图书图片
PDF
ePub

"good easy man," might, one would think, have ventured to shield the poet. Shenstone managed matters better. He did not " Slight her merit, but adore her place," as he intimates others did. He went, listened patiently to her poetry, and then on his return home addressed to her a poem entitled 'Rural Elegance,' wherein he celebrated "her genius graced with rank," and the scene—

"Where from gay throngs and gilded spires
Her philosophic step retires."

Shenstone laid on his colours with such strong impasto, that the Duchess was fain to beg that before the picture was exhibited, it might be a little softened, or else her name be detached from it. Moses Brown was another of the poets whose verses did honour to the place and its fair occupant. His poem on Percy Lodge was "composed by command of the Duke and Duchess of Somerset. But after all that the poets did for it, the description which her Grace wrote herself of it to her friend Lady Pomfret, is that which will be read with most interest, and preserve its fame the longest. If we had not stayed here too long already, I would bring the reader into good humour with the lady—whom I am afraid I have drawn not as Lawrence would have done — by quoting some portion of it. Tillons.

Colnbrook, by Camden, Gale, Stukeley, and others of our elder antiquaries, thought to be the Pontes of Antoninus, owes its name to its position by the river; though the curious old rhyme 'Thomas of Reading' makes both river and town derive their names from its hero, Thomas Cole, the Reading clothier, who was murdered by the

VOL. II. c

treacherous host of the inn at this place, where he had put up for the night on his way to London.

Thus far the Colne has not been deficient in places of interest, but that which has conferred most renown upon it is the village we next arrive at—Horton; a place dear to every lover of poetry —to every one who honours genius. The author of Paradise Lost' and ' L'Allegro ' has described the scenery of Horton as it appears to one who wanders trustfully about it:—

"Straight mi tie eye hath caught new pleasures,
While the landscape round it measures;
Russet lawns and fallows gray,
Where the nibbling flocks do stray.

Meadows trim, with daisies pied;
Shallow brooks and rivers wide;
Towers and battlements it sees
Hosom'd high in tufted trees,
Where perhaps some Beauty lies,
The Cynosure of neighbouring eyes.
Hard by a cottage chimney smokes,
From betwixt two aged oaks."

The mountains he speaks of are of course not to be seen here, but all else may. It is pretty plain that the poet drew from what he saw; many of the same touches occur in a Latin epistle (Elegy i.) which he addressed to Charles Deodati, about the time he wrote ' L'Allegro,' and which professes to describe the scenes among which he is living. His residence at Horton is an important period in the life of our great epic bard.

In the seclusion of this peaceful village it was that John Milton sought to prepare himself for the task he had in opening manhood taught himself to believe lay before him—

"To that same lot, however mean or high,
Towards which Time leads me, and the will of Heaven,
All is, if I have grace to use it so,
As ever in my great Task-Master's eye."

Milton's father had a house at Horton, and thither the young poet retired when he left the University. Five years he spent there; and in that time, as he himself has told us, he read through all the Greek and Roman classics—an amount of labour which has excited some questioning. That the time he spent at Horton was emphatically a time of preparation we know. He who would be a poet, he said, his own life must be a poem. The discipline necessary to be undergone by him who would " build the lofty rhyme," the youthful Milton was not disposed to regard as a light one: and he already contemplated an ascent into the highest regions of poetry. "I had," he says (' Reasons of Church Government'), "an inward prompting, which grew daily upon me, that by labour and intent study (which 1 take to be my portion in this life), joined with the strong propensity of nature, I might perhaps leave something so written as they should not willingly let it die." It was no trifling task, he knew, to add one more poem fit to rank with those of the mighty men of old, and he was not inclined to underrate the exertion necessary, or shrink from the labour of preparation. The enterprise he sought to accomplish he regarded as one requiring the severest exercise of a well-trained as well as a strong intellect. "He meant not to write" (as Warburton says of Virgil) "for the amusement of women and children over a fire, but for the use of men and citizens." He felt, as he had already written, that

"Fame is the spur that the clear spirit doth raise
(That last infirmity of noble minds)
To scorn delights, and live laborious days."

"You ask me, of what I am thinking," he wrote to his friend Deodati about the termination of his abode at Horton. "As God shall help me, of immortality! But how shall I attain it? My wings are fledging, and I meditate a flight."* He added, that his " Pegasus as yet soars on but feeble pinions;"—but they were flights heavenward. The choicest of his lighter pieces were all written here. That most poetical of masques, the enchanting 'Comus,' in which, as Johnson observes as truly as finely, "may very plainly be discovered the dawn or twilight of ' Paradise Lost;'" the classic dirge, 'Lycidas,' and those most exquisite companions, 'L'Allegro' and ' II Penseroso,' all were the divine fruit of his residence at Horton; and never did youthful poet breathe sweeter melody. In all of them the exuberant richness of a young imagination appears chastened by recent reverential intercourse with the great masters of Greece and Rome, while his lyre is tuned to richest harmony by the softer genius of modern Italy.

But his thoughts and studies were not directed to poetry only. "Honour and repute,and immortal fame," were the prizes on which he had fixed his eye; and they were to "be won in the field of public life. But to engage in that arena he regarded as a serious matter; and he resolved not to do so prematurely. He would have his sinews well knit, and his arms well proven before he essayed to use

* "Quid cogitem quseris? Ita me bonus Deus, immortalitatem. Quid agam vero? irrepcHpvw, et volare meditor; sed tenellis admodum adhuc pennis evehit se noster Pegasus."

them in actual encounter: "not taking thought," to borrow his own words, '' of being late, so it give advantage to be more fit." Before now he had probably laid aside all thought of the ministry, the first object to which he had directed his attention. The pen was to be his instrument, and he determined to learn how most effectually to use it in whatever service it might be employed. Not as "an unweaponed creature," or unprovisioned, would he enter the field. Neither, however, was he one of those "who spend their lives in mastering their tools." He had come "to measure life betimes;" he realized clearly to his own mind a purpose, and he delayed only till he perceived that he had attained the measure of his expectation. When he saw fit to act, his decision was prompt, his self-reliance inflexible. It is impossible to study his prose writings without feeling how thoroughly he had disciplined his powers. He has the knowledge necessary for his purpose and the ability to employ it to the most advantage. His style may be complained of as un-English or cumbrous: but it is evident that he had adopted it not by accident; that it is a powerful weapon in a strong hand; like the two-handed sword of the heroes of chivalry, perhaps the most powerful instrument that could have been devised for the time and the service: and that he had made it thoroughly his own, knew its strength and its temper, and could wield it alike for attack or defence, is equally plain. Indeed few who really know his writings will refuse to admit that he entered upon the business of life the most perfectly disciplined man in English literature. With abundant resources at command and sufficient skill, he always knew what he wished to say, and

« 上一页继续 »