Page images



On the death of his mother, in 1637, when he was about twenty-nine years of age, he became anxious to visit foreign parts, and particularly Italy. His reasons for wishing to travel, as quaintly expressed by his biographer TOLAND, were, that “he could not better discern the preëminence and defects of his own country, than by observing the customs and institutions of others; and that the study of never so many books, without the advantages of conversation, serves either to render a man'a fool or a pedant.” Obtaining permission of his father, he left England in 1638, accompanied by a single servant, and bearing a letter of direction and advice from Sir Henry Wotton. He arrived in Paris, the most accomplished Englishman who had ever crossed the Channel, and was courteously received by the ambassador of King CHARLES, who introduced him to the celebrated Grotius, then representative of the queen of Sweden at the court of France. The best account of his travels is contained in the brief autobiography which opens his Second Defence of the People of England. He soon set out for Italy, and taking ship at Nice, visited Genoa, Leghorn, Pisa and Florence. “In the latter city,” he says, " which I have always more particularly esteemed for the elegance of its dialect, its genius, and its taste, I stopped about two months; when I contracted an intimacy with many persons of rank and learning; and was a constant attendant at the literary parties, which prevail there, and tend 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, BonnoMATTHAI, 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 shown 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 look 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 re

I formed 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.”

On his arrival in London, Milton could discover no way in which he might directly serve the state, and he therefore hired a spacious house for himself and his books, and resumed his literary pursuits; calmly awaiting the issue of the contest, which he “ trusted to the wise conduct of Providence, and the courage of the people.”

He now undertook the education of his sister's sons, John and EDWARD Phillips, and subsequently received a few other pupils, whom he instructed in the best learning of the ancients and moderns. Johnson sneers at Milton's “ great promise and small performance,” in returning from the continent because his country was in danger, and then opening a private school. But it was not from cowardice that he preferred the closet to the field, and he saw no absurdity in adding to his light income by teaching, while he wrote his immortal works on the nature and necessity of liberty. “I did not,” he says in his Defensio Secunda, “ for any other reason decline the dangers of war, than that I might in another way, with much more efficacy, and with not less danger to myself, render assistance to my countrymen, and discover a mind neither shrinking from adverse fortune, nor actuated by any improper fear of calumny or death. Since from my childhood I had been devoted to the more liberal studies, and was always more powerful in my intellect than in my body, avoiding the labours of the camp, in which any robust soldier would have surpassed me, I betook myself to those weapons which I could wield with the most effect; and I conceived that I was acting wisely when I thus brought my better and more valuable faculties, those which constituted my principal strength and consequence, to the assistance of my country and her honourable cause."

Milton was a silent and calm, but careful and far seeing spectator of the general agitation. The outrageous abuses of power by the weak minded and passionate king, and the despotism of the episcopal officers, caused the popular heart to beat as the sea heaves in a storm; and the restraints of established authority, made weaker every day by over exertion, were soon altogether to cease. The Long Parliament was in session; the bigoted and persecuting Primate had been impeached ; and the Second Spirit of the Revolution stepped before the audience of the world, to be in all the great period which followed the most earnest and powerful champion of the cause of the people. “I saw,” he says, 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 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.”

He accordingly wrote and published in the year 1641 his first work in prose, under the title Of Reformation in England, and the Causes that hitherto have hindered it. In this he attempts to show that prelacy is incompatible with civil liberty, and to the support of this proposition he brings learning more various and profound, a power of reasoning, and an impassioned eloquence, unprecedented in English controversy. The treatise ends with the following prayer, " piously laying the sad condition of England before the footstool of

46 that a

[ocr errors]

the Almighty;" than which, as Sir Edgerton Bridges well observes, “ there is not a more sublime and patriotic ode in any language.”

“ Thou, therefore, that sittest in light and glory unapproachable, Parent of angels and men! next, thee I implore, omnipotent King, Redeemer of that lost remnant whose nature thou didst assume, ineffable and everlasting Love! anıl thou, the third subsistence of divine infinitude, illumining Spirit, the joy and solace of created things ! one Tripersonal Godhead! look upon this thy poor and almost spent and expiring church; leave her not thus a prey to these importunate wolves, that wait and think long, till they devour thy tender flock; these wild boars that have broken into thy vineyard, and left the print of their polluting hoofs on the souls of thy servants. O let them not bring about their damned designs, that stand now at the entrance of the bottomless pit, expecting the watchword to open and let out those dreadful locusts and scorpions, to reinvolve us in that pitchy cloud of infernal darkness, where we shall never more see the sun of thy truth again, never hope for the cheerful dawn, never more hear the bird of morning sing. Be moved with pity at the afflicted state of this our shaken monarchy, that now lies labouring under her throes, anıl struggling against the grudges of more dreadful calamities.

