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THAT the prose writings of Milton ought to be better known, is generally admitted. If testimony to this effect were needed, we should find it in the extract from Macaulay on the title-page. Let us further quote that of Dr. Sumner, Bishop of Winchester, who says :-“There is much reason for regretting that the prose works of Milton, where, in the midst of much that is coarse and intemperate, passages of such redeeming beauty occur, should be in the hands of so few readers, considering the advantage which might be derived to our literature from the study of their original and nervous eloquence." But it ought to be added, that Milton's prose works can never be widely popular in the common sense of that term) as a whole. This for many reasons. First, he makes too great a demand upon his readers. His prose, like his poetry, is full of recondite allusions, suggested by his vast and various learning. The whole range of existing literature was at his command,—Hebrew, Greek, Latin, French, Italian, and Spanish, had yielded up to him their rich stores. He seems as familiar with the obscurest writers in each of these languages as with those which are quoted as classics. Not a monkish chronicler, nor a Byzantine relater of Imperial gossip, is unknown to him. The ordinary reader becomes bewildered, amongst arguments and illustrations so recondite as these. Then,
his style, rich, glowing, and eloquent as it is, is by no means an easy one to follow. His sentences are long, intricate, and involved. The attention of the reader must never flag for an instant, or he will miss the train of thought. This applies to all the English prose of that day. It had not yet run clear and pellucid. It was like the mountain streams in auriferous regions, which hold in their dark-brown waters grains of gold; farther from their source, they will have deposited their mud, and their gold too. The very richness of Milton's imagination increases the difficulty of following him. “Full minds overflow in long sentences, and in the moment of inspiration, when thick-coming thoughts and images crowd upon them, will often pour them forth in splendid confusion, dazzling to common readers, but kindling to congenial spirits.” And yet further it must be added, that the controversies in which he engaged have to some extent become obsolete, and have to a great extent shifted their ground. Questions which, in his day, were hotly debated, the liberty of the press, for instance, or the Divine right of kings, and the doctrine of passive obedience,—are, in our day, regarded as settled beyond dispute. Other topics, which are still sub lite, have so changed their position and the grounds upon which they are discussed, that Milton's arguments, which went straight to the point at the time he urged them, would now, if reproduced, be altogether beside the mark. Such discussions as these have a historical interest, and to the student possess a permanent value : to the general reader they prove only a hindrance and incumbrance. Fully admitting, then, the validity of the objections commonly taken to the publication of a volume of selections, as giving only the disjecta membra of an
Author, yet, in the endeavour to popularise the prose writings of Milton, this seems the only course which offers a prospect of success.
In the preparation of such a volume as the present, it is impossible to adopt any method which shall be quite free from objection. I might have given a few of the more important treatises at length, without omission or curtailment. This seemed undesirable, because in that case much must have been inserted which, for the reason assigned, has lost its interest to the general reader; and much must, from want of space, have been omitted, which ought to appear. There was therefore no alternative left but to reject this method, and to adopt the principle of giving selections from his various works. Two methods of arrangement for such selections were possible. One was to classify the passages according to their subjects, giving in each chapter a series of extracts bearing upon one point. But by following this course, the volume would simply have contained a collection of Milton's thoughts on different matters, and would have failed to afford a history of his mind. The plan which I have followed, and which I trust will be found acceptable, is this :-I have arranged the treatises in their chronological order, so that the progress of Milton's opinions will be evident by a comparison of the various passages. To each treatise I have prefixed a brief introduction, narrating the circumstances which called it forth, and giving such a summary of its contents as may serve to suggest the connection and logical sequence of the extracts which follow. The passages selected have been such as seemed to claim it, either by their intrinsic excellence, or as bearing on the controversies of the present day, or as illustrative of Milton's character. A few notes have been added, to explain obsolete and technical terms or allusions which might perplex the reader who is familiar only with his own language; these, however, are as few and brief as possible. In a very few cases I have ventured to change a word in the text, when such change would diminish the obscurity of a sentence, and render it more readily intelligible. A topical index at the end of the volume will facilitate reference to any subject discussed in the passages selected.
A republication of the prose writings of our great poet seems specially appropriate to the present year. We are celebrating the Bicentenary of that act of fidelity to conscience when two thousand clergymen,
“ Black Bartholomew,” gave up everything for Christ and His truth ; with Milton, “thinking it better to prefer a blameless silence, before the sacred office of speaking bought and begun with servitude and forswearing.” He took no direct part in the controversies about the Act of Uniformity; but it was because he had previously discussed the questions at issue, and needed not to repeat what he had already written. He had anticipated all that could be said on the subject, and had passed on to other tasks and higher themes. I can hold out no hope that this volume of Selections from his writings will prove light and easy reading; but I am quite sure that whoever brings to its perusal a mind awake to the perception of beauty, and diligent in the search for truth, will find both in unsurpassed profusion.
S. MANNING. FROME, May, 1862.