Nonfiction > Henry Craik, ed. > English Prose > Vol. II. Sixteenth Century to the Restoration
Henry Craik, ed.  English Prose.  1916.
Vol. II. Sixteenth Century to the Restoration
Critical Introduction by A. W. Ward
John Milton (1608–1674)
[John Milton, born in Bread Street, London, 9th December 1608; entered at Christ’s College, Cambridge, 12th February 1624; left the University as M.A., and retired to Horton, Bucks, 1632; set out for Italy 1637, returning in 1639; took up his abode in London, first in St. Bride’s Churchyard, then in Aldersgate Street; in 1643 married Mary Powell, by whom he had three daughters; after her death in 1653 he married Catherine Woodcock, who died about a year after her marriage, in 1657, having borne him a daughter. In March 1649 Milton had been appointed Secretary for Foreign Tongues to the Council of State, an office which he held till the downfall of the Commonwealth. The Restoration involved him in personal peril; but after the passing of the Act of Oblivion he came forth from his concealment, and settled in a house in Holborn near Red Lion Square, whence, in 1662, he removed to Artillery Walk near Bunhill Fields. In 1665 he married his third wife, Elizabeth Marshall. He died 8th November 1674, and was buried in the church of St. Giles, Cripplegate.]  1
MILTON, it seems, succeeded imperfectly in defending the English people against the imputation that he allowed himself on its behalf to be diverted from the service of the Muses. The charge, frequently made, once more found expression in the late Mark Pattison’s admirable biographical essay.  2
  Although with divers reservations dictated by his own candour, this distinguished scholar virtually repeated the accusation of Johnson, that Milton “lent his breath”—they omit to say by whom that breath was inspired—“to blow the flames of contention.” The censure, whether uttered in so many words, or insinuated, or implied, is based on the obsolete fallacy of drawing a distinction between a great writer, or for that matter a great intellectual worker of any kind, and the same personage viewed as “a man.” I have no room for discussing it here; nor am I in the secret of Milton’s “mission” to his nation or to mankind. Indeed, the question might be asked on a lower plane, whether posterity can judge so accurately of the relation of the mind of Milton even to his own age and to its problems, as to decide ex cathedrâ upon the capacity in which he would have best fulfilled the purpose of his life. We may regret, no doubt, for the sake not only of our highest pleasures, but also because of the absolute value of the gift bestowed upon mankind in poetry like Milton’s, that he should have allowed an “episode” of twenty years to interrupt his poetical productivity. We may further regret that the prose writing to which he mainly devoted himself during this period of his literary life, should have been of a kind which, following the fashion of his times in particular, and the tendency of controversial writing in general, largely led him into excesses or obliquities, into invective, vituperation, and the inveracities of passion or spleen, such as it is painful to have to associate with his lofty name. Yet, if he conceived it his duty (and who can suppose that he conceived otherwise?) to devote himself during these years to the service of a cause and a rule which for him embodied freedom sanctified by the fear of God, he would have been false to himself had he hesitated instead of making his choice. The critics who disapprove of Milton’s having “prostituted his genius to political party” are, after all, as blind as those who quarrel with Goethe for not having played a prominent part as a “Liberation” patriot, instead of contenting himself with doing his duty to his prince, his people and mankind, as that duty presented itself to him. If a man, be he or be he not a great poet, can at any time do a nobler thing than his duty, Milton and Goethe were alike at fault. Since his Defensio Secunda was written by him in Latin, I may here, instead of below, quote from it a passage showing that he deliberately chose what he thought the course dictated to him by his duty to his country, to the Church of God, and to many of his fellow-Christians: “When the liberty of speech was no longer subject to control, all mouths began to be opened against the Bishops, some complaining of the vices of the individuals, others of those of the Order. They said it was unjust that they alone (i.e., they of the Established Church) 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 institutions of the republic; and, as I had from my youth up studied the distinction 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 many of my fellow-Christians, in a cause 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.” Still more striking are certain passages in the Preface to the Second Book on The Reason of Church Government, which will be found in one of the extracts given in the text.  3
  Milton’s earlier verse is in the memory of all; and it is therefore unnecessary to recall how the great conflict which occupies the great body of his prose writings, casts its premonitory shadow over the most exquisite of all his contributions to our literature. What the Hymn on Christ’s Nativity had with a directness at once naïve and impassioned exhibited as a struggle in which “the damned crew” of heathen divinities was compelled to yield to “the dreaded Infant’s hand,” in the Allegro and Penseroso becomes a psychological contrast, tending to an unmistakable choice. In Comus the conflict has deepened into a spiritual trial issuing in the acceptance of that view of life which shows the light of a great poet’s imagination, reflecting itself in historic Puritanism, as the sunlight reflects itself in the raindrops. The transition to the lower level of satirical invective is made in Lycidas, which with a more than Spenserian boldness mixes up the controversial with the plaintive element, and thus serves as a link between the prose of Milton and the earlier music of his lute.  4
