Page images



THE name of Milton is his monument. It is venerable, national, and sacred; and yet, with whatever glory invested, it is inscribed, and not unworthily, upon this volume.

[ocr errors]

To her great poet England has done justice. His renown equals his transcendent merits. His name is a synonyme for vastness of attainment, sublimity of conception, and splendour of expression. A people profess to be his readers. His poetry is in all hands. It is in truth a fountain of living waters in the very heart of civilization. Its tendency is even more magnificent than its composition. Combining all that is lovely in religion, with all that in reason is grand and beautiful, it creates, while it gratifies, and at the same time purifies, those tastes and powers that refine and exalt humanity. It is almost of itself, not less by the invigorating nature of its moral than of its intellectual qualities, sufficient to perpetuate the stability of an empire. Constituting a most glorious portion of our best inheritance, his poetical writings are, emphatically, national works; and as such, long may they be revered and esteemed amongst us! They are of power," to use his own words, " to inbreed and cherish in a great people the seeds of virtue and public civility." They will be lost, only with our language:-the tide of his song will cease to flow, only with that of time. Having won, he wears, the brightest laurels; and by the acclamations of ages, rather than the testimony of individuals, his seat is with Homer and Shakespeare on the poetic mount. To apply again his own language to his own achievements, he has sung his "elaborate song;"-he has performed the covenant of his youth, "to offer at high strains in new and lofty measures;"-his devout prayer to that Eternal Spirit," who can enrich with all utterance and knowledge, and sends out his seraphim with the hallowed fire of his altar to touch and purify the lips of whom he pleases," has been heard and answered!

"Oh! what great men hast thou not produced, England! my country!" might we exclaim with one of the first of modern poets and philosophers, when contemplating these and similar works. And a thorough Englishman this great poet was! Prelates, and tithes, and kings, were not the burthen of his song, and therefore the poetry can be praised even by those whose souls are wrapped up in these things. While he soared away "in the high reason of his fancies," and meddled not with the practical affairs of life, his enemies can be complimentary, and undertake to bow him into immortality. They would fain suppress all other monuments of this Englishman :-it remains for us to appreciate them. Let us never think of John Milton as a poet merely, however in that capacity he may have adorned our language, and benefited, by ennobling, his species. He was a citizen also, with whom patriotism was as heroical a passion, prompting him to do his country service, as was that" inward prompting" of poesy, by which he did his country honour. He was alive to all that was due from man to man in all the relations of life. He was invested

A 2

[ocr errors]

with a power to mould the mind of a nation, and to lead the people into " the glorious ways of truth, and prosperous virtue." The poet has long eclipsed the man;-he has been imprisoned even in the temple of the muses; and the very splendour of the bard seems to be our title to pass an act of oblivion" on the share he bore in the events and discussions of the momentous times in which he lived. Ought not rather his wide renown, in this capacity, to lead us to the contemplation and study of the whole of his character and his works? Sworn by a father, who knew what persecution was, at the first altar to freedom erected in this land; he, a student of the finest temperament, bent on grasping all sciences and professing none, and burning with intense ambition for distinction-forsook his harp," and the quiet and still air of delightful studies;" and devoted the energies of earliest and maturest manhood, to be aiding in the grandest crisis of the first of human causes and he became the most conspicuous literary actor in the dreadful yet glorious drama of the Great Rebellion. He beheld tyranny and intolerance trampling upon the most sacred prerogatives of God and man, and he was compelled by the nobility of his nature, by the obligations of virtue, by the loud summons of beleagured truth, in short, by his patriotism as well as his piety, to lay down the lyre, whose earliest tones are yet so fascinating; to" doff his garland and singing robes," and to adventure within the circle of peril and glory: and, buckling on the controversial panoply, he threw it off, only when the various works of this volume, surpassed by none in any sort of eloquence, became the record and trophy of his achievements, and the worthy forerunners of those poems, which a whole people "will not willingly let die."

The summit of fame is occupied by the poet, but the base of the vast elevation may justly be said to rest on these Prose Works; and we invite his admirers to descend from the former, and survey the region that lies round about the latter,-a less explored, but not less magnificent, domain.

The recovery of a good book is a sure and certain resurrection. The envious deluge of oblivion cannot long settle over such works as these. The rainbow springs up, and we see it on the tempestuous aspect of these times,-a sign of the storm, and a signal of peace!

