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period show a literary decadence. The large, creative spirit of the preceding era, which reflected the grandeur and power of the English people, was succeeded by a narrow, artificial spirit, which devoted its energies to the turning of small compliments and the tracing of remote resemblances. Since the time of Dr. Johnson, it has been customary to designate these writers, among whom we may mention Waller, Cowley, Quarles, Herrick, Suckling, and Carew, as metaphysical poets.
The term artificial or fantastic would perhaps be more accurately descriptive of their character. They were men of learning, but took too much pains to show it. They wrote not from the emotions of the heart, but from the deliberate choice of the will; and hence they succeeded not in giving voice to nature, but only in pleasing a false and artificial taste. They abound in far-fetched and violent figures; and though we may be surprised at their ingenuity in discovering remote resemblances, we smile at the incongruous result. Thus Carew sings :
“Ask me no more, whither do stray
Ask me no more, where those stars light,
Fixed become, as in their sphere." It is not in such laborious conceits that nature finds a voice. Speaking of these poets, Dr. Johnson says: “Their
attempts were always analytic; they broke every image into fragments; and could no more represent, by their slender conceits and labored particularities, the prospects of nature, or the scenes of life, than he who dissects the sunbeam with a prism can exhibit the wide effulgence of a summer noon. What they wanted, however, of the sublime, they endeavored to supply by hyperbole ; their amplification had no limits; they left not only reason but fancy behind them ; and produced combinations of confused magnificence that not only could not be credited, but could not be imagined."
Yet a happy trifle was now and then hit upon. At rare intervals nature seems to have broken through the casing of artificiality. Francis Quarles gives forcible poetic expansion to Job's prayer, “Oh that thou wouldest hide me in the grave, that thou wouldest keep me secret, until thy wrath be past.”
"Ah, whither shall I fly? What path untrod
Shall I seek out to escape the flaming rod
There is a light, careless spontaneity about the little song of Herrick's beginning,
“ Gather the rose-buds while ye may,
Old Time is still a flying;
To-morrow will be dying.”
In the period under consideration, Milton stands out in solitary grandeur. Intimately associated with the political and religious movements of his time, and identified in principle and in life with the Puritan party, he still rises grandly above the narrowness of his age. In one work at least he rivals the great achievements of the age of Elizabeth. He deserves to be recognized as the sublimest poet of all times. The far-fetched conceit of Dryden, whose genuine appreciation of Milton at a time when the Puritan poet was not in fashion is much to his credit, hardly surpasses the truth :
“ Three poets, in three distant ages born,
Greece, Italy, and England did adorn.
John Milton was born in London, Dec. 9, 1608. His father, a man of the highest integrity, had been disinherited for espousing the Protestant cause; but, taking up the profession of a scrivener, he acquired the means of giving his son a liberal education. His mother, a woman of most virtuous character, was especially distinguished for her neighborhood charities. The private tutor of Milton was Thomas Young, a Puritan minister, who was afterwards forced to leave the kingdom on account of his religious opinions. Milton showed extraordinary aptness in learning; and when in 1624 he was sent to Cambridge, he was master of several languages, and had read
extensively in philosophy and literature. He remained at the university seven years, and took the usual degrees.
The education of his time did not, however, meet with his approval, and in several of his works he has criticised the subjects and methods of study with astonishing independence and wisdom. His educational writings deservedly rank him as one of the notable educational reformers of modern times. for the usual method of teaching arts,” he says, “I deem it to be an old error of universities, not yet well recovered from the scholastic grossness of barbarous ages, that, instead of beginning with arts most easy (and those be such as are most obvious to the senses), they present their young, unmatriculated novices at first coming with the most intellective abstractions of logic and metaphysics; so that they, having but newly left those grammatic flats and shallows, where they stuck unreasonably long to learn a few words with lamentable construction, and now on the sudden transported under another climate, to be tossed and turmoiled with their unballasted wits in fathomless and unquiet depths of controversy, do for the most part grow into hatred and contempt of learning, mocked and deluded all this while with ragged notions and babblements, while they expected delightful and worthy knowledge.”
Milton was designed by his parents for the church. But as he approached maturity, he perceived that his religious convictions and ecclesiastical independence would not allow him to enter the Established Church. We here see, perhaps, the effects of his Puritan training. Speaking of this matter he says : "Coming to some maturity of years, and perceiving what tyranny had invaded the church, that he who would take orders must subscribe slave, and take an oath withal, which unless he took with a conscience that he would relish, he must either perjure or split his faith, I thought better to prefer a blameless silence before the sacred office of speaking, bought and begun with servitude and forswearing."
In 1632 he left the university amidst the regrets of the fellows of his college, and retired to his father's house at Horton
in Buckinghamshire. Here he spent five years in laborious study, in the course of which he perused all the Greek and Latin writers of the classic period. He also studied Italian, and was accustomed, as he tells us, “to feast with avidity and delight on Dante and Petrarch.” To use his own expression, he was letting his wings grow. In a letter to a friend, he gives us some interesting particulars in regard to his studies and habits of life. “You well know,” he says, “that I am naturally slow in writing, and averse to write. It is also in my favor that your method of study is such as to admit of frequent interruptions, in which you visit your friends, write letters, or go abroad; but it is my way to suffer no impediment, no love of ease, no avocation whatever, to chill the ardor, to break the continuity, or divert the completion of my literary pursuits.”
It was during this period of studious retirement that he produced several of his choicest poems, among which are “Comus," "L'Allegro," and "Il Penseroso." “Comus" is the most perfect mask in any language. But “in none of the works of Milton,” says Macaulay, “is his peculiar manner more happily displayed than in Allegro' and the Penseroso.' is impossible to conceive that the mechanism of language can be brought to a more exquisite degree of perfection. These poems differ from others, as attar of roses differs from ordinary rose water, the close-packed essence from the thin diluted mixture. They are indeed not so much poems as collections of hints, from each of which the reader is to make a poem for himself. Every epithet is a text for a stanza."
At the time these two poems were written, they stood as the highwater mark of English poetry. In their sphere they have never been excelled. In spite of little inaccuracies of description (for Milton was too much in love with books to be a close observer of nature), we find nowhere else such an exquisite delineation of country life and country scenes.
These idylls are the more remarkable, because their light, joyous spirit stands in strong contrast with the elevation, dignity, and austerity of his other poems.