Page images

deeply imbued with the spirit of that literature, to promote the study of which was the main object of this very discourse. Milton's profound acquaintance with the Greek authors, was equalled only by his enthusiastic admiration of them. The following testimony, taken from the first letter to Leonard Philara, the Athenian, might surely have given additional weight to the authority of the Lord Rector. “To the writings of those illustrious men which your city has produced, in the perusal of which I have been occupied from my youth, it is with pleasure I confess that I am indebted for all my proficiency in literature.”

This is literary injustice. We cannot but regret that the illustrious individual we refer to, who has given an impulse to the mind of his age, favoured not his numerous disciples, and more numerous admirers, with a criticism upon the “ Areopagitica” of the greatest “ schoolmaster” the world ever produced !

Certain parties in the state, who cannot endure any appeal to the criteria of experience, have set up a cry, “The wisdom of our ancestors !” The formidable phrase holds principally in politics, (and in this point of view it is a dangerous one, but like a parasitical weed it has begun to clasp round the literature of our forefathers, and should be rooted up. We are firm believers in the capabilities of moderns, and credit not the notion of necessary degeneracy; yet we must profess, that we hold in profoundest veneration that aggregate of communities which we call the past. The spirit of the vaunting cry we have referred to, would throw the world back into chaos. As far as individual minds are concerned, it would extinguish the divinest intellects that were ever enshrined in the form of man. Being the offspring of our fathers, we come into their stead. Why not avail ourselves of our advantages? Why not profit by our noblest inheritance? If we must suffer from the folly, why not make use of the wisdom, of our ancestors ? Englishmen, above all nations, may exclaim, “ What have we, that we have not received ?” What a treasure of moral and political wealth is there not laid up for us in the archives of the past! Even novelty itself is the effect of antiquity. We come into no new world! We are cast into the ancient mould of things! Man springs from man, and age from age; therefore all the past bears upon the present, and we cannot understand thoroughly that which is, or is to be, without also knowing that which has been. Knowledge leans upon experience, and experience leans upon the past! But it is not our intention to renew the foolish fight which obtained last century, between the ancients and the moderns. There is another party in the state who are perhaps the parents of the noxious phrase we have referred to, and should have been first noticed. These take it for granted, that the wisdom of our ancestors is that which is most like their own; and no wonder that they have brought it into contempt. Such admirers of the wisdom of our ancestors, may not meet with it here. True wisdom knows nothing of the terms ancient or modern, and her spheres are not so inharmoniously adjusted as to produce confusion, or come into collision. But within her magic circles of the past, rise up the awful spirits," whose words are oracles for mankind, whose love embraces all countries, and whose voice sounds through all ages!"

The literary character of the times may also be unfavourable to our undertaking.—This is an age of tracts, not of folios—fruitful in flowers, rather than in the forest-trees of literature, which perhaps it is the tendency of civilization to root up or to fell. The mind of the country is to be irrigated, some say regenerated, by a sort of periodical garden-engines. For this purpose the fountains of the great deep are “ broken up,” but not into; yet when we remember that there is now read a vast deal more than ever, we cannot despair of an attempt to popularize in this “multum in parvo” shape, the Prose Works of our great poet. Their intrinsic merits, their former celebrity, their author's fame, the daily agitation all along since their publication, of the very principles which he advocated, and which thousands yet deny, should have swept away the curse of the dust from these volumes long since, and, in“ such a nation as this, not slow and dull, but of a quick, ingenious, and piercing spirit,”

[ocr errors]

should, in spite of popular ingratitude or fickleness, or the fire of the common hangman, or the cavils and scandals or cobwebs of party criticism, have opened their immortal pages, and caused them to be known and read of all men, who are capable of relishing works of art, or of comprehending or realizing truths, for the forgetfulness or rejection of any one of which, “whole nations sometimes fare the worse.”

Principles, whether political or religious, are always important. As far as the former are concerned, we doubt not that our undertaking will be as successful as it is opportune. The spirit of the age is favourable to the truths which John Milton taught. The tracts on Ecclesiastical Policy possess as much interest now as when they were first published. This “ schoolmaster" is abroad : and a whole people shall rejoice in his instructions, as they once took refuge in his defence. An oracular and prophetical voice, long silenced, is again heard, warning his enemies, and guiding and encouraging his friends and followers, never more to be abashed!

