Essays: English and American. The Harvard Classics. 190914.
John Milton (1859)
THE LIFE1 of Milton, by Professor Masson, is a difficulty for the critics. It is very laborious, very learned, and in the main, we believe, very accurate; it is exceedingly long,there are 780 pages in this volume, and there are to be two volumes more; it touches on very many subjects, and each of these has been investigated to the very best of the authors ability. No one can wish to speak with censure of a book on which so much genuine labor has been expended; and yet we are bound, as true critics, to say that we think it has been composed upon a principle that is utterly erroneous. In justice to ourselves we must explain our meaning.
There are two methods on which biography may consistently be written. The first of these is what we may call the exhaustive method. Every fact which is known about the hero may be told us; everything which he did, everything which he would not do, everything which other people did to him, everything which other people would not do to him, may be narrated at full length. We may have a complete picture of all the events of his life; of all which he underwent, and all which he achieved. We may, as Mr. Carlyle expresses it, have a complete account of his effect upon the universe, and of the effect of the universe upon him.2 We admit that biographies of this species would be very long, and generally very tedious; we know that the world could not contain very many of them: but nevertheless, the principle on which they may be written is intelligible.
The second method on which the life of a man may be written is the selective. Instead of telling everything, we may choose what we will tell. We may select out of the numberless events, from among the innumerable actions of his life, those events and those actions which exemplify his true character, which prove to us what were the true limits of his talents, what was the degree of his deficiencies, which were his defects, which his vices; in a word, we may select the traits and the particulars which seem to give us the best idea of the man as he lived and as he was. On this side the Flood, as Sydney Smith would have said, we should have fancied that this was the only practicable principle on which biographies can be written about persons of whom many details are recorded. For ancient heroes the exhaustive method is possible: all that can be known of them is contained in a few short passages of Greek and Latin, and it is quite possible to say whatever can be said about every one of these; the result would not be unreasonably bulky, though it might be dull. But in the case of men who have lived in the thick of the crowded modern world, no such course is admissible; overmuch may be said, and we must choose what we will say. Biographers, however, are rarely bold enough to adopt the selective method consistently. They have, we suspect, the fear of the critics before their eyes. They do not like that it should be said that the work of the learned gentleman contains serious omissions: the events of 1562 are not mentioned; those of October, 1579, are narrated but very cursorily; and we fear that in any case such remarks will be made. Very learned people are pleased to show that they know what is not in the book; sometimes they may hint that perhaps the author did not know it, or surely he would have mentioned it. But a biographer who wishes to write what most people of cultivation will be pleased to read must be courageous enough to face the pain of such censures. He must choose, as we have explained, the characteristic parts of his subject: and all that he has to take care of besides is, so to narrate them that their characteristic elements shall be shown; to give such an account of the general career as may make it clear what these chosen events really were,to show their respective bearings to one another; to delineate what is expressive in such a manner as to make it expressive.
This plan of biography is, however, by no means that of Mr. Masson: he has no dread of overgrown bulk and overwhelming copiousness. He finds indeed what we have called the exhaustive method insufficient: he not only wishes to narrate in full the life of Milton, but to add those of his contemporaries likewise; he seems to wish to tell us not only what Milton did, but also what every one else did in Great Britain during his lifetime. He intends his book to be not
merely a biography of Milton, but also in some sort a continuous history of his time . The suggestions of Miltons life have indeed determined the tracks of these historical researches and expositions, sometimes through the literature of the period, sometimes through its civil and ecclesiastical politics; but the extent to which I have pursued them, and the space which I have assigned to them, have been determined by my desire to present, by their combination, something like a connected historical view of British thought and British society in general prior to the great Revolution.
