Thus with the year
Seasons return; but not to me returns
Day, or the sweet approach of even or morn,
Or sight of vernal bloom, or summer’s rose,
Or flocks, or herds, or human face divine;
But cloud instead, and ever-during dark
Surrounds me; from the cheerful ways of men
Cut off, and for the book of knowledge fair
Presented with a universal blank
Of Nature’s works, to me expunged and rased,
And wisdom at one entrance quite shut out.
So much the rather thou, Celestial Light,
Shine inward, and the mind through all her powers
Irradiate; there plant eyes, all mist from thence
Purge and disperse, that I may see and tell
Of things invisible to mortal sight.
—Paradise Lost: Book III
Shakespeare and Milton lived at the same time, though the difference in their ages was such that we may not speak of them as contemporaries. John Milton was eight years old when William Shakespeare died. The Miltons lived in Bread Street, and out of the back garret-window of their house could catch a glimpse of the Globe Theater.
The father of John Milton might have known Shakespeare–might have dined with him at the “Mermaid,” played skittles with him on Hampstead Heath, fished with him from the same boat in the river at Richmond; and then John Milton, the lawyer, might have discreetly schemed for passes to the “Globe” and gone with his boy John, Junior, to see “As You Like It” played, with the Master himself in the role of old Adam.
Bread Street was just off Cheapside, where the Mermaid Tavern stood, and where Beaumont, Fletcher, Ben Jonson and other roysterers often lingered and made the midnight echo with their mirth. In all probability, John Milton, Senior, father of John Milton, Junior, knew Shakespeare well. But the Miltons owned their home; were rich, influential, eminently respectable; attended Saint Giles’ Church, and really didn’t care to cultivate the society of play-actors who kept bad hours, slept in the theater, and had meal-tickets at half a dozen taverns.
There were six children born into the Milton family, three of whom died in infancy. Of the survivors, the eldest was Anne, the second John, the third Christopher.
Anne was strong, robust and hearty; John was slender, pale, with dreamy, dark gray eyes and a head too big for his body; Christopher was so-so. And, in passing, it is well to explain, once for all, that Christopher made his way straight to the front in life, taking up his father’s business and being appointed a Court Officer. Thence he was promoted to the Woolsack, became rich, cultivated a double chin, was knighted, and passed out full of honors. The chief worriment and source of shame in the life of Sir Christopher Milton came from the unseemly conduct of his brother John, who was much given to producing political and theological pamphlets. And once in desperation Sir Christopher Milton requested John Milton to change his family name, that the tribe of Milton might be saved the disgrace of having in it “a traducer of the State, an enemy of the King, and a falsifier of Truth.” Sir Christopher Milton was an excellent and worthy man, and I must apologize for not giving him more attention at this time; but lack of space forbids.
Sickly boys who are wise beyond their years are ever the pets of big sisters, and the object of loving, jealous, zealous care on the part of their mothers. John Milton talked like an oracle while yet a child, and one biographer records that even as a babe he sometimes mildly reproved his parents for levity.
He was a precocious child, and have we not been told that precocity does not fulfill its promises? But this boy was an exception. He was incarnated into a family that prized music, poetry, philosophy, and yet held fast to the Christian faith. His father set psalms to music, his sister wrote madrigals, and his mother played sweet strains on a harp to waken him at morningtide. The entire household united in a devotion to poetry and art. Possibly this atmosphere of high thinking was too rarefied for real comfort–the gravity of the situation being sustained only by a stern effort.