Well, last weekend I was visiting Clare’s Cottage at Helpston and five days later I visited Milton’s Cottage in Chalfont St Giles.
Two cottages, two poets, almost two centuries apart but each has a cottage they lived in preserved for today’s visitors. And that word ‘cottage’ is as near as their worlds ever get, the buildings themselves are almost as far apart as the language and content of their poetry.
So, to my visit to Milton’s world where for two years he was keeping well away from the plague in London, accompanied by his daughter and third wife.
Not a time for biography here but knowing how I wander no doubt it will out!
The cottage is just off the town centre, an easy walk through the main street into Deanway and partway up the hill is the cottage, well signed as both his cottage and a Milton Museum. Just passed the house is a small track up the hill, just wide enough for cars and at the top a small flattened area enough for about nine cars. All easy to get into as long as you don’t miss the turning and there is space to park. If not then turning round may be a nuisance.
However, for me it was a beautiful day and plenty of space to park.
Rang the bell-pull and two delightful ladies took me in, apologised for taking my entrance fee and explained it went towards upkeep of the cottage trust. I was the lone visitor at the time so I was shown round the rooms of the ground floor that composed the museum. The great man’s actual chair was the first prized possession to be seen and the chat continued as we wandered round the rooms. Typical style as you would see or imagine from experiences of pictures of the period or researched historical dramas. ‘When did you last see your Father’ sprang to mind though that picture was of a much larger room. The rooms had leaded windows and dark furniture so quite dim except where the sun shone in directly. However they were pleasantly cooler than in the road.
From a distance the outside and design is of an established cottage or small farmhouse, red bricked and tiled. It looks both substantial (relatively) and cosy. When inside the age is undeniable. Low door lintels and ceilings with a few beams visible, some inglenook fireplaces in beautiful condition though you would have to be small to fit in the nook. Is that right?
Many fine editions of his writings were visible in cabinets and samples of pamphlets and books on display, including prints of his mss. Around the walls were portraits of him as a young man through to his last years and blind. There is a bust in the garden. Assorted prints of events through his life whether personal or in his work as a ‘civil servant’. Being more specific he was Secretary for Foreign Tongues in Cromwell’s government. He had finished at Cambridge University and was touring Europe when news of the political unrest in England drew him back. His preference for poetry was dropped as he became involved in the growing turmoil and events of the Civil War. He supported the Republican Cause and used his powers of language in writing and became the chief polemicist for Cromwells’s Commonwealth, issuing many pamphlets and writings of political, theological and historical subjects for the day. Much of this is available still and a relevant study. I suppose through all this time he was a Radical Media Man and working for the Cromwellian Government ensured his writings were published and so historically secure. Following the collapse of the Commonwealth and the reinstallation of Charles II to the monarchy in 1660 Milton’s position was far from secure. His life likely hung in the balance at this change of events and time was spent in the Tower of London, now blind, poor and seriously out of favour.
Maybe his way with words, as a poet and his blindness saved him as well as old friends, especially Andrew Marvell. In the Tower he was back to writing poetry, or rather dictating to aides. He had started Paradise Lost in 1658 and finished it at this cottage in Chalfont St Giles in 1664, when the first edition was published.
The Great Plague raging in London, his withdrawal to the country (as many did) and the Fire of London were all events towards the end of his life. Being blind at this time was no hindrance to his poetry as he would dictate, his mind was still hugely active His family remained at the Cottage for two years and returned to live quietly again in London. He died in 1674.
He led a life almost at the of one of the most tumultuous and important periods of English History. His poetry was written in language that today maybe harder to understand literally but it ever was. You need a depth of background to come close to realising the allegorical stories of Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained (written after a suggestion at Milton’s Cottage by a friend and visitor) or plenty of time. It helps by reading the volumes of Longman Annotated English Poets on Milton’s Longer Poems and the other on Shorter Poems. However if you persevere in reading just some of the (original) former out loud you might find yourself caught up by the sheer eloquence and grandeur of the language as well as the assault on the senses it seems to give. Perhaps searching for the political meanings and interpretation within the text can be left for others of a more historical or linguistic bent.
