Milton and His England

Milton and His England

by Don Marion Wolfe


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In narrative and some 120 pictures, Don M. Wolfe traces Milton's life in the context of the public events and common scenes of his time. His illustrations and vignettes, supported by passages from the history of the period as well as the poet's own writings, bring to life the people, politics, and society of seventeenth-century England: maidens carrying fresh cream and cheese on their heads, men with hats and caps to sell; the Long Parliament of 1640; Charles I's summary trial and execution; Cromwell's Protectorate; the London Plague of 1665 and the Great Fire of 1666; the publication of Paradise Lost.

The principal figure is, of course, John Milton, seen first as a boy of ten, sober and confident, even "then a poet." He is seen also as a traveler to the continent in 1638-1639, when he filled his mind with scenes and places that he would use in Paradise Lost: the sulphuric Phlegraean Fields outside Naples; Galileo, the "Tuscan artist" with optic glass. Milton the revolutionary is described, the libertarian pamphleteer whose passionate cry that every man had the right "to know, to utter, to argue freely" was realized around the campfires of the New Model Army. Throughout, Milton is depicted also as the poet aspiring to "leave something so written to aftertimes, as they should not willingly let it die"—his creative genius coming forth at last in Paradise Lost and his final major work, Samson Agonistes.

Originally published in 1971.

The Princeton Legacy Library uses the latest print-on-demand technology to again make available previously out-of-print books from the distinguished backlist of Princeton University Press. These editions preserve the original texts of these important books while presenting them in durable paperback and hardcover editions. The goal of the Princeton Legacy Library is to vastly increase access to the rich scholarly heritage found in the thousands of books published by Princeton University Press since its founding in 1905.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780691620190
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Publication date: 03/08/2015
Series: Princeton Legacy Library , #1659
Pages: 130
Product dimensions: 8.40(w) x 10.70(h) x 1.30(d)

Read an Excerpt

Milton and His England

By Don M. Wolfe


Copyright © 1971 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-06200-6


Portraits of Milton

1. Milton as a Boy of Ten

When Milton was only ten, his portrait was painted by Cornelius Janssen. The boy Milton looks out at us, sober and confident, with short blond hair and wide-spaced gray eyes. At that time, writes John Aubrey, Milton's private schoolmaster was "a Puritan, in Essex, who cutt his [Milton's] haire short." This master was Thomas Young, to whom Milton was singularly devoted; later he wrote to Young: "I call God to witness how much in the light of a Father I regard you." At age ten Milton was already a student at St. Paul's, having entered probably in 1615. At age ten, writes Aubrey, he was even "then a poet." Praised by friends and teachers, Milton from youth onward was his own best critic. His earliest verses were more derivative than original. Unlike the incandescent mind of Shakespeare, Milton's genius unfolded slowly, contented at first with small gains of unique imagery and rhythms.

2. Milton at Twenty-One

On Milton's twenty-first birthday, December 9, 1629, he was still a student at Christ's College. His poetic talents had flowered year by year; slowly but surely his confidence in his powers had unfolded. In this particular December he had written "On the Morning of Christ's Nativity," a poem he was to place first in his Poems of 1645. Milton's countenance in this portrait reflects an idealism he believed inseparable from lofty achievement. "He who would not be frustrate in his hope to write hereafter in laudable things," he was to write in An Apology against a Pamphlet, "ought him selfe to bee a true Poem, that is, a composition, and patterne of the best and honourablest things." Milton was now a little under middle height, his body beautifully proportioned, his complexion fair, his eyes a dark gray. As the portrait shows, he wore his hair shoulder length, a significant deviation from both the aristocratic and the Puritan extremes.

3. The Faithorne Portrait

When Milton was sixty-two, William Faithorne engraved Milton's portrait for the frontispiece of History of Britain (1670). The sightless eyes of the poet look out at us from an oval frame, his face turned slightly to the right. He is wearing a black cape over his waistcoat, which is adorned by a white collar. His curled hair falls lightly over his shoulders. The expression in the lined face is a mingling of sadness and composure, accentuated, as Masson writes, by "the great rings of eye-socket." All accounts agree that Faithorne was able to concentrate in this portrait the essence of Milton's appearance and expression, three years after the publication of Paradise Lost.