  It would be easy to show how little (to compare him again with Goethe) there was that Milton in his Italian journey desired to cast off and leave behind him on this side of the Alps. His unbending Protestantism, notwithstanding Sir Henry Wotton’s seasonable warning, never sought to conceal itself, either at Rome or elsewhere, and entailed upon him a certain measure of surveillance in the Papal city. The few extant records of a sojourn, which exercised so lasting an effect upon his poetic and in a secondary degree upon his prose style, show him both maintaining among changing scenes a mind unchanged, and trusting in a Higher Power to “stoop” to the aid of his weakness. How freely he breathed in the atmosphere of Geneva on his way home; and how sympathetically he had in Italy—then suffering from a decay only too plainly visible to an observer trained in historical studies—entered into the complaints of scholars less fortunate (as they deemed) than himself! “I could recount,” he afterwards wrote in the Areopagitica, “what I have seen and heard in other countries, where this kind of inquisition” (the censorship of the press) “tyrannises, when I have sat among their learned men (for that honour I had) and have been counted happy to be born in such a place of philosophic freedom as they supposed England was, while themselves did nothing but bemoan the servile condition into which learning amongst them was brought, that this was it which had damped the glory of Italian wits, that nothing had been there written now these many years but flattery and fustian.”  5
  In the winter 1639–40 Milton settled in the city as a private tutor, an occupation provocative of needless “merriment” in Johnson, because of the inadequacy of its immediate results. Yet no mode of life could have been better adapted for the process of digesting his accumulations of learning and experience, which in Milton went hand in hand with that of pondering over old and new themes and schemes. He was thus engaged when his own times, so to speak, knocked at his study door and imperiously claimed his attention. 1641 was the year in which he first became a writer of controversial prose.  6
  Of the great questions of the age in England the church question was the most fundamentally important, and came most directly home to Milton, who, as has been seen, had carried it in his mind since his college days, and whose views concerning it had already in some measure directed the course of his life. He was, moreover, at this period in frequent intercourse with Puritan ministers of his acquaintance, one of whom had formerly been his tutor. Thus, when in 1641, by the introduction of the Root and Branch Bill, due to the rejection by the House of Lords of the proposal to exclude bishops from a seat in it, this church question had been narrowed into the choice between the continuance of the Episcopal system and its complete overthrow, Milton felt that his hour had arrived. Already before the Bill had begun to be debated in the Commons, a storm of pamphlets on the subject had darkened the atmosphere; and one of these, the Humble Remonstrance of Bishop Hall of Norwich, who had previously come forward as the champion of Episcopacy by Divine Right, produced the celebrated Answer by “Smectymnuus.” Soon (probably about two months later, i.e., in May or June 1641) after the appearance of this joint manifesto of five more or less prominent Puritan divines, Milton put forth anonymously his first prose treatise, Of Reformation in England, and the causes that hitherto have hindered it: Two Books, written to a Friend.  7
  In this essay, which displays the freshness of the combatant newly entering the arena, unhampered by a wish to reserve any of his strength, most of the essential characteristics of Milton as a prose-writer are already perceptible. It smells of the lamp, of course, but by no means oppressively; for among the best sons of the Church of Rome cited as deploring the choking of her life by her endowments, are not only Dante and Petrarch and Ariosto, but also “our Chaucer,” whom it is not surprising to find wrongly identified with the author of The Ploughman’s Tale; nor does the writer yield to the temptation of falling into a “paroxysm of citations,” as he calls it, from the Fathers, although clearly capable of holding his own in this direction with Prynne himself. But his learning is not index-learning, his historical illustrations of the charge of worldliness as inseparable from the connexion between Church and State are close-fitting as well as telling, and vary from indignant invective to polite irony. Edward VI.’s bishops “suffered themselves to be the common stales, to countenance with their prostituted gravities every politic fetch that was then on foot, as oft as the potent statists pleased to employ them.” Elizabeth’s “found a good tabernacle; they sat under a spreading vine, their lot was fallen in a fair inheritance.” And, finally, we recognise in the first of Milton’s tracts, more especially at its close, the eloquence of a spirit moved to its depths by the actual theme of discourse; though here as yet there still clings to his style something of the pulpit-peroration manner, which he was before long to shake off.  8
  Milton’s second prose pamphlet, which appeared in the same year as the first, Of Prelatical Episcopacy, is short and of little significance, except as showing the combative readiness of the author, who saw what some heroic fighters in similar struggles fail to notice, that, in a conflict turning on establishments, their moderate defenders, familiar with the history of the subject, deserve to be answered. The third of this earliest group of his controversial writings, the Animadversions upon the Remonstrant’s Defence against Smectymnuus, is a retort upon a reply by Bishop Hall which “Smectymnuus” had already met by a Vindication from head-quarters. Milton’s contribution was not, however, superfluous, for he afterwards spoke of himself as held to have on this occasion “brought a timely succour to the ministers who were hardly a match for the eloquence of their opponents.” Doubtless, at the same time, this tract, so far as he is himself concerned, exhibits the dangers of the path on which he had entered, and the declivities to which it is prone. These Animadversions are in dialogue form, and occasionally approach with hazardous closeness to colloquialism:  9
  “Remonst. No one clergy in the whole Christian world yields so many eminent scholars, learned preachers, grave, holy, and accomplished divines as this Church of England doth at this day.  10
  “Answ. Ha, ha, ha!”  11
