« PreviousContinue »
him, and evidently hoped to the last, what was always, perhaps, intended by the Protector, and understood between them, that, as soon as the troubles of the times should be properly appeased, he would establish the republic. In this hope Milton consented to serve with him, not to serve him; for Cromwell always professed to be the servant of the people. And, after all, there was some difference between Cromwell and Charles II. With the former, the author of Paradise Lost had something in common; they were both great men, they were both enemies to that remnant of feudal barbarism, which, supported by prejudice and ignorance, had for ages exerted so fatal an influence over the destinies of their country.
Minds of such an order-in some things, though not in all, resembling-might naturally enough co-operate: for they could respect each other. But with what sense of decorum, or reverence for his own character, remembering the glorious cause for which he had struggled, could Milton have reconciled to his conscience, taking office under the returned Stuart, to mingle daily with the crowd of atheists who blasphemed the Almighty, and with swinish vices debased his image in the polluted chambers of Whitehall! The poet regarded them with contemptuous abhorrence; and, if I am not exceedingly mistaken, described them under the names of devils, in the court of their patron and inspirer below. Besides, even had they possessed the few virtues compatible with servitude, it would have been matter of constant chagrin, of taunt and reviling on one side, and silent hatred on the other, to have brought together republican and slave in the same bureau, and to have compelled a democratic pen to mould court phrases for a despicable master.
So far, however, was the biographer from comprehending the character of the man whose life he undertook to write, that he seems to have thought it an imputation on him, and a circumstance for which it is necessary to pity his lot, that the dissolute nobles of the age seldom resorted to his humble dwelling! The sentiment is worthy of Salmasius. But was there then living a man who would not have been honoured by passing under the shadow of that roof?-by listening to the accents of those inspired lips?—by being greeted and remembered by him, whose slightest commendation was immortality? Elijah or Elisha, or Moses, or David, or Paul of Tarsus, would have sat down with Milton, and found in him a kindred spirit. But the slave of Lady Castlemaine, or the traitor Monk, or Rochester, or the husband of Miss Hyde, or that Lord Chesterfield who saw what Hamilton describes, and dared not with his sword revenge the insult, might, forsooth, have thought it a piece of condescension to be seen in the Delphic cavern of England, whence proceeded those sacred verses which, in literature, have raised her above all other nations, to the level of Greece itself!
In every point of view, however, Johnson was unhappy in his attempts at appreciating Milton. But he knew what would tell with
the vulgar; and, therefore, not caring for what inference might be drawn by the more judicious, boldly advanced what he desired to be believed, without giving himself the trouble to inquire whether it were true or not. To lessen the authority of a man's political opinions, it is impossible to conceive a surer way to succeed with the unreflecting than by creating the belief that he was a closet-philosopher, or statesman, who amused himself with making governments on paper, and, like another Jupiter, regulating, from his throne of clouds, the affairs of a world existing only in his imagination. This service is what Johnson undertakes to perform for Milton, who, in his eyes, was a poor recluse scholar, with little experience or knowledge of business. He might, indeed, for this were difficult to deny,-construct an epic poem ; but immediately plunged beyond his depth when he sought to fathom the mysteries of state, which are only to be comprehended by persons, who, like himself and Boswell, had mingled with the great world, and discovered by what secret springs the machine of the commonwealth is kept moving.
When drawing up this part of his brief, Johnson must doubtless have lost sight, for a moment, of the circumstances of Milton's life. He must have overlooked that, after acquiring such knowledge as is attainable at an university, and by the most diligent private study, he had, at a ripe age, travelled through several foreign kingdoms, mixing freely with persons of all ranks, carefully noting whatever seemed worthy of remark, having rendered himself so far master of their languages as to be able, in most European countries, to express himself with the fluency of a native; that with the habits and manners of youth, his "trade" of teaching had made him acquainted; that his studies, as his adversaries found to their cost, had rendered him familiar with the transactions of past times; and that, if he really, after all, was ignorant in the science of politics, notwithstanding that he had, during fourteen or fifteen years, been deeply and actively engaged in public business, living among the ablest statesmen of the age, conversing daily with Cromwell, whom Dr. Johnson, perhaps, will allow to have been something of a politician—if after all this, I say, he was still a novice in state matters, his stupidity must have achieved a marvellous triumph over opportunity.
