Imatges de pàgina
PDF
EPUB

reaches the scene of action, vapours away his patriotism in a private boarding-school. This is the period of his life from which all his biographers seem inclined to shrink. They are unwilling that Milton should be degraded to a schoolmaster; but, since it cannot be denied that he taught boys, one finds out that he taught for nothing, and another that his motive was only zeal for the propagation of learning and virtue; and all tell what they do not know to be true, only to excuse an act which no wise man will consider as in itself disgraceful. His father was alive ; his allowance was not ample; and he supplied its deficiencies by an honest and useful employment.

It is told, that in the art of education he performed wonders; and a formidable list is given of the authors, Greek and Latin, that were read in Aldersgate-street by youth between en and fifteen or sixteen years of age. Those who tell or receive these stories should consider, that nobody can be taught faster than he can learn. The speed of the horseman must be limited by the power of the horse. Every man, that has ever undertaken to instruct others, can tell what slow advances he has been able to make, and how much patience it requires to recall vagrant inattention, to stimulate sluggish indifference, and to rectify absurd misapprehension.

The purpose of Milton, as it seems, was to teach something more solid than the common lit ature of schools, by reading those authors that treat of physical subjects; such as the georgic and astronomical treatises of the ancients. This was a scheme of improvement which seems to have busied many literary projectors of that age. Cowley, who had more means than Milton of knowing what was wanting to the embellishments of life, formed the same plan of education in his imaginary college.

But the truth is, that the knowledge of external nature, and the sciences which that knowledge requires or includes, are not the great or the frequent business of the human mind. Whether we provide for action or conversation, whether we wish to be useful or pleasing, the first requisite is the religious and moral knowledge of right and wrong; the next is an acquaintance with the history of mankind, and with those examples which may be said to embody truth, and prove by events the reasonableness of opinions. Prudence and justice are virtues and excellencies of all times and of all places; we are perpetually moralists, but we are geometricians only by chance. Our intercourse with intellectual nature is necessary; our speculations upon matter are voluntary, and at leisure. Physiological learning is of such rare emergence, that one may know another half his life, without being able to estimate his skill in hydrostatics or astronomy; but his moral and prudential character immediately appears.

Those authors, therefore, are to be read at schools that supply most axioms of prudence, most principles of moral truth, and most materials for coversation ; and these purposes are best served by poets, orators, and historians.

Let me not be censured for this digression as pedantic or paradoxical; for, if I have Milton against me, I have Socrates on my side. It was his labour to turn philosophy from the study of nature to speculations upon life; but the innovators, whom I oppose, are turning off attention from life to nature. They seem to think, that we are placed here to watch the growth of plants, or the motions of the stars. Socrates was rather of opinion, that what we had to learn was, how to do good, and avoid evil.

"Οττι τοι εν μεγάροισι κακόντ', αγαθόντε τέτυκται.

Of institutions we may judge by their effects. From this wonder-working academy, I do not know that there ever proceeded any man very eminent for knowledge: its only genuine product, I believe, is a small history of poetry, written in Latin by his nephew Philips, of which perhaps none of my readers has ever heard.

That in his school, as in every thing else which he undertook, he laboured with great diligence, there is no reason for doubting. One part of his method deserves general imitation. He was careful to instruct his scholars in religion. Every Sunday was spent upon theology; of which he dictated a short system, gathered from the writers that were then fashionable in the Dutch universities.

He set his pupils an example of hard study and spare diet; only now and then he allowed himself to pass a day of festivity and indulgence with some gay gentlemen of Gray's inn.

He now began to engage in the controversies of the times, and lent bis breath to blow the flames of contention. In 1641, he published a treatise of Reformation, in two books, against the established church; being willing to help the puritans, who were, he says, inferior to the prelates in learning.

Hall, bishop of Norwich, had published an Humble Remonstranee, in defence of episcopacy; to which, in 1641, five ministers, of whose names the first letters made the celebrated word Smectymnuus, gave their answer. Of this answer a confutation was attempted by the learned Usher; and to the confutation Milton published a reply, entitled, Of prelatical episcopacy, and whether it may be deduced from the apostolical times, by virtue of those testimonies which are alleged to that purpose in some late treatises, one whereof goes under the name of James lord bishop of Armagh.

