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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 heroic pocsy.
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.
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 eininence by producing something which they should not willingly let die. However inferior 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 pigmies, 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 have been very diligent in his inquiries, but discovers always a wish to find Milton discrimi. nated from other men, relates, that she 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 æstrum, and his daughter was immediately called to se. cure 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 involations 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 ineqnality happens to every man in every mode of exertion, manual or mental. The mechanic 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 6 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, as is universally confessed, to have employed any casual visitor in disburthening 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 copioas mind, seems to have been gratuitously transferred to Milton.
of a book entituled, The Fall of Man, or the Corruption of Nature prored by Natural Reason. Lond. 1616 and 1624, quarto. He was plundered in the Usurpation, turned Roman Catholic, and died in obscurity. See Athen. Oxon, Vol. I. p. 727. H.
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
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 Re. storation. 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 sculked from the approach of his king was perhaps more than hè 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, moles. tation, 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 licence 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 ta particular passages, and among them to the simile of the Sun eclipsed, in the first book, yet the licence was granted; and he sold his copy, April 27, 1667, to Samuel Simmons, for an immediate payment of five pounds, with a stipulation to receive five pounds more when thirtcen hundred should be sold of the first edition; and again, five pounds after the sale of the same number of the second edition; and another five pounds after the same sale of the third. None of the three editions were to be extended beyond fifteen hundred copies.
The first edition was of ten books, in a small quarto. The titles were varied from year to year; and an advertisement and the arguments of the books were omitted in some copies, and inserted in others.
The sale gave him in two years a right to his second payment, for which the receipt was signed April 26, 1669, The second edition was not given till 1674: it was printed in small octavo; and the number of books was increased to twelve, by a division of the seventh and twelfth; and some other small improvements were made. The third edition was published in 1678; and the widow, to whom the copy was then to devolve, sold all her claims to Simmons for eight pounds, according to her receipt given Dec. 21, 1680. Simmons had already agreed to transfer the whole right to Brabazon Aylmer for twenty-five pounds; and Aylmer sold to Jacob Tonson half, Aug. 17. 1683, and half, March 24, 1690, at a price considerably en. larged. In the history of Paradise Lost, a deduction thus minute will rather gratify than fatigue.
The slow sale and tardy reputation of this poem have been always mentioned as evidences of neglected merit, and of the uncertainty of literary fame; and inquiries have been made, and conjectures offered, about the causes of its long obscurity and late reception. But has the case been truely stated ? Have not lamentation and wonder been lavished on an evil that was never felt?
That in the reigns of Charles and James the Paradise Lost received no public ac. clamations, is readily confessed. Wit and literature were on the side of the court : and who that solicited favour or fashion would venture to praise the defender of the regicides? All that he himself could think his due, from “ evil tongues in evil days,” was that reverential silence which was generously preserved. But it cannot be in. ferred, that his poem was not read, or not, however unwillingly, admired.
The sale, if it be considered, will justify the public. Those who have no power to judge of past times but by their own, should always doubt their conclusions. The call for books was not in Milton's age what it is in the present. To read was not then a general amusement; neither traders, nor often gentlemen, thought them. selves disgraced by ignorance. The women had not then aspired to literature, nor was every house supplied with a closet of knowledge. Those, indeed, who professed learning, were not less learned than at any other time; but of that middle race of students who read for pleasure or accomplishment, and who buy the numer. ous products of modern typography, the number was then comparatively small. To prove the paucity of readers, it may be sufficient to remark, that the nation had been satisfied from 1623 to 1664, that is, forty-one years, with only two editions of the works of Shakspear, which probably did not together make one thousand copies.
The sale of thirteen hundred copies in two years, in opposition to so much recent enmity, and to a style of versification, new to all and disgusting to many, was an uncommon example of the prevalence of genius. The demand did not immediately increase: for many more readers than were supplied at first the nation did not af. ford. Only three thousand were sold in eleven years; for it forced its way
without assistance; its admirers did not dare to publish their opinion; and the opportuni. ties now given of attracting notice by advertisements were then very few: the means of proclaiming the publication of new books have been produced by that general li. terature which now pervades the nation through all its ranks.
But the reputation and price of the copy still advanced, till the Revolution put an end to the secrecy of love, and Paradise Lost broke into open view with sufficient security of kind reception.
Fancy can hardly forbear to conjecture with what temper Milton surveyed the silent progress of his work, and marked its reputation stealing its way in a kind of subterraneous current through fear and silence. I cannot but conceive him calm and confident, little disappointed, not at all dejected, relying on his own merit with steady consciousness, and waiting without impatience the vicissitudes of opinj. on, and the impartiality of a future generation.
