A Critical History of English Poetry

By Herbert J. C. Grierson; J. C. Smith | Go to book overview

Chapter Fourteen
MILTON

JOHN MILTON ( 1608-1674) towers over all his contemporaries "like Teneriffe or Atlas unremoved." His father, a prosperous London scrivener, discerned his genius early, had him carefully schooled and tutored, gave him seven years at Cambridge, and six more of studious leisure in his country house at Horton, and finally supplied him with funds for a tour in Italy. Moreover, being himself a skilled musician, he had him taught the viol and the organ. At thirty Milton was perhaps the most accomplished young man in England, so far as music and books could make him; of some other things more important for the conduct of life he was and remained invincibly ignorant.

In 1639 he came back to England to bear his part in her struggle for liberty. On the way home he learned of the death of his bosom friend, Charles Diodati. It was an irreparable loss: in later years Milton had many admirers but no intimates. He settled in London, teaching his two nephews while he meditated the great poem that was to be his contribution to the national effort and justify his long apprenticeship to the Muse. The meeting of the Long Parliament in 1640 filled him with exalted hopes. Surely God was about to reveal Himself anew to men, and first, as His wont was, to His Englishmen: Parliament would make God's will prevail in Church and State, and pave the way for Christ's second coming. In 1641 he threw himself into the pamphlet war against Prelacy.

About Whitsuntide 1642 he suddenly went down into Oxfordshire, and returned with a wife, a girl of sixteen, the daughter of a thriftless Cavalier squire. Six weeks later she left him for a visit to her parents, and refused to return. Her desertion dealt him a wound that never healed. Milton was of a nature at once chaste and ardent; he had staked his hopes of happiness on "a contented marriage," and now he was indissolubly yoked to "a dull and spiritless mate" who refused to live with him. In the next two years he

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