .
These delights if thou canst give,
Mirth, with thee I mean to live.
Here was as yet no grim or joyless Puritan, but a healthy English youth in whose veins ran some ichor of the Elizabethan bards.
But there came at times another mood, when these pleasures seemed trivial to the pensive mind remembering tragedy, seeking significance, and finding in philosophy no answers, but only questions unfelt before. Then “II Penseroso,” the thoughtful one, walks unseen
To behold the wand’ring Moon
Riding near her highest noon,
Like one that had been led astray
Through the Heav’ns’ wide pathless way;
or he sits solitary by the fire
Where glowing embers through the room
Teach light to counterfeit a gloom,
Far from all resort of mirth,
Save the cricket on the hearth;
or he is in “some high lonely tower,” humbled by the stars, turning Plato’s leaves, and wondering where heaven is—
What worlds, or what vast regions hold
The immortal mind that hath forsook
Her mansion in this fleshly nook
—or recalling the griefs of lovers and the sad deaths of kings. Then better than dour philosophy are the “studious cloister’s pale” of the great cathedral, its storied windows and shadowed light;
There let the pealing organ blow
To the full-voiced choir below,
In service high, and anthems clear,
As may with sweetness, through mine ear,
Dissolve me into ecstasies,
And bring all Heav’n before mine eyes.
These are the pleasures that come to “the pensive one,” and if they seem tied to Melancholy, then with Melancholy will the poet live. In these two lovely poems Milton reveals himself at twenty-four: a youth atremble with life’s beauties and unashamed of happiness, but already touched with puzzled reveries on life and death, feeling in himself the conflict of religion with philosophy.
The poet’s first chance to distinguish himself came in 1634, when he was commissioned to write a pastoral masque for the ceremonies inaugurating the Earl of Bridgewater as lord president of the Council of the West. Henry Lawes composed the middling music; Milton’s verses, modestly anonymous, were so praised that he was moved to acknowledge their authorship. Sir Henry Wotton commended “a certain Doric delicacy in your songs and odes, whereunto . . . I have seen yet nothing parallel in our language.”30Originally the piece was entitled A Masque Presented at Ludlow Castle (in Shropshire); today we call it Comus. It was performed by two young nobles and their sister, a seventeen-year-old girl from the court of Queen Henrietta Maria. Though most of the little drama is in blank verse, much trammeled with mythology, it has a lyric lilt and melodious elegance better sustained than ever again in Milton’s poetry. The theme was traditional: a lovely virgin, wandering recklessly in the woods, and singing
strains that might create a soul
Under the ribs of death,
is accosted by the sorcerer Comus, who casts upon her a charm to loose her chastity. He begs her to make play while her youth shines; she with warm eloquence defends virtue, temperance, and “divine philosophy.” All the lines went well, except perhaps an ominously republican passage that may have made that lavish gathering wince:
If every just man that now pines with want
Had but a modest and beseeming share
Of that which lewdly-pamper’d Luxury
Now heaps upon some few with vast excess,
Nature’s full blessings would be well dispenc’t
In unsuperfluous even proportion,
And she no whit encombered with her store. 31
In 1637 the poet’s mood was darkened by the drowning of his young friend and fellow poet Edward King. To a memorial volume Milton contributed an elegy, “Lycidas,” conceived in artificial pastoral form, and cluttered with dead gods, but rich in lines that still ring in grateful memory:
Alas! what boots it with incessant care
To tend the homely slighted shepherd’s trade,*
And strictly meditate the thankless Muse?
Were it not better done as others use,
To sport with Amaryllis in the shade,
Or with the tangles of Neaera’s hair?
Fame is the spur that the clear spirit doth raise
(That last infirmity of noble mind)
To scorn delights, and live laborious days;
But the fair guerdon when we hope to find,
And think to burst out into sudden blaze,
Comes the blind Fury with th’abhorrèd shears,
And slits the thin-spun life.
John Milton senior seems to have felt that six years of leisurely indulgence at Horton were well earned by a talent that could sing such songs. To crown his generosity, he sent his son to travel on the Continent, all expenses paid. Equipped with a manservant, Milton left England in April, 1638, spent a few days in Paris (then in the martial grip of Richelieu), and hurried on to Italy. During a stay of two months in Florence he visited the blind and half-imprisoned Galileo, met the literati, sat in with the academies, exchanged compliments in Latin verse, and wrote Italian sonnets as if he had been reared by the Arno or the Po. In Naples he was received and escorted by that same Marquis Manso who had befriended Tasso and Marini. He spent four months in Rome, met and liked some learned cardinals, but frankly confessed his Protestant faith. Then again to Florence, and through Bologna and Ferrara to Venice, through Verona to Milan, and through Geneva, Lyons, and Paris to London (August, 1639).
In later works he made two notable statements about his travels in Italy. Rebutting the insinuations of an opponent, he wrote: “I call God to witness that in all those places in which vice meets with so little discouragement, and is practiced with so little shame, I never once deviated from the paths of integrity and virtue.” 32 And, recalling how the Italian critics had praised his poetry,
I began thus far to assent both to them and divers of my friends here at home, and not less to an inward prompting which now grew daily upon me, that by labor and intent 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 aftertimes, as they should not willingly let it die. 33
Now he began to plan a great epic that would celebrate his nation or his faith, and enshrine his name in centuries. Twenty years were to pass before he could begin it, twenty-nine before he could publish it. Between the first period of his poetry (1630–40) and the second (1658–68) he played his part in the Great Rebellion, and kept his pen for war and prose.