In the mean time he continued his studies, and supplied the want of sight by a very odd expedient, of which Philips gives the following account:
Mr. Philips tells 6 that though our author had daily about him one or other to read, some persons of man's estate, who, of their own accord, greedily catched at the opportunity of being his readers, that they might as well reap the benefit of what they read to him, as oblige him by the benefit of their reading; and others of younger years were sent by their parents to the same end; yet excusing only the eldest daughter by reason of her bodily infirmity and difficult utterance of speech, (which, to say truth, I doubt was the principal cause of excusing her) the other two were condemned to the performance of reading and exactly pronouncing of all the languages of whatever book he should, at one time or other, think fit to peruse, viz. the Hebrew, (and I think the Syriac) the Greek, the Latin, the Italian, Spanish, and French. All which sorts of books to be confined to read, without under. standing one word, must needs be a trial of patience almost beyond endurance. Yet it was endured by both for a long time, though the irksomeness of this employment could not be always concealed, but broke out more and more into expressions of uneasiness; so that at length they were all, even the eldest also, sent out to learn some curious and ingenious sorts of manufacture, that are proper for women to learn, par. ticularly embroideries in gold or silver.”
In the scene of misery which this mode of intellectual labour sets before our eyes, it is hard to determine whether the daughters or the father are most to be lamented. A language not understood can never be so read as to give pleasure, and very seldom so as to convey meaning. If few men would have had resolution to write books with such embarrassments, few likewise would have wanted ability to find some better expedient,
Three years after his Paradise Lost (1667), he published his History of England, comprising the whole fable of Geoffrey of Monmouth, and continued to the Nor. man Invasion. Why he should have given the first part, which he seems not to be. lieve, and which is universally rejected, it is difficult to conjecture. The style is harsh; but it has something of rough vigour, which perhaps may often strike, though it cannot please.
On this history the licenser again fixed bis claws, and before he would transmit it to the press tore out several parts. Some censures of the Saxon monks were taken away, lest they should be applied to the modern clergy; and a character of the Long Parliament and Assembly of Divines was excluded; of which the author gave a copy. to the Earl of Anglesey, and which, being afterwards published, has been since inserted in its proper place.
The same year were printed, Paradise Regained, and Sampson Agonistes, a tra. gedy written in imitation of the ancients, and never designed by the author for the stage. As these poems were published by another bookseller, it has been asked,
Whether Simmons was discouraged from receiving them by the slow sale of the former. Why a writer changed his bookseller a hundred years ago, I am far from hoping to discover. Certainly, he who iu two years sells thirteen hundred copies of a volume in quarto, bought for two payments of five pounds each, has no reason to repent his purchase.
When Milton showed Paradise Regained to Elwood, “ This,” said he, “is owing to you; for you put it in my head by the question you put to me at Chalfont, which otherwise I had not thought of.”
His last poetical offspring was his favorite. He could not, as Elwood relates, endure to hear Paradise Lost preferred to Paradise Regained. Many causes may vitiate a writer's judgment of his own works. On that which has cost him much labour he sets a high value, because he is unwilling to think that he has been diligent in vain; what has been produced without toilsome efforts is considered with delight, as a proof of vigorous faculties and fertile invention; and the last work, whatever it be, has necessarily most of the grace of novelty. Milton, however it happened, had this prejudice, and had it to himself.
To that multiplicity of attainments, and extent of comprehension, that entitled this great author to our veneration, may be added a kind of humble dignity, which did not disdain the meanest services to literature. The epic poet, the controvertist, the politician, having already descended to accommodate children with a book of ru. diments, now, in the last years of his life, composed a book of logic for the initiation of students in philosophy; and published (1672) Artis Logicæ plenior Institutio ad Petri Rami Methodum concinnata ; that is, “ A new Scheme of Logic, according to the method of Ramus.” I know not whether, even in this book, he did not intend an act of hostility against the universities; for Ramus was one of the first oppugners of the old philosophy, who disturbed with innovations the quiet of the schools.
His polemical disposition again revived. He had now been safe so long, that he forgot his fears, and published a Treatise of true Religion, Heresy, Schism, Tol. eration, and the best Means to prevent the Growth of Popery.
But this little tract is modestly written, with respectful mention of the church of England, and an appeal to the thirty-nine articles. His principle of toleration is, agreement in the sufficiency of the scriptures; and he extends it to all who, what. ever their opinions are, profess to derive them from the sacred books. The Papists appeal to other testimonies, and are therefore, in his opinion, not to be permitted the liberty of either public or private worship; for though they plead conscience, we have no warrant,” he says, " to regard conscience which is not grounded in scripture.” ”
Those who are not convinced by his reasons, may be perhaps delighted with his wit. The term Roman Catholic is, he says, one of the pope's bulls; it is particu. lar universal, or catholic schismatic.”
He has, however, something better. As the best preservative against popery, he recommends the diligent perusal of the scriptures, a duty from which he warus the busy part of mankind not to think themselves excused.
He now reprinted his juvenile poems, with some additions.
In the last year of his life he sent to the press, seeming to take delight in publication, a collection of Familiar Epistles in Latio ; to which, being too few to make a