John Milton (1608-1674)

By his third wife ... he never had any child; and those he had by the first he made serviceable to him in that very particular in which he most wanted their service, and supplied his want of eyesight by their eyes and tongue; for though he had daily about him one or other to read to him, some persons of man's estate, who of their own accord greedily caught at the opportunity of being his readers, that they might as well reap the benefit of their reading, others of younger years sent by their parents to the same end; yet excusing only the eldest daughter by reason of her bodily infirmity, and difficult utterance of speech (which to say truth I doubt was the principal cause of excusing her), the other two were condemned to the performance of reading, and exactly pronouncing of all the languages of whatever book he should at one time or another think fit to peruse; viz. the Hebrew (and I think the Syriac), the Greek, the Latin, the Italian, Spanish, and French. All which sorts of books to be confined to read, without understanding one word, must needs be a trial of patience, almost beyond endurance; yet it was endured by both for a long time; yet the irksomeness of this employment could not always be concealed, but broke out more and more into expressions of uneasiness; so that at length they were all (even the eldest also) sent out to learn some curious and ingenious sorts of manufacture that are proper for women to learn, particularly embroideries in gold and silver.

The Early Lives of Milton, ed. Helen Darbishire (1932), pp. 77-8 (from Edward Phillips, 'The Life of John Milton' (1694)).

WHEN the Plague was abated, and the city had become safely habitable, Milton return to Artillery Row. He had not been long back when London was devastated by a fresh calamity, only less terrible than the plague, because it destroyed the home, and not the life. The Great Fire succeeded the Great Plague: 13,000 houses, two-thirds of the city, were reduced to ashes, and the whole current of life and business entirely suspended. Through these two overwhelming disasters Milton must have been supporting his solitary spirit by writing Paradise Regained, Samson Agonistes, and giving the final touches to Paradise Lost....

For licenser there was now the Archbishop of Canterbury, to wit, for religious literature. Of course the Primate read by deputy, usually one of his chaplains. The reader into whose hands Paradise Lost came, though an Oxford man, and a cleric on his preferment, who had written his pamphlet against the dissenters, happened to be one whose antecedents, as Fellow of All Souls, and Proctor (in 1663), ensured his taking a less pedantic and bigoted view of his duties. Still, though Dryden's dirty plays would have encountered no objection before such a tribunal, the same facilities were not likely to be accorded to anything which bore the name of John Milton, ex-secretary to Oliver, and himself an austere republican. Tomkyns —that was the young chaplain's name — did stumble at a phrase in Book I, 598:

With fear of change
Perplexes monarchs

There had been in England, and were to be again, times when men had hanged for less than this. Tomkyns, who was sailing on the smooth sea of preferment with a fair wind, did not wish to get into trouble, but at last he let the book pass. Perhaps he thought it was only religious verse written for the sectaries, which would never be heard of at court, or among the wits, and that therefore it was of little consequence what it contained.

A publisher was found — notwithstanding that Paul's, or as it now was again, St. Paul's-Churchyard, had ceased to exist—in Aldersgate, which lay outside the circuit of the conflagration. The agreement, still preserved in the national museum, between the author,

'John Milton, gent. of the one parte, and Samuel Symons, printer, of the other parte',

is among the curiosities of our literary history. The curiosity consists not so much in the illustrious name appended (not in autograph) to the deed, as in the contrast between the present fame of the book and the waste-paper price at which the copyright is being valued. The author received £5 down, was to receive a second £5 when the first edition should be sold, a third £5 when the second, and a fourth £5 when the third edition should be gone. Milton lived to receive the second £5, and no more: £10 in all, for Paradise Lost.

Mark Pattison, Milton (1879), pp. 159-61.

ONE day, probably in February of 1674, though possibly earlier, two of the most famous modern poets called upon Milton at his house in Bunhill. These distinguished visitors were John Dryden, the poet laureate, and old Edmund Waller, perennial Member of Parliament. Milton received them very civilly; he had heard, no doubt, of Dryden's great admiration for Paradise Lost . Eventually, of course, the talk turned to matters of prosody. Dryden later reported that, on this or some other visit, Milton acknowledged to him that Spenser was his 'original'. . . . The poet laureate was concerned, however, about something of more immediate importance to him than problems of poetic influence. He had come, in fact, to ask the blind man's permission to turn Paradise Lost into 'an heroic opera' — to be written in rhyming couplets.'

