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
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.