It is an odd little joke of Fate that Milton, the great seer, who, in "Paradise Lost," set out - to use his own words - to " justify the ways of God to men," should have been unable to justify his own to his wife.
Unhappy love is said to be one of the most necessary ingredients in the recipe of the poetic temperament. Milton would appear to have made special efforts to ensure the failure of his first matrimonial venture. He was thirty-five when he brought home his wife Mary, the eldest daughter of Richard Powell, an Oxfordshire Cavalier.
An 111-matched Pair
There is no historical record of the wooing, and its cause. All that is known is that Milton left his home for Forest Hill, and, without acquainting his family with his intentions, returned a month later a married man.
The two families, in spite of their political opposition, were old friends, and some have seen in Milton's marriage the outcome of the plan then very usual for two friends to agree upon a match between their children. The more romantic of Milton's biographers, however, claim that the marriage was one of sentiment, if not of love. It is not difficult to agree with this view of the matter. Milton, though not a youth, was extraordinarily beautiful - indeed, his features earned for him the nickname of the " Lady."
Whatever the course of the wooing, it soon became evident that Milton had in no way gained an insight into his bride's character. She was to a great extent lacking in brains, and had no intellectual pleasure in literature whatsoever.
The newly married couple were followed by a host of the bride's relatives and friends to Milton's home in Aldersgate Street, and it was not long after the departure of these guests that quiet intimacy revealed the incompatibility of their two temperaments. The bright girl-wife grew rapidly homesick in the austerity of her new home, where bright ribbons, smiling eyes, and the bubbling gaiety of life never entered. Her husband, after speeding his guests, relapsed into all his grave habits of study and contemplation.
After a brief period of mutual irritation, Mary left on a visit to her mother. In spite of repeated letters and messages, she refused to return to her husband. Then Milton, probably thoroughly aroused from his contemplated philosophy, started a bold campaign in favour of divorce. From the " Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce " the pitiful story of daily quarrels is only too easily deduchis unhappy wife, no doubt, questioned with all the spirit of her sex and the pride of her family, Milton's conception of woman as a being solely created for man and utterly subject to him in all things. With the aid of friends, a reconciliation was brought about, to the permanence of which Milton's generous nature very largely contributed. When his first wife died, leaving him three daughters, the complete darkness of the totally blind was menacing the poet.
In 1656, Milton married Katherine, daughter of Captain Woodcock, of Hackney. With her he found a happiness which lasted, however, but a year, his wife dying in childbirth.
Her memory Milton has perpetuated in the sonnet " Methought I saw my late espoused saint," in which he sees his late wife in a dream :
After his second wife's death, the affairs of the household gradually slipped back into a state of complete confusion. The helpless blind poet was cheated by his children, who even attempted to sell his books.
In 1663, Milton married Elizabeth Minshull, a woman thirty years his junior, who brought a little human warmth into the poet's life. She was pretty, with golden hair, and sang passably to her husband's accompaniment on the organ or bass viol. She could talk with him, and, though apparently she did not read or write for him, she was proud of his fame, and treasured the letters he received from the great ones of the world.
On his death, in 1674, Milton left her all he possessed, cutting his undutiful daughters completely out of his will. His widow effected a compromise with them, as they threatened litigation, and lived for fifty more years the life of a poor gentlewoman.
Genius is not a domestic quality, and if Milton expected of the woman of his day that she should speak Hebrew, Greek, Latin, and French, and argue theological problems with his grace and subtlety, as well as cook, sew, and tend to his creature comforts, it is perhaps only natural that he was disappointed. His genius was perhaps more purely intellectual than that of any other great English poet, and he could find no grace in passion, no salvation in the emotion of the soul. It is perhaps owing to this that both in his life and writings the influence of women is hard to trace.