  Elsewhere, however, the writer emancipates himself from the very form which he has chosen, and soars on the wings of a true enthusiasm into aspects of his theme beyond the range of mere passing controversies. Where he describes the blessings of an unfettered ministry of religion, his eloquence has a force and a fire inseparable from the influence of personal sentiment, which had a peculiar interest to these early outpourings, and we remember how brief had been the interval since he had deemed himself (in his own phrase) as one “shoved away from the shearer’s feast.”  12
  Events now thickened; and, as is invariably the case in critical times, the personal responsibility of those who had chosen their side became more definite. When, early in 1642, Milton published his Reason of Church Government urged against Prelaty, he appended his name to the treatise. As its title implied, he here, although according to the fashion of his age, directing his arguments against a particular essay (or collection of essays) on the opposite side, passed to the philosophical line of reasoning, in other words, to first principles. Although his views on the question of Church Government had not yet reached their extreme point, the necessity of the separation of Church from State had now already become to him an axiom, with regard both to religious life and to civil society. In a passage in the exordium of the Second Book, partially extracted below, he offers his own apology for resolving to devote his powers to the paramount problem of his times. He foresees the possibility of a reaction which might involve him in the reproach of having shrunk from taking his part in the actual struggle, and he vindicates his present resolution to avert, at the cost of literary fame as a great English writer, such an imputation upon his sense of his highest responsibilities. But the biographical interest of this Second Book should not be allowed to overshadow its argumentative dignity, or to hide the beauty of such passages as that which seeks to oppose to the “No King, no Bishop” cry, the conception, half ironical, of a true leader of the people who, like unto that “mighty Nazarite Samson,” “grows up to a noble strength and perfection with those his illustrious and sunny locks, the laws, waving and curling about his godlike shoulders.”  13
  The fifth and last in this, the first series of Milton’s prose treatises, was An Apology against a Pamphlet called a Modest Confutation of the Animadversions of the Remonstrant against Smectymnuus (1642), directed against the tardy reply put forth by Bishop Hall, with the assistance as has been supposed of his son, to Milton’s previous attack. This Apology abounds in a kind of recrimination one might well wish away (for what answer is it to the false assertion that Milton had been “vomited out” by his University, to indulge in scornful reflexions upon the condition of that university under prelatical government, and in particular upon the academical plays whereby budding bishops and deans were taught manners and morals?) But it also contains yet another autobiographical passage, which Professor Masson considers to be “without exception, the profoundest thing that Milton has told us about himself,” and which I therefore cannot refrain from extracting below. This declaration is not one to be bandied about with cavils or reservations in biographical or other controversy; if Milton here strayed from the truth, then his whole life was a lie; in the opposite event, how instinct with living force becomes the ethical teaching of Comus, the product of this pure and unsullied period of the poet’s youth!  14
  The first group of Milton’s prose writings, as he tells us himself, established him as the literary representative of the Puritan side; and this was in itself no small achievement, when the cause of Prelacy had found a champion in a veteran of Hall’s learning and experience as a controversialist, gifted with satirical power, and blessed with moderation of temper. With such an adversary the apologist of Smectymnuus might in some points have seemed ill-matched, more especially as he was deficient in all the gentler forms of humour, and scorned most of the varieties of tact. But such deficiencies count for little in the blaze of passion which in these early pieces manifestly requires no fanning, and which again and again bursts forth with an impetus that must have taken some at least of his readers by storm. The sincerity of the impulse which had led to their production in rapid succession upon one another is apparent in the treatises themselves; nor have many writers, whose genius was so wonderfully fertile as Milton’s, restricted themselves with the same consistency to themes by which their minds are not only attracted but occupied.  15
  It was to serve his country by upholding the religious ideal which to him seemed to have been so perilously obscured in both Church and State that he had first become a publicist. In the ensuing years he turned aside, partly from motives or under influences which it could have been no satisfaction to him to make very clear to himself, into a different, though in some measure cognate, field of controversy. The series of publications in question began with The Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce (1643), republished in an enlarged form with an introductory letter To the Parliament of England, with the [Westminster] Assembly (1644). It is noticeable how in this Preface, instead of, as in his earlier treatises, leaving it to learned or lay to take what they choose from the case laid before them, he declares with uneasy pride: “I seek not to seduce the simple and illiterate; my errand is to find out the choicest and learnedest, who have this high gift of wisdom—to answer solidly, or to be convinced.” But the dignity of this attitude was in the present instance assumed only. He was in a hurry, as literary men of sensitive minds and powerful imaginations too often are, to make public deductions from his private experiences. Even had his contention been unanswerable that divorce should be allowed on grounds such as seem to have caused his own separation from his wife—that is to say, “for no visible reason”—Parliament, Assembly, and public could have waited a little longer for the urging of it. There was no necessity for him publicly to advocate this particular reform before the first year of his married life—or, according to one not improbable view, his “honeymoon”—had come to an end. In the second tract of the series he appealed to the authority of