« PreviousContinue »
and the consciousness of his powers. What he should undertake, it was difficult to determine. He was long choosing, and began late.
While he was obliged to divide his time between his private studies and af fairs of state, his poetical labour must have been often interrupted; and perhaps be did little more in that busy time than construct the narrative, adjust the episodes, proportion the parts, accumulate images and sentiments, and treasure in his memory, or preserve in writing, such hints as books or media tation would supply. Nothing particular is known of his intellectual operations while he was a statesman ; for, having every help and accommodation at band, he had no need of uncommon expedients.
Being driven from all public stations, he is vet too great not to be traced by curiosity to his retirement; where he has been found by Mr. Richardson, the fondest of his admirers, sitting before his door in a grey coat of coarse cloth, in warm sultry weather, to enjoy the fresh air ; and so, as in his own room, receiving the visits of people of distinguished parts as well as quality. His visitors of high quality must now be iinagirred to be few, but meu of parts might reasonably court the conversation of a man so generally illustrious, that foreigners are reported, by Wood, to have visited the house in Bread-street where he was born.
According to another account, he was seen in a small house, neatly enough dressed in black cloaths, sitting in a room hung with rusiy green ; pale but not cadaverous, with chalkstones in his hands. He said, that if it were it not for the gout, his blindnese would be tolerable.
In the intervals of his pain, being made unable to use the common exercises, he used to swing in a chair, and sometimes played upon an organ.
He was now confessedly and visibly einployed upon his poem, of which the progress might be noted by those with whom he was familiar; for he was obliged, when he had composed as many lines as his memory would conveniently retain, to ensploy some friend in writing them, having, at least for part of the time, no regular attendant. This gave opportunity to observations and reports.
Mr. Philips observes, that there was a very remarkable circumstance in the composure of Paradise Lost, “which I have a particular reason," says he,“ to re“ meinber: for whereas I had the perusal of it from the very beginning, for
some years, as I went from time to time to visit him, in parcels of ten, twenty, “ or thirty verses at a time (which being written by whatever hand came next, “ might possibly want correction as to the orthography and pointing), having “ as the summer came on, not been shewed any for a considerable while, and “ desiring the reason thereof, was answered, that his vein never happily flowed “ but from the Autumnal Equinox to the Vernal; and that whatever he at“tempted at other times was never to his satisfaction, though he courted his fancy never so much; so that, in all the years he was about this poem, he
be said to have spent half his time therein." Upon this relation Tolard remarks, that in his opinion Philips has mistaken the time of the year; for Milton, in his Elegies, declares that with the advance of the Spring he feels the increase of his poetical force, redcunt in carmina viris. To this it is answered, that Philips could hardly mistake time so well marked;
and it niay be added, that Milton might find different times of the year favourable to different parts of life. Mr Richardson conceives it impossible that such a work should be suspended for six months, or for one. It may go on faster or slower, but it must go on. By what necessity it must continually go on, or why it might not be laid aside and resumed, it is not easy to discover.
This dependance of the soul upon the seasons, those temporary and periodi. cal ebbs and flows of intellect, may, I suppose, justly be derided as the fumes of vain imagination. Sapiens dominabitur astris. The author that thinks himself weather-hound will find, with a little help from hellebore, that he is only idle or exhausted. But while this notion has possession of the head, it produces the inability which it supposes. Our powers owe much of their energy to our hopes; possunt quia posse videntur. When success seems attainable, diligence is enforced; but when it is adınitted that the faculties are suppressed by a cross wind, or a cloudy sky, the day is given up without resistance, for who can contend with the course of Nature?
From such prepossessions Milton seems not to have been free. There prevailed in his time an opinion that the world was in its decay, and that we have had the misfortune to be produced in the decrepitude of Nature. It was suspected that the whole creation languished, that neither trees nor animals had the height or bulk of their predecessors, and that every thing was daily sinking by gradual diminution * Milton appears to suspect that souls partake of the general degeneracy, and is not without some fear that his book is to be written in an age too late for lieroic poesy,
Another opinion wanders about the world, and sometimes finds reception among wise men; an opinion that restrains the operations of the mind to particular regions, and supposes that a luckless mortal may be born in a degree of latitude too high or too low for wisdom or for wit. From this fancy, wild as it is, he had not wholly cleared his head, when he feared lest the climate of his country might be soo cold for flights of imagination.