“O thou, that, after the impetuous rage of five bloody inundations, and the succeeding sword of intestine war, soaking the land in her own gore, didst pity the sad and ceaseless revolution of our swist and thick-coming sorrows; wher we were quite breathless, of thy free grace didst motion peace, and terms of covenant with us; and having first well-nigh freed us from antichristian thraldom, didst build up this Britannic empire to a glorious and enviable height with all her daughter-islands about her; stay us in this felicity, let not the obstinacy of our half-obedience and will-worship bring forth that viper of sedition, that for these fourscore years has been breeding to eat through tho entrails of our peace; but let her cast her abortive spawn without the danger of this travailing and throbbing kingdom: that we may still remember in our solemn thanksgivings, how for us, the northern ocean even to the frozen Thule, was scattered with the proud shipwrecks of the Spanish armada, and the very maw of hell ransacked, and made to give up her concealed destruction, ere she could vent it in that horrible and damned blast.

“O how much more glorious will those former deliverances appear, when we shall know them not only to have saved us from greatest miseries past, but have reserved us for greatest happiness to come! Hitherto thou hast but freed us, and that not fully, from the unjust and tyrannous claim of thy foes; now unite us entirely, and appropriate us to thyself, tie us everlastingly in willing homage to the prerogative of thy eternal throne.

" And now we know, O thou our most certain hope and defence, that thine enemies have been consulting all the sorceries of the great whore, and have joined their plots with that sad intellingencing tyrant that mischiefs the world with his mines of Ophir, and lies thirsting to revenge his naval ruins that have larded our seas : but let them all take counsel together, and let it come to nought; let them decree, and do thou cancel it; let them gather themselves, and be scattered; let them embattle themselves, and be broken; let them embattle, and be broken, for thou art with us.

" Then amidst the hymns and hallelujahs of saints, some one may perhaps be heard offering at high strains in new and lofty measures, to sing and celebrate thy divine mercies and marvellous judgments in this land throughout all ages; whereby this great and warlike nation, instructed and inured to the fervent and continual practice of truth and righteousness, and casting far from her the rags of her old vices, may press on hard to that high and happy emulation to be found the soberest, wisest, and most Christian people at that day, when thou, the eternal and shortly-expected King, shalt open the clouds to judge the several kingdoms of this world, and distributing national honours and rewards to religious and just commonwealths, shalt put an end to all earthly tyrannies, proclaiming thy universal and mild monarchy through heaven and earth; where



they, undoubtedly, that by their labours, counsels, and prayers, have been earnest for the common good of religion and their country, shall receive above the inferior orders of the blessed, the regal addition of principalities, legions, and thrones into their glorious titles, and in supereminence of beatific vision, progressing the dateless and irrevoluble circle of eternity, shall clasp inseparable hands with joy and bliss, in overmeasure for ever.”

To this, and other attacks of the Puritan writers, Bishops Hall and Usher soon after replied; the first in An humble Remonstrance to the High Court of Parliament, and the last in The Apostolical Institution of Episcopacy. MilTon had commenced the controversy, and he did not shrink from its prosecution. He thought that on subjects to the consideration of which he was early led solely by his love of truth and reverence for Christianity, he should not reason worse than they who were contending only for their emoluments and usurpations. He wrote, therefore, in answer to the bishops, the tract on Prelatical Episcopacy, and in the same year, The Reason of Church Government urged against Prelacy. In the preface to the second book of this last treatise, he discloses with a calm confidence the high opinion he held of his own powers, and gives promise of a work which his mind, in the spacious circuit of her musing, had proposed to herself, “not to be raised from the heat of youth or the vapours of wine, like that which flows at waste from the pen of some vulgar amorist or the trencher fury of a rhyming parasite, but by devout prayer to the 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." This is the prophetic announcement of Paradise Lost, from which he turned for a while his thoughts, in obedience to “God's secretary Conscience,” to 6 embark in a troubled sea of noises and hoarse disputes."

Bishop Hall came out with a Defence of the Remonstrance, which was quickly succeeded by Milton's Animadversions, in the form of a dialogue, and written in a lighter and more satirical vein than his previous works, though not without some passages of solemn and impressive eloquence.

In the beginning of the year 1642 an anonymous reply to the Animadversions appeared, under the title of A Modest Confutation of a Slanderous and Scurrilous Libel, in which Milton was assailed with every sort of rancorous abuse; and Christian men were called upon to “ stone him to death,” lest they should smart from his impunity. In his Apology for Smectymnuus,* which followed soon after, he repulsed and overthrew his adversaries with their own weapons, and put an end by the unapproachable ability of his argument, to the prelatical controversy. In ihe beginning of the year 1642, the English hierarchy was abolished by act of parliament, with the royal assent: so rapid and so powerful was the influence of a mighty genius upon the opinion and action of the nation.

