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or philosophy, do not instantly engage with raw and untutored judgments in the study of theology; and of this they acquire only a slender smattering, not more than sufficient to enable them to patch together a sermon with scraps pilfered, with little discrimination, from this author and from that. Hence I fear lest our clergy should relapse into the sacerdotal ignorance of a former age. Since I find so few associates in study here, I should instantly direct my steps to London, if I had not determined to spend the summer vacation in the depths of literary solitude, and, as it were, hide myself in the chamber of the Muses. .
FROM THE SIXTH LATIN ELEGY A note in the original edition addresses the poem "to Charles Diodati, who, sending the author some verses from the country at Christmas-time, asked him to excuse their mediocrity, on the ground that they were composed amid the distractions of the festival season.” The date is December, 1629. Milton declares that there is no opposition between poetry and revelry. “Song loves Bacchus and Bacchus loves song." Indeed, feasting, drinking, and social pleasures are the chief inspiration of Ovidian elegy, the lighter type of verse which he and Diodati have been in the habit of exchanging. On himself, however, a new mood is coming. Aspiring to the loftier and more serious forms of poetry he feels that he must mould his life and meditations to suit his purposes, and, at the Christmas season, give himself up to consideration of the religious significance of the day. The piece constitutes a formal farewell to the more trivial themes, and marks, perhaps, something of a turning point in Milton's life. He is evidently contemplating the composition of an epic, but the terms of the description, which apply to classical poems like the Iliad and the Æneid, give us no definite information regarding its subject. The reference at the close is to the ode On the Morning of Christ's Nativity, the first really characteristic utterance of Milton's Muse. ... For light elegy is the care of many gods, and calls to its numbers whom it will; Bacchus comes, and Erato, Ceres and Venus, and tenders tripling Love with his rosy mother. Such poets, therefore, have a right to generous feasts and to stew full often in ancient wine. But the poet who will tell of wars, and of Heaven under adult Jove, and of pious heroes, and leaders half-divine, singing now the holy counsels of the gods above, and now the realms profound where Cerberus howls, — such a poet must live sparely, after the manner of Pythagoras, the Samian teacher. Herbs must furnish him his innocent food; let clear water in a beechen cup stand at his side, and let his drink be sober draughts from the pure spring. His youth must be chaste and void of offence; his manners strict, his hands without stain. He shall be like a priest shining in sacred vestment, washed with lustral waters, who goes up to make augury before the offended gods. In this wise, they say, wise Tiresias lived, after his eyes were darkened; and Theban Linus, and Calchas, who fled from his doomed hearth, and Orpheus, roaming in old age through lonely caverns, quelling the wild beasts with his music. So, a spare eater and a drinker of water, Homer carried Odysseus through the long water-ways, through the hall of monster-making Circe, and the shoals insidious with women's song; and through thy realms, nethermost king, where they say he held with a spell of black blood the troops of the shades. Yea, for the bard is sacred to the gods; he is their priest; mysteriously from his lips and his breast he breathes Jove.
But if you will know what I am doing, I will tell you, if indeed you think my doings worth your concern. I am singing the King of Heaven, bringer of peace, and the fortunate days promised by the holy book; the crying of the infant God, and the stabling under a poor roof of Him who rules with his father the realms above; the star-creating heavens, the hymning of angels in the air, and the gods suddenly shattered at their own fanes. This poem I made as a birthday gift for Christ; the first light of Christmas dawn brought me the theme.
And other strains which I have piped musingly on my native reed await you; you, when I recite them to you, will be my judge.
