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PROSE WORKS OF JOHN MILTON.
"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.”
DR. SUMNER, Bishop of Winchester.
It is not my intention to introduce the present Discourse by a biographical memoir, though I am far from supposing that a new Life of Milton would, even now, be a work of supererogation. But where the matter is so rich and extensive, it would be of little service to present the public with a fresh outline of facts already known; and to descend into the marrow of the subject, and discuss the various questions of criticism and politics necessarily connected with it, would certainly demand a separate volume. I shall therefore enter at once upon the remarks suggested by an attentive examination of the character and writings of Milton.
Yet I may, perhaps, without blame, express in this place the regret which the disparaging tone adopted in speaking of their predecessors by too many of the biographers of this great writer, has never failed to cause in me. From their language it would frequently appear, that each considered the other almost in the light of impertinent intruders, whom it must therefore be his business severely to chastise; whereas a little reflection might have sufficed to beget the very different persuasion—that the whole subject being too large for the grasp of any one of them, they might all in their way contribute to extend the fame and utility of him whom they all profess to admire. For my own part, I have always felt that whosoever aimed, even though awkwardly and imperfectly, to wreathe a fresh garland for this great and illustrious name, thereby conferred on me a personal obligation, which, though not individually intended, is, in fact, the case; since all have done something towards increasing the influence of one whose influence is that of virtue, and opened a clearer insight into the moral nature and heroic sentiments of a man, in the brightness and continuance of whose fame every Englishman is interested.
However this may be, few of those who have hitherto undertaken to set forth in order the events of Milton's life, appear to have enVOL. I. b
tered into the spirit, or comprehended the importance of his prose writings. Like him who climbs a lofty mountain, and is so eager to reach the summit that he neglects or despises the many magnificent prospects which, would he pause a moment, he might enjoy by the way, they hurry forwards to the Paradise Lost, trampling, in their indecent haste, upon his Apology for his Early Life and Writingshis Areopagitica-his Eikonoklastes-his Defence of the People of England; though, viewed separately, each of these be a work whereon an author might build rational hopes of immortality. Reasons good or bad, might no doubt be assigned for this proceeding; but whatever they may be, the result has proved highly injurious to Milton's reputation, and, still more, to our literature.
One of his recent biographers, who must, therefore, make but slight account of his prose writings, even goes so far as to lament he should ever have interrupted his commerce with the muses to engage in the struggle of politics. He looks upon the poet as something too airy and dream-fed to feel any interest in the affairs of mankind; as something which should, perhaps, subsist upon patronage, celebrate the praises of kings, and abandon the study of civil wisdom to inferior persons; which was doubtless the notion Plato entertained of poets, when he banished them his commonwealth as advocates of tyranny. But Milton, nurtured from the cradle in noble sentiments, had formed a very different idea of the man who is inspired by the muse; knowing that from him to whom much is given much will be required: and that to none has a larger or more comprehensive intellect been vouchsafed, than to him whom we dignify with the illustrious name of Poet, who should, therefore, stand second to none in advancing the cause of freedom.
Nothing, in fact, can be more unwise than to desire that pure and lofty minds should keep themselves aloof from the world and the world's business; for if our object in congregating together in society be to render each other happy-not to seek our own happiness at the expense of whomsoever may stand in our way-then they who are endued with intellectual and moral qualities superior to the generality, should, above all things, strive to infuse into public affairs as much as possible of their own spirit ; since in this way only can governments be converted into anything better than associations of the powerful to enslave the weak. Poets should never forget they are men and citizens. On the contrary, in their peacefullest and most retired moments, the love of humanity should be with them, to direct the lightnings of their genius against the oppressors of mankind. Consider the prophets, a kindred race: do they not constantly exhibit the strongest sympathy for the feeble, the friendless, the obnoxious to injury? Are not their voices lifted up for the people, against those who would grind the faces of the poor, and subsist, in pride and luxury, on the sweat of other men's brows? The poetaster, with a base admiration of everything superior to his own
mean soul, may celebrate and approve the excesses of men in authority; of all, in fact, who have anything to give: but the poet, whose lips the seraphim have touched with fire snatched from the altar, will never mistake for greatness the mere possession of the trappings of state, or confound regal pomp with genuine grandeur, which can have no existence independently of virtue.
The spirit of poetry is a spirit of power, which, in him who is possessed by it, cannot fail to engender a consciousness of dignity. He feels that he bears within him mines richer than those of gold or diamonds, which, so soon as art shall supply the proper tools for working them, must place him among the peers of intellect, or, rather, prove his title to a kingdom in the realms of thought, by subduing into praise and admiration whole masses of those whom fortune may have blindly thrust before him. And therefore the true poet scorns to be a parasite, scorns to owe anything to insolent wealth; or, if distress and lack of virtue sometimes lead such a man to prostitute his divine gift, rather than eat the sweeter bread of indigence, and herd with his misfortunes in a cottage or a garret, we may be well assured that he abhors whom he lauds, and burns to give birth to the vituperation and satire which he feels struggling to leap forth from his brain, and strangle his ill-paid eulogies. Nature never designed the muses to be the handmaids of despotism; nor can their servant, without betraying his high trust, touch the lyre they have placed in his hands for any but who practise virtue.