4. The Princeton Portrait

The first mention of the crayon portrait of Milton, now known as the Princeton Portrait, is found in George Vertue's notebook in his entry of August 10, 1721: "I saw Mrs. Qarke [Deborah]. the only surviving daughter of Milton the Poet, she now is 70 years. Old. I carry'd with me several portraits of his picture." By 1734 the pastel drawing was in the hands of Jonathan Richardson, who tells a somewhat more elaborate story of what was evidently Vertue's meeting with Deborah, thirteen years before. At the moment described, Deborah was shown several likenesses of her father, but she gave no hint of recognition. When the crayon portrait was shown her, however, she was ecstatic: "'Tis My Father! ... I see him! 'tis Him! and then She put her Hands to several Parts of Her Face, 'tis the very Man! Here, Here-" Gradually the crayon portrait surpassed in appeal the Faithorne engraving of 1670, perhaps because the colors of Milton's face, hair, and eyes are so remarkably expressive. The definitive study by John Rupert Martin, The Portrait of John Milton at Princeton (1961), makes it all but certain that Faithorne created the pastel drawing, whether before or after his execution of the engraved portrait for the History of Britain.


Boyhood Years in London

5. The Bread Street Neighborhood

Milton was born in his father's home in Bread Street, London, December 9, 1608. Both the church of St. Mary Le Bow, where he was baptized, and St. Giles Cripplegate, where he was buried, were only a few minutes' walk away. The spire of St. Paul's towered over the neighborhood, St. Paul's School in its shadow. Only a few blocks away from Milton's home, Shakespeare, now forty-four, had acted in his own plays at the second Blackfriars Theatre. In 1608 Bacon was forty-seven, Ben Jonson thirty-five, John Donne thirty-six, William Harvey thirty, Henry Lawes a boy of twelve, Oliver Cromwell a boy of nine. Unlike Shakespeare, Milton left rich and illuminating impressions of his early life. "I was born at London," he wrote in Second Defence, "of an honest family; my father was distinguished by the undeviating integrity of his life; my mother, by the esteem in which she was held, and the alms which she bestowed. My father destined me from a child to the pursuits of literature; and my appetite for knowledge was so voracious, that, from twelve years of age, I hardly ever left my studies, or went to bed before midnight. This primarily led to my loss of sight." How much Milton loved Shakespeare even as a youth is revealed in his poem "On Shakespear. 1630," which appeared in the second folio of 1632. The tone of the poem suggests a long familiarity with Shakespeare even at the age of twenty-two. It is hard to imagine that Milton and his father never attended a Shakespearian play so near at hand as the Blackfriars. Yet no record has come down of Milton's attendance at any of the great tragedies acted out within a short walk from his house on Bread Street.

6. Milton's Father

Milton's father, son of a yeoman farmer named Richard Milton, was born in the parish of Stanton St. John, five miles from Oxford, in 1563. Richard Milton (born and reared an Anglican but converted to Catholicism about 1582) had inherited a small property in 1561. Unlike a gentleman landowner, a yeoman farmer was not above working his land with his own hands; Richard Milton, the poet's grandfather, was such a man. He was economically independent and, unlike a tenant farmer, was expected to vote on election day. It was easy for such a man to rise in the social scale and from time to time become acquainted with learned people from the various Oxford colleges nearby. In any event, Richard Milton's son John, father of the poet, was admitted to Christ Church choir when he was about ten years old. A place in the choir assured John Milton the elder of a number of years of general education (in addition to this musical education) at the expense of Christ Church. It was then a natural step for a bright youngster to be admitted to the College. It is true that no record exists at Christ Church of John Milton's matriculation, but as Brennecke points out, records of that day were badly kept, and Aubrey's flat statement, "He [the elder Milton] was brought-up at the University of Oxon, at Christ Church," is the best evidence available. Certainly the elder Milton spent a number of impressionable years in Oxford from age ten to about age twenty; he could not have escaped many influences that helped shape his aspirations for his own creative efforts and those of his son. In his last year at Oxford the poet's father composed an In Nomine of forty parts for the occasion of the visit to Oxford of Prince Albertus Alasco of Poland. This composition, in which each of forty voices or instruments had a simultaneous independent part, was, as Brennecke points out, "an almost incredible feat for an amateur composer." Upon his withdrawal from Oxford after a quarrel with his father, the poet's father removed to London, where he met many amateur composers like himself and continued to compose music for many years, contributing to several distinguished collections of music, among them Thomas Morley's The Triumphs of Oriana (1601); the unpublished Tristitiae Remedium (1616), edited by Thomas Myriell; another, Thomas Ravenscroft's Whole Book of Psalms (1621). Meanwhile John Milton had grown into a father of such remarkable gentleness and insight as to earn his son's lifelong gratitude.

