« PreviousContinue »
gods; it will then be manifest that the most poetical, or, in other words, the most energetic and creative minds, should eagerly engage in the great concerns of the public.
With such views, it will be evident that my desire is not to disparage an art to which- if the avowal may here be made-I have been from my youth upward devoted: but, could it be proved that poetry necessarily indisposes men towards freedom, inculcating a slavish abandonment of our rights, to be trampled on by the first tyrannical foot that might itch to tread on them, it were far better that a millstone were tied about every poet's neck, and that he were cast into the sea. For what true relish can there be in the life which is held, not enjoyed, by the permission of another? Who, under an evil government, can feel any unsophisticated thirst of glory, or be desirous that posterity should know he tasted the bitter cup of servitude under this or that tyrant? Or, worse still, that while myriads of his nobler countrymen were smitten and pining in secret sadness, at beholding the abomination of desolation in the Holy Place of Freedom; or were, perchance, carried forcibly away for imaginary offences into exile beyond the seas, he could tune his slavish lyre for the amusement of courtiers, or insolently celebrate his private pleasures?
By such considerations, as I have already observed, was Milton actuated, when, laying aside for a time the poetical character, he entered upon the composition of those works of which I am now to give some account. In performing this duty, besides the difficulties which may be inherent in the subject itself, I feel that I shall have to encounter others of a peculiarly stubborn kind. To the public generally, many at least, if not most of his prose writings, for reasons hereafter to be explained, are scarcely known to exist; and how can they be persuaded that things which have lain so long in obscurity, are not only worth reviving, but distinguished for the most rare eloquence and powers of reasoning? Hazlitt used to say that Coleridge had a trick of preferring the unknown to the known. Will not this, in certain quarters, be said of me? Not that in this country the number is small of persons far more intimately acquainted than myself with whatever Milton has written; but so much can hardly, perhaps, be said for the great majority of those engaged in the study of English literature, for whom, and not for those already deeply versed in his writings, the present discourse is intended.
Another obstacle to the diffusion of Milton's prose works among the present generation is the uncouth titles which several of them bear. The less courageous reader is stopped at the threshold. He cannot be persuaded that a man who stands at the door of his treatise, quaintly disguised in a muffler of hard words, and brandishing a syllogism in his fist, can intend very gentle or pleasant treatment to those who enter; and, accordingly, passes on to others who smile and speak him more fair at the outset. Doubtless, too, he has heard
from various quarters hints unfavourable to the character of the author; who, in the language of certain writers, though they acknowledge him to be a great poet, is a fanatical, malignant commonwealthsman, the advocate of doctrines fatal to the peace of society, of doubtful piety, dishonest in politics, a bad husband, a worse father. His style, too, is said to be scarcely English. The subjects he loved to treat are spoken of as out-of-date topics, from the consideration of which, however handled, no good could now, in the universal blaze of knowledge that surrounds us, accrue to any man. To the smatterer in literature he is rendered odious by being represented as a monster of pride and overweening self-conceit; who, in proportion as he learned to entertain lofty notions of his own intellectual powers, grew to despise and undervalue those of others, praising penuriously and seldom, because he knew that one good word from his pen was a passport to immortality.
Had nature, however, gifted me with but a tithe of the eloquence which the author of these now obscure works possessed, I should not despair of making good his claim to stand at the head of our prose literature, instead of confining myself, as I must, to maintaining that he deserves to be read; and that, so far from being a harsh and crabbed controversialist or politician, he is an exquisitely sweet and pleasant writer, in whom the most original and uncommon thoughts are clothed with language always manly and proper, and in many cases of surpassing beauty. To those who already appreciate Milton justly, or who may be much better acquainted than I am with all his merits, I can of course have nothing of value to offer, unless they should be pleased to accept for such my humble but earnest admiration of the man, and my resemblance, so far, to themselves: I address myself to the prejudiced, the unconvinced, and those whose course of reading may hitherto not have brought them to the knowledge of those golden treatises, wherein so much wisdom, and eloquence, and true taste, and whatever is most excellent and admirable in literature, is to be found. And if these remarks should so far answer my hopes as to direct some slight degree of attention to the vast storehouse of wisdom contained in these volumes, I shall certainly, in prefacing and commenting them, esteem myself to have been neither unprofitably nor unhonourably employed.