The life and character of John Milton are well known, and the great political events of his time, have of late received satisfactory and abundant illustration. Omitting, therefore, biographical and historical details, it shall be our object to present the reader with a brief and simple account of the contents of this volume. We shall observe in our examination the order of chronology. All the works, with the exception of the letters, and a few others, are controversial, and relate equally and entirely to civil and religious liberty. They embrace a period of about nineteen years,—the most eventful in our history. It will be interesting, to take up here that account of himself which an ungenerous adversary had wrung from him, -and to prefix to our review such parts of it, as may throw the light of his own opinion on his own performances.

In “ The Second Defence of the People of England,” translated from the Latin by Robert Fellows, A. M. Oxon. he is led in self-defence to “rescue his life from that species of obscurity, which is the associate of unprincipled depravity.”

“ This it will be necessary for me to do on more accounts than one: first, that so many good and learned men among the neighbouring nations, who read my works, may not be induced by this fellow's calumnies, to alter the favourable opinion which they have formed of me; but may be persuaded that I am not one who ever disgraced beauty of sentiment by deformity of conduct, or the maxims of a freeman by the actions of a slave; and that the whole tenour of my life has, by the grace of God, hitherto been unsullied by any enormity or crime. Next, that those illustrious worthies, who are the objects of my praise, may know that nothing could afflict me with more shame than to have any vices of mine diminish the force or lessen the value of my panegyric upon them; and lastly, that the people of England, whom fate, or duty, or their own virtues, have incited me to defend, may be convinced from the purity and integrity of my life, that my defence, if it do not redound to their honour, can never be considered as their disgrace. I will now mention who and whence I am. I was born at London, of an honest family; my father was distinguished by the undeviating integrity of his life; my mother by the esteem in which she was held, and the alms which she bestowed. My father destined me from a child to the pursuits of literature; and my appetite for knowledge was so voracious, that from twelve years of age I hardly ever left my studies, or went to bed before midnight. This primarily led to my loss of sight. My eyes were naturally weak, and I was subject to frequent headaches; which, however, could not chill the ardour of my curiosity, or retard the progress of my improvement. My father had me daily instructed in the grammar school, and by other masters at home. He then, after I had acquired a proficiency in various languages, and had made a considerable progress in philosophy, sent me to the University of Cambridge. Here I passed seven years in the usual course of instruction and study, with the approbation of the good, and without any stain upon my character, till I took the degree of master of arts.



[ocr errors]

After this I did not, as this miscreant feigns, run away into Italy, but of my own accord retired to my father's house, whither I was accompanied by the regrets of most of the fellows of the college, who shewed me no common marks of friendship and esteem. On my father's estate, where he had determined to pass the remainder of his days, I enjoyed an interval of uninterrupted leisure, which I devoted entirely to the perusal of the Greek and Latin classics; though I occasionally visited the metropolis, either for the sake of purchasing books, or of learning something new in mathematics or in music, in which I, at that time, found a source of pleasure and amusement. In this manner I spent five years, till my mother's death, I then became anxious to visit foreign parts, and particularly Italy. My father gave me his permission, and I left home with one servant. On my departure, the celebrated Henry Wootton, who had long been King James's ambassador at Venice, gave me a signal proof of his regard, in an elegant letter which he wrote, breathing not only the warmest friendship, but containing some maxims of conduct which I found very useful in my travels. The noble Thomas Scudamore, King Charles's ambassador, to whom I carried letters of recommendation, received me most courteously at Paris. His lordship gave me a card of introduction to the learned Hugo Grotius, at that time ambassador from the Queen of Sweden to the French court; whose acquaintance I anxiously desired, and to whose house I was accompanied by some of his lordship's friends. A few days after, when I set out for Italy, he gave me letters to the English merchants on my route, that they might shew me any civilities in their power. Taking ship at Nice, I arrived at Genoa, and afterwards visited Leghorn, Pisa, and Florence. In the latter city, which I have always more particularly esteemed for the elegance of its dialect, its genius, and its taste, I stopped