Into a mind already occupied by such fancies, another not more reasonable might easily find its way. He that could fear lest his genius had fallen upon too old a world, or too chill a climate, might consistently magnify to himself the inHuence of the seasons, and believe his faculties to be vigorous only half the year.
His submission to the seasons was at least more reasonable than his dread of decaying nature, or a frigid zone ; for general causes must operate uniformly in a general abatement of mental power; if less could be performed by the writer, less likewise would content the judges of his work. Among this lagging race of frosty grovellers he might still have risen into eminence by producing something which they should not willingly let die. However inferior to the heroes
• This opinion is, with great learning and ingenuity, refuted in a book now very little known, “ An Apology or Declaration of the Power and Providence of God in the Government " of the World," by Dr. George Hakewill, London, folio, 1635. The first who ventured to propagate it in this country was Dr. Gabriel Goodman, bishop of Gloucester, a man of a ver. satile temper, and the author of a book entitled, “ The Fall of Man, or the Corruption of " Nature proved by natural Reason." Lond. 1616 and 1624, quarto. He was plundered in the Usurpation, turned Roman Catholic, and died in obscurity, Vide Athen. Oxon. vol. I. 727. H.
who were born in better ages, he might still be great among his contemporaries, with the hope of growing every day greater in the dwindle of posterity. He might still be a giant among the pygmies, the one-eyed monarch of the blind.
Of his artifices of study, or particular hours of composition, we have little account, and there was perhaps little to be told. Richardson who seems to have been very diligent in his enquiries, but discovers always a wish to find Milton discriminated from other men, relates, that “ he would sometimes lie awake “whole nights, but not a verse could he make; 'and on a sudden his poetical “ faculty would rush upon him with an impetus or æstrum, and his daughter was “ immediately called to secure what came. At other times he would dictate “ perhaps forty lines in a breath, and then reduce them to half the number."
These bursts of light, and involutions of darkness, these transient and involun. tary excursions and retrocessions of invention, having some appearance of deviation from the common train of Nature, are eagerly caught by the lovers of a wonder. Yet something of this inequality happens to every man in every mode of excrtion, inanual or mental. The mechanick cannot handle his hammer and his file at all times with equal dexterity; there are ḥours, he knows not why, when his hand is out. By Mr. Richardson's relation, casually conveyed, much regard cannot be claimed. That, in his intellectual hour, Milton called for his daughter to secure what came, may be questioned; for unluckily it happens to be known that his daughters were never taught to write; nor would he have been obliged, as is universally confessed, to have employed any casual visitor in disburthening his memory, if his daughter could have performed the office.
The story of reducing his exuberance has been told of other authors, and, though doubtless true of every fertile and copious mind, seems to have been gratuitously transferred to Milton.
What he has told us, and we cannot now know more, is, that he composed much of his poem in the night and morning, I suppose before his mind was disturbed with common business; and that he poured out with great fluency his unpremeditated verse. Versification, free, like his, from the distresses of rhyme, must by a work so long be made promptand habitual; and when his thoughts were once adjusted, the words would come at his command.
At what particular times of his life the parts of his works were written, cannot often be known. The beginning of the third book shews that he had lost his sight; and the Introduction to the seventh, that the return of the King had clouded him with discountenance; and that he was offended by the licentious festivity of the Restoration. There are no other internal notes of time. Milton, being now cleared from all effects of his disloyalty, had nothing re- . quired from him, but the common duty of living in quiet, to be rewarded with the common right of protection, but this, which, when he skulked from the approach of his King, was perhaps more than he hoped, seems not to have sarisfied him ; for no sooner is he safe, than he finds himself in danger, fallen que evil days and evil tongues, and with darkness and with danger compass'd round. This darkness, had his eyes been better employed, had undoubtedly deserved compassion: but to add the mention of danger was ungrateful and unjust. He was
fallen indeed on evil days; the time was come in which regicides could no longer boast their wickedness. But of evil tongues for Milton to complain, réquired impudence at least equal to his other powers; Milton whose warmest advocates must allow, that he never spared any asperity of reproach or bratality of insolence.
But the charge itself seems to be false ; for it would be hard to recollect any reproach cast upon him, either serious or ludicrous, through the whole remaining part of his life. He pursued his studies or his amusements, without persecutioti, molestation, or insult. Such is the reverence paid to great abilities, however misused : they who contemplate in Milton the scholar and the wit, were contented to forget the reviler of his king.
When the plague (1665) raged in London, Milton took refuge at Chalfort in Bucks; where Elwood, who had taken the house for him, first saw a complete copy of Paradise Lost, and, having perused it, said to him, “ Thou hast said “ a great deal upon Paradise Lost; what hast thou to sav upon Paradise found?"
