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satisfied with the jejune diet doled out by pedantic teachers. Before Milton's first year was ended he had a quarrel with his tutor, William Chappell, which resulted in his temporary withdrawal from Cambridge. Upon his return a different tutor was assigned to him, and henceforth his university life was uninterruptedly smooth. In 1629 he graduated as Bachelor of Arts, and in July, 1632, he obtained the degree of Master of Arts.
By the time Milton was ready to leave Cambridge he had won the esteem of his teachers and associates. We are told by Wood that " 'twas usual with him to sit up till midnight at his book, which was the first thing that brought his eyes into the danger of blindness. By his indefatigable study he profited exceedingly, performed the academical exercises to the admiration of all, and was esteemed a virtuous and sober person, yet not to be ignorant of his own parts.”
He is described as of middle height, of fair complexion, with a musical voice, dark gray eyes, and auburn hair falling on his shoulders. Although his personal charm and purity of life led him to be nicknamed "the lady of Christ's,” he must not be accounted effeminate. His manner was manly and he considered himself a match for any one with the sword. Aubrey quaintly tells us that he “lodged a harmonical and ingenious soul in a beautiful and well-proportioned body.”
Earliest Poems. We are told by Aubrey that Milton was a poet when he was eleven years old, and Milton himself tells us that it was under the guidance of one of his first tutors, Thomas Young, that “I penetrated into the recesses of the muses, saw the sacred and green places of Parnassus, and drank the Pierian cups a grandiloquent way of saying that Young led him to write verses. The first poems we possess are metrical paraphrases of Psalms 119 and 136, composed in 1624. Of these efforts Dr. Johnson has correctly said, “They raise no great expectations; they would in any numerous school have obtained praise, but not excited wonder.” In 1626, while he was visiting London because of his quarrel with his Cambridge tutor, he wrote On the Death of a Fair Infant. About this time he also
composed several Latin elegies, and during his college days he wrote seven Latin essays or orations called Prolusiones Oratoriae. Better known than any of these are his odes on Christ's Nativity (1629) and Upon the Circumcision (1630), the former of which is the best of these early productions. It is, however, a strange “mingling of Christianity, classicism, and the Middle Ages.” In 1630 among the pieces he wrote are also The Passion and an epitaph on Shakspere in which he admiringly calls, the Bard of Avon,
“Dear son of memory, great heir of fame.” During his last year at Cambridge he wrote the following sonnet, interesting as indicating the high seriousness with which he already looked at life: “How soon hath Time, the subtle thief of youth,
Stol'n on his wing my three-and-twenti'th year!
But my late spring no bud or blossom shew'th.
That I to manhood am arriv'd so near;
That some more timely-happy spirits indu'th.
It shall be still in strictest measure ev'n
To that same lot, however mean, or high,
All is, if I have grace to use it so,
As ever in my great Task-Master's eye.” At Horton. — After leaving Cambridge he went to Horton where he resided with his father for five years and nine months, from July, 1632, to April, 1638. Horton, near the towers of Windsor castle and the forest, was a quiet country place about seventeen miles from London, then a city of about 300,000. Professor Masson describes it as "a rich, teeming, verdurous flat, charming by its appearance of plenty, and by the goodly show of wood along the fields and pastures."
To a mind as serious as Milton's the choice of his life work
must have presented itself with frequency long before he left the university. Refusing the call of the church because of what he considered its tyranny, and having no taste for the law, he finally decided in favor of the literary life.
From this point forward Milton's life may be divided into three parts: in the first we find him at Horton, leading the quiet life of the scholar, and producing his matchless short poems, L'Allegro, Il Penseroso, Comus, and Lycidas; in the next we find him in the midst of the political strife of his day, abandoning poetry for the writing of bitter controversial prose; in the last, blind and solitary, he achieves immortality by writing Paradise Lost, Paradise Regained, and Samson Agonistes.