Martin Bucer (1644) an eminent Reformation divine, to whom peculiar respect has for special reasons deservedly been paid by English Protestantism, but to whose authority in this particular kind of questions there exist equally special reasons for demurring; in the third and fourth, published on the same day (in 1645), Milton reviewed the many passages in Scripture bearing on the subject, and “pilloried” those opponents who still remained unexposed. Prynne, while censured for misrepresenting Milton’s argument as equivalent to the advocacy of “divorce at pleasure,” is almost tenderly blamed for giving Truth cause to leave him defenceless “after having suffered much and long in her defence.” But upon the anonymous author of a reply to The Doctrine and Discipline, the vials of Milton’s wrath are emptied, and at the close he allows “fate to extort from him a talent of sport, which he had thought to hide in a napkin.” He was, in fact, very sore about the reception accorded to his “new subject,” as well as to his Greek titles; very possibly the age of Henry VIII., to which he made appeal in a sonnet against his detractors, would have been more tolerant in both directions. The most important effect of the entire episode was to add intensity to the forces which at the time were driving Milton away from the halting-place of orthodox Presbyterianism towards the unfenced, but not on that account less tenable, position of the right of private judgment. The spirit of freedom was abroad both in things political and in things religious; the agitation of the Sects typified the desire for spiritual independence, and the New Modelling of the army showed how it was proposed to secure the victory. To the period immediately preceding the accomplishment of the measures which ultimately brought about the collapse of the Presbyterian régime belongs the publication of Milton’s one enduringly popular prose work, the Areopagitica (1644).  16
  How unconfined are the operations of a spirit like that to which I have referred, both in a genius of the prophetic type and in a great age, had, however, been shown by the appearance earlier in the same year of another prose tractate by Milton—On Education. It was addressed to a remarkable man of his acquaintance, Samuel Hartlib, a naturalised Prussian merchant, settled in London, who in his turn had introduced to English readers the educational theories of his friend, the Moravian, John Amos Comenius. Milton’s essay, written under these influences, is as radical a plea for reform as any that about this time proceeded from his pen. But though in its critical portion this brief deliverance on an all-important theme deals effectively enough with the failure of the existing methods, the system of education which, as a really progressive and scientific one, he wished to substitute for them, is elaborated by him under conditions that, no doubt, give to the essay an essentially speculative—or, why not say, fanciful?—tinge. Nor can it, I think, be supposed that there was any pretence on Milton’s part, who knew more than enough of the practical difficulties and complications of the problem, to have exhausted them. His tract, after all, had little direct significance for his own times; and was little more than a kind of fly-leaf which might possibly prove suggestive, should it be taken out of its pigeon-hole by some later generation of reformers.  17
  The Areopagitica: A Speech for the Liberty of Unlicensed Printing, in direct contrast with the above, addressed itself directly to an actual Order of the Long Parliament, subjecting the printing-press to the necessity of official licences analogous to those imposed seven years before, by the (since abolished) Court of Star-Chamber. It is needless (were it possible) to enquire here to what extent either personal grievances in connexion with the authority thus assumed, or a growing personal conviction as to the way in which it was certain to continue to be used by the dominant Presbyterian majority in Parliament, contributed to stimulate the energy of Milton’s onslaught. The form in which he clothed it is for the present purpose of more importance. The Areopagiticus of Isocrates is a rhetorical pamphlet under the guise of a speech, but designed directly to influence the political life of Athens. Its purpose was to commend and to enforce the extended authority which the Areopagus had assumed or resumed, and to urge an appeal to a better past as against the uncertainties of a distracted present. A certain concession is therefore implied in Milton’s choice of title; but the parallel is inexact, and is used by him chiefly in order to contrive a courteous opening for an attack that would not be put into the form of an indictment. The treatise maintains throughout the form of a speech, and has accordingly a greater variety of light and shade than is to be found in any other of Milton’s prose works. Indeed, one passage at least, extracted below, in which the author deals with the impossibility of “licensing” all the pleasures of life, has a playful charm generally foreign to his prose style. In his argument he shows, in the first instance historically, the vicious origin of the power which the Parliament has assumed, tracing it from the Inquisition to “inquisiturient” prelates and presbyters. He next proves the radical falsity of the system, as deduced from the fundamental conditions of the conflict between truth and falsehood, ignorance and better knowledge; and illustrates the proved practical absurdity of attempting to purify literature either by a progressive or by a retrospective index. Lastly, he shows the positive harm which must result from the imposition of such an incubus upon authorship, as the soil where thought should grow free; and appeals to that trust in liberty, without which its institutions are valueless. In place of accountability to a licensing board or boards, he vindicates to authorship the responsibility that is upon the writer speaking the truth as it is in him, and using the talents entrusted to man by his Maker.  18