Milton, we are told, considered this unexpected request, and replied:

'Well, Mr. Dryden, it seems you have a mind to tag my points, and you have my leave to tag them. But some of them are so awkward and old-fashioned that I think you had as good leave them as you found them.'

Thus, with gentle irony, and with an apposite reference to the then fashionable metal knobs worn at the ends of laces, Milton put a witty schism between himself and the tinkling world of Restoration verse. Dryden, having got what he wanted, set to work, finishing his adaptation, he tells us, within a month.

William Riley Parker, Milton: A Biography (1968), i. 634-5. For the sources on which Professor Parker drew for this anecdote, see vol. ii, p. 1148. © 1968 Oxford University Press.

In the summer of 1790, when the parish church of St. Giles, Cripplegate, was undergoing extensive repairs, it was thought appropriate to search for the grave of Milton, who had been buried, according to tradition, in the chancel under the clerk's desk. On 3 August, Mr. Thomas Strong, vestry clerk, and Mr. John Cole were informed that the grave had been found, and passed on the information to Philip Neve, an antiquary, who was greatly interested in everything connected with Milton. Neve afterwards published A Narrative of the Disinterment of Milton's Coffin in the Parish Church of St. Giles, Cripplegate. The leaden coffin which had been found appeared to be old and much corroded, and there was no inscription or plate upon it.

'It was suggested that if they opened the leaden coffin they might find some inscription on the wooden one inside it, but with a just and laudable piety, they disdained to disturb the sacred ashes after a requiem of 116 years.'

What followed, however, was very different. The account is based on Philip Neve's Narrative, as condensed by a contributor to Notes & Queries.

On that evening, however, Cole and others held what he called a merry meeting at the house of one Fountain, a publican, in Beech Lane, who was an overseer of the parish, the company including John Laming (pawnbroker), Taylor (a Derbyshire surgeon), and William Ascough (coffin maker). Of course one of the chief topics of conversation was the discovery of Milton's coffin on that day, and several of those assembled expressed a desire to see it. Cole, who had given orders that the ground should be closed, after satisfying himself that there was no doubt as to the coffin being Milton's, was willing to gratify their curiosity on the morrow, provided that the remains had not already been reinterred. Accordingly they went to the church the next day, and found this to be the case. Holmes, one of Ascough's journeymen, pulled the coffin from its place, that they might see it in the daylight, and with the aid of a chisel and mallet forced it open as far down as the breast, and discovered the corpse enveloped in a shroud, on disturbing which the ribs, which had remained standing, fell. Then followed the ghastly desecration of the remains, which Mr. Neve describes in detail from information which he received from the violators themselves. Fountain, the publican, for instance, said that 'he pulled hard at the teeth, which resisted, until someone hit them a knock with a stone, when they easily came out'. All the teeth in the upper jaw, of which there were only five, were taken by Fountain. Laming, the pawnbroker, took one, and Taylor two from the lower jaw; and, continues Mr. Neve, 'Mr. Laming told me that he had at one time a mind to bring away the whole under-jaw, with the teeth in it; he had it in his hand, but tossed it back again: Laming afterwards reached his hand down and took out one of the leg-bones, but threw it back also. He likewise took a large quantiy of the hair, which 'lay strait and even' just as it had been combed and tied together before interment. When they had finished their gruesome task they quitted the church. The coffin was replaced, but not covered; and Ascough, the clerk, having gone away, and the sexton, Mrs. Hoppey, being from home, Elizabeth Grant, the gravedigger, took possession of it, and kept a tinder-box at hand for striking a light by which to exhibit the remains to such as were curious to see them, for which she charged the sum of sixpence, afterwards reducing it to threepence and twopence. The workmen in the church considered they also had a right to some share in the plunder, for they refused admission to such as would not pay the 'price of a pot of beer', to avoid which it appears that a number of people got into the church by a window.

Mr. Neve spared no pains in his endeavours to discover those who had gained possession of relics taken from Milton's coffin, and succeeded in obtaining some of the hair, a tooth, and a piece of the coffin, for which he paid two shillings. These, he proceeds to state, he procured for the purpose of doing his share in making a restitution of all that had been taken, as being the only means of making atonement for the violation of the dead.

Neve was quite convinced that the grave that had been violated was indeed Milton's, but others were sceptical, and a considerable controversy ensued. Cowper wrote some indignant stanzas 'On the Late Indecent Liberties taken with the Remains of Milton'.

— See Notes & Queries, 7th Ser. Ix (10 May 1890), 361 ff.

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