We are not now employed on ruins. John Milton's works have been long buried, but they are not consumed ;-long neglected, but they are not injured. Many of them certainly have to do with the interests of time, but all of them are impregnated with thoughts which, springing from the depths, shall partake of the immortality of the spirit, and outlive the world in which they were uttered. Though temporal they are not temporary. There is a breadth and grandeur of aim in them, which embraces the well-being of man both here and hereafter, and renders them interminably precious. "Books," says their author, " are not absolutely dead things,"-" they contain a progeny of life in them to be as active as that soul whose progeny they are,"-" the precious life-blood of a master-spirit embalmed and treasured up to a life beyond life."-" They preserve, as in a vial, the purest efficacy and extraction of that living intellect that bred them." It is astonishing that these books should not in our time have been appreciated by the people, and it is greatly to be regretted, not merely for the sake of their author, but for the general interests of truth, and the cultivation of learning, eloquence, and taste amongst us, that they should be so little read. Had they been lost, had his enemies succeeded in their diabolical project of mutilating, or of annihilating the chief of thein,—had other priests than those " in the neighbourhood of Leeds," met in other places, over sacerdotal beer, to "sacrifice them to the flames,"* how we should have lamented over our irreparable loss! Having his poems, we should have learned that they sprung up out of the ashes of controversy;-we should then " imitate the careful search that Isis made for the mangled body of Osiris!" We should have remembered the era in which he lived, and we should have felt our loss as deeply as we sympathized with his party, * See Richard Baron's note, in this edition, to his preface to the Iconoclastes.

who with such strong hands and dauntless hearts, wrought out for us our political salvation. Possessing them, we might have said, that we should have known more of one of the greatest of men, and have been admitted into the presence-chamber of his every-day soul.We should have had his opinions on the cardinal points of human and divine controversy, and have heard him, who in immortal accents dictated the "Paradise Lost," debate, and reason, and argue, as an orator, and a politician! Believing, with Coleridge, that poetry is the blossom and fragrancy of all human knowledge, human thoughts, human passions, emotions, language,—and that no man was ever yet a great poet, without being at the same time a profound philosopher-we should certainly, reasoning from verse to prose, à priori, have said, that such a mind as Milton's, so sober and yet so fiery, so full and yet so strong, so replete with wisdom and so stored with learning, with such a mastery in the execution of all its movements, must, if roused and excited, and roused and excited it would undoubtedly be by any theme or cause in which the rights of man or the honour of God were concerned, have been equally splendid in any undertaking; and that even in the very different forms of prose and verse, or controversy and poetry, his efforts would be distinguished by the identical attributes of power and beauty;-that the image and superscription upon each would be the same;—that with very little variation where it was possible, (for no one understood decorum better than Milton,) the very same terms in which a critic of his poetry would speak of that, especially of his didactic poetry, would be applicable to his prose; that probably the mannerism of the one would mark the other, and that there would be so striking a resemblance and analogy between them, that you might safely assert that the author of the one must be the author of the other. We should learn from one of his exquisite sonnets, that the utter loss of sight followed, and that he knew that it would follow, his exertions in composing a "Defence of the People of England" against Salmasius.

" overply'd

In Liberty's defence, my noble task,

Of which all Europe rings from side to side."

How anxious should we have been to have examined and pored over that production, which the world had obtained from the magnanimous poet at such a price! If such had been our anticipations and regrets, what would be our rapture, to have rescued a fragment from the grasp of time, and have unrolled it?

That were indeed a bursting forth
Of genius from the dust!

In the teeth of these imaginary regrets, the fact is indisputable, that these works of John Milton (and in this respect they share the same fate with those of Jeremy Taylor and others of the same age, and of equal merit) are by the vast majority of his countrymen comparatively neglected—that tens of thousands of readers, and diligent ones too, in modern novelties, have never heard of Milton as aught else than as one of the powers of song. How is it that the world will do justice, (nominally at least,) to the minstrel, and not to the man,-thrill with his poetry, and neglect his prose? Is it sheer ignorance, or is it neglect? If the latter, there is not an equal instance of unworthy neglect on record. It is ultimately traceable to the elevated character of the writings themselves. John Milton was a teacher, and this world does not like to be taught. His "fit audience," in the world, will always be "few." The world's taste is but the handmaid and servant of a sterner and stronger power, whose empire lies in the passions of the depraved heart; which, while unrenewed, never can and never will cease to treat both the highest poetry and the divinest philosophy with mingled hatred and contempt. The world will still slay the prophet, and then piously build his sepulchre. Whether they who profess to be the patrons

of Christian literature, have joined the world in this good work, is another and a wider question.

It may not be amiss to advert to some accidental circumstances which may account for, though they cannot justify, the very general indifference with which these and similar works have been treated. We shall not allude to the ponderous and expensive form in which they have hitherto appeared: an impediment however of no mean importance.

Now that the prejudices against the regicides, under which opprobrious term are included all who bore part against King Charles I. in what is yet termed the "Great Rebellion," are wearing away, they need not be classed among the obstacles referred to. The principles of civil and religious liberty, which Milton and his compatriots contended for, have become part and parcel of the law of the land. The people feel, that the British Constitution, by the Revolution of 1688, is based upon the fragment of the Rebellion, and that the doctrines of the one are settled by the other. Tyranny, absolute-Charles the 1sttyranny, whether civil or ecclesiastical, is impossible. A few shadows and semblances of it may remain-but spectres are out of date

the sun is on the orient wave,

Each fettered ghost slips to his several grave!