To such a conclusion, however, Dr. Johnson, expert as he is in sophistry, will, perhaps, find it difficult to bring us; and it remains to be comprehended by what logic he could himself have arrived at it there appear to be but the two ways following :-first, it may be supposed that the scales of prejudice lay so thick upon his eyes that he was incapable of discerning the truth; or, secondly, that discerning it well, he disingenuously wrote contrary to his convictions. Now, which way soever the question be decided, little lustre will thereby be added to the doctor's reputation.
On another subject, of a very different nature, the biographer appears to have been desirous of shaking the pillars of Milton's fame;
but I hope I may in this have misunderstood him, though his language seems but too clear. It regards the moral character of the bard, and that too on a point upon which he had been often attacked by his enemies, and was peculiarly sensitive. After relating the circumstances of his first marriage, and the strange visit his wife, scared by "spare diet and hard study," made, in the course of one month, to her relations, Dr. Johnson adds: "Milton was too busy to much miss his wife; he pursued his studies, and now and then visited the Lady Margaret Leigh, whom he has mentioned in one of his sonnets.”
Let the reader consider the whole passage. Milton's wife, a month after marriage, leaves him, but her absence gives him little concern. And how happens this? Why, he pursues his studies. But did not his heart, whose sensibilities had just been roused by female society, require something to love? Oh, he now and then visits the Lady Margaret Leigh, whom he has celebrated in one of his sonnets! Is not the inference clear? It may, however, be worth while to inquire, who was the Lady Margaret Leigh? Does she seem to have been a person accustomed to console husbands for the loss of their wives? It appears she was the daughter of the Earl of Marlborough, Higb Treasurer of England, under James I. Having married a Captain Dobson, she, according to custom, preserved her title: and being celebrated for her talents and learning, her house would seem to have been the resort of the principal literary men of the day, among whom Milton was one; so that his visits resolve themselves into being present at, what in fashionable phrase would perhaps be termed, her conversazioni. But if, after all, Johnson means nothing particular in this passage, it must be admitted he has arranged his words in a very curious manner, and is at least liable to the charge of unskilfulness.
And what is meant by "spare diet and hard study?" Is it intended to be insinuated that Mrs. Milton was stinted by her husband in beef and mutton? Or is the whole only the hallucination of an epicure, whose imagination instantly takes the alarm at the least hint of abstemiousness? And with respect to the hard studying, what are we to infer ?—that, during the honeymoon, Milton sought to impose on his wife the task of conjugating Hebrew verbs, or of wading through those “Locrian Remnants," which he shortly afterwards recommended to the world? If on the first bringing home of a gay young wife, and in the midst of that flutter of spirits which his condition must necessarily have caused, he could himself study hard, I will answer for the harmlessness of his visits to the Lady Margaret Leigh, or any other lady; and am truly sorry the doctor should have suffered his mind to be distressed by a circumstance in itself so innocent.
It is impossible to be serious in rebutting insinuations so absurd. Johnson was in an ill humour all the time he was employed in writing this Life, and saw everything in a wrong light. Consequently, even d
as a rhetorical pleading, written ad captandum vulgus, his work, notwithstanding that he was a distinguished proficient in the art, is wanting in many of those graces of sophistry, upon which he who advocates a bad cause must principally rely. He does not sufficiently cloak his hatred; frequently becomes confused, and contradicts himself, which in such a case has the worst possible appearance; grows abusive, and calls names; and in his eagerness to blacken Milton's memory, makes assertions which, unfortunately for him, every person has the means of proving to be untrue. This is grievously to sin against the ars sophistica, where all stabbing should be performed adroitly in the dark, or with a smile, as if only in jest. I suspect, however, that his dialectic powers have been very much overrated. He dances the literary Pyrrhic awkwardly, allowing his adversary a hundred opportunities of hitting him, even when he fancies himself best prepared.