Next year, when the danger of infection had ceased, he returned to Bunhillfields, and designed the publication of his poem. A license was necessary, and he could expect no great kindness from a chaplain of the archbishop of Canterbury. He seems, however, to have been treated with tenderness; for, though objections were made to particular passages, and among them to the simile of the sun eclipsed in the first book, yet the license was granted; and he sold his copy, April, 27, 1667, to Samuel Simmons, for an immediate payment of five pounds, with a stipulation to receive five pounds more when thirteen hundred should be sold of the first edition: and again, five pounds after the sale of the same number of the second edition : and another five pounds after the same sale of the third. None of the three editions were to extend beyond fifteen hundred copies.
The first edition was ten books, in a small quarto. The titles were varied from year to year; and an advertisement and the arguments of the books were omitted in some copies, and inserted in others.
The sale gave hiin in two years a right to his second payment, for which the receipt was signed April 26, 1669. The second edition was not given till 1674; it was printed in small octavo; and the number of books was increased to twelve, hy a division of the seventh and twelfth ; and some other small improvements were made. The third edition was published in 1678; and tlie widow, to whom the copy was then to devolve, sold all her claims to Simmons for eight pounds, according to her receipt, given Dec. 21, 1680. Simmons had already agreed to transfer the whole right to Brabazon Aylmer for twenty-five pounds; and Aylmer sold to Jacob Tonson half, August 17, 1638, half, March 24, 1690, at a price considerably enlarged. In the history of Paradise Lost a deduction thus minute wili rather gratify than fatigue. . - The slow sale and tardy reputation of this poem have been always mentioned as evidences of neglected merit, and of the uncertainty of literary fame; and enquiries have been made, and conjectures offered, about the cause of its long obscurity and late reception. But has the case been truly stated? Have hot lainentation and wonder been lavished upon an eyil that was never felt?
Τ ο Ν
That in the reigns of Charles and James the Paradise Lost received no public acclamations is readily confessed. Wit and literature were on the side of the Court: and who that solicited favour or fashion would venture to praise the defender of the regicides? All that he himself could think his due from evil tongues in evil days was that reverential silence which was generously preserved. But it can. not be inferred that his poein was not read, or not, however unwillingly, admired.
The sale, if it be considered, will justify the public. Those who have no power to judge of past times but by their own, should always doubt their conclusions. The call for books was not in Milton's age what it is at present To read was not then a general amusement; neither traders, nor often gentlemen, thought themselves disgraced by ignorance. The women had not then aspired to literature, nor was every house supplied with a closet of knowledge. Those, indeed, who professed learning, were not less learned than at any other time; but of that middle race of students who read for pleasure or accomplishment, and who buy the numerous products of modern typography, the number was then comparatively small. To prove the paucity of readers, it may be sufficient to remark, that the nation had been satisfied from 1623 to 1664, that is forty. one years, with only two editions of the works of Shakspeare, which probably did not together make one thousand copies,
The sale of thirteen hundred copies in two years, in opposition to so much recent enmity, and to a style of versification new to all and disgusting to many, was an uncommon example of the prevalence of genius. The demand did not immediately increase ; for many more readers than were supplied at first the nation did not afford. Only three thousand were sold in eleven years; for it forced its way without assistance: its admirers did not dare to publish their opinion; and the opportunities now given of attracting notice by advertise. ments were then very few; the means of proclaiming the publication of new books have been produced by that general literature which now pervades the nation through all its ranks.
But the reputation and price of the copy still advanced, till the Revolution put an end to the secrecy of love, and Paradise Lost broke into open view with sufficient security of kind reception.
Fancy can hardly forbear to conjecture with what temper Milton surveyed the silent progress of his work, and marked its reputation stealing its way in a kind of subterraneous current through fear and silence. I cannot but conceive him calm and confident, little disappointed, not at all dejected, relying on his own merit with steady consciousness, and waiting, without impatience, the vicissitudes of opinion, and the impartiality of a future generation.
In the mean time he continued his studies, and supplied the want of sight by a very odd expedient, of which Philips gives the following account:
Mr. Philips tells us, “ that though our author had daily about him one or “ other to read, some person of man's estate, who, of their own accord, greedily “ catched at the opportunity of being his readers, that they might as well reap " the benefit of what they read to him, as oblige him by the benefit of their * reading; and others of younger years were sent by their parents to the same