We need not do more than observe that this union of heterogeneous aims must always end, as it has in this case, in the production of a work at once overgrown and incomplete. A great deal which has only a slight bearing on the character of Milton is inserted; much that is necessary to a true history of British thought and British society is of necessity left out. The period of Miltons life which is included in the published volume makes the absurdity especially apparent. In middle life Milton was a great controversialist on contemporary topics; and though it would not be proper for a biographer to load his pages with a full account of all such controversies, yet some notice of the most characteristic of them would be expected from him. In this part of Miltons life some reference to public events would be necessary; and we should not severely censure a biographer if the great interest of those events induced him to stray a little from his topic. But the first thirty years of Miltons life require a very different treatment. He passed those years in the ordinary musings of a studious and meditative youth; it was the period of Lycidas and Comus; he then dreamed the
We do not wish to have this part of his life disturbed, to a greater extent than may be necessary, with the harshness of public affairs. Nor is it necessary that it should be so disturbed: a life of poetic retirement requires but little reference to anything except itself; in a biography of Mr. Tennyson we should not expect to hear of the Reform Bill or the Corn Laws. Mr. Masson is, however, of a different opinion: he thinks it necessary to tell us, not only all which Milton did, but everything also that he might have heard of.
The biography of Mr. Keightley is on a very different scale: he tells the story of Miltons career in about half a small volume. Probably this is a little too concise, and the narrative is somewhat dry and bare. It is often, however, acute, and is always clear; and even were its defects greater than they are, we should think it unseemly to criticize the last work of one who has performed so many useful services to literature with extreme severity.
The bare outline of Miltons life is very well known. We have all heard that he was born in the latter years of King James, just when Puritanism was collecting its strength for the approaching struggle; that his father and mother were quiet good people, inclined, but not immoderately, to that persuasion; that he went up to Cambridge early, and had some kind of dissension with the authorities there; that the course of his youth was in a singular degree pure and staid; that in boyhood he was a devourer of books, and that he early became, and always remained, as severely studious man; that he married and had difficulties of a peculiar character with his first wife; that he wrote on divorce; that after the death of his first wife, he married a second time a lady who died very soon, and a third time a person who survived him more than fifty years; that he wrote early poems of singular beauty, which we still read; that he traveled in Italy, and exhibited his learning in the academies there; that he plunged deep in the theological and political controversies of his time; that he kept a school,or rather, in our more modern phrase, took pupils; that he was a republican of a peculiar kind, and of no church, which Dr. Johnson thought dangerous;4 that he was Secretary for Foreign Languages under the Long Parliament, and retained that office after the coup détat of Cromwell; that he defended the death of Charles I., and became blind from writing a book in haste upon that subject; that after the Restoration he was naturally in a position of some danger and much difficulty; that in the midst of that difficulty he wrote Paradise Lost; that he did not fail in heart or hope,5 but lived for fourteen years after the destruction of all for which he had labored, in serene retirement, though fallen on evil days, though fallen on evil times,6all this we have heard from our boyhood. How much is wanting to complete the picturehow many traits, both noble and painful, might be recovered from the pastwe shall never know, till some biographer skilled in interpreting the details of human nature shall select this subject for his art. All that we can hope to do in an essay like this is, to throw together some miscellaneous remarks on the character of the Puritan poet, and on the peculiarities of his works; and if in any part of them we may seem to make unusual criticisms, and to be over-ready with depreciation or objection, our excuse must be, that we wish to paint a likeness and that the harsher features of the subject should have a prominence even in an outline.
