Chapter LVIII: Milton--Darkness And Death
AND now for twenty years the pen of Milton was used, not for poetry, but for prose. The poet became a politician. Victory was still uncertain, and Milton poured out book after book in support of the Puritan cause. These books are full of wrath and scorn and all the bitter passion of the time. They have hardly a place in true literature, so we may pass them over glad that Milton found it possible to spend his bitterness in prose and leave his poetry what it is.
One only of his prose works is still remembered and still read for its splendid English. That is Areopagitica, a passionate appeal for a free press. Milton desired that a man should have not only freedom of thought, but freedom to write down and print and publish these thoughts. But the rulers of England, ever since printing had been introduced, had thought otherwise, and by law no book could be printed until it had been licensed, and no man might set up a printing press without permission from Government. To Milton this was tyranny. "As good almost kill a man as kill a good book," he said, and again "Give me the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to my conscience above all liberties." He held the licensing law in contempt, and to show his contempt he published Areopagitica without a license and without giving the printer's or bookseller's name. It was not the first time Milton had done this, and his enemies tried to use it against him to bring him into trouble. But he had become by this time too important a man, and nothing came of it.
Time went on, the bitter struggle between King and people came to an end. The people triumphed, and the King laid his head upon the block. Britain was without ruler other than Parliament. It was then, one March day in 1649, that a few grave-faced, somber- clad men knocked at the door of Milton's house. We can imagine them tramping into the poet's low-roofed study, their heavy shoes resounding on the bare floor, their sad faces shaded with their tall black hats. And there, in sing-song voices, they tell the astonished man that they come from Parliament to ask him to be Secretary for Foreign Tongues.
Milton was astonished, but he accepted the post. And now his life became a very busy one. It had been decided that all letters to foreign powers should be written in Latin, but many Governments wrote to England in their own languages. Milton had to translate these letters, answer them in Latin, and also write little books or pamphlets in answer to those which were written against the Government.
It was while he was busy with this, while he was pouring out bitter abuse upon his enemies or upon the enemies of his party, that his great misfortune fell upon him. He became blind. He had had many warnings. He had been told to be careful of his eyes, for the sight of one had long been gone. But in spite of all warnings he still worked on, and at length became quite blind.
His enemies jeered at him, and said it was a judgment upon him for his wicked writing. But never for a moment did Milton's spirit quail. He had always been sure of himself, sure of his mission in life, sufficient for himself. And now that the horror of darkness shut him off from others, shut him still more into himself, his heart did not fail him. Blind at forty-three, he wrote:--
"When I consider how my light is spent,
Ere half my days, in this dark world and wide,
And that one talent which is death to hide,
Lodg'd with me useless, though my soul more bent
To serve therewith my Maker, and present
My true account, lest He, returning, chide;
'Doth God exact day labour, light denied?'
I fondly ask: but Patience, to prevent
That murmur, soon replies, 'God doth not need
Either man's work, or His own gifts; who best
Bear His mild yoke, they serve Him best: His state
Is kingly; thousands at His bidding speed,
And post o'er land and ocean without rest;
They also serve who only stand and wait.'"
Milton meant to take up this new burden patiently, but at forty- three, with all the vigor of life still stirring in him, he could not meekly fold his hands to stand and wait. Indeed, his greatest work was still to come. Blind though he was, he did not give up his post of Latin Secretary. He still remained Chief Secretary, and others worked under him, among them Andrew Marvell, the poet. He still gave all his brain and learning to the service of his country, while others supplied his lacking eyesight. But now in the same year Fate dealt him another blow. His wife died. Perhaps there had never been any great love or understanding between these two, for Milton's understanding of all women was unhappy. But now, when he had most need of a woman's kindly help and sympathy, she went from him leaving to his blind care three motherless girls, the eldest of whom was only six years old.
We know little of Milton's home life during the next years. But it cannot have been a happy one. His children ran wild. He tried to teach them in some sort. He was dependent now on others to read to him, and he made his daughters take their share of this. He succeeded in teaching them to read in several languages, but they understood not a word of what they read, so it was no wonder that they looked upon it as a wearisome task. They grew up with neither love for nor understanding of their stern blind father. To them he was not the great poet whose name should be one of the triumphs of English Literature. He was merely a severe father and hard taskmaster.
Four years after his first wife died Milton married again. This lady he never saw, but she was gentle and kind, and he loved her. For fifteen months she wrought peace and order in his home, then she too died, leaving her husband more lonely than before. He mourned her loss in poetic words. He dreamed she came to him one night:--
"Came vested all in white, pure as her mind;
Her face was veil'd; yet to my fancied sight
Love, sweetness, goodness, in her person shin'd
So clear, as in no face with more delight.
But O, as to embrace me she inclin'd,
I wak'd; she fled; and day brought back my night."
With this sonnet (for those lines are part of the last sonnet Milton ever wrote) it would seem as if a new period began with Milton, his second period of poetry writing. Who knows but that it was the sharp sorrow of his loss which sent him back to poetry. For throughout Milton's life we can see that it was always something outside himself which made him write poetry. He did not sing like the birds because he must, but because he was asked to sing by some person, or made to sing by some circumstance.
