Reference > Cambridge History > Cavalier and Puritan > Milton > His first marriage; Mary Powell
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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume VII. Cavalier and Puritan.

V. Milton.

§ 3. His first marriage; Mary Powell.

It is less inconceivable than it may seem to some that, circumstances aiding, Milton might have taken to teaching as a regular profession. For he liked domineering, and he was passionately fond of study in almost any form. But deities other than Pallas found other things for him to do. He struck, not as a soldier, but as a controversialist, into the combat for which he had long been preparing, with the treatise Of Reformation touching Church-Discipline in England, before much more than a year had passed since his return, in 1641. It was in less than a year after the actual opening of the struggle that he married. Of the series of pamphlets dealing with matters ecclesiastical, political and conjugal which now began, notice will be taken in the proper place: the marriage must come here.   11
  In what has usually been written of this thrice unfortunate adventure—tragical in all its aspects if tragicomical in some—there has, perhaps, been a little unfairness to Milton: there has certainly been much to his wife. The main lines of fact are remorselessly clear: the necessary elucidations of detail are almost wholly wanting. In June, 1643, John Milton married Mary Powell, the eldest daughter of an Oxfordshire gentleman, whose family were neighbours to the Miltons and who had had with them both friendship and business relations. She was seventeen. He brought her home in June; she went back, at her family’s request, but with his consent, in July, and refused to come to him at Michaelmas as had been arranged. For two years, he saw nothing of her. These are the bare facts, and almost all the facts certainly known, though there are a few slight, and, in some cases, doubtful, addenda.   12
  On such a brief, an advocate may say almost what he pleases. What may fairly be said for and against Milton will come presently: what has been said against his wife may almost rouse indignation and certainly justify contempt. We have been told that she was a “dull and common girl,” of which there is just as much and just as little evidence as that she was as wise as Diotima and as queenly as Helen; that she had flirted with royalist officers from Oxford (no evidence again); finally, that “there is no evidence that she was handsome.” As for this last, from passage after passage in the poems it is almost inconceivable that Milton should have been attracted by any one who was not good-looking.   13
  Whether, however, she was pretty, or whether she was plain, the reasons of her leaving her husband are not hard to guess. For the fact is that Milton’s attitude to women is peculiar and not wholly pleasant. It is not merely, as is often said, that he disdained them and held the doctrine of their subjection—“there ’s example for ’t,” as Malvolio says of the same subject in another connection. It is not merely that he was unreasonable in his expectations of them—there ’s much more example for that. It is that, as was often the case with him, he was utterly unpractical, and his theoretical notions were a conglomerate—and not a happy one. Mark Pattison—an interesting witness, some of whose other expressions have just been cited—chose Adam’s ecstatic description of Eve to Raphael as Milton’s real mind on the subject. He forgot that we must take with it the angel’s prompt, severe and (if one may say such things of angels) hopelessly coarse snub and rebuke. The fact seems to be that Milton—as elsewhere, sharply opposed to Shakespeare, and here almost as sharply opposed to Dante—blended an excessive and eclectic draft on books and on fancy with an insufficient experience of life. He accepted the common disdainful estimate of the ancients; the very peculiar, but by no means wholly disdainful, estimate of the Hebrews; and he tried to blend both with something of the sensuous passion of the Middle Ages and the renascence, stripping from this the transcendental element which had been infused in the Middle Ages by Mariolatry and chivalry, in the renascence by a sort of poetical convention. An Aspasia-Hypatia-Lucretia-Griselda, with any naughtiness in the first left out and certain points in Solomon’s pattern woman added, might have met Milton’s views. But this blend has not been commonly quoted in the marriage market. His friend Marvell, in a passage of rare poetic beauty, described his love as begotten by Despair upon Impossibility. Milton’s seems to have been begotten upon another kind of Impossibility by Unreasonable Expectation. The exact circumstances of his first marriage we shall never know; those of his second take it out of argument; his third seems to have been simply the investing of a gouvernante with permanent rank extraordinary and plenipotentiary. But passage after passage in his works remains to speak; and the terrible anecdote of his obliging his daughters, and elaborately teaching them, to read to him languages which they did not understand, remains for comment. The taste of the seventeenth century in torture was not only, as was said of the knowledge of Sam Weller in another matter, “extensive and peculiar,” but, as was said of the emperor Frederick II in the same, “humorous and lingering.” But it rarely can have gone further than this.   14