There are two kinds of goodness conspicuous in the world, and often made the subject of contrast there; for which, however, we seem to want exact words, and which we are obliged to describe rather vaguely and incompletely. These characters may in one aspect be called the sensuous and the ascetic. The character of the first is that which is almost personified in the poet-king of Israel, whose actions and whose history have been improved so often by various writers that it now seems trite even to allude to them. Nevertheless, the particular virtues and the particular career of David seem to embody the idea of what may be called sensuous goodness far more completely than a living being in general comes near to an abstract idea. There may have been shades in the actual man which would have modified the resemblance; but in the portrait which has been handed down to us, the traits are perfect and the approximation exact. The principle of this character is its sensibility to outward stimulus: it is moved by all which occurs, stirred by all which happens, open to the influences of whatever it sees, hears, or meets with. The certain consequence of this mental constitution is a peculiar liability to temptation. Men are, according to the divine, put upon their trial through the senses. It is through the constant suggestions of the outer world that our minds are stimulated, that our will has the chance of a choice, that moral life becomes possible. The sensibility to this external stimulus brings with it, when men have it to excess, an unusual access of moral difficulty. Everything acts on them, and everything has a chance of turning them aside; the most tempting things act upon them very deeply, and their influence, in consequence, is extreme. Naturally, therefore, the errors of such men are great. We need not point the moral:
But on the other hand, the excellence of such men has a charm, a kind of sensuous sweetness, that is its own. Being conscious of frailty, they are tender to the imperfect; being sensitive to this world, they sympathize with the world; being familiar with all the moral incidents of life, their goodness has a richness and a complication: they fascinate their own age, and in their deaths they are not divided from the love of others. Their peculiar sensibility gives a depth to their religion: it is at once deeper and more human than that of other men. As their sympathetic knowledge of those whom they have seen is great, so it is with their knowledge of Him whom they have not seen; and as is their knowledge, so is their love: it is deep, from their nature; rich and intimate, from the variety of their experience; chastened by the ever-present sense of their weakness and of its consequences.
In extreme opposition to this is the ascetic species of goodness. This is not, as is sometimes believed, a self-produced ideal,a simply voluntary result of discipline and restraint. Some men have by nature what others have to elaborate by effort. Some men have a repulsion from the world. All of us have, in some degree, a protective instinct; an impulse, that is to say, to start back from what may trouble us, to shun what may fascinate us, to avoid what may tempt us. On the moral side of human nature this preventive check is occasionally imperious: it holds the whole man under its control,makes him recoil from the world, be offended at its amusements, be repelled by its occupations, be scared by its sins. The consequences of this tendency, when it is thus in excess, upon the character are very great and very singular. It secludes a man in a sort of natural monastery; he lives in a kind of moral solitude: and the effects of his isolation, for good and for evil, on his disposition are very many. The best result is a singular capacity for meditative religion. Being aloof from what is earthly, such persons are shut up with what is spiritual; being unstirred by the incidents of time, they are alone with the eternal; rejecting this life, they are alone with what is beyond. According to the measure of their minds, men of this removed and secluded excellence become eminent for a settled and brooding piety, for a strong and predominant religion. In human life, too, in a thousand ways, their isolated excellence is apparent. They walk through the whole of it with an abstinence from sense, a zeal of morality, a purity of ideal, which other men have not; their religion has an imaginative grandeur, and their life something of an unusual impeccability: and these are obviously singular excellences. But the deficiencies to which the same character tends are equally singular. In the first place, their isolation gives them a certain pride in themselves and an inevitable ignorance of others. They are secluded by their constitutional [Greek] from life; they are repelled from the pursuits which others care for; they are alarmed at the amusements which others enjoy. In consequence, they trust in their own thoughts; they come to magnify both them and themselves,for being able to think and to retain them. The greater the nature of the man, the greater is this temptation. His thoughts are greater, and in consequence the greater is his tendency to prize them, the more extreme is his tendency to overrate them. This pride, too, goes side by side with a want of sympathy. Being aloof from others, such a mind is unlike others; and it feels, and sometimes it feels bitterly, its own unlikeness. Generally, however, it is too wrapped up in its own exalted thoughts to be sensible of the pain of moral isolation; it stands apart from others, unknowing and unknown. It is deprived of moral experience in two ways,it is not tempted itself, and it does not comprehend the temptations of others. And this defect of moral experience is almost certain to produce two effects, one practical and the other speculative. When such a man is wrong, he will be apt to believe that he is right. If his own judgment err, he will not have the habit of checking it by the judgment of others: he will be accustomed to think most men wrong; differing from them would be no proof of error, agreeing with them would rather be a basis for suspicion. He may, too, be very wrong, for the conscience of no man is perfect on all sides. The strangeness of secluded excellence will be sometimes deeply shaded by very strange errors. To be commonly above others, still more to think yourself above others, is to be below them every now and then, and sometimes much below. Again, on the speculative side, this defect of moral experience penetrates into the distinguishing excellence of the character,its brooding and meditative religion. Those who see life under only one aspect can see religion under only one likewise. This world is needful to interpret what is beyond; the seen must explain the unseen. It is from a tried and a varied and a troubled moral life that the deepst and truest idea of God arises. The ascetic character wants these; therefore in its religion there will be a harshness of outline,a bareness, so to say,as well as a grandeur. In life we may look for a singular purity; but also, and with equal probability, for singular self-confidence, a certain unsympathizing straitness, and perhaps a few singular errors.
