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“poetarum elegantissimus ;” and his daughter Deborah said that Ovid was, with Isaiah and Homer, the book she and her sister were most frequently called on to read to their father.
It is probable that Milton learned Hebrew in his boyhood; we have seen* that he was familiar with it when he went to Cambridge. He also, as we learn from Phillips, acquired, we know not at what time, but most probably when he was studying with a view to taking orders, the Rabbinical Hebrew and the Syriac; but we have no means of ascertaining how far his studies in the writings of the Rabbin proceeded. We have not met with any certain traces of such learning in his poems; but the fol
; lowing passage in his Doctrine of Divorce (ii. 18) would seem to indicate something more than a mere superficial acquaintance with them. Speaking of the passage in Judges, where the Levite's wife is said to have played the whore against him, he adds, " which Josephus and the Septuagint, with the Chaldean, interpret only of stubbornness and rebellion against her husband; and to this I add, that Kimchi, and the two other Rabbies, who gloss the text, are in the same opinion.” We feel sure that he would never have expressed himself in this manner if he were only relating at second-hand.
There can be no doubt but that Milton's knowledge of the Italian writers was both extensive and accurate. Mr. Mitford informs us, that he had seen a copy of the Sonetti of Varchi, which had belonged to him, “in which,” he says, “ the most curious expressions, and the most poetical passages, were underlined and marked with extraordinary care." Of his knowledge of French and Spanish we are informed by others rather than by himself, for he never makes any allusion to any writers in these languages, except in his notice of The Verse prefixed to Paradise Lost, where he says, “Some, both Italian and Spanish poets, have rejected rime;" in which, as we will show hereafter, he probably alluded to Boscan and Jauragui, which writers of course he must have read. It is, in our opinion, hardly possible that he was
* See above, p. 6. One of our most distinguished men of science was taught Hebrew, actually in his childhood, by his uncle, who educated him. When we first knew him he was about nine years old, and he could then read and translate the Hebrew Psalter wherever it was opened. We remember him at the same time learning fifty lines of the Ilias, with only the aid of a lexicon, in about half an hour.
. not acquainted with Cervantes and with Rabelais, Marot, and Montaigne.
As Milton in his History of England makes frequent reference to the Saxon Chronicle, we may perhaps venture to infer that he had some knowledge of the AngloSaxon language. He was also well read in the various Latin Annals and Chronicles in which the events of Eng. lish history had been registered.
We need hardly say that his acquaintance with the writers in his own language was most extensive. In the Apology for Smectymnuus, be alludes to the Vision and Creed of Pierce Plowman, in a way which proves that he must have read them. In the same piece he quotes a passage, of some length, from old Gower, and he often quotes or refers to Chaucer. His admiration for Shakespeare is well known; and Dryden says that “he acknowledged to him that Spenser was his original,” which of course can only mean that this was the English poet in whom he took most delight, and whom he studied most ; for every man's style is his own, a part of his being. It is rather strange that Cowley should be said to have been one of his favourites; but in literature, as in love, we often prefer our opposites. One of the most money-loving men we ever knew, was devotedly fondof Horace!
Milton, as is well known, has references in both his prose and poetry to books of chivalry, and he once meditated a poem on the subject of Arthur. Hence his biographers in general have taken occasion to assert that he was deeply read in the old romances of the cycles of Arthur and Charlemagne, and of the Amadises, Palmerins, and others of Spain. We doubt however if his
. reading was so extensive; at least it is not proved by the following passage of the Apology for Smectymnuus, on which the critics seem to rest.
I betook me among those lofty fables and romances which recount in solemn cantos the deeds of knighthood, founded by our victorious kings, and from hence had in renown all over Christendom. There I read it in the oath of every knight, that he should defend to the expense of his best blood the honour and chastity of virgin or matron.
We may observe that Milton, who never uses his words at random, employs that of cantos in speaking of these romances; from which it is quite evident that it was poems he had chiefly in view, and these could only be the Orlando Innamorato and Furioso, and the Faerie Queen—more especially this last, and possibly the Amadigi and some others of the romantic poems of Italy. The only prose romance that it appears certain that he read, was the Mort d’Arthur; for there is an evident reference to it in Paradise Regained, and which proves what an enduring impression it had made on his memory. * It has however never, we believe, been observed that he seems also to have read in his early days another English romance, namely, the Seven Champions of Christendom; for the following passage in The Reason of Church Government, seems derived from that romance, rather than from the last cantos of the Legend of Holiness in the Faerie Queen.
* In one of his Academic Prolusions we meet the following passage : “Nec validissimi illi regis Arthorii pugiles igniti et flammigerantis castelli incantimenta vicerunt facilius et dissiparunt.” We cannot tell
More like that huge dragon of Egypt, breathing out waste and desolation to the land, unless he were daily fattened with virgin's blood.* Him our old patron St. George by his matchless valour slew, as the Prelate of the Garter that reads his collect can tell. And if our princes and knights will imitate the fame of that old champion, as by their order of knighthood solemnly taken they vow, far be it that they should uphold and side with this English dragon; but rather, to do as indeed their oaths bind them, they should make it their knightly adventure to pursue and vanquish this mighty sail-wingedt monster that menaces to swallow up
the land, unless her bottomless gorge may be satisfied with the blood of the King's daughter, the Church; and may, as she was wont, fill her dark and infamous den with the bones of the saints.
where he got this ; for we recollect nothing of the kind in the Mort d'Arthur, and we have not the book in our possession.
* “If he be not every day appeased with the body of a true virgin.” -Seven Champions.
† His flaggy wings, when forth he did display,
Were like two sails.-F. Q. i. 11, 10.