"My father," wrote Milton, "destined me from a child to the pursuits of literature." His father's imaginative guidance had helped to unfold a great talent: "After I had from my first yeeres by the ceaselesse diligence and care of my father, whom God recompence, bin exercis'd to the tongues, and some sciences, as my age would suffer, by sundry masters both ... at home and at the schools, it was found that whether ought was impos'd me by them that had the overlooking, or betak'n to of mine own choise in English, or other tongue, prosing or versing, but chiefly this latter, the stile by certain vital signes it had, was likely to live." In Ad Tatrem Milton addresses his father as a fellow votary of the muses who has guided his son at every step toward enrichment of his talents and aspirations: sending him into the countryside, away from the din of the city and the pursuit of wealth, making it possible for him to drink in nature's beauties and learn new languages; instilling in him ideals and spiritual strength that made him oblivious to meanness and calumny.

7. Milton at St. Paul's School

From his earliest years Milton was familiar with the sight of St. Paul's School, which stood in the northeast corner of St. Paul's Churchyard, facing the street called Olde Change. Built of stone, the school consisted of three parts, a central building of one story (which housed one large classroom), and an attached building of several stories on each side of the central edifice. The whole structure was 122 feet long. St. Paul's was a day school designed for 153 pupils; tuition was free. Established by John Colet in 1514, the school and many of its graduates were already renowned; its headmasters on the whole had been men of remarkable ability. The core academic requirement was eight years of Latin and four years of Greek. As it was to do in later eras, St. Paul's from the beginning prepared its boys for Cambridge and Oxford. School began at seven each morning with a chapter from the Bible and set prayers in Latin. Greek and Latin grammar were studied in the morning, Greek and Latin authors in the afternoon: Greek emphasized in later years, Latin in the earlier ones. On four days each week a written exercise based on the readings was required, such as "a Psalm to turn into Latin Verse," "a story in Heathen Gods to be turned into Latin," "a Divine Theme," "a Morall Theme." According to tradition, when Alexander Gill, senior, who was headmaster from 1608 to 1635, assigned a verse theme to write on the miracle at Cana, Milton wrote, "The conscious water saw its God and blushed." The assignment itself shows that originality of poetic expression was cherished in the school; every boy was expected to write verse while analyzing the great Biblical passages and the great minds of Greece and Rome. The mingling of Greek and Hebraic in Milton's background, which was to find pervasive expression on almost every page of Paradise Lost, was intensified day by day in St. Paul's school. The fables of Greece and Rome and the classics of Euripides, Pindar, Homer, Virgil, Plutarch, stamped themselves irretrievably on his eager mind. As he later wrote to Philaras, "I have been from boyhood an especial worshipper of all bearing the Greek name, and of your Athens in chief." By the last year of St. Paul's could Milton have addressed an Athenian audience as easily as St. Paul spoke to the Greeks of Corinth? This is doubtful, but all authorities agree on Milton's astonishing facility in the speaking of languages other than English. Milton wrote in Ad Tatrem that he had "gained command of ... the lofty language of the eloquent Greeks."

