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THE GREATEST RELIGIOUS POET OF THE ENGLISH TONGUE
(INTRODUCTORY NOTE) The following letter in which young Milton traces and explains his own course in life was written when he was twenty-three years old. It is the only one of his writings in which he thus specifically discusses his life. The celebrated letter is now preserved in Trinity College at Cambridge, Milton's Alma Mater. For whom the letter was intended we do not know, nor even if it was ever sent, but the young poet obviously prepared it with great care; for the College has two copies of it, both from Milton's own hand. It is an earnest justification of the author's seemingly unproductive life, addressed to some Cambridge friend who had urged him to assume some practical life-work. Its general meaning is summed up in the now famous sonnet “At the Age of Twenty-three,” which Milton composed as part of the epistle. The young poet had gone to Cambridge with the intention of becoming a minister in the Church of England. He gives the reasons why he thinks of abandoning that intention.
During middle life Milton took a large and active part in upholding the Puritan Revolution and was “Latin Secretary” to the council of Cromwell. His literary labors for the cause were so intense and persistent that his physicians warned him blindness would result if he did not abandon his work. But Milton persisted in his official tasks, and even when the dread darkness enfolded him continued his work by dictating to others. His two celebrated sonnets on his blindness are in a way autobiographical and therefore are included here. In them he refers proudly to the prose works he had written defending the Puritan cause and attacking its foes. He was justified indeed in declaring that with these powerful argumentative works
“All Europe rings from side to side.”
LETTER OF MILTON TO AN UNKNOWN FRIEND SIR,—Besides that in sundry respects I must acknowledge me to profit by you whenever we meet, you are often to me,.and
a hand wherein Chrise I am persuade cod should be
were yesterday especially, as a good watchman to admonish, that the hours of the night pass on (for so I call my life, as yet obscure and unserviceable to mankind), and that the day with me is at hand wherein Christ commands all to labor while there is light. Which because I am persuaded you do to no other purpose than out of a true desire that God should be honored in every one, I therefore think myself bound, though unasked, to give you an account, as oft as occasion is, of this my tardy moving, according to the precept of my conscience, which I firmly trust is not without God. Yet now I will not strain for any set apology, but only refer myself to what my mind shall have at any time to declare herself at her best ease.
But if you think, as you said, that too much love of learning is in fault, and that I have given up myself to dream away my years in the arms of studious retirement, like Endymion with the moon, as the tale of Latmus goes; yet consider that if it were no more than the mere love of learning—whether it proceed from a principle bad, good, or natural—it could not have held out thus long against a strong opposition on the other side of every kind. For if it be bad, why should not all the fond hopes that forward youth and vanity are fledge with, together with gain, pride, and ambition, call me forward more powerfully than a poor, regardless, and unprofitable sin of curiosity should be able to withhold me; whereby a man cuts himself off from all action and becomes the most helpless, pusillanimous, and unweaponed creature in the world, the most unfit and unable to do that which all mortals most aspire to, either to be useful to his friends or to offend his enemies? Or if it be to be thought a natural proneness, there is against that a much more potent inclination inbred, which about this time of a man's life solicits most—the desire of house and family of his own, to which nothing is esteemed more helpful than the early entering into credible employment, and nothing hindering than this affected solitariness. And though this were enough, yet is there another act, if not of pure yet of refined nature, no less available to dissuade prolonged obscurity, a desire of honor and repute and immortal fame, seated in the breast of every true scholar; which all make haste to by the readiest ways of publishing and divulging conceived merits—as well those that shall as those that
sooner or as it is thelf to rest
never shall obtain it. Nature, therefore, would presently work the more prevalent way, if there were nothing but this inferior bent of herself to restrain her. Lastly, the love of learning, as it is the pursuit of something good, it would sooner follow the more excellent and supreme good known and presented, and so be quickly diverted from the empty and fantastic chase of shadows and notions, to the solid good flowing from due and timely obedience to that command in the gospel set out by the terrible feasing of him that hid the talent. It is more probable, therefore, that not the endless delight of speculation, but this very consideration of that great commandment does not press forward as soon as many do, to undergo, but keeps off, with a sacred reverence and religious advisement how best to undergo, not taking thought of being late, so it give advantage to be more fit; for those that were latest lost nothing when the Master of the vineyard came to give each one his hire. And here I am come to a stream head, copious enough to disburden itself, like Nilus, at seven mouths into an ocean. But then I should also run into a reciprocal contradiction of ebbing and flowing at once, and do that which I excuse myself for not doing—preach and not preach. Yet, that you may see that I am something suspicious of myself, and do take notice of a certain belatedness in me, I am the bolder to send you some of my nightward thoughts somewhile since, because they come in not altogether unfitly, made up in a Petrarchian stanza, which I told you of:
[On his being arrived at the age of twenty-three.)
and flowing at on
not preach. Yet in excuse myself for