The character of the ascetic or austere species of goodness is almost exactly embodied in Milton. Men, indeed, are formed on no ideal type: human nature has tendencies too various, and circumstances too complex; all mens characters have sides and aspects not to be comprehended in a single definition: but in this case, the extent to which the character of the man, as we find it delineated, approaches to the moral abstraction which we sketch from theory is remarkable. The whole being of Milton may, in some sort, be summed up in the great commandment of the austere character, Reverence thyself. We find it expressed in almost every one of his singular descriptions of himself,of those striking passages which are scattered through all his works, and which add to whatever interest may intrinsically belong to them one of the rarest of artistic charms, that of magnanimous autobiography. They have been quoted a thousand times, but one of them may perhaps be quoted again:
I had my time, readers, as others have, who have good learning bestowed upon them, to be sent to those places where, the opinion was, it might be soonest attained; and as the manner is, was not unstudied in those authors which are most commended: whereof some were grave orators and historians, whose matter methought I loved indeed, but as my age then was, so I understood them; others were the smooth elegiac poets, whereof the schools are not scarce, whom both for the pleasing sound of their numerous writing, which in imitation I found most easy and most agreeable to natures part in me, and for their matter, which what it is, there be few who know not, I was so allured to read, that no recreation came to me better welcome. For that it was then those years with me which are excused, though they be least severe, I may be saved the labor to remember ye. Whence having observed them to account it the chief glory of their wit, in that they were ablest to judge, to praise, and by that could esteem themselves worthiest to love, those high perfections which under one or other name they took to celebrate, I thought with myself by every instinct and presage of nature, which is not wont to be false, that what emboldened them to this task might with such diligence as they used embolden me; and that what judgment, wit, or elegance was my share would herein best appear, and best value itself, by how much more wisely and with more love of virtue I should choose (let rude ears be absent) the object of not unlike praises. For albeit these thoughts to some will seem virtuous and commendable, to others only pardonable, to a third sort perhaps idle, yet the mentioning of them now will end in serious.