8. Schoolmasters at St. Paul's: The Two Gills

Of the four teachers at St. Paul's, two had an important influence on Milton's life, the two Alexander Gills, father and son. Milton does not mention William Sound and Oliver Smythe, who taught him in the lower forms as Surmaster and Under Usher. As High Master of St. Paul's, Alexander Gill was a quiet, patient man (though given to fits of flogging) of distinguished scholarly attainments in the fields of logic, grammar, prosody, and phonetics, as shown in Logonomia Anglica, published in Latin in 1619. In 1635 appeared in English his Sacred Philosophy of the Holy Scripture, a strongly rational defense of Anglican orthodoxy, on which he had been working many years. Though Milton was to reject many elements of this orthodoxy, his affirmation of free will was a link with both Anglicanism and Catholicism, a central theological position that no staunch Calvinist could accept. A strong philosophy of rationalism pervaded the elder Gill's classroom. His teaching of aesthetic principles was also rationalistic, allowing but few impressionistic analyses, even in creative writing. Spenser was his favorite poet, to him the English Homer. The progression taught in his classes was always from the classical model to the imitation, imitation of form such as simile for simile, meter for meter, personification for personification, elegy for elegy, oration for oration, with originality of expression encouraged within the framework of the model. Imitating "the smooth Elegiack Poets" Milton found "agreeable to natures part" of himself. Under the elder Gill's guidance Milton learned that such imitation of poetic expression, as the years advanced, yielded to originality of diction and rhythm, the golden end of poetic strivings.

9. Alexander Gill the Younger

The younger Gill, who became a teacher at St. Paul's in 1619, when he was twenty-two, a graduate of Trinity College, Oxford, was a seminal force in Milton's development, as his later letters to Gill were to reveal. Unlike his scholarly father, young Alexander already possessed a reputation for poetic talent, beginning in 1612 with a Latin threnody published on the occasion of Prince Henry's death. This confident (even boastful) young teacher possessed those poetic powers that Milton already hoped to make his own. As Anthony à Wood writes, young Gill was "of an unsettled and inconstant temper," but Milton remained his loyal admirer over the years. Gill was somewhat of a political rebel. When the Duke of Buckingham was assassinated by John Felton on August 23, 1628, a wave of enthusiasm from "bishop to beggar" passed over England; the Duke was hated for his failures in war and his persuasion with both James and young Charles I. Soon after the assassination, when young Gill was drinking Felton's health in a tavern near Trinity College, he made treasonable remarks, such as "he had oftentimes had a mind to do the same thing upon the Duke, but for fear of hanging." Informed upon and arrested in his schoolroom at St. Paul's on September 4, young Gill was thrust into prison. As a punishment he might have lost his ears (one at Oxford and one at London) had it not been for the intercession of the elder Gill, who pleaded upon his knees with Archbishop Laud for leniency toward his son. The young man finally signed a penitent confession of his wrongdoing, was released from prison, and received a pardon November 30, 1630. During the time of his arrest and imprisonment, there was no recorded letter of sympathy from John Milton, but the two men remained friends. Milton next wrote to young Gill December 4, 1634, warmly praising verses Gill had sent to him.


Milton at Cambridge

10. First Months at Christ's College

Milton was admitted to Christ's College on February 12, 1625, two months after his seventeenth birthday. After enrolling his name in the college books, choosing his rooms (with perhaps the concurrence of a roommate), and staying on a week or two, he apparently returned home for a holiday, as was the custom. He was a free man now, at least free in the afternoons from academic requirements, though never free from his stern creative conscience; free to meet and talk with brilliant contemporaries, not only at his own college but at fifteen other colleges as well, graced with beautiful libraries, chapels, and grassy courts, many of them overlooking the slow-moving waters of "reedy Cam." Of the sixteen colleges Peterhouse was the oldest (founded 1257), Christ's one of the youngest (1505). In a town of ten thousand citizens, the colleges housed about three thousand fellows and students. Why the elder Milton and his son chose Christ's (or Cambridge instead of Oxford) is unknown. It was not strongly Puritan, like Emmanuel, or so rich in beautiful buildings or renowned fellows as Trinity or King's. Milton returned to Christ's College from his holiday in London in time for university matriculation on April 9, 1625. On that day Milton must have appeared in person before the registrar, Mr. Tabor, who enrolled his name as lesser pensioner in the university books, along with the names of two men Milton already knew, Robert Port and Robert Bell. Of the forty-three men admitted to Christ's College that spring, we have no record that Milton became an intimate with any one as he had already done with the younger Gill and Charles Diodati. He was reserved, full of dreams, a lover of chastity, imbued with a profound self-reverence. Meanwhile, on March 27, 1625, occurred an event full of portent for Milton and all the patriotic young men of his generation, whether Puritan or absolutist in outlook: upon the death of James I, his son Charles I, twenty-four years old, ascended the throne of England.


