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Most of these petty faults are in his first productions, when he was less skilful, or, at least, less dexterous in the use of words; and though they had been more frequent, they could only have lessened the grace, not the strength of his composition. He is one of the writers that improved our taste, and advanced our language, and whom we ought, therefore, to read with gratitude, though, having done much, he left much to do.
HE life of Milton has been already written in
so many forms, and with such minute inquiry, that I might, perhaps, more properly have contented myself with the addition of a few notes on Mr. Fenton's elegant Abridgement, but that a new narrative was thought necessary to the uniformity of this edition.
John Milton was, by birth, a gentleman, descended from the proprietors of Milton, near Thame, in Oxfordshire, one of whom forfeited his estate in the times of York and Lancaster. Which side he took I know not; his descendant inherited no veneration for the white rose.
His grandfather, John, was keeper of the forest of Shotover, a zealous papist, who disinherited his son, because he had forsaken the religion of his ancestors.
His father, John, who was the son disinherited, had recourse, for his support, to the profession of a scrivener. He was a man eminent for his skill in musick, many of his compositions being still to be found; and his reputation in his profession was such, that he grew rich, and retired to an estate. He had, probably, more than common literature, as his son addresses him in one of his most elaborate Latin poems. He married a gentlewoman of the name of Caston, a Welsh family, by whom he had two sons, John, the poet, and Christopher, who studied the law, and adhered, as the law taught him, to the king's party, for which he was awhile persecuted, but having, by his brother's interest, obtained permission to live in quiet, he supported himself so honourably by chamber practice, that, soon after the accession of king James, he was knighted, and made a judge; but, his constitution being too weak for business, he retired before any disreputable compliances became necessary.
He had, likewise, a daughter, Anne, whom he married with a considerable fortune, to Edward Philips, who came from Shrewsbury, and rose in the crown office to be secondary: by him she had two sons, John and Edward, who were educated by the poet, and from whom is derived the only authentick account of his domestick manners.
John, the poet, was born in his father's house, at the Spread-eagle, in Bread street, Dec. 9, 1608, between six and seven in the morning. His father appears to have been very solicitous about his education; for he was instructed, at first, by private tuition, under the care of Thomas Young, who was afterwards chaplain to the English merchants at Hamburgh, and of whom we have reason to think well, since his scholar considered him as worthy of an epistolary elegy.
He was then sent to St. Paul's school, under the care of Mr. Gill; and removed, in the beginning of his sixteenth year, to Christ's college in Cambridge, where he entered a sizare, Feb. 12, 1624.
In this assertion Dr. Johnson was mistaken. Milton was admitted a pensioner, and not a sizar, as will appear by the following extract from the college register: “Johannes Milton, Londinensis, filius Johannis,
He was, at this time, eminently skilled in the Latin tongue; and he himself, by annexing the dates to his first compositions, a boast of which the learned Politian had given him an example, seems to commend the earliness of his own proficiency to the notice of posterity. But the products of his vernal fertility have been surpassed by many, and particularly by his contemporary Cowley. Of the powers of the mind it is difficult to form an estimate: many have excelled Milton in their first essays, who never rose to works like Paradise Lost.
At fifteen, a date which he uses till he is sixteen, he translated or versified two psalms, 114 and 136, which he thought worthy of the publick eye; but they raise no great expectations: they would, in any numerous school, have obtained praise, but not excited wonder.
Many of his elegies appear to have been written in his eighteenth year, by which it appears that he had then read the Roman authors with very nice discernment. I once heard Mr. Hampton, the translator of Polybius, remark, what I think is true, that Milton was the first Englishman who, after the revival of letters, wrote Latin verses with classick elegance. If any exceptions can be made, they are very few: Haddon and Ascham, the pride of Elizabeth's reign, however they have succeeded in prose, no sooner attempt verse than they provoke derision. If we produced any thing worthy of notice before the elegies of Milton, it was, perhaps, Alabaster's Roxana'.
institutus fuit in literarum elementis sub Mag'ro Gill Gymnasii Paulini præfecto, admissus est Pensionarius Minor, Feb. 12°, 1624, sub M'ro Chappell, solvitq. pro Ingr. Ol. 108. Od." R.
Of the exercises which the rules of the university required, some were published by him in his maturer years. They had been undoubtedly applauded; for they were such as few can perform; yet there is reason to suspect that he was regarded in his college with no great fondness. That he obtained no fellowship is certain; but the unkindness with which he was treated, was not merely negative. I am ashamed to relate what I fear is true, that Milton was one of the last students in either university, that suffered the publick indignity of corporal corrections.
It was, in the violence of controversial hostility, objected to him, that he was expelled: this he steadily denies, and it was apparently not true; but it seems plain, from his own verses to Diodati, that he had incurred rustication, a temporary dismission into the country, with, perhaps, the loss of a term:
Me tenet urbs, reflua quam Thamesis alluit unda,
Meque nec invitum patria dulcis habet.
Nec dudum vetiti me laris angit amor.
Cæteraque ingenio non subeunda meo.
Lætus et exilii conditione fruor.
I cannot find any meaning but this, which even kindness and reverence can give to the term “vetiti
1 Published 1632, R. 8On this subject, see Dr. Symons's Life of Milton, 71, 72. Ed.