Nor blame it, readers, in those years to propose to themselves such a reward, as the noblest dispositions above other things in this life have sometimes preferred: whereof not to be sensible when good and fair in one person meet, argues both a gross and shallow judgment, and withal an ungentle and swainish breast. For by the firm settling of these persuasions, I became, to my best memory, so much a proficient, that if I found those authors anywhere speaking unworthy things of themselves, or unchaste of those names which before they had extolled, this effect it wrought with me,from that time forward their art I still applauded, but the men I deplored; and above them all, preferred the two famous renowners of Beatrice and Laura, who never write but honor of them to whom they devote their verse, displaying sublime and pure thoughts without transgression. And long it was not after, when I was confirmed in this opinion,that he who would not be frustrate of his hope to write well hereafter in laudable things ought himself to be a true poem; that is, a composition and pattern of the best and honorablest things: not presuming to sing high praises of heroic men or famous cities, unless he have in himself the experience and the practice of all that which is praiseworthy.8
It may be fanciful to add, and we may be laughed at, but we believe that the self-reverencing propensity was a little aided by his singular personal beauty. All the describers of his youth concur in telling us that this was very remarkable. Mr. Masson has the following account of it:
When Milton left Cambridge in July, 1632, he was twenty-three years and eight months old. In stature, therefore, at least, he was already whatever he was to be. In stature, he says himself at a later period, when driven to speak on the subject, I confess I am not tall, but still of what is nearer to middle height than to little; and what if I were of little, of which stature have often been very great men both in peace and warthough why should that be called little which is great enough for virtue? (Staturâ, fateor, non sum procerâ, sed quæ mediocri tamen quàm parvæ propior sit; sed quid si parvâ, quâ et summi sæpe tum pace tum bello viri fuerequanquam parva cur dicitur, quæ ad virtutem satis magna est?) This is precise enough; but we have Aubreys words to the same effect. He was scarce so tall as I am, says Aubrey; to which, to make it more intelligible, he appends the marginal note,Qu. Quot feet I am high? Resp. Of middle stature: i. e., Milton was a little under middle height. He had light-brown hair, continues Aubrey,putting the word abrown (auburn) in the margin by way of synonym for light brown;his complexion exceeding fair; oval face; his eye a dark gray.
We are far from accusing Milton of personal vanity: his character was too enormous, if we may be allowed so to say, for a fault so petty. But a little tinge of excessive self-respect will cling to those who can admire themselves. Ugly men are and ought to be ashamed of their existence; Milton was not so.
The peculiarities of the austere type of character stand out in Milton more remarkably than in other men who partake of it, because of the extreme strength of his nature. In reading him this is the first thing that strikes us. We seem to have left the little world of ordinary writers. The words of some authors are said to have hands and feet; they seem, that is, to have a vigor and animation which only belong to things which live and move. Miltons words have not this animal life,there is no rude energy about them; but on the other hand, they have or seem to have a soul, a spirit which other words have not. He was early aware that what he wrote, by certain vital signs it had, was such as the world would not willingly let die,9 After two centuries we feel the same. There is a solemn and firm music in the lines; a brooding sublimity haunts them; the spirit of the great writer moves over the face of the page. In life there seems to have been the same peculiar strength that his works suggest to us. His moral tenacity is amazing: he took his own course, and he kept his own course; and we may trace in his defects the same characteristics. Energy and ill temper, some say, are the same thing; and though this is a strong exaggeration, yet there is a basis of truth in it. People who labor much will be cross if they do not obtain that for which they labor; those who desire vehemently will be vexed if they do not obtain that which they desire. As is the strength of the impelling tendency, so, other things being equal, is the pain which it will experience if it be baffled. Those, too, who are set on what is high will be proportionately offended by the intrusion of what is low. Accordingly, Milton is described by those who knew him as a harsh and choleric man. He had, we are told, a gravity in his temper, not melancholy, or not till the latter part of his life, not sour, not morose or ill-natured, but a certain severity of mind; a mind not condescending to little things;10 and this although his daughter remembered that he was delightful company, the life of conversation, and that he was so on account of a flow of subject, and an unaffected cheerfulness and civility. Doubtless this may have been so when he was at ease, and at home; but there are unmistakable traces of the harsher tendency in almost all his works.