Excerpted from Milton and His England by Don M. Wolfe. Copyright © 1971 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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Table of Contents

  • Frontmatter, pg. i
  • Preface, pg. v
  • Contents, pg. vi
  • Illustrations, pg. viii
  • Acknowledgments, pg. xiii
  • 1. Milton as a Boy of Ten, pg. 1
  • 2. Milton at Twenty-One, pg. 2
  • 3. The Faithorne Portrait, pg. 3
  • 4. The Princeton Portrait, pg. 4
  • 5. The Bread Street Neighborhood, pg. 5
  • 6. Milton's Father, pg. 6
  • 7. Milton at St. Paul's School, pg. 7
  • 8. Schoolmasters at St. Paul's: The Two Gills, pg. 8
  • 9. Alexander Gill the Younger, pg. 9
  • 10. First Months at Christ's College, pg. 10
  • 11. The Plan of Christ's College, pg. 11
  • 12. At Christ's: The Circle of Milton's Day, pg. 12
  • 13. Milton in the Public Schools, pg. 13
  • 14. Milton and Diodati: Spring, 1626, pg. 14
  • 15. Milton Defends His Manhood, pg. 14
  • 16. Milton in Love, pg. 15
  • 17. Street Cries of London, pg. 15
  • 18. On the Morning of Christ's Nativity, pg. 16
  • 19. The Plague in Cambridge: 1630, pg. 16
  • 20. The Death of Hobson the Carrier, pg. 17
  • 21. Milton on Shakespeare: 1632, pg. 18
  • 22. The Commonplace Book, pg. 19
  • 23. Arcades at Harefield, pg. 20
  • 24. The Masque of Comus: September 29, 1634, pg. 21
  • 25. Death of Milton's Mother, pg. 22
  • 26. The Sad Occasion of "Lycidas", pg. 22
  • 27. With Grotius in Paris, pg. 23
  • 28. Milton Reaches Florence, pg. 24
  • 29. Friendships in Florence: The Academies, pg. 25
  • 30. What Did Milton See in Florence?, pg. 25
  • 31. Milton Visits Galileo, pg. 26
  • 32. Milton in Rome, pg. 27
  • 33. Milton and Roman Music: Leonora Baroni, pg. 28
  • 34. In Naples: Milton and Manso, pg. 28
  • 35. Milton and Marini, pg. 29
  • 36. Milton and the Phlegraean Fields, pg. 30
  • 37. Milton Retraces His Steps: A Second Visit to Florence, pg. 30
  • 38. To Bologna and Ferrara, pg. 31
  • 39. Milton in Venice, pg. 32
  • 40. Milton's Stay at Geneva: The Return to London, pg. 32
  • 41. Schoolmaster at St. Bride's Churchyard, pg. 34
  • 42. Milton against the Prelates, pg. 35
  • 43. Milton and John Rous, pg. 36
  • 44. Puritan Leaders Granted Liberty, pg. 37
  • 45. Cromwell's Speech for Lilburne, pg. 38
  • 46. John Lilburne Whipped in Fleet Street, pg. 39
  • 47. Unanimous Proceedings against Laud, pg. 39
  • 48. The Bishops under Fire, pg. 40
  • 49. The Fall of Strafford, pg. 40
  • 50. Strafford on the Scaffold, pg. 42
  • 51. Abortive Arrest of the Five Members, pg. 42
  • 52. The Cross at Cheapside: Target of Fanaticism, pg. 44
  • 53. Flight of the Great Seal, pg. 44
  • 54. A Divided Nation: the Drift Toward War, pg. 45
  • 55. The Opposing Armies: Courage and Fanaticism, pg. 46
  • 56. The Death of Falkland, pg. 47
  • 57. Why Did Milton Not Enlist?, pg. 47
