England's Antiphon

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John Milton, born in 1608, was twenty-four years of age when George Herbert died. Hardly might two good men present a greater contrast than these. In power and size, Milton greatly excels. If George Herbert's utterance is like the sword-play of one skilful with the rapier, that of Milton is like the sword-play of an old knight, flashing his huge but keen-cutting blade in lightnings about his head. Compared with Herbert, Milton was a man in health. He never shows, at least, any diseased regard of himself. His eye is fixed on the truth, and he knows of no ill-faring. While a man looks thitherward, all the movements of his spirit reveal themselves only in peace.

Everything conspired, or, should I not rather say? everything was freely given, to make Milton a great poet. Leaving the original seed of melody, the primordial song in the soul which all his life was an effort to utter, let us regard for a moment the circumstances that favoured its development.


His volant touch
Fied and pursued transverse the resonant fugue.]

From childhood he had listened to the sounds of the organ; doubtless himself often gave breath to the soundboard with his hands on the lever of the bellows, while his father's

volant touch,
Instinct through all proportions low and high, Fled and pursued transverse the resonant fugue;

and the father's organ-harmony we yet hear in the son's verse as in none but his. Those organ-sounds he has taken for the very breath of his speech, and articulated them. He had education and leisure, freedom to think, to travel, to observe: he was more than thirty before he had to earn a mouthful of bread by his own labour. Rushing at length into freedom's battle, he stood in its storm with his hand on the wheel of the nation's rudder, shouting many a bold word for God and the Truth, until, fulfilled of experience as of knowledge, God set up before him a canvas of utter darkness: he had to fill it with creatures of radiance. God blinded him with his hand, that, like the nightingale, he might "sing darkling." Beyond all, his life was pure from his childhood, without which such poetry as his could never have come to the birth. It is the pure in heart who shall see God at length; the pure in heart who now hear his harmonies. More than all yet, he devoted himself from the first to the will of God, and his prayer that he might write a great poem was heard.

The unity of his being is the strength of Milton. He is harmony, sweet and bold, throughout. Not Philip Sidney, not George Herbert loved words and their melodies more than he; while in their use he is more serious than either, and harder to please, uttering a music they have rarely approached. Yet even when speaking with "most miraculous organ," with a grandeur never heard till then, he overflows in speech more like that of other men than theirs--he utters himself more simply, straightforwardly, dignifiedly, than they. His modes are larger and more human, more near to the forms of primary thought. Faithful and obedient to his art, he spends his power in no diversions. Like Shakspere, he can be silent, never hesitating to sweep away the finest lines should they mar the intent, progress, and flow of his poem. Even while he sings most abandonedly, it is ever with a care of his speech, it is ever with ordered words: not one shall dull the clarity of his verse by unlicensed, that is, needless presence. But let not my reader fancy that this implies laborious utterance and strained endeavour. It is weakness only which by the agony of visible effort enhances the magnitude of victory. The trained athlete will move with the grace of a child, for he has not to seek how to effect that which he means to perform. Milton has only to take good heed, and with no greater effort than it costs the ordinary man to avoid talking like a fool, he sings like an archangel.

But I must not enlarge my remarks, for of his verse even I can find room for only a few lyrics. In them, however, we shall still find the simplest truth, the absolute of life, the poet's aim. He is ever soaring towards the region beyond perturbation, the true condition of soul; that is, wherein a man shall see things even as God would have him see them. He has no time to droop his pinions, and sit moody even on the highest pine: the sun is above him; he must fly upwards.

The youth who at three-and-twenty could write the following sonnet, might well at five-and-forty be capable of writing the one that follows:

How soon hath Time, the subtle thief of youth, Stolen on his wing my three-and-twentieth year! My hasting days fly on with full career, But my late spring no bud or blossom shew'th. Perhaps my semblance might deceive the truth That I to manhood am arrived so near; And inward ripeness doth much less appear, That some more timely happy spirits endu'th. Yet be it less or more, or soon or slow, It shall be still in strictest measure even To that same lot, however mean or high, Toward which time leads me and the will of heaven: All is--if I have grace to use it so As ever in my great Task-master's eye.

The It which is the subject of the last six lines is his Ripeness: it will keep pace with his approaching lot; when it arrives he will be ready for it, whatever it may be. The will of heaven is his happy fate. Even at three-and-twenty, "he that believeth shall not make haste." Calm and open-eyed, he works to be ripe, and waits for the work that shall follow.

At forty-five, then, he writes thus concerning his blindness:

When I consider how my life is spent Ere half my days in this dark world and wide, And that one talent, which is death to hide, Lodged 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 foolishly.
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."

That is, "stand and wait, ready to go when they are called." Everybody knows the sonnet, but how could I omit it? Both sonnets will grow more and more luminous as they are regarded.

The following I incline to think the finest of his short poems, certainly the grandest of them. It is a little ode, written to be set on a clock-case.

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