Page images
PDF
EPUB
[ocr errors][ocr errors][ocr errors][ocr errors][merged small][ocr errors][merged small][merged small][merged small][merged small]

mocratic feeling with legal wisdom on its tribunals,-to such an eye, a republic, in all its visionary perfection, can present only relative deformity, and can suggest nothing more than an occasion of envy or of glory in the fortunate inheritance of Englishmen.

But in Milton's days the political prospect was far less alluring; and, from the spectacle before him, a wise and a good man might very justifiably surrender himself to the impulse of different impressions,

Some of the great component parts of the British constitution, (for the liberties of England are not the creatures of yesterday,) had, long before, been in existence: the Parliament, with all its pre-eminences of power, could boast, in fact, of its Saxon pedigree; the common law of England subsisted in its mature vigour; and the trial by jury, with an origin to be traced to the remotest times, offered its equal justice to the criminal and the innocent: a concurrence of unfortunate circumstances had, however, disordered the machine, and reduced it, in the middle of the seventeenth century, to little more than a ruin and a name. The impetuous power of the Tudors, springing from the disastrous consequences of the wars between the factions of York and Lancaster, had overleaped

every barrier of the constitution; and the ambition of the Stuarts, at a period less favourable to the exertion of lawless prerogative, had diligently followed in the track of their insolent and tyrannical predecessors. On whatever side he looked, Milton saw nothing but insulted parliaments, arbitrary taxation, illegal and sanguinary tribunals, corrupted and mercenary law, bigotted and desolating persecution. With that ardent love of liberty, therefore, which always burns brightest in the most expanded and elevated bosoms; and fresh from the schools of Greece and Rome, which had educated the masterspirits of the world, it was natural for him to turn, with delight, from the scene, in which he was engaged, to those specious forms of government, the splendid effects of which were obvious, while the defects were withdrawn, in a great measure, by the deception of distance from the sight. He preferred a republic, (and who can blame him?) to that unascertained and unprotected constitution, which on every quarter was open to successful invasion, which gave the promise of liberty only, as it were, to excite the pain of disappointment, and which told men that they had a right to be free in the very instant in which it abandoned them to oppression.

In the id ciated with th

he pursued t

siasm of be
sciousness of
rious duty.

of power, wh
ever party it
or the state,

ter, he felt From his c usurpation of

of inconsiste

ple. But,

been advan

did not, in a pation; he fidence or t he conceive that he was he acted as

foreign stat

nimous ad

some of hi

his acute fe pointment state of th donment o

most near

[ocr errors][ocr errors][ocr errors][ocr errors][ocr errors][ocr errors][ocr errors][ocr errors][ocr errors][ocr errors][ocr errors][ocr errors][ocr errors][ocr errors][merged small][ocr errors]

LIFE OF MILTON.

521

In the idea of Milton liberty was associated with the perfection of his species; and he pursued the great object with the enthusiasm of benevolence, and with the consciousness of obedience to a high and imperious duty. Against tyranny, or the abuse of power, wherever it occurred and by whatever party it was attempted, in the church or the state, by the prelate or the presbyter, he felt himself summoned to contend. From his continuance in office under the usurpation of Cromwell he has been arraigned of inconsistency, and a dereliction of principle. But, not to repeat what has already been advanced upon the subject, his office did not, in any way, blend him with the usurpation; he had no connexion with the confidence or the counsels of the Protector; and he conceived, with the most perfect truth, that he was the servant of his country when he acted as the organ of her intercourse with foreign states. We have seen his magnanimous address to the usurper; and from some of his private letters we may collect his acute feelings of mortification and disappointment in consequence of the afflicted state of the commonwealth, and the abandonment of that cause which was always the most near to his heart.

The greater part of the premises, from which these conclusions are not, after all, very fairly drawn, rests upon nothing more than the weakness of negative evidence.

The fact of Milton's not frequenting, in the latter period of his life, any place of public worship, may possibly, though still with caution, be admitted on the single testimony of Toland: but the cause of this fact may more properly be sought in the blindness and infirmities which, for some of his last years, confined the great author to his house, than in any disgust, with which he had been affected by a nearer insight into the imperfections of the contending sects. On any determination of this question, narrow must be the mind of that man who can suspect the devotion of Milton merely because it was not exercised within the consecrated precincts of a church. We are fully aware of

1 When I speak of the diffidence with which Toland's tes timony, in this instance, ought to be received, I refer to those unhappy prepossessions on the subject of religion, with which this respectable biographer is known to have been biassed; and which would naturally induce him to lessen the distance, as much as he possibly could, in this essential respect, between Milton and himself. If it could be proved that Milton in his latter days had contracted a general indifference for religion, a great point would be carried for the cause of infidelity.

the usefulnes

ship; and in
criminal: bu
must be mea

som of the
good man
with as stro

in the Lybian

Paul's.

For Milt family or by but what res graphers; an

no evidence

out that ad

closet, whic privileged f day were r sured, to re

and of the

tion, it is b part was as ing immed ther of Mer we know t pils into th and we ca

selves to be

his childre

[ocr errors][ocr errors][ocr errors][ocr errors][ocr errors][ocr errors][ocr errors][ocr errors][ocr errors][ocr errors][ocr errors][ocr errors][ocr errors][ocr errors][ocr errors][ocr errors][ocr errors]

LIFE OF MILTON.

525

the usefulness and the duty of public worship; and in us the omission of it would be criminal: but the degree of the obligation must be measured by the standard in the bosom of the individual; and we know that a good man may offer his homage to God, with as strong an assurance of acceptance, in the Lybian desert as in the cathedral of St. Paul's.

For Milton's disuse of all prayer, in his family or by himself, no evidence is pretended but what results from the silence of his biographers; and for a part of the alledged fact, no evidence could have been obtained without that admission to the privacies of his closet, which would be denied to the most privileged friendship. The first hours of his day were regularly devoted, as we are assured, to religious reading and meditation; and of the time, thus appropriated to devotion, it is but reasonable to conclude that a part was assigned to petition and thanksgiving immediately addressed to the great Father of Mercies. With respect to his family, we know that he carefully initiated his pupils into the principles of Christian theology; and we cannot, without violence, bring ourselves to believe that he would withhold from his children that momentous instruction,

« PreviousContinue »