  • 58. Milton's Sudden Marriage, pg. 49
  • 59. Reconciliation with Mary Powell: Later Marriages, pg. 49
  • 60. Milton Among the Heretics, pg. 50
  • 61. Comenius in England, pg. 50
  • 62. Milton on Educational Reform, pg. 51
  • 63. Cromwell at Marston Moor, pg. 52
  • 64. Rising Secular Tones: The Areopagitica, pg. 52
  • 65. Execution of Archbishop Laud, pg. 54
  • 66. The Battle of Naseby, pg. 54
  • 67. Sectarians in the New Model, pg. 56
  • 68. The Damnable Tenets of Tradesmen, pg. 57
  • 69. Cromwell Writes to Lenthall, pg. 58
  • 70. The Flight of the King, pg. 59
  • 71. The King's Forts and Cities Surrender, pg. 60
  • 72. Poems of Mr. John Milton . . . 1645, pg. 61
  • 73. Joyce's Arrest of the King, pg. 62
  • 74. An Agreement of the People, pg. 63
  • 75. Cromwell Suppresses a Mutiny, pg. 64
  • 76. Charles Rejects the Four Bills, pg. 65
  • 77. Royalist Sentiment Still Pervasive, pg. 66
  • 78. A Momentous Prayer Meeting, pg. 67
  • 79. England for the King, pg. 68
  • 80. The Battle of Preston, pg. 69
  • 81. Pride's Purge, pg. 70
  • 82. A Constitutional Revolution, pg. 71
  • 83. The Trial of Charles I, pg. 73
  • 84. Execution of the King, pg. 74
  • 85. Milton Writes The Tenure, pg. 76
  • 86. Milton as Latin Secretary, pg. 77
  • 87. Milton's Reply to the Great Salmasius, pg. 78
  • 88. The Battle of Dunbar, pg. 78
  • 89. The Battle of Worcester, pg. 80
  • 90. Milton and Mercurius Politicus, pg. 80
  • 91. Milton's Growing Renown, pg. 82
  • 92. Milton in Total Darkness, pg. 82
  • 93. Dissolution of the Rump, pg. 83
  • 94. Milton's Second Defence, pg. 85
  • 95. Milton on the Vaudois Massacres, pg. 86
  • 96. The Death of Cromwell, pg. 87
  • 97. Dilemma of Richard Cromwell, pg. 88
  • 98. Bridget Cromwell, pg. 88
  • 99. For the Good Old Cause: Milton's Last Stand, pg. 90
  • 100. Milton Wanted by the King, pg. 92
  • 101. Milton Arrested and Jailed, pg. 92
  • 102. How Did Milton Escape?, pg. 92
  • 103. The "Incomparable Lady Ranelagh", pg. 95
  • 104. Abuse of Commonwealth Heroes, pg. 95
  • 105. Hugh Peters on the Scaffold, pg. 95
  • 106. The Execution of Sir Henry Vane, pg. 96
  • 107. The Plague in London: 1665, pg. 96
  • 108. Milton at Chalfont St. Giles, pg. 98
  • 109. Friends in the Jordans Churchyard, pg. 98
  • 110. Milton Completes Paradise Lost, pg. 99
  • 111. Milton and Raphael's Adam and Eve, pg. 100
  • 112. Milton and the Tawny Lion, pg. 101
  • 113. The Creation of Eve, pg. 101
  • 114. Adam and Eve Expelled from Paradise, pg. 103
  • 115. The Great Fire of London: 1666, pg. 103
  • 116. The Publication of Paradise Lost, pg. 104
  • 117. The Reception of Paradise Lost, pg. 105
  • 118. The Publication of Paradise Regained and Samson, pg. 108
  • 119. The Last Months of Milton's Life, pg. 110
  • Chronology of Main Events, pg. 112
  • Index, pg. 114

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