Milton, as he ought, experienced that noble pride and enthusiasm which the consciousness of genius inspires. He could, therefore, not behold without abhorrence an order of things in which the accidental possessor of wealth, or place, or a title, assumed the air of a superior, or of a master; while he acknowledged no master but God, no controlling power but the law, which, when just, is God's minister. He never forgot that man was created in the image of God; that by putting on the human form, Christ had raised and sanctified it; and, therefore, that whoever sought to debase and vilify human nature, -and what can do this more effectually than oppression?-was in fact, the enemy of God and Christ, and to be opposed accordingly. Such were the considerations which led Milton to engraft the politician on the poet, and caused him to employ all the energies of his gifted mind in effecting the overthrow of a government fatal to the interests of society, and in which civil precedence was obtained on other grounds than virtue and public services. He saw not, nor is it very clear what useful or worthy purpose could be served by considering the religious, the learned, the able, inferior in the scale of society to court-sycophants, or the routine intermeddlers with politics. His indignation was roused at beholding the tranquillity of three kingdoms disturbed by the perverse ambition of one man; and, afterwards, when the contest was terminated, by the insolence of a hired sophist, who, for a paltry bribe, brandished his mercenary
tropes and figures against the people of England, overwhelming with contumely our illustrious countrymen, whom the poet justly considered the most pious, faithful, and valiant nation in Christendom. In the government of the church, also, he discovered principles analogous to those operating in the state, and tending to the same end; and against these, in like manner, he conceived it to be his duty to lift up his voice. Such, I repeat, were the reasons that snatched Milton from the muse's bower, to convert him into a controversialist and a politician; and nobler sources of inspiration no man ever found.
But upon the notion that they who would effectively exercise the poetical faculty should hide themselves in sullen seclusion from all active or political pursuits, I may, perhaps, be permitted, by the way, to hazard another observation. The idea seems to have arisen from the practice of ordinary verse-makers in comparatively refined ages, whose timid sensibilities unfit them to shine or struggle among the throng. Pope, indeed, says,
that is, whoever feels his mind big with great thoughts, and reflections, and imagery, which trace their origin to his commerce with experience, desires, when he would give birth to them, some calm and tranquil retreat, where he may compose himself, and for the time be free from contention and solicitude. But a wholly retired and contemplative life is fatal to poetry of every kind. For even he who would bring before us a picture that shall delight and interest, of the inanimate world, must pour over it traditions, legends, superstitions, connecting it with man; in other words, must clothe it with human sympathies. For, after all, landscapes are only valuable as a background to human action: they are nothing in themselves. And the utter inability of mere brute matter to call forth the energies of poetry, is evident from the writings of those doctores umbratici who in every age have wooed the muse; their representations, like nothing in heaven above, or on the earth beneath, or in the waters under the earth, being but so many wild dreams, and their sentiments and language every way worthy of the matter. None have ever yet benefited by setting at nought the wisdom which pronounced it not good for man to be alone; and we exhibit a disposition to approach this unblissful state, when, snapping in twain the link which binds, and should bind us, religiously and politically, to human society, we skulk, like wolves or wild dogs, to some den of our own making, to gnaw the bones of our pitiful fancies in secret.
Whoever loves mankind will love to be among them; and poetry, above all things, is impregnated with love. No fear that the great poet should ever lose, in courts, or camps, or senates, or crowded cities, the spirit which makes him what he is. It constitutes the very essence of his nature. He cannot lose it. Over whatever he
does it will cast a glory that shall dignify the meanest duties, and inspire a soul into actions deemed by the dull and commonplace incapable of elevation. Epaminondas was a poet, when he said he would render illustrious the humble office contemptuously appointed him by his countrymen : and every one whose mind contains the seeds of this divine fire, passes uncontaminated through the worldin it, but not of it-finding in every situation, but chiefly where the brethren of his race are most numerous, "books in the running brooks, sermons in stones, and good in everything." In fact, I never could understand how he who professes to represent human passions and human manners, which are the great staple of poetry,should hope to qualify himself for the task by escaping, as far as possible, from human society. And what is there in vast assemblies of men-what in those momentous transactions of peace and warin seditions, in tumults, in the fierce and uncouth struggles for freedom, which nations, long injured and oppressed, make at length, when their burdens have become intolerable;-what is there in all this, I say, that can scare the Epic or the Tragic Muse, whose business it is to describe such phases of humanity? Throughout the Paradise Lost, as well as throughout the Iliad,—which, as far as can be conjectured, was likewise composed immediately after a great political crisis-the irruption of the Dorians into Peloponnesus, and the consequent migrations of the Ionic inhabitants to Asia Minor,evident traces are discoverable of the times of trouble and commotion in which its author vaticinated: an irrepressible love of independence, a mind thrown by an unexampled political catastrophe into that condition in which its most hidden and secret powers, like the fountains of the great deep, were broken up, and fiercely agitated, and impelled, as by a hurricane, to pour all their dazzling and tumultuous waters into the broad channel of poetry. Such circumstances, indeed, are not inspiration, or they would operate on every breast alike; but over minds fitly disposed they sweep as over a lyre, calling forth divinest music.
The affairs of the world, according to the character of him who views them, are either an assemblage of coarse contrivances, intended to enable a certain number of human creatures to eat and drink, and grow fat at their ease; or they are a set of laws and operations, noble in their nature and tendency, and designed to conduct a being endowed with lofty intellectual faculties towards that high and glorious moral condition, which constitutes here below the perfection of his nature, and the ultimate aim of his existence. Now they who conceive as a brute, if it could think, might conceive of public business, may be excused for supposing that a poet should on no account meddle with it; but if, with the wisest of men, we regard politics as the master-science; as the fruitful source to millions of happiness or misery: as the instrument by which nations are plunged into bestial degradation, or elevated to the rank almost of