We have the happiness to live under a limited monarchy, with republican institutions-a mild aristocracy, a temperate but powerful democracy. But to whom are we indebted for these blessings? Extremes meet. When men are secure they are ungrateful; and when they enjoy those rights for which their ancestors fought, they forget the peril and toil of the achievement. We must also remember that multitudes in this country are too busy with the present, to bestow much attention on the past or future, whether near or less remote. This is the case with many, too many, who are not destitute of liberal curiosity, or incapable of relishing the pleasures of taste, and cherishing the liveliest emotions of gratitude to their benefactors. They cannot, while under the perpetual pressure of the inexorable daily duties or pleasures of life, be either affected or attracted by any thing else.These are causes which have been, and will always be, in action, and unless jealously watched, will dwarf us into a nation of pigmy "toutos cosmites."

We shall find too, in the literary injustice with which these works have been treated, and in the influence which the parties chargeable with it, have exercised over the public mind, another extrinsic cause of the neglect that has been poured upon them. The critics of Milton have hitherto confined, with one or two exceptions, their labours to his poetry,—a quarry which they have not yet exhausted. And as they seldom have entered very deeply into the art itself, employing, as it must, in its evolution the language of real life, or prose, many, instead of being led by the one down to the other, are apt to conclude, that surpassing excellence in the higher department of literature is incompatible with success in the lower; overlooking or forgetting the well-known fact, that the best writers in prose have ever been the poets; that energy of thought or common sense is a characteristic of all genius; and that universality is the prerogative of the highest. Milton's moral and intellectual character has, for a long while, been tacitly placed under the guardianship of his most bitter antagonists. It unfortunately happens that the most popular of his biographers is his most malignant traducer. Dr. Johnson's treatment of Milton is, in every possible point of view, bad;

"Unmanly, ignominious, infamous!"

The poetry is beyond the reach, though within the scope, of his "mighty malice;" and his meagre and contemptuous references in the life of their author, to his Prose Works, are as discreditable to his taste and insight as a philosopher, as his creed is disgraceful to him as

an English politician. With an eye for no beauty, an ear for no music, a heart for no ecstasies, a soul in no unison with the sympathies of humanity, Dr. Johnson was fitly doomed to be the giant drudge of the Della Cruscan school; a thunderer, and yet his own Cyclops, whose task it was to forge the bolts of destruction, and whose glory to hurl them. Who that (and what numbers!) have formed their estimate of these Prose Works from his account of them, would have any idea of their real merits? If his report be fair and true, well might we exclaim with Manoah in the Samson Agonistes,

Oh! miserable change! Is this the man,
That invincible Samson, far renowned,
The dread of Israel's foes, who with a strength
Equivalent to angels walked their streets,
None offering fight; who, single combatant,
Duell'd their armies, ranked in proud array,
Himself an army: now unequal match
To save himself against a coward armed
At one spear's length !

Johnson's life of Milton is a most disingenuous production. It is the trail of a serpent over all Milton's works. Nothing escaped the fang of detraction. Nothing in purity of manners and magnanimity of conduct, nothing in the sanctity of the bard, in the noble works, and yet nobler life, of the man, could shield his immeasurable superior from cowardly and almost savage malignity. He has treated his very ashes with indignity. He made himself merry with the mighty dead. He trampled, upon his memory and his grave. And who can deny that the traducer knew full well, that the heart of his countryman, then mouldering in the dust of death, had ever beaten high with the sublimest emotions of love to his country and to his God, and that the then powerless hand of our mightiest minstrel, could not be convicted of having ever penned a line which did not equally attest the purity of his motives and the splendour of his genius. But Johnson's misrepresentations and calumnies, and that heartless faction of which he was certainly an eminent. representative, have had their day and inconceivably injurious though they have been to the honour of John Milton, sure we are that the time is fast approaching, yea now is, when the man as well as the poet shall be redeemed from obloquy-not by any interpretation of his opinions however honest, or estimate of his character however correct, nor even by the panegyric of his admirers however eloquent (and some of surpassing merit have lately been pronounced); but the great achievement shall be won by himself, and by himself alone. With his own strong axe shall he hew down, not merely his adversaries, but their errors. Let him but be heard. The charges against him are in all hands; here, in this one volume, is to be found their triumphant, but neglected, refutation.

It is not generally known, that in the Dictionary Dr. Johnson takes a few examples of meanings of words from two only of these Prose Works, (the Tract on Education and the Areopagitica,) both of which do not occupy many pages of this edition, while the rest, teeming with illustrations equally interesting and appropriate, are not, we believe, once appealed to. In the Inaugural Discourse delivered by Henry Brougham, Esq. on being installed Lord Rector of the University of Glasgow, is it not remarkable, that, when upon the very topic of eloquence, and that the eloquence of the English masters, and when urgently advising his young auditory to meditate on their beauties, there is not the slightest allusion to John Milton by name. Addison," says Brougham, (this cannot be an enumeration of all the favourites?) "may have been pure and elegant; Dryden airy and nervous; Taylor witty and fanciful (!!); Hooker weighty and various;" but the young disciple hears not once mentioned the name of John Milton, whose writings are most


« PreviousContinue »