  The significance of this work, which exhibits more than any of Milton’s prose writings the power of generalisation, or, if the expression be preferred, the art of broadening particular issues, characteristic of the highest kind of eloquence, is not of course to be measured by any conclusions as to its direct effect, and still less as to Milton’s subsequent relations with the political agency whose operations he had impugned. Concerning these relations, I will only say that while I remain somewhat sceptical as to the mitigating influence of Milton upon the treatment of press offences when himself officially associated with the censorship, I agree that this question does not really affect that of his consistency. For it is rightly observed by Professor Masson that “the Areopagitica had not committed its author to the doctrine of the Liberty of the Press in the sense that everything or anything might be published with impunity”; indeed, towards the end of the “speech,” he explicitly advises the Parliament to act upon its Order of 1641, requiring the registering in all cases of the names of printers and authors, as an effective provision for the regulation of the press. And where would have been the use of registering names without holding their owners responsible? Milton was not personally accountable for the policy adopted towards the press after the dissolution of the first Parliament of the Protectorate, but he undoubtedly identified himself with it by continuing to hold office under the Protector’s government, and thereby, as is often the lot of officials, contradicted declarations made before he was in office. For the rest, Milton’s own duties in connexion with the press were in substance those of official editor rather than censor; he may in addition have occasionally written himself in the columns of the Mercurius Politicus; and it is a pleasing thought of Mr. Masson’s that, in “the triumphant leading article on the Battle of Worcester” (1651), the Secretary’s own hand may be traced.  19
  From the time of the publication of the Areopagitica to that of the execution of the King, from 1644 to 1649, Milton seems to have refrained from further interference in political or religious controversy. It was the period of his most assiduous self-devotion to the actual work of education, of which his literary labours during these years formed an organic part. The results of these labours are of course lightly put aside as “mere compilations” by critics who favour the art of building without stone or bricks. The Latin treatise on Logic was not published till 1673, and the contemplated Latin Dictionary never saw the light at all, while the Treatise on Christian Doctrine compiled from the Holy Scriptures alone, likewise in Latin, was issued posthumously as a massive fragment, in two Books since translated by the late Bishop Summer (of Winchester). Of more special interest, as connecting itself with Milton’s meditations on poetic themes, is another but more extensive posthumous fragment, the History of Britain, in the first book of which he narrates without reserve all the old fables of Geoffrey of Monmouth, candidly averring as a principal object his desire to serve “our English poets and rhetoricians, who by their art will know how to use these reputed tales judiciously.” When on historic ground, he knows that it behoves him to be more critical, so that the extinction of the Roman Empire in Britain draws from him the characteristic comment; “Henceforth, we are to steer by another sort of authors; near enough to the things they write, as in their own country, if that would serve; in time not belated, some of equal age; in expression barbarous, and to say how judicious, I suspend awhile; this we must expect: in civil matters to find them dubious relaters, and still to the best advantage of what they term the Holy Church, meaning indeed themselves: in most other matters of religion, blind, astonished, and struck with superstition as with a planet: in one word, Monks.” That the history of this island during the period ending with the Battle of Hastings could not be written with sympathetic warmth by one who thus regarded its principal sources, may be taken for granted; even the character of Alfred is drawn without enthusiasm, and the account of Edgar, “with whom died all the Saxon glory,” degenerates into scandal. But in truth the style of this History is dry and uninteresting, and conveys to my mind the impression that, though “revised” by the author in his old age, its effectiveness would have been enhanced, had opportunity so served, by further touches from his younger hand.  20
  But from such studies, and excursions, into which his learned curiosity led him from time to time, to “Muscovia and other less known countries lying eastward of Russia as far as Cathay” (so was the title of the only other historical fragment remaining from Milton’s hand) he was once more called away by the demands made upon his conscience by the great issues of his own times. How promptly he, whose personal courage has I believe been impugned because in the days of the outbreak of the Civil War his service in arms was limited to the London Artillery Ground, responded to the call; appears from the fact that he was the first Englishman of any note to publish his approval of the sentence upon the King, while giving in unasked his adhesion to the republican form of government. The full title of his treatise, put forth with the author’s well-known initials in February 1649, on The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates, invites attention to the extreme consequences of the doctrine of resistance which it develops; and by devoting part of it to an attempt to rail into approbation the Presbyterians by involving them in the responsibility of the deed, the author conclusively breaks off any possible bridge behind him. The main argument of this manifesto, which Milton was soon to resume in prose writings destined to command a wider celebrity, is indisputably cognate with the teachings of the Jesuit Mariana, and with those that had in an earlier generation proceeded from Calvin, and is strongly influenced by the conception, so long prevalent among political thinkers, that the relations between a people and its magistrates are based upon a compact between them.  21
