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the studious and reverential consideration of the whole series of the dramas of Shakspeare ?
In conclusion: a few words of Shakspeare himself. It is said that the last of his poems was the “ Tempest;” and certainly the close is finely typical of the close of his career of authorship. The most touching of the series of his sonnets are the confessional ones, in which he mourns over the contamination of his pure and gentle spirit by the uncongenial courses of a player's trade :
“Alas ! 't is true I have gone here and there,
And made myself a motley to the view,
Oh, for my sake do you with fortune chide,
To what it works in, like the dyer's hand.” When, in the maturity of his powers, Shakspeare turned away from London and sought the sweet places of his innocent childhood, we can almost hear him, in the words of Prospero, abjuring his magic, dismissing the spiritual creations of his imagination, and looking to the tranquil village he was born in, where
“Every third thought shall be my grave." The highest glory of Shakspeare's poetry is its spirituality. With all its quick sympathies with things of sight, it is full of the life by faith. Kindred at once to earth and heaven, it realizes what Wordsworth, with a noble image, grandly tells :
“ Truth shows a glorious face While, on that isthmus which commands
The councils of both worlds, she stands.” There is many a trace to show how deep was Shakspeare's sense of the perishable nature of the things of time. How deeper still was his sense of eternity and its glories ! Reflect on that fine passage in “ Antony and Cleopatra," when the Roman feels that his own fortunes and ancient Egypt's power are lost for ever :
“Sometime we see a cloud that's dragonish;
A vapour, sometime, like a bear, or lion,
HIS TREATMENT OF HOLY SUBJECTS.
With trees upon 't, that nod unto the world
“ That which is now a horse, even with a thought
The rack dislimns, and makes it indistinct,
“ Eros, now thy captain is Even such a body : here I am Antony;
Yet cannot hold this visible shape.” Now, with this compare the hopeful, faithful spirit in a passage which has been considered, perhaps, the most sublime in Shakspeare :
“Look how the floor of heaven
Doth grossly close it in, we cannot hear it.” It is worthy of reflection, that wherever a holy subject is touched by Shakspeare it is with a deep sentiment of unaffected reverence. The parting thought I have of his genius is, that not vainly were spent in the comparative loneliness of the Avon village those last silent years of him who could place on the tongue of his saintly Isabella such fit and feeling words on the most sacred of all sacred themes :
" Alas !-alas!
ABUNDANCE OF BIOGRAPHICAL MATERIALS-DR. JOHNSON'S LIFE-MILTON AMONG
THE GREAT PROSE WRITERS-MILTON'S CONCEPTION OF HIS CALLING AS A POET -POETRY THE HIGHEST AIM OF HUMAN INTELLECT-MILTON'S YOUTHFUL GENIUS-STUDY OF HEBREW POETRY-LATIN POEM TO HIS FATHER_THE RURAL HOME-POETIC GENIUS IMPROVED BY STUDY-VISITS TO THE LONDON THEATRES -THOUGHTFUL CULTURE OF HIS POWERS-ALLEGRO AND PENSEROSO-LYCIDAS -DR. JOHNSON'S JUDGMENTS ON THIS POEM-MASQUE OF COMUS-FAITH AND HOPE AND CHASTITY-THE HYMN ON THE NATIVITY-POWER AND MELODY OF THE MILTONIC VERSIFICATION_VISIT TO GALILEO-MILTON IN ROME STORY OF TASSO'S LIFE-INFLUENCE OVER MILTON-THE REBELLION–THE CONDITION OF THE ENGLISH MONARCHY-THE POET'S DOMESTIC TROUBLES-SONNETS-JOHN
SMS ON THEM-MILTON'S LATIN DESPATCHES - SONNET ON THE PIEDMONT PERSECUTION-COLERIDGE AND WORDSWORTH ON THE MORAL SUBLIMITY OF THE POET'S LIFE-THE PARADISE LOST-THE CHARACTER OF SATAN --COLERIDGE'S CRITICISM-THE GRANDEUR OF THE EPIC-THE PARADISE REJAINED-THE SAMSON AGONISTES-POETRY A RELIEF TO THE POET'S OVERCHARGED HEART.
HE birth of Milton, in the year 1608, dates about eight years beI fore the death of Shakspeare, thus preserving the tie of time between the three most glorious of England's poets,-Edmund Spenser, William Shakspeare, and John Milton. In the last lecture I had occasion to remark on the well-known dearth of personal information respecting our great dramatic poet. As to our great epic poet, the contrast in this particular is as striking as possible. Of Shakspeare we know almost nothing; of Milton we know almost everything. The entire collection of his poems, the equally complete collection of his prose works, his official writings, his private correspondence, the incidental mention by his contemporaries, his autobiographical notices, -all are preserved. Stimulated by this abundance of biographical materials, and also by the consideration that Milton's character was illustrative of great principles in various departments of human thought, an unparalleled number of biographers-from his own nephew down to not a few authors within the last few years—have made his memoir their chosen theme. More biographies have been written of him than, perhaps, of any man who ever lived. I have had the curiosity to enumerate them, and could mention no fewer than twenty-five. Of all these, unhappily, the one most read is the one most uncongenial and, in many points, in
MILTON'S CONCEPTION OF HIS CALLING.
jurious,—that by Dr. Johnson. With every variety of opinion—poetical, political, moral, and theological,-are these biographies tinctured. They have issued from the pens of poets, of antiquaries, of divines, of scholars, of painters, from Churchmen and Dissenters, from infidels, from the high-toned aristocrat, the Whig, and the Chartist.
