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This very interesting epistle, in which Milton pours
forth his heart to the favourite friend of his youth, may convince every candid reader, that he poffeffcd, in no common degree, two qualities very rarely united, ambitious ardour of mind and unaffected modeity. The poet, who speaks with such graceful humility of his literary atchievements, had at this time written Comus, a composition that abundantly displays the variety and compass of his poetical powers. After he had delineated, with equal excellence, the frolics of gaiety and the triumphs of virtue, palling with exquisite transition from the most sportive to the sublimest tones of poetry, he might have spoken more confidently of his own productions without a particle of arrogance.
We know not exactly what poems he composed during his refidence at Horton. The Arcades seems to have been one of his early compositions, and it was intended as a compliment to his fair neighbour, the accomplished Countess Dowager of Derby; she was the sixth daughter of Sir John Spencer, and allied to Spencer the poet, who, with his usual modesty and tenderness, has celebrated her under the title of Amarillis. At the house of
faftigium laudis ipse valeam emergere, tamen quo minus qui eam gloriam affecuti funt, aut eo feliciter aspirant, illos femper colam et fufpiciam, nec dii puto nec homines prohibuerint.--Multa folicite quæris, etiam quid cogitem. Audi, Theodate, verum in aurem ut ne rubeam, et finito paulisper apud te grandia loquar : quid cogitem quæris? Ita me bonus disus, immortalitatem quid agam vero? Telecoquw, et volare meditor : fed tenellis admoduin adhuc pennis evehit fe nofter Pegalus: humile tapiamus.
this lady, near Uxbridge, Milton is said to have been a frequent visitor. The Earl of Bridgewater, before whom, and by whose children, Comus was represented, had married a daughter of Ferdinando Earl of Derby, and thus, as Mr. Warton observés, it was for the same family that Milton wrote both the Arcades and Comus. It is probable that the pleasure which the Arcades afforded to the young relations of the Countess, gave rise to Comus, as Lawes, the musical friend of Milton, in dedicating the mask to the young Lord Brackley, her grandson, says, “this poem, which received its first occasion of birth from yourself and others of your noble family, and much honour from your own person in the performance."
These expressions of Lawes allude, perhaps, to the real incident, which is said to have fupplied the subject of Comus, and may seem to confirm an anecdote related by Mr. Warton, from a manuscript of Oldys; that the young and noble performers in this celebrated drama were really involved in adventures very similar to their theatrical situation; that in visiting their relations, in Herefordshire, they were benighted in a forest, and the lady Alice Egerton actually lost.
Whatever might be the origin of the mask, the modesty of the youthful poet appears very conspicuous in the following words of Lawes's dedicati
“ Although not openly acknowledged by the “ author, yet it is a legitimate offspring, so lovely “ and so much desired, that the often copying of it " hath tired my pen, to give my several friends sa
“ tisfaction, and brought me to a necessity of pro• ducing it to the public view.”
Milton discovered a similar diffidence respecting his Lycidas, which was written while he resided with his father, in November, 1637. This exquisite poem, which, as Mr. Warton justly observes, “ must " have been either folicited as a favour by those " whom the poet had left in his college, or was a « voluntary contribution of friendship fent to them " from the country,” appeared first in the academical collection of verses on the death of Mr. Ed. ward King, and was subscribed only with the initials of its author.
An animated and benevolent veteran of criticism, Doctor Warton, has considered a relilh for the Lycidas as a test of true taste in poetry; and it certainly is a test, which no lover of Milton will be inclined to dispute; though it must exclude from the list of accomplished critics that intemperate cenfor of the great poet, who has endeavoured to destroy the reputation of his celebrated monody with the most infulting expressions of farcastic contempt; expressions that no reader of a spirit truly poetical can peruse without mingled emotions of indignation and of pity! But the charms of Lycidas are of a texture too firm to be annihilated by the breath of derision; and though Dr. Johnson has declared the poem to be utterly deftitute both of nature and of art, it will assuredly continue to be admired as long as tenderness, imagination, and harmony, are regarded as genuine fources of poetical delight.
The effect of this favourite composition is exactly such as the poet intended to produce; it first engages the heart with the simplicity of just and natural sorrow, and then proceeds to elevate the mind with magnificent images, ennobled by affectionate and devotional enthusiasm.
The beauties of this pathetic and sublime monody are sufficiently obvious; but the reader, who compares it with a poem on the same subject by Cléveland, once the popular rival of Milton, may derive pleasure from perceiving how infinitely our favourite poet has excelled, on this occafion, an eminent antagonist.
Though we find no circumstances, that may afcertain the date of the Allegro and Pensoroso, it seems probable, that those two enchanting pictures of rural life, and of the diversified delights arising from a contemplative mind, were composed at Hor
It was, perhaps, in the fame situation, fo favourable to poetical exertions, that Milton wrote the incomparable Latin poem addressed to his father. There are, indeed, some expressions in this performance, which may favour an opinion that it ought to bear an earlier date; but it has such strength and manliness of sentiment, as incline me to suppose it written at this period; an idea that seems almost confirmed by the lines, that speak of his application to French and Italian, after the completion of his claflical studies.
Whatever date may be assigned to it, the composition deserves our particular regard, since, of all his poems, it does the highest honour to his heart.
With what energy and tenderness is his filial gratitude expressed in the following graceful exordium :
Nunc mea Pierios cupiam per pectora fontes
O that Pieria's spring would thro’
How elegant is the praise he bestows on the mufical talents of his father, and how pleasing the exulting and affectionate spirit with which he speaks of their social and kindred studies!
Nec tu perge, precor, sacras contemnere Mufas,