I about two months; when I contracted an intimacy with many persops of rank and learning; and was a constant attendant at their literary parties; a practice which prevails there, and tends so much to the diffusion of knowledge and the preservation of friendship. No time will ever abolish the agreeable recollections which I cherish of Jacob Gaddi, Carolo Dati, Frescobaldo, Cultellero, Bonomatthai, Clementillo, Francisco, and many others. From Florence I went to Siena, thence to Rome, where, after I had spent about two months in viewing the antiquities of that renowned city, where I experienced the most friendly attentions from Lucas Holstein, and other learned and ingenious men, I continued my route to Naples. There I was introduced by a certain recluse, with whom I had travelled from Rome, to John Baptista Manso, Marquis of Villa, a nobleman of distinguished rank and authority, to whom Torquato Tasso, the illustrious poet, inscribed his book on friendship. During my stay, he gave me singular proofs of his regard; he himself conducted me round the city and to the palace of the viceroy; and more than once paid me a visit at my lodgings. On my departure he gravely apologized for not having shewn me more civility, which he said he had been restrained from doing, because I had spoken with so little reserve on matters of religion. When I was preparing to pass over into Sicily and Greece, the melancholy intelligence which I received, of the civil commotions in England, made me alter my purpose; for I thought it base to be travelling for amusement abroad, while my fellow citizens were fighting for liberty at home. While I was on my way back to Rome, some merchants informed me that the English jesuits had formed a plot against me if I returned to Rome, because I had spoken too freely on religion; for it was a rule which I laid down to myself in those places, never to be the first to begin any conversation on religion ; but if any questions were put to me concerning my faith, to declare it without any reserve or fear. I nevertheless returned to Rome. I took no steps to conceal either my person or my character; and for about the space of two months, I again openly defended, as I had done before, the reformed religion in the very metropolis of popery. By the favour of God, I got safe back to Florence, where I was received with as much affection as if I had returned to my native country. There I stopped as many months as I had done before, except that I


made an excursion for a few days to Lucca; and crossing the Apennines, passed through Bologna and Ferrara to Venice. After I had spent a month in surveying the curiosities of this city, and had put on board a ship the books which I had collected in Italy, I proceeded through Verona and Milan, and along the Leman lake to Geneva. The mention of this city brings to my recollection the slandering More, and makes me again call the Deity to witness, that in all those places, in which vice meets with so little discouragement, and is practised with so little shame, I never once deviated from the paths of integrity and virtue, and perpetually reflected that, though my conduct might escape the notice of men, it could not elude the inspection of God. At Geneva I held daily conferences with John Deodati, the learned Professor of Theology. Then pursuing my former route through France, I returned to my native country, after an absence of one year and about three months; at

; the time when Charles, having broken the peace, was renewing what is called the episcopal war with the Scots; in which the royalists being routed in the first encounter, and the English being universally and justly disaffected, the necessity of his affairs at last obliged him to convene a parliament. As soon as I was able, I hired a spacious house in the city for myself and my books; where I again with rapture renewed my literary pursuits, and where I calmly awaited the issue of the contest, which I trusted to the wise conduct of Providence, and to the courage of the people. The vigour of the parliament had begun to humble the pride of the bishops. As long as the liberty of speech was no longer subject to controul, all mouths began to be opened against the bishops; some complained of the vices of the individuals, others of those of the order. They said that it was unjust that they alone should differ from the model of other reformed churches; that the government of the church should be according to the pattern of other churches, and particularly the word of God. This awakened all my attention and my zeal—I saw that a way was opening for the establishment of real liberty; that the foundation was laying for the deliverance of man from the yoke of slavery and superstition; that the principles of religion, which were the first objects of our care, would exert a salutary influence on the manners and constitution of the republic; and as I had from my youth studied the distinctions between religious and civil rights, I perceived that if I ever wished to be of use, I ought at least not to be wanting to my country, to the church, and to so many of my fellow Christians, in a crisis of so much danger; I therefore determined to relinquish the other pursuits in which I was engaged, and to transfer the whole force of my talents and my industry to this one important object. I accordingly wrote two books to a friend concerning the reformation of the church of England.” The noble sacrifice was made--the bard became a patriot.