However that may be, it was now that Milton began his greatest work, Paradise Lost. Twenty years before the thought had come to him that he would write a grand epic. We have scarcely spoken of an epic since that first of all our epics, the Story of Beowulf. And although others had written epics, Milton is to be remembered as the writer of the great English epic. At first he thought of taking Arthur for his hero, but as more and more he saw what a mass of fable had gathered round Arthur, as more and more he saw how plain a hero Arthur seemed, stripped of that fable, his mind turned from the subject. And when, at last, after twenty years of almost unbroken silence as a poet, he once more let his organ voice be heard, it was not a man he spoke of, but Man. He told the story which Caedmon a thousand years before had told of the war in heaven, of the temptation and fall of man, and of how Adam and Eve were driven out of the happy garden.
"Of man's first disobedience, and the fruit
Of that forbidden tree, whose mortal taste
Brought death into the world, and all our woe,
With loss of Eden, till one greater Man
Restore us, and regain the blissful seat,
Sing, Heavenly Muse."
You will remember, or if you look back to Chapter XIII you can read again about the old poet Caedmon and what he wrote. It was in 1655 that Junius published the so-called Caedmon Manuscript, and Milton, who was so great a student, no doubt heard of it and found some one to read it to him. And perhaps these poems helped to decide him in his choice, although many years before he had thought of writing on the subject.
Perhaps when you are older it may interest you to read the poems of Milton and the poems of Caedmon together. Then you will see how far ahead of the old poet Milton is in smooth beauty of verse, how far behind him sometimes in tender knowledge of man and woman. But I do not think you can hope to read Paradise Lost with true pleasure yet a while. It is a long poem in blank verse, much of it will seem dull to you, and you will find it hard to be interested in Adam and Eve. For Milton set himself a task of enormous difficulty when he tried to interest common men and women in people who were without sin, who knew not good nor evil. Yet if conceit, if self-assurance, if the want of the larger charity which helps us to understand another's faults, are sins, then Adam sinned long before he left Milton's Paradise. In fact, Adam is often a bore, and at times he proves himself no gentleman in the highest and best meaning of the word.
But in spite of Adam, in spite of everything that can be said against it, Paradise Lost remains a splendid poem. Never, perhaps, has the English language been used more nobly, never has blank verse taken on such stately measure. Milton does not make pictures for us, like some poets, like Spenser, for instance; he sings to us. He sings to us, not like the gay minstrel with his lute, but in stately measured tones, which remind us most of solemn organ chords. His voice comes to us, too, out of a poet's country through which, if we would find our way, we must put our hand in his and let him guide us while he sings. And only when we come to love "the best words in the best order" can we truly enjoy Milton's Paradise Lost.
Milton fails at times to interest us in Adam, but he does interest us in the Bad Angel Satan, and it has been said over and over again that Satan is his true hero. And with such a man as Milton this was hardly to be wondered at. All his life had been a cry for liberty--liberty even when it bordered on rebellion. And so he could not fail to make his arch rebel grand, and even in his last degradation we somehow pity him, while feeling that he is almost too high for pity. Listen to Satan's cry of sorrow and defiance when he finds himself cast out from Heaven:--
"'Is this the region, this the soil, the clime,'
Said then the lost Archangel, 'this the seat
That we must change for heaven?--this mournful gloom
For that celestial light? Be it so, since he
Who now is sovran can dispose and bid
What shall be right; farthest from his is best,
Whom reason hath equalled, force hath made supreme
Above his equals. Farewell, happy fields,
Where joy for ever dwells! Hail, horrors! hail,
Infernal world! and thou, profoundest Hell
Receive thy new possessor--one who brings
A mind not to be changed by place or time,
The mind is its own place, and in itself
Can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven.
What matter where, if I be still the same,
And what I should be, all but less than he
Whom thunder hath made greater? Here at least
We shall be free the Almighty hath not built
Here for his envy, will not drive us hence;
Here we may reign secure; and, in my choice,
To reign is worth ambition, though in Hell:
Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven.'"
Then in contrast to this outburst of regal defiance, read the last beautiful lines of the poem and see in what softened mood of submission Milton pictures our first parents as they leave the Happy Garden:--
"In either hand the hastening Angel caught
Our lingering parents, and to the eastern gate
Led them direct, and down the cliff as fast
To the subjected plain--then disappeared.
They, looking back, all the eastern side beheld
Of Paradise, so late their happy seat,
Waved over by that flaming brand; the gate
With dreadful faces thronged and fiery arms.
Some natural tears they dropped, but wiped them soon;
The world was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and Providence their guide.
They, hand in hand, with wandering steps and slow,
Through Eden took their solitary way."
Milton worked slowly at this grand poem. Being blind he had now to depend on others to write out what poetry he made in his own mind, so it was written "in a parcel of ten, twenty, or thirty verses at a time by whatever hand came next." We are told that when he was dictating sometimes he sat leaning back sideways in an easy-chair, with his leg flung over the arm. Sometimes he dictated from his bed, and if in the middle of the night lines came to him, whatever time it was he would ring for one of his daughters to write them down for him, lest the thought should be lost ere morning.
