About four o'clock on a September morning of 1665,—when the sun was not yet shining upon his windows facing the Artillery Fields, and the autumnal dew lay wet upon his garden leaves,—John Milton awoke with his customary punctuality, and, true to his austere and abstemious mode of life, wasted no time over comfortable indolence. He rose and proceeded to dress, with the help of his manservant Greene. For, although he was but fifty-four years in age, his hands were partly crippled with gout and chalkstones, and his eyes, clear, bright and blue as they had always been to outward seeming, were both stone-blind.
Milton still retained much of that personal comeliness which had won him, at Cambridge, the nickname of "Lady of Christ's College." His original red and white had now become a uniform pallor; his thick, light brown hair, parted at the top, and curling richly on his shoulders—(no close-cropt Roundhead this!)—was beginning to fade towards grey. But his features were noble and symmetrical; he was well-built and well-proportioned; and he was justified in priding himself upon a personal appearance which he had never neglected or despised. In his own words, he was "neither large nor small: at no time had he been considered ugly; and in youth, with a sword by his side, he had never feared the bravest."
Such was the man who now, neatly dressed in black, was led into his study, upon the same floor as his bedroom,—a small chamber hung with rusty green,—and there, seated in a large old elbow-chair, received the morning salutations of his three daughters.
One after another they entered the room, and each bestowed a characteristic greeting upon her father. Anne, the eldest, a handsome girl of twenty, was lame, and had a slight impediment in her speech. She bade him good-morning with a stammering carelessness, enquired casually as to his night's rest, and stared out of window, palpably bored at the commencement of another monotonous, irksome day. Mary, the second,—dark, impetuous, and impatient,—was in a state of smouldering rebellion. She addressed him in a tone of almost insolent mock-civility, —he must needs have been deaf as well as blind not to detect the unfilial dislike beneath her words. Ten-year-old Deborah, the most affectionate of the three, ventured to kiss her father, even to stroke his long, beautiful hair, and to re-tie the tassels of his collar.
"Mary will read to me this morning," said Milton, gravely inclining his head in acknowledgment of Deborah's attentions. The dark girl, with a mutinous shrug of her shoulders, sat down and began to read aloud, in a hard, uninterested voice, out of the great leather-bound Hebrew Old Testament which lay upon the table. And not one single sentence did she understand—not one word of what she was reading.
John Milton's theories of education, which he had expounded at length in pamphlets, were a curious blend of the practical and the ideal. Vastly in advance of his time in his demand for a practical training, he had evolved that "fine definition which has never been improved upon,"—"I call a complete and generous education that which fits a man to perform, justly, skilfully and magnanimously, all the offices, both private and public, of peace and war." But he made no allowances for slowness or stupidity: all his schemes were based upon the existence of scholars equally gifted with himself.
And he entirely left out of all calculations, much as a Mahommedan might, that complex organism the female mind. He wished it, one must conjecture, to remain a blank. So his daughters had received no systematic schooling, only some sort of home-instruction from a governess. And he had himself trained them to read aloud in five or six languages,—French, Italian, Latin, Greek, Hebrew and even Syriac,—in total ignorance of the meaning. "One tongue," observed Milton brusquely, almost brutally, "is enough for any woman."
Mary read on, steadily, stolidly, sullenly, for a full hour. The others had left the room and were busy upon household tasks. At the conclusion of two chapters, "Leave me," commanded Milton, "I would be alone now for contemplation,"—and Mary willingly escaped to breakfast.
The great poet reclined in his chair,—wrapt in such solemn and melancholy meditation as might have served as the model for his own Penseroso. A severe composure suffused his fine features, a serious sadness looked out of his unclouded eyes; his entire expression was "that of English intrepidity mixed with unutterable sorrow." For Milton was a bitterly disappointed man.
It was not merely his comparative poverty,—because the Restoration, besides depriving him of his post as Latin or Foreign Secretary to the Commonwealth Council of State, had reduced his means from various sources almost to vanishing point.
Nor was his melancholy mainly the result of his affliction; that he had deliberately incurred, and was as deliberately enduring. Constant headaches, late study, and perpetual recourse to one nostrum after another, had eventuated in the certainty of total blindness if he persisted in his mode of work.