I have already explained the grounds of Johnson's antipathy to Milton he hated him because he was the advocate of good government; and he hated all men of similar predilections. But if, independently of politics, he considered him a good, religious man, he should have abstained from writing his Life, knowing it is impossible we should do justice to him whom we hate. If, on the other hand, he rated him low in point of virtue and morality, it was his duty to say so, and make that the foundation of his attack; for, by proving his position, he would have emancipated us from what he esteemed the absurd veneration in which we have been accustomed to hold the name of Milton. Instead of doing this, however, he puts on the armour and takes up the weapons of a sophist. He pretends to participate in our reverence; and, had his powers been equal to the task, would have created in us the belief that nothing could have been more painful to him than to kill an illustrious reputation.
But his mask is too thin to conceal the joy he feels when he supposes he has his great enemy at disadvantage; that he hugs and fondles his victim only to feel where he is most vulnerable; that he coaxes and flatters solely to put him off his guard. Sometimes he amuses him with the hope that he may be allowed to keep his virtue, if he will suffer his political wisdom to be demolished. Anon he places him between the horns of a dilemma in this wav :-if he understood not the import of what he said, he was an ignoramus ; if he did, he was guilty of voluntary impiety. Or he undertakes, by the following ingenious method, to convict him of falsehood :— Milton had been accused of having subjected himself to personal chastisement at the university; in his writings he solemnly denies the charge; but he says also, in one of his juvenile poems, that there were other things besides threats which he disliked in a college life: Johnson, by altering his words, says what was more than threats, was probably punishment; ergǝ, Milton must be thought, what I think it impiety to write.
It is a common artifice for a pleader to aim at irritating the judges against his opponent. Johnson has recourse to this hackneyed. trick, where he insinuates that Milton's high opinion of himself was, perhaps, mingled with some contempt for others; "for scarcely any man ever wrote so much and praised so few." And, lest the reader should forget it, he again repeats that he is very frugal of his praise. Now, of two things, one is certain either Johnson had not read the prose works of Milton, and therefore knew not whom he might have praised or blamed; or, if he had read them, he was on easy terms with his conscience, and wrote like a Jesuit. He pleased himself, however, with the reflection that, whether what he said were true or not, it would be difficult to convict him; for whatever number of writers you might reckon up, as praised by Milton, he might still answer that he considered them but few. Nevertheless, they are so many, that one might, I think, almost fill a page with their names.
The biographer next intimates his belief that Milton had been guilty of the most nefarious action of interpolating king Charles's posthumous work, the Eikon Basilikè, if it was indeed written by him,—and then, when he came to write against it, of condemning the monarch for the impiety of his own interpolation! This accusation is made in a most extraordinary sentence, such as none but a sophist could have written. He desires the reader to infer that Milton was rendered dishonest by faction: but the reason he subjoins is absurd; for he was suspected, says he, of having interpolated the Eikon Basilikè. Now, no man is dishonest because he may be suspected of this or that; he is dishonest if he has performed a dishonest action; otherwise, he who, without evidence, accuses him of such an act, is himself dishonest, and should bear the penalty attached to such a character.
In the next paragraph he sets all logic at defiance. The use of the interpolated prayer, Dr. Johnson contends, was perfectly innocent; " and they," he adds, "who could so noisily censure it, with a little extension of their malice, could contrive what they wanted to accuse!" But what pitiful creatures he here endeavours to represent Milton and his colleagues, who having, according to him, the choice of putting into the king's book whatever they pleased, were so silly as to introduce what it required considerable malice to find fault with! To justify their harsh censures, why did they not insert some glaring impiety-something that would stick to his memory, and render it more odious to all succeeding ages? This consideration is of itself sufficient to convince any reasonable man of the utter futility of the charge; and can add no lustre to the character of him who could make it.
He accumulates abuse, and grows more furious as he proceeds: but, luckily, is so often in contradiction with himself, that I am spared the labour of refuting him. Sometimes Milton is treated as a mere grammarian: "No man forgets his original trade; the rights