Milton was now but thirty-four years of age. Had he never written more than the works already finished, he would have been one of the greatest benefactors of the church and of mankind. He had surpassed all the masters of eloquence in his own country and language, and equalled the greatest of all the ages, in those voices for liberty which, though long silent, are destined to ring with a clear and sonorous sound through many centuries around the world. SHAKSPEARE had shown the capacities of our tongue for harmony and beauty. Milton, rivalling his immortal predecessor in mastery of its melodies, developed all its vigour and grandeur, and by his words fought such battles as the genius of his elder brother alone might fitlingly record.

[ocr errors]

Although there were no works on the Puritan side comparable to Milton's for eloquence, erudition, or logical acuteness, there were some which attracted much attention, and among others, an attack upon the bishops by five Presbyterian divines, (Stephen Marshal, Edward Calamy, Thomas Young, Matthew Newcommen, and William Spurstow,) the initials of whose names made the word Smect ymnuus, which they adopted as their joint signature. To this Bishop Hall replied, and Milton now answered the accumulated attacks upon the Presby. terian party (who were hardly a match for their opponents) and himself, in ihe Apology for Smectymnuus.

His form was cast in the finest mould of manly beauty; no one surpassed him in elegance of manners; and his carriage “bespoke undauntedness and courage.” His voice was variably musical, and his conversational abilities never were approached, perhaps, unless in those of one of the most illustrious Englishmen of this present age. In the mornings of winter he was “ up and stirring ere the sound of any bell awoke men to labour or devotion; in summer as oft, with the bird that first rouses, to read good authors till the attention was weary or the memory had its fraught;" so possessed was he “ with a fervent desire to know good things, and with the dearest charity to infuse a knowledge of them into others.” Yet he sometimes indulged his passion for the observation of external beauty, for in the fine days of spring, he thought, “ in the vernal seasons of the year when the air is calm and pleasant, it were an injury and sullenness against nature not to go out and see her riches, and partake of her rejoicing with heaven and earth."

The marriage of Milton was unfortunate, and it gave a new direction to his literary labours. His susceptibility to impressions from loveliness is shown in the episode of his history which connects it with that of LEONORA Baroni of Rome. He was now suddenly captivated by the person and manners of Mary, a daughter of Richard Powell of Oxfordshire, whom he married and brought to London. Of a royalist family, and accustomed to an affluent gayety, she soon grew weary of the frugality and quiet simplicity which reigned in the house of her husband, and in a few weeks requested permission to revisit her relatives, with whom she remained, in spite of his remonstrances, the whole summer, refusing even to answer his letters or to see his messengers. This so incensed him, that he resolved to repudiate her on the grounds of disobedience and desertion; and to justify himself he published in 1644, The Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce, addressed to the parliament. He held it to be an absurdity that every union by priest or magistrate, of parties reeling from the bagnio or under the influence of any fraud or terror, was a joining by God, and that an unsuitable disposition of mind was a far better reason for divorce than such infirmities of body as were good grounds in law, provided there were a mutual consent for separation. The treatise was soon followed by The Judgment of Martin Bucer Concerning Divorce, and in the next year by Tetrachordon and Colasterion, the last being a reply to an anonymous assailant. He exhibited in no other works more accurate and extensive learning, or greater skill in argument;

and if his assumptions are wrong, his reasoning is to this day unanswered. These treatises kindled against him the enmity of the Presbyterian divines, who, unmindful of his recent important services, now assailed him from the pulpit and the press with malignant bitterness, and even caused him to be summoned before the parliament, by which tribunal however he was promptly acquitted, so that his persecutors by their weak wickedness gained no advantage, and alienated forever the most powerful supporter of their cause. The battle of Naseby had now destroyed the hopes of the royalists, and the Powells perceiving that they might need MILTON's protection, and alarmed lest he should contract a second marriage, contrived an interview between him and his wife, in which she begged his pardon, and was generously restored to her home, where, in a few years, she died.

In the same year in which Milton wrote his works on divorce, he also produced his remarkable Tractate on Education, in which are embodied all the best ideas of the next two centuries on the subject; and that Speech for the Liberty of Unlicensed Printing, which in the splendour of its diction and the irresistible force of its reasoning, continues to be without a parallel in the literature of the world. He was the first to assert the unlimited right of discussion, and has left nothing to be said on this question by succeeding ages. “Who knows not,” he exclaims, “ that truth is strong! Next to the Almighty, she needs no policies, no stratagems, no licensings, to make her victorious." “Though all the winds of doctrine were let loose upon the earth, so Truth be in the field, we injure her to misdoubt her strength. Let her and Falsehood

« PreviousContinue »