The spirit of our age has often been described, and sometimes without any design of complimenting it, as the spirit of utility; and by this I profess, in the present case, to be actuated. Utility is my object but under this term I include whatever can benefit the life of man, public or private; whatever can improve his virtues, or enlarge his thoughts, or lift him above the clouds of prejudice, or provide for the innocent entertainment of his leisure. Milton was pre-eminently an utilitarian. In all he wrote he had a view to the public good; and, in fact, regarded the promotion of this to the utmost as so much his duty, that, in his contest with the bishops, he urges as his principal
motive, the undying reproaches of conscience to which silence and tame submission would have exposed him.
Having been himself educated a puritan, he naturally looked upon episcopacy with an unfriendly eye. Had the spirit of his times been different, this aversion might, perhaps, have remained inactive, or manifested itself in a less fierce and uncompromising manner. He might have spoken or written, indeed, against the abuses of churchgovernment; but he would probably have exhibited in his opposition more of courtesy, more of that polished suavity of expression, under which, in ordinary circumstances, men are wont to cloak their hatred. The persecution of his brethren by the prelates, however, was too recent, and the spirit of intolerance still too palpably manifest in the great dignitaries of the church, to permit a man of so zealous and fiery a temperament to enter with coolness into the lists of controversy. He considered his opponents to be men who, under the mask of humility, and love of holiness, concealed a most profane and unchristianlike hankering after political power; who esteemed more their seats in the house of lords than the efficacy of their ministry in God's vineyard; who, like Laud, would consent, in compliance with the desires of a popish king, to the profanation of the sabbath, in the hope of having their ambition gratified by beholding the order to which they belonged advanced over the heads of the laymen.
His first object, therefore, in coming before the public as a prose writer, was to prove that the Church of England still stood in need of reformation, and to explain the causes which had hitherto hindered it. In his peculiarly nervous and masculine eloquence he describes the corruptions of the gospel introduced by priestly heresiarchs, lamenting "that such a doctrine should, through the grossness and blindness of her professors, and the fraud of deceivable traditions, drag so downwards, as to backslide into the Jewish beggary of old cast rudiments, and stumble forward another way into the newvomited paganism of sensual idolatry, attributing purity or impurity to things indifferent, that they might bring the inward acts of the spirit to the outward and customary eye-service of the body, as if they could make God earthly and fleshly, because they could not make themselves heavenly and spiritual. They began to draw down all the divine intercourse betwixt God and the soul, yea, the very shape of God himself, into an exterior and bodily form, urgently pretending a necessity and obligement of joining the body in a formal reverence, and worship circumscribed. They hallowed it, they fumed it, they sprinkled it, they bedecked it, not in robes of pure innocence, but of pure linen, with other deformed and fantastic dresses, in palls and mitres, gold, and gewgaws fetched from Aaron's old wardrobe, or the Flamen's vestry. Then was the priest set to con his motions and his postures, his liturgies and his lurries, till the soul, by this means of over-bodying herself, given up justly to fleshly delights, bated her wing apace downwards; and, finding the ease she had from her
visible and sensuous colleague, the body, in performance of religious duties, her pinions, now broken and flagging, shifted off from herself the labour of high soaring any more, forgot her heavenly flight, and left the dull and droiling carcass to plod on in the old road, and drudging trade of outward conformity."
He then proceeds to trace the progress of idolatry and superstition, describing with a masterly hand the various corruptions that sprang up, until "the huge overshadowing train of error had almost swept all the stars out of the firmament of the church," and spread over the whole Christian world a darkness which seemed to be that of night without a dawn. In the midst of this obscurity, however, the light of the Reformation flashed forth; at which, "methinks," says Milton, "a sovereign and reviving joy must needs rush into the bosom of him that reads or hears, and the sweet odour of the returning Gospel imbathe his soul with the fragrancy of heaven! Then was the sacred Bible sought out of the dusty corners where profane falsehood and neglect had thrown it, the schools opened, divine and human learning raked out of the embers of forgotten tongues, the princes and cities trooping apace to the new-erected banners of salvation; the martyrs, with the irresistible might of weakness, shaking the powers of darkness, and scorning the fiery rage of the old red dragon."