You can wander into the cottage garden. I am not sure how it relates to his days there but it is pleasant enough today. Steeply terraced in the most part though a small flat lawn beside the house is an easy place to sit and view the cottage garden effect of the planting as it moves up the hillside.
In the garden, looking at the nicely ragged flowers and overhanging trees, small twisting routes up the layered garden, I felt a calming that reflected being outside rather than peering at the old prints and leather books, interesting as they were. The little water fountain that spattered down onto a gravelled base was attracting attention. The sun glittered into it and on the white stoned face embedded in it where the water rippled the surface. A small plaque had a line from Lycidas as a memorial to a University friend who had drowned.
Milton may have been the most educated, knowledgable English poet ever, combining as a high attaining Cambridge graduate plus his additional years of self-study and experience travelling round Europe. His writing distinguishes him as such. But in that garden, the simplicity of it, I fell back to thinking of dear old John Clare and his struggle for life and poetry. How his poetry may well have a wider, greater audience today, even influence in this Eco-pointing world.
Four more visitors arrived as I left. Milton’s Cottage is well worth a visit as a national interest, if you are inclined to following poetry timelines and places. And when you leave the Cottage, just across the road is the Milton’s Indian Restaraunt, where I suspect John didnt visit. Or maybe he did?
Lycidas by John Milton (only maybe 20% of the poem)
Yet once more, O ye laurels, and once more,
Ye myrtles brown, with ivy never sere,
I come to pluck your berries harsh and crude,
And with forced fingers rude
Shatter your leaves before the mellowing year.
Bitter constraint, and sad occasion dear,
Compels me to disturb your season due;
For Lycidas is dead, dead ere his prime,
Young Lycidas, and hath not left his peer.
Who would not sing for Lycidas? He knew
Himself to sing, and build the lofty rhyme.
He must not float upon his wat’ry bier
Unwept, and welter to the parching wind,
Without the meed of some melodious tear.
Begin then, Sisters of the sacred well,
That from beneath the seat of Jove doth spring,
Begin, and somewhat loudly sweep the string.
Hence with denial vain, and coy excuse,
So may some gentle Muse
With lucky words favour my destined urn,
And as he passes turn
And bid fair peace be to my sable shroud.
For we were nursed upon the selfsame hill,
Fed the same flock by fountain, shade, and rill.
Together both, ere the high lawns appeared
Under the opening eyelids of the morn,
We drove a-field, and both together heard
What time the gray-fly winds her sultry horn,
Batt’ning our flocks with the fresh dews of night,
Oft till the star that rose, at ev’ning, bright
Toward heav’n’s descent had sloped his
first 32 lines
xxxxxxxx last 31 lines
For so to interpose a little ease,
Let our frail thoughts dally with false surmise.
Ay me! whilst thee the shores and sounding seas
Wash far away, where’er thy bones are hurled,
Whether beyond the stormy Hebrides,
Where thou perhaps under the whelming tide
Visit’st the bottom of the monstrous world;
Or whether thou, to our moist vows denied,
Sleep’st by the fable of Bellerus old,
Where the great vision of the guarded mount
Looks toward Namancos and Bayona’s hold.
Look homeward, Angel, now, and melt with ruth;
And, O ye dolphins, waft the hapless youth.
Weep no more, woeful shepherds, weep no more,
For Lycidas your sorrow is not dead,
Sunk though he be beneath the wat’ry floor.
So sinks the day-star in the ocean bed,
And yet anon repairs his drooping head,
And tricks his beams, and with new-spangled ore
Flames in the forehead of the morning sky:
So Lycidas sunk low, but mounted high,
Through the dear might of Him that walked
Where, other groves and other streams along,
With nectar pure his oozy locks he laves,
And hears the unexpressive nuptial song,
In the blest kingdoms meek of joy and love.
There entertain him all the saints above,
In solemn troops, and sweet societies,
That sing, and singing in their glory move,
And wipe the tears for ever from his eyes.