  Once more, the remarkable blends of Milton’s character which are important to the comprehension of his work require notice. His immediate conduct seems to have been perfectly correct—he repeatedly solicited her to return, until (according to a perhaps not quite trustworthy account) his requests were not only disregarded but rejected with contempt.  4  But, thenceforward, he allowed his self-centredness, his curious anarchism and his entirely unpractical temper to carry him off in a quite different direction. Indissolubility of marriage, except for positive unfaithfulness, was inconvenient to John Milton; John Milton was not a person to console himself illicity; therefore, indissolubility of marriage must go. The series of divorce pamphlets, accordingly, followed; and, having proved to his own satisfaction that he was entitled to marry again, he sought the hand of a certain Miss Davis, whom some have identified (quite gratuitously) with the “virtuous young lady” of Sonnel IX. She, at any rate, had virtue and common sense enough to decline an arrangement of elective affinity.   15
  In any one else than Milton, the proposal would have argued little virtue; in any virtuous person, it could but argue no common sense. And, indeed, the absence of that contemned property is conspicuous everywhere in these unfortunate transactions. Milton was not only (in the straight vernacular) making an utter fool of himself—aggravating the ridicule of a situation the distress of which arises in part from the very fact that it is ridiculous—but, just after he had come forward as a public man, he was playing into the hands of his enemies, and scandalising his friends. There was no point on which the more moderate and clear-sighted of the puritan party can have been more sensitive than this. The very word “divorce”—thanks to Henry VIII and some of the German reforming princes—made the ears of better protestants burn; and, from the days of the lampoons on Luther’s marriage to those of the Family of Love, licensed libertinage had been one of the reproaches most constantly cast in the teeth of “hot gospellers.” Next to nothing seems to be known of Miss Davis except that she had good looks (as we could guess) and good wits (which is evident). But it was certainly thanks to her, and to time’s revenges, that the situation (after Milton had made himself at once a stumblingblock  5  and a laughing-stock for two years) was at last saved, before anything irreparable had happened. The ruin of the royal cause carried the Powell family with it; and, with more common sense than magnanimity, they resolved to throw themselves on Milton’s mercy. A sort of ambush was laid—and reason coincides with romance in suggesting that the famous forgiveness scene of Paradise Lost had been actually rehearsed on this occasion. At any rate, Milton—who, on his side, had very much more magnanimity than common sense—took his wife back in the summer of 1645; and, when Oxford fell, a year later, received her whole family into his new house in Barbican. Of the rest, we know nothing except the birth of three children—daughters—who appear later. At the birth of a fourth, in 1652, Mary died, not yet twentyseven. Otherwise, there is no record of her married life. Milton is not in the least likely to have visited her early fractiousness by any petty persecution: he is as little likely to have “killed her with kindness.” The whole thing was a mistake—a common one, no doubt; but, somehow, “the pity of it” remains rather specially.   16

Note 4. It may be observed that these overtures, if made, dispose almost finally of what has been called by an advocate of Milton the “horrible” suggestion, based on a written date, that the first divorce pamphlet was actually composed before Mary left him. In that case he would have been an utter hypocrite in his requests to her to come back; and it has been said that hypocrisy and Milton are simply two “incompossible” ideas, to use Sir W. Hamilton’s useful word. [ back ]
Note 5. “Miltonist” was actually used in print as a synonym for an opponent of the sacredness of marriage. [ back ]

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