The Long Parliament had now commenced its labours, and with a quick, though as yet unpractised eye, Milton already perceived that a way was opening for the establishment of popular institutions. Theoretically he had long been versed in the science of politics, and possessing so much judgment and learning, could not fail to perceive how ordinary statesmen, with their timid and barren brains, misdirect the energies of the people, and convert that government which was designed to promote the good of all, into an instrument for cockering the pride of one family and its creatures. These aristocrats, he saw, must always prove the unconvertible enemies of reformation; for, with all their incapacity, they want not the wit to perceive, that so soon as justice and a regard for the public good shall become the directing principles of government, the great business of the nation will be taken out of their hands to be confided to others more worthy.
Turning aside, therefore, for a moment, from the pursuit of the bishops, whom throughout his first book he had incessantly worried, he, in his preface to the second, attacks the time-serving politicians, their supporters. "It is a work good and prudent," says he, "to be able to guide one man; of larger extended virtue to order well one house; but to govern a nation piously and justly, which only is to say happily, is for a spirit of the greatest size, and divinest mettle. And certainly of no less a mind, nor of less excellence in another way, were they who by writing laid the solid and true foundations of this science, which being of greatest importance to the life of man, yet there is no art that hath been more cankered in her principles, more soiled and slubbered with aphorisming pe
dantry, than the art of policy: and that most, where a man would think should least be, in Christian commonwealths. They teach not that to govern well, is to train up a nation in true wisdom and virtue, and that which springs from thence- magnanimity; (take heed of that;) and that which is our beginning, regeneration, and happiest end-likeness to God, which, in one word, we call godliness; and that this is the true flourishing of a land, other things follow as the shadow does the substance: to teach thus were mere pulpitry to them. This is the masterpiece of a modern politician, how to qualify and mould the sufferance of the people to the length of that foot that is to tread on their necks; how rapine may serve itself with the fair and honourable pretences of public good; how the puny law may be brought under the wardship and control of lust and will: in which attempt, if they fall short, then must a superficial colour of reputation by all means, direct or indirect, be gotten to wash over the unsightly bruise of honour. To make men governable in this manner, their precepts mainly tend to break a national spirit and courage, by countenancing open riot, luxury, and ignorance, till having thus disfigured and made men beneath men, as Juno in the fable of Io, they deliver up the poor transformed heifer of the commonwealth to be strung and vexed with the brize and goad of oppression, under the custody of some Argus with a hundred eyes of jealousy. To be plainer, sir, how to solder, how to stop a leak, how to keep the floating carcass of a crazy and diseased monarchy or state, betwixt wind and water, swimming still upon her own dead lees, that now is the deep design of a politician! Alas, sir! a commonwealth ought to be but as one huge Christian personage, one mighty growth and stature of an honest man, as big and compact in virtue as in body; for look what the grounds and causes are of single happiness to one man, the same ye shall find them to a whole state, as Aristotle, both in his ethics and politics, from the principles of reason, lays down. By consequence, therefore, that which is good and agreeable to monarchy, will appear soonest to be so, by being good and agreeable to the true welfare of every Christian; and that which can be justly proved hurtful and offensive to every true Christian, will be evinced to be alike hurtful to monarchy: for God forbid that we should separate and distinguish the end and good of a monarch from the end and good of a monarchy, or of that, from Christianity."
But, to return to the principal objects of his vituperation in this work, which throughout is filled with great splendour of writing; how must the puritans have chuckled over the following picture of the clergy. "The emulation that under the old law was in the king towards the priest, is now so come about in the Gospel, that all the danger is to be feared from the priest to the king. Whilst the priest's office in the law was set out with an exterior lustre of pomp and glory, kings were ambitious to be priests; now priests,