"The choice lay before me between dereliction of a supreme duty and loss of eyesight; ... and I therefore concluded to employ the little remaining eyesight I was to enjoy in doing this, the greatest service to the common weal it was in my power to render."
No: it was not a personal matter which could sadden John Milton to the very roots of his stern, ambitious, courageous soul. It was the contravention of all that he held most dear in life,—the frustration, as he conceived it, of that liberty which was his very heart's blood by the Restoration of the Stuart monarchy. He had resolved, in his own words, to transfer into the struggle for liberty "all my genius and all the strength of my industry." It appeared that he had flung away both in vain. The Stuart monarchy, to him, lay monstrously black, overshadowing all the land, like his own conception of Satan.
The Restoration was not merely the political defeat of his party, it was the total defeat of the principles, of the religious and social ideals, with which Milton's life was bound up. He had always stood aloof from the other salient men of the time. Of Cromwell he had practically no personal knowledge: with the bulk of the Presbyterians he was openly at enmity. "Shut away behind a barrier of his own ideas," he did not care to associate with men of less lofty intellectual standing. But now he was even more isolated. Since the downfall of the Puritan régime, he of necessity "stood alone, and became the party himself." And he presented, in his Samson Agonistes, "the intensest utterance of the most intense of English poets—the agonised cry of the beaten party," condensed into the expression of one unflinching and heroic soul.
Upon the mysterious and inscrutable decrees of Providence, which had laid in the dust what seemed to him the very cause of God, Milton sat and pondered, in a despondency so profound, a disappointment so poignant, that his own great lines had sought in vain to voice it:
"... I feel my genial spirits droop,
My hopes all flat: Nature within me seems
In all her functions weary of herself;
My race of glory run, and race of shame,
And I shall shortly be with them that rest."
Yet his indomitable spirit was by no means quenched in despair: and an outlet was now open to him at last, which for eighteen years he had foregone,—the outlet of poetic expression. He was conscious of his capacity to travel and to traverse the regions which none had dared explore save Dante. And with that tremendous chief of pioneers he was measuring himself, man to man.
He was able, above the turmoil of faction and the tumult of conflicting troubles, to weigh
"... his spread wings, at leisure to behold
Far off the empyreal Heaven, extended wide
In circuit, undetermined square or round,
With opal towers and battlements adorned
Of living sapphire, once his native seat."
That Milton had been silent for so long a period was due, firstly to his preoccupation with political and polemical questions, into which he had thrown the whole weight of his mind; and, secondly, to the effect of his own firm resolve that the great epic, which, he had always secretly intended, should be the outcome of matured and ripened powers: the apotheosis of all that was worthiest in him: the full fruit of his strenuous life. He had long since arrived at that conclusion, never surpassed in its terseness and truth, that true poetry must be "simple, sensuous, impassioned,"—words which might serve as the text and touchstone of art. "And long it was not after" when he
"was confirmed in this opinion, that he who would not be frustrate of his hope to write well hereafter in laudable things, ought himself to be a true poem."
For poetry, to John Milton, was no sounding brass or tinkling cymbal; in his hand "the thing became a trumpet," apt to seraphic usages and the rallying of celestial cohorts.
Therefore, when he ceased to touch the "tender stops of various quills" that trembled into silence in Lycidas, it was not as one discomfited of his attainment. Rather it was as one convinced of a mighty purpose, and patiently awaiting the just time of its fulfilment. The "woodnotes wild" of Comus, the exquisitely stippled genre painting of Allegro and Penseroso, were mere childish attempts compared with that monumental work to which Milton firmly proposed to devote the fruition of his genius.
And now, having become a man through mental and physical experience even more than through the passage of years, he had put away childish things. He had resolved at last upon, and had at last undertaken, the one subject most congenial to his taste, and most suitable to his style and diction. Paradise Lost was the triumphant offspring of his brain. It had sprung, like light, from chaos. Out of the darkness of poverty, blindness and defeat arose the poem which was to set him on the pinnacles of Parnassus.