L’Allegro and Il Penseroso.—Had Milton written nothing but these two companion poems, he would still have a permanent place in our literature, for they are among the finest in our language. Henry van Dyke has said:
"I do not think that L'Allegro and Il Penseroso, and Comus have any lower place in the world, or less enduring life, than Paradise Lost. We have thought so much of Milton's strength and sublimity that we have ceased to recognize what is also true, that he, of all English poets, is by nature the supreme lover of beauty.” The titles of the first two, in questionable Italian, may be translated as "the cheerful man” and “the contemplative man”; the poems respectively describe the delights of Mirth and the pleasures of Melancholy.
L’Allegro opens with an imprecation against Melancholy,“ of Cerberus and blackest Midnight born,” and an invitation to Mirth. The body of the poem contains descriptions of the phases of Nature, beginning with the morning and ending with the night. Il Penseroso begins with an invective against deluding joys” and an invitation to “divinest Melancholy." The time extends from night to the morning. Each of the poems has been minutely analysed by those painstaking critics who are not content with the clear expression of the beautiful, but seek for recondite meanings and obscure symbolism. What chiefly interests us is that Milton has produced beautiful poetry
on very simple themes — the delights of Mirth and the pleasures of Melancholy
Both poems are characterized by an exquisite workmanship manifesting itself in a perfect diction; the sentiment is “married to immortal verse.” In L'Allegro we have the quick movement of
“Haste thee nymph, and bring with thee
Come, and trip it as ye go
On the other hand, in Il Penseroso the movement is slow and solemn, with suitable adaptation to the thought
Come pensive Nun, devout and pure,
The poems have many allusions, such as one would expect from a classical scholar like Milton. We soon meet with Cerberus, Cimmerian, and Euphrosyne in L'Allegro, and with Morpheus, Memnon's sister, and Vesta in Il Penseroso. These, however, are not so numerous as to hinder our appreciation of the picturesque descriptions of Nature as seen by our poet who, without moralizing like Gray or without the mysticism of Wordsworth, describes things as they seemed to a lover of the beautiful. Of Poe it has been remarked that, with the exception of The Raven, he presents few lines that lend themselves to the art of the illustrator; of these two poems of Milton it may be observed that few lines do not lend themselves to the pencil of the artist.
“The two idylls [writes Mark Pattison] breathe the free air of spring and summer, and of the fields around Horton. They are thoroughly naturalistic; the choicest expression our language has yet found of the fresh charm of country life, not as that life is lived by the peasant, but as it is felt by a young and lettered student, issuing at early dawn, or at sunset, into the fields from his chamber and his books. All rural sights and sounds and smells are here blended in that ineffable combination, which once or twice in our lives has saluted our young senses before their perceptions were blunted by alcohol, by lust, or ambition, or diluted by the social distractions of great cities."
With which of the two moods did Milton most sympathize, the mood of L'Allegro or the mood of Il Penseroso? While if any distinction of excellence is to be made, to my taste at least, it would be in favor of L'Allegro, yet one cannot escape the feeling that the pleasures of Melancholy had more charm for our soberminded scholar who looked upon his poetic gift as something holy and consecrated to the high service of the Almighty. While Milton's delights of Mirth are almost Puritanic in their limitations, and a poet might indulge his fancy in
Untwisting all the chains that tie
The hidden soul of harmony," without injury to his nature, we feel that our poet's deepest longing is expressed in the beautiful prayer at the end of Il Penseroso
“But let my due feet never fail
Till old experience do attain
To something like prophetic strain." Comus. - To this period belong Arcades, a brief mask in honor of the seventy years of the Countess-Dowager of Derby, and the more widely known Comus. The original description on the title page of Comus read, “A Masque Presented at Ludlow Castle, 1634, before the Earl of Bridgewater, Lord President of Wales.” A masque, or mask, has been defined as "a form of entertainment, in part dramatic, but having as its main feature dancing, with music, poetry, elaborate costuming, and spectacular