I have transcribed this title, to shew, by his contemptuous mention of Usher, that he had now adopted the puritanical savageness of manners. His next work was, The reason of church government urged against prelacy, by mr. John Milton, 1642. In this book he discovers, not with ostentatious exultation, but with calm confidence, his high opinion of his own powers; and promises to undertake something, he yet knows not what, that may be of use and honour to his country. “ This,” says he, “is not to be ob. tained but by devout prayer to that Eternal Spirit that can enrich with all utterance and knowledge, and sends out his seraphim, with the hallowed fire of his altar, to touch and purify the lips of whom he pleases. To this must be added, industrious and select reading, steady observation, and insight into all seemly and generous arts and affairs; till which in some measure be compast, I refuse not to sustain this expectation.” From a promise like this, at once fervid, pious, and rational, might be expected the Paradise Lost.

He published, the same year, two more pamphlets, upon the same question. To one of his antagonists, who aflirms' that he was vomited out of the university, he answers, in general terms: “ The fellows of the college wherein I spent some years, at my parting, after I had taken two degrees, as the manner is, signified many times how much better it would content them that I should stay.--As for the common approbation or dislike of that place, as now it is, that I should esteem or disesteem myself the more for that, too simple is the answerer, if he think to obtain with me. Of small practice were the physician who could not judge, by what she and her sister have of long time vomited, that the worser stuff she strongly keeps in her stomach, but the better she is ever kecking at, and is queasy; she vomits now out of sickness; but, before it will be well with her, she must vomit by strong physic. The university, in the time of her better health, and my younger judgment, I never greatly admired, but now much less.”

This is surely the language of a man who thinks that he has been injured. He proceeds to describe the course of his conduct, and the train of his thoughts; and, because he has been suspected of incontinence, gives an account of his own purity: “That, if I be justly charged,” says he, " with this crime, it may come upon me with tenfold shame."

The style of his piece is rough; and such, perhaps, was that of his antagonist. This roughness he justifies, by great examples, in a long digression. Sometimes he tries to be humorous: “ Lest I should take him for some chaplain in hand, some squire of the body to his prelate, one who serves not at the altar only, but at the court-cupboard, he will bestow on us a pretty model of himself; and sets me out half a dozen phthisical mottoes, wherever he had them, hopping short in the measure of convulsion fits; in which labour, the agony of his wit having escaped narrowly, instead of well-sized periods, he greets us with a quantity of thumb-ring poesies.-And thus ends this section, or rather dissection, of himself.” Such is the controversial merriment of Milton: his gloomy seriousness is yet more offensive: such is his malignity, that hell grows darker at his frown.

His father, after Reading was taken by Essex, came to reside in his house ; and his school increased. At Whitsuntide, in his thirty sifth year, he married Mary the daughter of mr. Powel, a justice of the peace in Oxfordshire. He brought her to town with him, and expected all the advantages of a conjugal life. The lady, however, seems not much to have delighted in the pleasures of spare diet and hard study; for, as Philips relates, “ having for a month led a philosophic life, after having been used at home to a great house, and much company and joviality, her friends, possibly by her own desire, made earnest suit to have her company the remaining part of the summer; which was granted, upon a promise of her return at Michaelmas.”

Milton was too busy much to miss his wife: he pursued his studies; and now and then visited the lady Margaret Leigh, whom he has mentioned in one of his sonnets. At last Michaelmas arrived; but the lady bad no inclination to return to the sullen gloom of her husband's babitation, and therefore very willingly forgot her promise. He sent her a letter, but had no answer: he sent more with the same success. It could be alleged that letters miscarry; he therefore dispatched a messenger, being by this time too angry to go himself. His messenger was sent back with some contempt. The family of the lady were cavaliers.

In a man whose opinion of his own merit was like Milton's, less provocation than this might have raised violent resentment, Milton soon determined to repudiate her for disobedience; and, being one of those who could easily find arguments to justify inclination, published in 1644) The Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce; which was followed by The Judgment of Martin Bucer, concerning Divorce; and the next year, his Tetrachordon, Expositions upon the four chief places of Scripture which treat of Marriage.

This innovation was opposed, as might be expected, by the clergy, who, then holding their famous assembly at Westminster, procured that the author should be called before the lords; but “ that house,” says Wood," whether approving the doctrine, or not favouring his accu's',

did soon dismiss him."

« AnteriorContinua »