"You make many enquiries as to what I am about" he wrote in bygone years to his old schoolfellow, Charles Diodati. "What am I thinking of? Why with God's help, of immortality! Forgive the word, I only whisper it in your ear. Yes, I am pluming my wings for a flight." Nor was this the idle boasting of an egotist, the empty imagination of a dreamer.
Consumed by "the desire of honour and repute and universal fame, seated," as he put it, "in the breast of every true scholar," Milton sedulously and assiduously had prepared himself for the achievement of his aims. That he should "strictly meditate the thankless Muse" required a certain self-control. "To scorn delights and live laborious days" is not the customary delight of a handsome young scholar, expert in swordsmanship as in languages. To equip himself for his self-chosen task, still a misty, undefined prospect in the remotest future, required strenuous and disciplined study; and necessitated his forgoing too frequently the scenes of rustic happiness which he had pictured so charmingly in L'Allegro,—absenting himself from "The groves and ruins, and the beloved village elms ... where I too, among rural scenes and remote forests, seemed as if I could have grown and vegetated through a hidden eternity."
And this, though Milton had neither the eye nor the ear of a born nature-lover, was in itself a sufficient deprivation and sacrifice. For beauty appealed to him with a most earnest insistence,—and the purer, the more abstract form it took, the more urgent was that appeal. "God has instilled into me, at all events," he declared, "a vehement love of the beautiful. Not with so much labour is Ceres said to have sought Proserpine, as I am wont, day and night, to search for the idea of the beautiful through all forms and faces of things, and to follow it leading me on with certain assured traces."
Yet not alone among "forms and faces" was he predestined to discover that Absolute Beauty. The passionate love of music, so frequently characteristic of a great linguist, which led him into sound-worlds as well as sight-worlds, was fated to remain with him, an incalculable consolation, when "forms and faces" could be no more seen. And into the vocabulary of Paradise Lost, that incomparably rich vocabulary, with its infallible ear for rhythm, for phrase, for magnificent consonantal effects and the magic of great names that reverberate through open vowels,—into this he poured forth his whole sense of beautiful sound,
"as the wakeful bird
Sings darkling, and in shadiest covert hid,
Tunes her nocturnal note."
Paradise Lost remains, as has been observed, "The elaborated outcome of all the best words of all antecedent poetry—the language of one who lives in the companionship of the great and the wise of all past time, equally magnificent in verbiage, whether describing man, or God, or the Arch-Enemy visiting" this pendent world, when
Thither, full fraught with mischievous revenge,
Accursed, and in a cursed hour, he lives.
At seven o'clock the body-servant Greene re-entered, followed by Mrs. Milton, the poet's third wife, and by Mary Fisher, their maid-servant, bringing in his breakfast, a light, slight repast. Mrs. Milton, née Elizabeth Minshull, of Nantwich, was a comely, active, capable woman, "of a peaceful and agreeable humour," so far at least as her husband was concerned: for she shared the traditional destiny of a stepmother in not "hitting it off" with the first wife's daughters.
Her golden hair and calm commonsense were in striking contrast, alike with the dark beauty and petulant spirit of Mary Powell, and with the fragile sweetness of Catherine Woodcock, Milton's former spouses. If she did not in her heart confirm her husband's celebrated theory of the relative position of man and wife,—"He for God only, she for God in him,"—(which, it has been said, "condenses every fallacy about woman's true relation to her husband and to her Maker"), she managed very adroitly to convey an impression of entire acquiescence in the will of her lord. And at least she was entirely adequate as a housewife.
Had Milton ever encountered that "not impossible She" whom he portrayed in his ideal Eve? or was this latter a mere visionary abstract of great qualities, "to show us how divine a thing a woman may be made"? Neither of his three wives, nor yet that "very handsome and witty gentlewoman," Miss Davis, to whom he had at one time paid his addresses, conformed to this description: one cannot even conjecture that it was a pasticcio of their respective fine attributes.
Mrs. Milton, third of that name, as she bustled and busied herself about the study, was by no means a new Eve. She regarded her husband's ambitions and achievements with that good natured tolerance so characteristic of the materially-minded. Only genius can appreciate genius; and the man who shut himself away from his confrères in scholarship and literature was not likely to unbosom himself to his housewifely, provincial wife.