  An almost inevitable sequel to Milton’s wholly voluntary advocacy of the Commonwealth Government, and self-committal to its cause, was his appointment to a post of confidence in its service (March 1679). His activity as Secretary for the Foreign Tongues (vulgo, Latin Secretary), under a régime by which he held out to the very last, when he is found protesting against its imminent overthrow by public pamphlets and by a private letter to General Monk, may seem to have little or no concern with his contributions to the literature of English prose. But it is worthy of notice that even while he served the State he served it under conditions which both in his official and in what may be called his semi-official writings left to his pen full opportunities for that grave and ample process of composition which had become to it a kind of second nature. In other words, he was not a hack even when in harness; and if we are unable to conceive of Milton absolving his daily publicistic task with the fevered gaiety of Gentz, neither need we think of him as groaning in spirit like Leibniz over the time lost for more congenial work. But Latin Prose, and English largely modelled upon its example, are apt to create the effect of a more complete leisureliness than may actually have attended what Milton would have termed its “composure,” and he was not allowed to let the grass grow under his feet. Passing by, however, the earliest commissions with which he was charged, we come at once to the part taken by him in a controversy of, happily, almost unparalleled notoriety in the features of its course as well as in the circumstances of its origin. If in writing down the Eikon Basilike (and this cannot well be said to be a misstatement of the purpose of Eikonoklastes), Milton was in truth combating the shadow of a shade, the impression created in England and in Europe at large was to a very different effect. Should it be deemed a hazardous assertion that the worship paid for many generations to the personality of King Charles I. was primarily due to his image as presented in this work, at all events it intensified in an extraordinary degree the horror created by his judicial murder. The question of the genuineness of “the King’s book” cannot be discussed here. Cromwell is said to have brutally observed that Charles certainly wrote it, for that he was the greatest hypocrite who ever lived. On the contrary: the style and manner of the book are alike too commonplace and too literary, too redolent of the purely professional to suit themselves very readily to the supposition of the regal authorship. Milton, who strikes no very certain note on the subject, probably comes near the truth in one sense, while missing it in another, when he addresses his censures to “the King or his household rhetorician.” In point of fact he treats the King as the author or not the author, according as it suits the turns of his argument; but he keeps up very effectively from first to last the impression that imposture is the character of this pinchbeck Imitatio, however much or however little the Royal Martyr had to do with it. And the king’s share in the compound was probably more considerable than critics used to think.  22
  In judging Milton’s conduct of the first stage of this controversy, it should be remembered that the fashion of his times still favoured a sort of parallel pursuit, or worrying of an adversary along the whole line of his argument. He most assuredly in this book forewent no opportunity of the kind that presented itself, nor are his powers of sarcastic invective, though too fierce to fall well outside the range of humour, anywhere seen to greater advantage than in passages of the Eikonoklastes.  23
  On the other hand an undeniable want of taste allows him to lapse into occasional grossness and (I should not use the expression were I not thinking of a strange trait in Cromwell’s behaviour) into occasional horseplay. But, in jest and in earnest, the risks run by Milton in this book are excessive. It was impossible consciously to ignore the very principle of reverence for death to which the irresistible effect of the Eikon itself was largely due, without forfeiting the wider sympathy which even invective can ill spare. Vast audiences prefer broad appeals, and even so palpable a hit as the exposure, in the second edition of the Eikonoklastes (1650), of the plagiarism of Pamela’s Prayer was unlikely to affect the general issue of the contest, besides being manifestly made too much of.  24
  That contest had in the meantime widened its circles. For, upon the Eikon Aklastos, attributed to Bishop Bramhall, there had followed, also, though in a different sense, “inspired” from the Hague, the Defensio Regia pro Carolo I., composed by the foremost pen (though not, we may confidently add, the foremost intellect) of the age. There was a cold-blooded audacity in the mere notion, reasonable as it may nowadays seem to us, of overtrumping the king of trumps. Indeed, in view of the courageousness of the enterprise as a whole, mere details of daring sink out of sight, such as the famous sally to which Macaulay’s schoolboy probably owes his origin; “what schoolboy, what insignificant little brother in any monastery, but would have pleaded the King’s cause more eloquently (aye, and in better Latin) than this royal Orator?” But the Defensio pro populo Anglicano (1651), though well Englished in the version attributed by Toland to a Templar of the name of Washington, lies outside our purview, as does the Defensio Secunda (1654), translated by Robert Fellowes, produced under a combination of private calamities and discouragements, together with literary and logical disadvantages which must have blunted any weapon forged in a smithy lit by common fires. Undoubtedly, at the same time, some oil of impure mixture had helped to feed the flames. Marvell’s eloquence, without its witty application, may therefore be permitted to vary the figure. “When I consider how equally it turns and rises with so many figures, it seems to me a Trajan’s column, in whose winding ascent we see embossed the several monuments of your learned victories.” It must be allowed that a personal literary quarrel furnished some of the most grotesque supernumeraries to the triumphal procession; but we are happily dispensed from deviating into side issues which, as Milton himself confessed in his Pro se Defensio (1655), dwarfed a memorable contention into a poor personal quarrel.  25