FROM AN ENGLISH LETTER TO A FRIEND This letter, which was evidently written not long after Milton's retirement to Horton in 1632, was not published in the poet's life time, but two drafts of it exist in his handwriting in the Cambridge manuscript. It shows him taking the occasion of some older friend's remonstrance at his apparent idleness to search his own motives and satisfy himself and others that his course of life is not a violation of his serious sense of responsibility. The conclusion, which contains the Sonnet on His Being Arrived to the Age of Twenty-Three (see page 54) and seems to imply that Milton is hesitating regarding his earlier intention to enter the Church, is here omitted. Sir, — Besides that in sundry respects I must acknowledge me to profit by you whenever we meet, you are often to me, and were yesterday especially, as a good watchman to admonish that the hours of the night pass on (for so I call my life, as yet obscure and unserviceable to mankind), and that the day with me is at hand, wherein Christ commands us to labor, while there is yet light. Which, because I am persuaded you do for no other purpose than out of a desire that God should be honored in every one, I therefore think myself bound, though unasked, to give you an account, as often as occasion is, of this my tardy moving, according to the precept of my conscience, which I firmly trust is not without God. Yet now I will not strain for any set apology, but only refer myself to what my mind shall have at any time to declare herself at her best ease.
But if you think, as you said, that too much love of
learning is at fault, and that I have given up myself to dream away my years in the arms of studious retirement, like Endymion with the moon, as the tale of Latmus goes, yet consider that, if it were no more but the mere love of learning, whether it proceed from a principle bad, good, or natural, it could not have held out thus long against so strong opposition on the other side of every kind. For, if it be bad, why should not all the fond hopes that forward youth and vanity are fledge with, together with gain, pride, and ambition, call me forward more powerfully than a poor, regardless, and unprofitable sin of curiosity should be able to withhold me; whereby a man cuts himself off from all action, and becomes the most helpless, pusillanimous, and unweaponed creature in the world, the most unfit and unable to do that which all mortals most aspire to, either to be useful to his friends or to offend his enemies? Or, if it be thought a natural proneness, there is against that a much more potent inclination inbred, which about this time of a man's life solicits most — the desire of house and family of his own; to which nothing is esteemed more helpful than the early entering into creditable employment, and nothing hindering than this affected solitariness. And, though this were enough, yet there is another act, if not of pure, yet of refined nature, no less available to dissuade prolonged obscurity — a desire of honour and repute and immortal fame, seated in the breast of every true scholar; which all make haste to by the readiest ways of publishing and divulging conceived merits — as well those that shall, as those that never shall, obtain it. Nature, therefore, would presently work the more prevalent way, if there were nothing but this inferior bent of herself to restrain her. Lastly, the love of learning, as it is the pursuit of something
good, it would sooner follow the more excellent and supreme good known and presented, and so be quickly diverted from the empty and fantastic chase of shadows and notions, to the solid good flowing from due and timely obedience to that command in the Gospel set out by the terrible feasing of him that hid the talent.
It is more probable, therefore, that not the endless night of speculation, but this very consideration of that great commandment, does not press forward, as soon as many do, to undergo, but keeps off, with a sacred and religious advisement how best to undergo, not taking thought of being late, so it give advantage to be more fit; for those that came latest lost nothing when the master of the vineyard came to give each one his hire. ....
FROM THE POEM TO HIS FATHER In the preceding selection we have seen Milton, at the beginning of his retirement at Horton, justifying himself against the charge of idleness and lack of purpose in his life. To the unknown friend he says nothing about poetry. In this graceful Latin poem addressed to his father and written presumably about the same time (i.e., circa 1632) he does not hesitate to avow and defend his occupation with literature; the appeal for understanding is based on his parent's own devotion to the Muses and on his former indulgence of his son's literary inclinations. Milton begins by exalting the dignity of poetry and the poet's function. He then recalls his father's interest in music, expresses his gratitude that he himself was not forced to take up the profession of law, and runs over the course of his early careful training in the languages, and in the natural sciences, giving them probably in the order in which they were taken up. ... Do not, father, I pray, go on contemning the sacred Muses. Do not think them vain and poor, by whose grace you yourself are skilled to fit a thousand sounds to tune and rhythm, and varying your clear