Great Englishmen - M. B. Synge

John Milton (1608-1674)

You are now going to hear about John Milton, who stands among the greatest of our English poets.

He was born about a fortnight before Christmas at the "Spread Eagle," in Bread Street, London, when James I. was reigning over England.

His father was a clever man, very devoted to his eldest son, and very anxious to teach him well and rightly. He was very fond of music, and would often sing and play to his little boy, who soon learnt to love it too.

The boy became a singer almost as soon as he could speak, and we soon find him going to the organ for his own pleasure, to pick out little tunes by the ear.

When he was ten years old, his portrait was painted. It still exists, and represents him as a very grave little Puritan boy, with a loving, serious face. His black braided dress fitted close round his little chest and arms, a neat lace frill softened the black as it met his neck, his fair hair was cut close to his round head.

At an early age the little poet was sent to St. Paul's School, one of the few large schools in London at that time. Milton worked very hard. He generally sat up till twelve or one o'clock reading, before he went to bed. His eyes were always weak, and this constant reading made them worse.

He was very fond of reading poetry, and, when he was fifteen, he wrote two hymns, which showed great talent for one so young.

When he was sixteen he went to Cambridge. There he wrote many more poems, all very clever and most very beautiful. He stayed there till he was twenty-three. He was not tall, and was very slight, his hair was long, his face thin and pale. In his college he was called "the lady," having a gentle and feminine voice. He was still graver and more serious than he had been as a child. When he was twenty-three he wrote one of his most beautiful poems, very short but very sweet; it tells us how anxious he was to live right and do his duty, now he had arrived at manhood.

When he left Cambridge, Milton went to Horton, a village in Buckinghamshire, where his father had gone to spend his last years in peace and quietness.

In the stillness and beauty of the country, Milton wrote many more poems. He loved to sit under the elm trees, watching the birds as they flew happily about, and delighting in the long line of Surrey hills, which were lit up by the setting sun, or purple with autumn heather. Those were happy days for Milton, as his bursts of English poetry show us.

In 1638 Milton went abroad, leaving the care of his old father to his brother Christopher. He had longed to see Italy, and as he stood on the shore of the great deep Mediterranean, the "soft wind blowing from the blue heaven," gazing over the sea of boundless blue, he felt that his dream was at last realized.

He stayed abroad a year and three months, and then, hearing that affairs were gloomy in England, returned home.

"It is not worthy for an Englishman to travel for pleasure abroad, when his country is in trouble at home," he said.

After he had visited his father at Horton, he took lodgings in London, and taught two little nephews of eight and nine. This did not take up much of his time, and he was able to study and write a great deal.

In 1643 Milton married, but not happily. He himself had been brought up a Puritan, that is, a man who was very strict about religion, dressing plainly and severely. His wife was very different: she was gay and frivolous, and cared little for religion.

The first half of Milton's life had been very happy, peaceful, and calm; the last half was not smooth, but very unhappy, and full of misery, while the crushing thought of coming blindness, often made him very sad.

Several times he and his wife had to separate. She died nine years after their marriage, leaving three daughters to be brought up by the poet.

Meanwhile Milton wrote pamphlet after pamphlet, all in his grand, simple English prose.

He saw how much time was given to education, and yet with what slight result. He wrote a pamphlet about it, which did some good.

He wrote too on church matters, and about the government. He said that liberty came first in everything—church, religion, and government.

One of his greatest prose works was a book which he published, begging that more liberty might be given to the press—that is, that more books might be printed without so much difficulty. For in Milton's time there was great trouble in getting a book printed, because every book, before it was printed, had to be read by certain men chosen for that purpose.

In his book Milton asked "if twenty men were enough to judge of the books of all England?" He begged the Commons of England to think of the genius and energy of the nation which was being wasted, because printing was so difficult. This book did a great deal for England, and has made Milton's name famous.

In 1649, affairs, which had been growing from bad to worse, came to a crisis.

Charles I. was executed.

A government was formed, with Cromwell at the head, and John Milton was made Latin Secretary.

He had long felt his eyes growing weaker, but although he knew that in a few years more his sight would be gone, perhaps, for ever, he could not refuse this office, this last service for his country.

The following year the sight of one eye entirely went, and the doctor told him that if he used the remaining eye for reading and writing that would go too.

"The choice lay before me," wrote the poet, "between giving up what seemed my duty, and loss of sight."

I need not tell you he chose the last, rather than shirk duty. In two more years Milton was quite blind. Blind at forty-three! His greatest work not yet begun! He could no longer write, only dictate.

In 1660 Charles II. was placed upon the English throne, and Milton lost his office of Secretary, and not only that but his hopes, his aims, were at an end.

Liberty was gone, Cromwell, "our chief of men," was dead, and Milton's labour of twenty years was swept away.

It was in the moment of overthrow that the blind poet rose to true greatness. His outward hopes were gone, and in his "grand loneliness" he set himself to compose three of the grandest poems in our English language.

The last seven years were the greatest in Milton's life.

He lived in Artillery Street, London, and there, in "a small chamber hung with rusty green, in an elbow chair," he would sit.

Many a foreigner came to see him, not liking to leave England without seeing the blind poet Milton, and they would often find him "in a grey, coarse cloth coat," sitting quietly at the door of his house, enjoying the rays of the sun he could no longer see.

He loved to play on the organ, and would often sing too. He rose early, and went early to bed, though not always to sleep. Sometimes he would lie awake the whole night trying to make a single line of his great poem. At other times he would compose many pages, and in the morning would dictate the lines almost too fast for anyone to write down.

In 1605 "Paradise Lost" was finished. It is a long poem, written in blank verse—that is, verse without any rhyme. It tells us of Adam and Eve being driven out of the garden of Eden, in grand and beautiful poetry, and of many other things.

At first the book did not sell. People did not understand the name, and until they had looked into it and read a bit of the grand poetry, they did not care to buy it. But after a time more copies were sold, and Milton received many visits from people who wished to see the author of "Paradise Lost." He never got more than 10 for it.

He next wrote "Paradise Regained," which sold well, and then he gave to the world his last great poem.

It was about a blind man named Samson. The Samson he wrote about was very like Milton himself. Samson was blind, like Milton.

"O dark, dark, dark, amid the blaze of noon!"

cries Samson, and the words came from the depths of Milton's own heart.

Milton lived three years after the printing of this last poem.

"I shall shortly be with them that rest,"

were the words he put into the mouth of Samson.

He died on a Sunday night in November, and was buried beside his old father.

His grand, pure life was over; he had lived,

"As ever in his great Taskmaster's eye."

The neighbours missed the old blind man, who sat outside his door, in the old grey coat, enjoying the warm sunshine, but further than this, his death made little difference to the world, for it was not till years after that men saw what a really great poet had lived and died among them.