  Throughout the Second Protectorate (1657–8) of Oliver Cromwell, Milton remained the faithful servant of the Government; but his duties were less onerous, while his personal troubles were more pressing, and the consummation of his blindness announced by him to the readers of the Defensio Secunda had actually set in. Thus, his thoughts were more than ever directed to the accomplishment of a task beyond the conditions, wide as they are, of pedestrian speech. Before, however, this task was achieved, events directly related to his individual life intervened such as in their momentousness and swiftness of succession can surely neither before nor since have affected the career of a great writer. Both under the Protectorate of Richard Cromwell and in the period when the supreme authority rested actually or nominally with the restored Rump, the religious policy of Oliver was still, though with more or less hesitation, continued; and in deprecation of it, Milton once more lifted up his voice as a public writer. In his Treatise of Civil Power in Ecclesiastical Causes (1659), he once more undertook to demonstrate on Scriptural grounds the unlawfulness, which even in the mighty hand now cold, had seemed to him to imply the futility, of temporal compulsion in matters of religion. This essay is, more largely perhaps than any other of Milton’s writings, with the exception of his long posthumous treatise on The Christian Doctrine, interspersed with Scriptural texts as with stepping-stones laid for every stage of the argument; but the passage I extract may serve as an illustration of the practical limits which in the very heat of theoretical reasoning impose themselves upon him who aspires to mould a policy. The times were out of joint for any such endeavour; nor, although after the Restoration of the Rump the agitation against the continuance of tithes seemed to promise more decided action, were his Considerations touching the likeliest means to remove Hirelings out of the Church (1659)—a title recalling the aspirations of the days of Lycidas—more audible amidst the rush of the waters. This tract, which in its antiquities leans upon Selden, and in its appeal to the Waldenses, “whom deservedly I cite so often,” possibly rests upon less solid authorities, presents a very vigorous plea for disestablishment and disendowment, in which, though it has less of unction than is to be found in some of Milton’s earlier prose, there is more of the “common-sense” tone which possesses hardly less controversial value. I have extracted a passage of this kind; a protest in which, every allowance being made, there remains a rather bitter residuum, which may be said to contain the most forcible part of the argument.  26
  Under the Committee of Safety which superseded the pretence of renewed Parliamentary Government, Milton’s office had become to all purposes a sinecure; and his Letter to a Friend concerning The Ruptures of the Commonwealth (October 1659), was in point of fact only one among many contending attempts to solve a problem to which one hand alone held the master-key. Monk restored the Long Parliament in order that this “Parliament” might appoint him dictator. Early in March 1660 Milton published his Ready and Easy Way to establish a Free Commonwealth, and the Excellence thereof compared with the Inconveniences and Dangers of readmitting Kingship in this Nation. The plan which he now proposed was practically that of a permanent and therefore irresponsible Parliament together with a decentralisation of the administrative system. But of greater interest even than those features (the last of importance put forth by him) which drew down upon this treatise an arrowy sheet of criticisms such as hardly any of his previous political speculations had been asked to weather, including the burlesque “censure of the Rota,” which reminds us that we are already approaching the age of Hudibras, is the firmness with which Milton here once more proclaims his fundamental political principles, among them liberty of conscience, at a time when he will know them to be in extreme, if not in hopeless, peril. I extract, as a concluding passage from Milton’s political prose, one which has, in more senses than one, the prophetic note proper to a writer who—he too—looked forward with no faltering eye to a Restoration.  27
  Milton had taken comfort in the thought, that while his argument might commend itself to many “sensible and ingenuous men,” he had perchance at the same time spoken to some “whom God might raise of these stones to become children of liberty.” Soon he stood among the ruins of the Commonwealth which he had served so amply and yet so freely; and, the period of danger which ensued overpast, his labours in the years remaining to him were “turned to peaceful end.”  28
  I pass by what he wrote or published in prose in these later years of his life; including the brief prefatory note On that sort of Dramatic Poem which is called Tragedy, prefixed to his Samson Agonistes (1671), and the tract, provoked by the first Declaration of Indulgence, on True Religion, Heresy, Schism, Toleration (1673), which, notwithstanding its precision of form, exhibits the historical instincts rather than the logical powers of the writer in its rejection, at any cost, of the toleration of “idolatry.” One passage in this tract has, it must be allowed, a faint echo of the well-known ring, “At least, then, let them have leave to write in Latin.”  29
  I have thought it permissible, with the aid of Professor Masson’s monumental work, to treat the prose writings of Milton in their historical connexion, so far as was possible within the slight framework of an introductory note. It is difficult to imagine that, although by profession, as well as by the character of his genius, a man of letters rather than a statesman, he could have approved of his treatises being primarily dealt with as a whole, in any other fashion. In him throbbed the pulse of the historic movement of his age, and what he wrote as a publicist he wrote for the sake of the matter which he essayed to mould. It could not have occurred to him to take thought of the form of his prose compositions in the first instance, or to speculate on the truism that the effect of things depends on the manner of saying them. The very “pitch” of his style he cannot, after the fashion of more than one eminent historian, have taken thought of accommodating to his themes, although it would contrariwise have been inconceivable to him—or, indeed, to any of the great prose writers of his age—to write down to a particular section of his public. Of his style, as of his matter, his own words hold good, that “though it be an irksome labour to write with industry and judicious pains that which neither weighed nor well-read, shall be judged, without industry or the pains of well-judging, by faction and the easy literature of custom and opinion: it shall be ventured yet.”  30