We are told, too, that he wrote very little in summer. For he said himself that it was in winter and spring that his poetic fancy seemed to come best to him, and that what he wrote at other times did not please him. "So that in all the years he was about this poem, he may be said to have spent but half his time therein."*
But now, while Milton's mind was full of splendid images, while in spite of the discomfort and lonliness of his misruled home, he was adding line to line of splendid sounding English, great changes came over the land.
Oliver Cromwell died. To him succeeded his son Richard. But his weak hands could not hold the scepter. He could not bind together a rebel people as great Oliver had done. In a few months he gave up the task, and little more than a year later the people who had wept at the death of the great Protector, were madly rejoicing at the return of a despot.
With a Stuart king upon the throne, there was no safety for the rebel poet who had used all the power of his wit and learning against the Royal cause. Pity for his blindness might not save him. So listening to the warnings of his friends, he fled into hiding somewhere in the city of London, "a place of retirement and abscondence."
But after a time the danger passed, and Milton crept forth from his hiding-place. It was perhaps pity for his blind helplessness, perhaps contempt for his powerlessness, that saved him, who can tell? His books were burned by the common hangman, and he found himself in prison for a short time, but he was soon released. While others were dying for their cause, the blind poet whose trumpet call had been Liberty! Liberty! was contemptuously allowed to live.
Now indeed had Milton fallen on dark and evil days. He had escaped with his life and was free. But all that he had worked for during the past twenty years he saw shattered as at one blow. He saw his friends suffering imprisonment and death, himself forsaken and beggared. He found no sympathy at home. His daughters, who had not loved their father in his days of wealth and ease, loved him still less in poverty. They sold his books, cheated him with the housekeeping money, and in every way added to his unhappiness. At length, as a way out of the misery and confusion of his home, Milton married for the third time.
The new wife was a placid, kindly woman. She managed the house, managed too the wild, unruly girls as no one had managed them before. She saw the folly of keeping them, wholly untamed and half-educated as they were, at home, and persuaded her husband to let them learn something by which they might earn a living. So they went out into the world "to learn some curious and ingenious sorts of manufacture, that are proper for women to learn, particularly embroideries in gold and silver."
Thus for the last few years of his life Milton was surrounded by peace and content such as he had never before known. All through life he had never had any one to love him deeply except his father and his mother, whose love for him was perhaps not all wise. Those who had loved him in part had feared him too, and the fear outdid the love. But now in the evening of his days, if no perfect love came to him, he found at least kindly understanding. His wife admired him and cared for him. She had a fair face and pretty voice, and it is pleasant to picture the gray-haired poet sitting at his organ playing while his wife sings. He cannot see the sun gleam and play in her golden hair, or the quick color come and go in her fair face, but at least he can take joy in the sound of her sweet fresh voice.
It was soon after this third marriage that Paradise Lost was finished and published. And even in those wild Restoration days, when laughter and pleasure alone were sought, men acknowledged the beauty and grandeur of this grave poem. "This man cuts us all out, and the ancients too," said Dryden, another and younger poet.
People now came to visit the author of Paradise Lost, as before they had come to visit great Cromwell's secretary. We have a pleasant picture of him sitting in his garden at the door of his house on sunny days to enjoy the fresh air, for of the many houses in which Milton lived not one was without a garden. There, even when the sun did not shine, wrapt in a great coat of coarse gray cloth, he received his visitors. Or when the weather was colder he sat in an upstairs room hung with rusty green. He wore no sword, as it was the fashion in those days to do, and his clothes were black. His long, light gray hair fell in waves round his pale but not colorless face, and the sad gray eyes with which he seemed to look upon his visitors were still clear and beautiful.
Life had now come for Milton to a peaceful evening time, but his work was not yet finished. He had two great poems still to write.
One was Paradise Regained. In this he shows how man's lost happiness was found again in Christ. Here is a second temptation, the temptation in the wilderness, but this time Satan is defeated, Christ is victorious.
The second poem was Samson Agonistes, which tells the tragic story of Samson in his blindness. And no one reading it can fail to see that it is the story too of Milton in his blindness. It is Milton himself who speaks when he makes Samson exclaim:--
"O loss of sight, of thee I most complain!
Blind among enemies: O worse than chains,
Dungeon, or beggary, or decrepit age!
Light, the prime work of God, to me is extinct,
And all her various objects of delight
Annulled, which might in part my grief have eased.
Inferior to the vilest now become
Of man or worm: the vilest here excel me,
They creep, yet see; I, dark in light, exposed
To daily fraud, contempt, abuse, and wrong,
Within doors, or without, still as a fool,
In power of others, never in my own;--
O dark, dark, dark, amid the blaze of noon,
Irrecoverably dark, total eclipse
Without all hope of day!"
This was Milton's last poem. He lived still four years longer and still wrote. But his singing days were over, and what he now wrote was in prose. His life's work was done, and one dark November evening in 1674 he peacefully died.
"Thy soul was like a Star, and dwelt apart:
Thou hadst a voice whose sound was like the sea:
Pure as the naked heavens, majestic, free,
So didst thou travel on life's common way."*