In the Modest Confutation Bishop Hall had charged that Milton was seeking literary fame, and advertising his abilities and background, in order to win “a rich widow” or some other reward. In the Apology Milton ridiculed the idea; on the contrary, he had been “bred up in plenty,” needed no rich widow, and held “with them who, both in prudence and elegance of spirit, would choose a virgin of mean fortunes, honestly bred, before the wealthiest widow.” 52 While England drifted into Civil War (1642), Milton drifted into marriage (1643).
He did not join the Parliamentary army; and when the King’s forces neared London (November 12, 1642), he wrote a sonnet advising Royalist commanders to protect the poet’s house and person, as Alexander had protected Pindar, and promising to spread their fame in verse for “such gentle acts as these.” 53 However, the Royalist troops were turned back, and Milton’s bower was left unharmed to greet his wife.
He had met Mary Powell in Forest Hill in Oxfordshire, where her father was a justice of the peace. This Richard Powell, far back in 1627, had acknowledged his indebtedness to Milton, then at Cambridge, in the sum of £ 500, which was later commuted to £ 312, which had not yet been paid. Apparently the poet spent a month with the Powells in May-June, 1643—whether to collect a debt or a wife we know not. John may have felt that at thirty-four it was time he should marry and beget; and Mary, seventeen, apparently had the virginity that he required. He surprised his nephews by returning to London with a wife.
No one was happy long. The nephews resented Mary as an intruder. She resented Milton’s books, and missed her mother, and the “great deal of company and merriment, dancing, etc.,” which she had enjoyed in Forest Hill; “Oftimes,” says Aubrey, “she heard his nephews beaten and cry.” 54 Finding that Mary had but a few ideas, and those Royalist, Milton sank back into his books. He spoke later of a “mute and spiritless mate,” and mourned that “a man shall find himself bound fast to an image of earth and phlegm, with whom he looked to be the co-partner of a sweet and gladsome society.” 55 Some inquirers into the mésalliance believe that Mary refused him consummation. 56 After a month she asked leave to visit her parents; he consented on the understanding that she would return; she went, and did not return. He sent letters to her, which she ignored; and finding no other outlet for his feelings, he wrote, and anonymously published, The Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce (August, 1643). He dedicated it “To the Parliament of England, with the Assembly”—i.e., the Westminster Assembly that was then drawing up a confession of the Presbyterian faith. He begged the Parliament to free itself from the bondage of tradition, and to advance the Reformation by admitting other grounds than adultery for divorce. He proposed to show
that indisposition, unfitness, or contrariety of mind, arising from a cause in nature unchangeable, hindering and ever likely to hinder the main benefits of conjugal society, which are solace and peace, is a greater reason of divorce than natural frigidity, especially if there be no children, and that there be mutual consent. 57
He quoted the old Jewish law of Deut. XXIV, I: “When a man hath taken a wife and married her, and it come to pass that she find no favor in his eyes, because he hath found some uncleanness in her, let him write her a bill of divorcement, and give it in her hand, and send her out of the house.” Christ had apparently rejected this part of the Mosaic Law: “It hath been said, Whoever shall put away his wife, let him give her a writing of divorcement; but I say unto you, That whosoever shall put away his wife, saving for the cause of fornication, causeth her to commit adultery.” (Matt, V, 31–32.) Milton argued that “Christ meant not to be taken word for word,” 58 and had repeatedly avowed that he had not come to change one iota of the Mosaic Law. He struggled to make his broad interpretation cover his individual case, even to justifying divorce for inability to join in “a fit and matchable conversation”; for “the unfitness and defectiveness of an unconjugal mind” can reduce matrimony to “a worse condition than the loneliest single life,” wherein a living soul is tied to a corpse. 59
The little book sold rapidly, for it was universally denounced. Milton published in February, 1644, a second edition, eloquently enlarged and boldly signed. He replied to his critics learnedly in Tetrachordon, and in a lighter vein in Colasterion (both issued in March 4, 1645), heaping upon them his rich vocabulary of vituperation—clod, pork, boar, snout, cockbrained solicitor, brazen ass, odious and odorous fool. 60 Milton could leap in one page from the heights of Parnassus to a Tartarus of scurrility.
Having failed to secure from Parliament a change in the law of divorce, he decided to defy the law and take another wife, preferably a Miss Davis, of whom we know nothing except that she refused him. When rumor of this courtship reached Mary Powell, she decided to recapture her husband, for better or for worse, before it should be too late. One day, when Milton was visiting a friend, she came upon him suddenly, knelt before him, and begged to be restored to his bed and board. He hesitated; his friends pleaded her cause; he consented. With her, his father, and his pupils, he now took a larger house in Barbican Street. Soon Mary’s parents, impoverished by the collapse of the Royalist cause, came also to live with the poet, making such a household as must have made for madness or philosophy. Another addition arrived in 1646—Milton’s first child, Anne. Richard Powell mitigated the mess by dying (July), and John Milton senior completed a long and honorable life in the following March. The poet fell heir to two or three houses in London, some money, and perhaps some realty in the countryside. In 1647 he disbanded his school, and moved with his wife, daughter, and two nephews to High Holborn Street. A second daughter, Mary, was born in 1648.