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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 heroick poesyb.
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 too cold for flights of imagination.
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 versatile 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 catholick, and died in obscurity. See Athen. Oxon. vol. i. p. 727. H.
Unless an age too late, or cold
Par. Lost. b. ix. I. 44.
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 influence 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 inferiour to the heroes 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
e Johnson has, in many places of his Rambler and Idler, ridiculed the notion of a dependance of our mental powers on the variations of atmosphere. In Boswell's life, however, there are some recorded instances of his own subjection to this common infirmity. We cannot refrain from denouncing, as unfeeling and ungenerous, Johnson's sarcasms at Milton's distempered imagination, when old age, disease, and darkness had come upon him. Dr. Symons runs into the diametrically opposite extreme. Ed.
have been very diligent in his inquiries, 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 cestrum, 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 involuntary 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 exertion, manual or mental. The mechanick cannot handle his hammer and his file at all times with equal dexterity; there are hours, 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,
universally confessed, to have employed any casual visitor in disburdening 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 this 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 prompt and 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 work were written, cannot often be known. The beginning of the third book shows 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 required 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 satisfied him; for, no sooner is he safe, than he finds himself in danger: “fallen on 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, required impudence, at least, equal to his other powers; Milton, whose warmest advocates must allow, that he never spared any asperity of reproach, or brutality 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 persecution, molestation, or insult. Such is the reverence paid to great abilities, however misused: they who contemplated 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 Chalfont, 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 say upon Paradise Found?”
Next year, when the danger of infection had ceased, he returned to Bunhill fields, 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