  That, however, a genius such as Milton’s should clothe its products in a style of its own, whether the work (in his own phrase) of his “right hand” or of his “left,” was at the same time in the nature of things. Upon Milton’s prose style an excellent critic, quite recently taken away from us, rightly says that “the most diverse opinions have been pronounced,” and necessarily so, “inasmuch as everything depends upon the point of view.” Milton’s own point of view was to give himself in his prose, so far as the form admitted, wholly and unreservedly. Thus, as will be readily allowed, there are in Milton’s prose works, English as well as Latin, passages of a rapt enthusiasm which, though rarer in occurrence, approach in effect the sublimities of his verse. On the other hand, his wrath and indignation—sometimes hardly to be distinguished from spite—set no bounds to the violence of their invective, and he allows his temper to have its own way in flouts and gibes. Too much has, I think, been made of the vituperative qualities of Milton’s prose, as if they were of its essence; they are such in no other sense than that outside the restraint of verse he gave his nature free play, and in this, thanks perhaps to his city breeding, there was an element which finds expression in the copious diction of self-consciousness and (to use plain terms) of arrogant impatience. Again, coming forth as he did from his library, where at the time when he began to publish in prose he was intent upon a series of learned works chiefly in the Latin tongue, he brought his library and his Latin out with him into the open air. Many considerations help to explain the fact (which I suppose will hardly be disputed) that the Latinism of Milton’s style was more marked than that of any other great writer’s of this period. Among them was his constant habit of writing as well as reading Latin side by side with English, first in the pursuit of his regular literary and educational labours, then in the performance of his official duties as Foreign Secretary. Bacon’s case had not been altogether dissimilar; but he had from his youth up been in close contact with public life, both Parliamentary and forensic. Milton’s Ciceronianisms of construction, the prerogative position allowed by him to pronouns both relative and personal, and, above all, his favourite inversion of the usual English order of construction, where the governing verb precedes rather than follows a clause, or series of clauses, dependent upon it, argue a singularly retentive ear, perhaps also a preference for oratorical to historical models. He was not, I think, even in his later verse, altogether unconscious in some of his classicising mannerisms; but his peculiarities of construction are not, to my mind, so exceptional as they have frequently been asserted to be, nor are his English prose works so full of them as to warrant the censure that they spoil his style. His vocabulary, on the other hand, is abnormally prone to eccentric and occasionally unpleasing forms, not all of which can be set down to the adventurous curiosity which still affected the choice of words in this, the last period, as it might almost be called, of the English Renascence. In both construction and vocabulary, it must be remembered, the age of experiment only passed away when the self-restraint of good taste imposed itself as a law, no longer violable with impunity, in the post-Restoration days. (It will be remembered how Milton himself, in a treatise in which he flings about him such forms as “affatuated” and “imbastardized” and “proditory” and “robustious,” takes exception to the new-fangled word “demagogue.”) Altogether, while it was indisputably not given to him, as it was to Pascal, to write a prose style with which no modern critic can find fault, his offences against perfection have been partly exaggerated and partly left insufficiently explained.  31
  I am not sure but that both in syntax and diction the ease of Milton’s style suffered from the absence of the controlling eye. Most of his prose was written when his sight was either threatening to leave him or had abandoned him altogether. His instincts were rhetorical; the predilections of his reading had probably followed the same bent; and he must, if he paused at all to consider the effect of what he had dictated, have asked for an echo of his own voice and its intentions. Nobody who has written much (in however humble a fashion) for his own oral delivery, but will concede it to be no easy task to write for delivery by others. I feel sure that the complaint frequently urged against the want of harmony in Milton’s cadences is at least partially due to the difficulty experienced by casual readers in accommodating themselves, as they read, to a complex manner of eloquence more individual than that of Burke—not to mention Burke’s imitators.  32
  I do not deny, in conclusion, that there are traces of pedantry in Milton’s prose style, as there are even in the most magnificent exemplars of his verse, and, I am willing to add, in his character and his career. They are most apparent when he descends; nor is it paradoxical that there should be a kind of greatness which best stands erect. Milton’s colloquial sallies are at times such as might be expected from an excessive familiarity with epistolary Latin, at other times they are the efforts of a forced sportiveness too grim to be altogether agreeable. But even in these, and how infinitely more in the wealth of illustrations, images, and ideas lavished upon any subject which he is fain to treat, do we recognise the wealth of an imagination which seems at times, within the limits of a single sentence, to master diction and syntax and all the conditions of written speech! To decry such a style as composite is to revive the short-sighted captiousness of an obsolete method of criticism, which was capable of analysing materials, but not of apprehending the power which transfuses what it has appropriated. Milton’s prose, all exceptions taken, and all cavils allowed their force, remains the most extraordinary literary prose, and the most wonderful poet’s prose, embodied in English literature.  33

Shakespeare · Bible · Strunk · Anatomy · Nonfiction · Quotations · Reference · Fiction · Poetry
© 1993–2015 · [Top 150] · Subjects · Titles · Authors · World Lit.