In the year 1641 appeared his first controversial production, the precise object of which is sufficiently set forth in the title—“ Of Reformation in England, and the Causes that hitherto have hindered it,-written to a Friend.” Our author, it will be remembered, had

a already attacked prelacy, in his Lycidas; and his hatred of their yoke had not abated in the course of the four years which elapsed between that poem and this work. We shall touch with a light hand the topics of these two books,—which are hardly surpassed in interest and excellence by any of their successors. The exordium of the first of these, full of “ deep and retired thoughts,” sternly, and even ruggedly, but devoutly expressed, characterizing, with some abrupt intermixtures of style, but with great power, the origin and increase of ecclesiastical pravity, concludes with a passage which is in itself an achievement, and perhaps equal to any that ever fell from his pen, describing the outbreak of the Reformation.

“ But to dwell no longer in characterizing the depravities of the church, and how they sprung, and how they took increase; when I recall to mind at last, after so many dark ages, wherein the huge overshadowing train of error had almost swept all the stars out of the firmament of the church ; how the bright and blissful Reformation (by divine power) strook

[ocr errors]
[ocr errors]

through the black and settled night of ignorance and antichristian tyranny, methinks 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 banner of salvation ; the martyrs, with the unresistible might of weakness, shaking the powers of darkness, and scorning the fiery rage of the old red dragon.”

Proceeding then to the question, he enumerates the hinderances to reformation“ in our forefathers' days, among ourselves,” in English protestants,-not in Providence, not in papistical machinations,—which had been in operation since the glorious event of the Reformation. These impediments he reduces to two,-our retaining of ceremonies, and confining the power of ordination to diocesan bishops, exclusively of church members. “Our ceremonies are senseless in themselves, and serve for nothing but either to facilitate our return to popery, or to hide the defects of better knowledge, and to set off the pomp of prelacy.” Mingled with this dry deduction from our history, of the causes that “ hindered the forwarding of true discipline ”-in which he runs over the times of Henry VIII., his character, and the conduct of the bishops, with the six“ bloody articles," or as Selden calls them, the six-stringed whip,-the times of Edward VI., his infancy, the tumults that arose on repealing the six articles, the intrigues of the bishops, and the Northumberland plot,the commission to frame ecclesiastical constitutions,—the times of Elizabeth, when Edward VI.'s constitutions were established, -showing the unwieldiness of these times, and the impossibility of effecting “exact reformation at one push')—the reader will meet with such declamation against the whole body and function of prelacy, as would be infallibly successful if pronounced before any modern auditory.

The hinderers of reformation in his own times are distinguished into three sorts :1. Antiquitarians (not Antiquarians, he says, whose labours are useful and laudable). 2. Libertines. 3. Politicians. Under the first head, the Antiquitarians will find established the difference between our bishops and those of purer times, in their election by the hands of the whole church for 400 years after Christ, and that in dignity they were only equal to their co-presbyters. Whether antiquity favours modern episcopacy or not, it is shown, 1. That the best times were spreadingly infected; 2. That the best men of those times were foully tainted; and 3. That the best writings of those men were dangerously adulterated. This threefold corruption is proved at large, and most successfully. It seems that even so early as 1641, when in his 33rd year, he was not merely a puritan, but a dissenter from the principle of our establishment; for in anticipating an objection on the ground of drawing the proof of his propositions from the practice of ages before Constantine's time, and the alliance between the temporal and spiritual power, he says, “I am not of opinion to think the church a vine in this respect, because, as they take it, she cannot subsist without clasping about the elm of worldly strength and felicity, as if the heavenly city could not support itself without the props and buttresses of secular authority.” His object, however, was reformation, not subversion, and therefore he did not carry this principle out. The character and conduct of Constantine are examined, and Dante, Petrarch, and Ariosto, are quoted, to show, that it may be concluded for a received opinion, even among men professing the Romish church, “that Constantine marred the church.” The last topic in which he deals with the antiquitarian at his own weapon, respects the estimation which the ancients of the purer times had of antiquity; and he demonstrates with great learning, that they acknowledge the all-sufficiency of the Scriptures, and refer all decision of controversy, whether in doctrine or discipline, to them. Paragraphs of amazing energy and incomparable beauty will be found under this head, and we may well exclaim with the writer, “Now, sir, for the


[ocr errors]
[ocr errors]
« PreviousContinue »