Milton is a vast and varied theme. He may be viewed in his chief glory as a poet. Again, so eventful was his life, that a worthy subject of study is his character as a man. And if, in the endeavour to promote the cause of English literature, I should ever be led to enter upon the series of great prose writers in our language, high among them, along with Bacon and Clarendon, Hooker and Jeremy Taylor and Burke, as among the poets, would be found the name of Milton. Closely as these three representations of the character of Milton are connected, each giving its illustration to the other,-the subject to which our thoughts are now to be directed is the genius of his poetry.
Important as were many of the other labours of Milton's, it can be shown that at no period-in the buoyancy of youth, in the bitterness of controversy, in the toil of state services, whether vindicating his private good name or standing forth to defend the English people, in favour, or in poverty and persecution-did he forget that the great business of his existence was to give utterance to the promptings of imagination. “Poetry was his imperial theme,—the controlling and harmonizing idea of his life; and the aspirations of his inmost nature may be traced throughout all his writings, no matter how unpromising their topic. The art enters into his scheme of education, “not as,” he protests, "the prosody of a verse among the rudiments of grammar, but that sublime art which would soon show what despicable creatures our common rhymers and play-writers be; and what religious-what glorious and magnificent-use might be made of poetry, both in divine and human things.” It is impressive to hear the boy Milton, in his early verses, pleading with his father that poetry is a holy thing; and, again, to hear him in the prime of manhood, amid the stern words of one of his controversial publications, announcing that “the great achievements of poetry must rest on devout prayer to that Eternal Spirit who can enrich with all utterance and knowledge, and sends out his seraphim with the hallowed fire of his altar, to touch and purify the lips of whom he pleases.” So sublime was Milton's conception of his chief calling, that no occasion of public moment is suffered to transcend it in his thoughts. When he addresses the Parliament,—that noted Parliament composed of such stern stuff as filled the breasts of Cromwell and Pym, and Hollis and Haslerig, -he is true to the laureate fraternity, and cites as authority to that tribunal the imaginative lore of “our sage and serious poet Spenser.” And when, nearly thirty years before its consummation, the idea of his “adventurous song” broke the bonds of silence, in anticipation that, at some distant day, “ he might take up the harp and sing an elaborate song to generations,”---and when he spoke of being led by the genial power of nature to another task than his polemics, and of the inward promptings that, by labour and intense study, joined with the strong propensity of nature, he might, perhaps, leave something so written to after-times as “they should not willingly let die,”all, not less than his immortal epic, show his deep belief that the highest aim of human intellect is poetry ;-that the things “of highest hope and hardest attempting proposed by the mind in the spacious circuit of her musings” are to be wrought out by the imagination.
So far back as we are able to penetrate into Milton's early life, there may be discovered in his very boyhood traces of a consciousness that he was endowed with an imagination for which mighty works were in prospect ;--an endowment recognised as a trust committed to him by his Creator, and therefore to be cherished sedulously, and held sacred from the pressure of outward circumstances changing the direction of his intellectual destiny. His whole existence was a preparation for the stupendous achievement of the “Paradise Lost.” There was no precipitancy,-no rash forwardness of a youthful, misjudging ambition; but a reserve and dignity, in which the voice of his genius seemed to be whispering that his hour was not yet come. In studying this subject, I have been deeply impressed with a sense of the magnanimity to be traced in Milton's childhood,—the largeness of soul belonging to the little boy. And how does this appear? In various passages of his prose writings, as well as of his poetry, he has told the history of his mind almost as far back as his memory could travel, disclosing how the foundations of his genius were laid; and it is clear that, in those early years, the heaven-inspired endowment of a poet's spirit was there, with all the cravings of an imagination outstripping its own creative powers. There was in Milton's young bosom a poet's heart, with aspirations after ideal grandeur and goodness and beauty, transcending its early strength, and therefore seeking its nourishment, not in crude and forced fruits of his own imagination, but in the majestic growth of the high poetry of all ages. The proof of the might of Milton's youthful genius was his silence ;-the high-minded reserve of one who, keeping the hope of achievement in a distant day, knew that it ill became him to thrust forward the rash and unformed ambitions of boyhood. The vast idea of the functions of poetry which early took possession of him forbade