Some of the peculiarities of the ascetic character were likewise augmented by his studious disposition. This began very early in life, and continued till the end. My father, he says, destined me to the study of polite literature, which I embraced with such avidity, that from the twelfth year of my age I hardly ever retired to rest from my studies till midnight; which was the first source of injury to my eyes, to the natural weakness of which were added frequent headaches: all of which not retarding my eagerness after knowledge, he took care to have me instructed, etc.11 Every page of his works shows the result of this education. In spite of the occupations of manhood, and the blindness and melancholy of old age, he still continued to have his principal pleasure in that studious and select reading, which, though often curiously transmuted, is perpetually involved in the very texture of his works. We need not stay to observe how a habit in itself so austere conduces to the development of an austere character. Deep study, especially deep study which haunts and rules the imagination, necessarily removes men from life, absorbs them in themselves; purifies their conduct, with some risk of isolating their sympathies; develops that loftiness of mood which is gifted with deep inspirations and indulged with great ideas, but which tends in its excess to engender a contempt for others, and a selfappreciation which is even more displeasing to them.
These same tendencies were aggravated also by two defects which are exceedingly rare in great English authors, and which perhaps Milton alone amongst those of the highest class is in a remarkable degree chargeable with; we mean a deficiency in humor, and a deficiency in a knowledge of plain human nature. Probably when, after the lapse of ages, English literature is looked at in its larger features only, and in comparison with other literatures which have preceded or which may follow it, the critics will lay down that its most striking characteristic as a whole is its involution, so to say, in life; the degree to which its book life resembles real life; the extent to which the motives, dispositions and actions of common busy persons are represented in a medium which would seem likely to give us peculiarly the ideas of secluded and the tendencies of meditative men. It is but an aspect of this fact, that English literature aboundssome critics will say abounds excessivewith humor. This is in some sense the imaginative element of ordinary life,the relieving charm, partaking at once of contrast and similitude, which gives a human and an intellectual interest to the world of clowns and cottages, of fields and farmers. The degree to which Milton is deficient in this element is conspicuous in every page of his writings where its occurrence could be looked for; and if we do not always look for it, this is because the subjects of his most remarkable works are on a removed elevation, where ordinary life, the world of cakes and ale, is never thought of and never expected. It is in his dramas, as we should expect, that Milton shows this deficiency the most. Citizens never talk in his pages, as they do in Shakespeare. We feel instinctively that Miltons eye had never rested with the same easy pleasure on the easy, ordinary, shopkeeping world. Perhaps, such is the complication of art, it is on the most tragic occasions that we feel this want the most.
It may seem an odd theory, and yet we believe it to be a true principle, that catastrophes require a comic element. We appear to feel the same principle in life. We may read solemn descriptions of great events in history,say of Lord Straffords trial, and of his marvelous speech, and his appeal to his saint in heaven; but we comprehend the whole transaction much better when we learn from Mr. Baillie, the eyewitness, that people ate nuts and apples, and talked, and laughed, and betted on the great question of acquittal and condemnation. Nor is it difficult to understand why this should be so. It seems to be a law of the imagination, at least in most men, that it will not bear concentration. It is essentially a glancing faculty. It goes and comes, and comes and goes, and we hardly know whence or why. But we most of us know that when we try to fix it, in a moment it passes away. Accordingly, the proper procedure of art is to let it go in such a manner as to ensure its coming back again. The force of artistic contrast effects exactly this result: skillfully disposed opposites suggest the notion of each other. We realize more perfectly and easily the great idea, the tragic conception, when we are familiarized with its effects on the minds of little people, with the petty consequences which it causes as well as with the enormous forces from which it comes. The catastrophe of Samson Agonistes discloses Miltons imperfect mastery of this element of effect. If ever there was an occasion which admitted its perfect employment, it was this. The kind of catastrophe is exactly that which is sure to strike, and strike forcibly, the minds of common persons. If their observations on the occasion were really given to us, we could scarcely avoid something rather comic. The eccentricity, so to speak, of ordinary persons shows itself peculiarly at such times, and they say the queerest things. Shakespeare has exemplified this principle most skillfully on various occasions: it is the sort of art which is just in his way. His imagination always seems to be floating between the contrasts of things; and if his mind had a resting-place that it liked, it was this ordinary view of extraordinary events. Milton was under the great [est] obligation to use this relieving principle of art in the catastrophe of Samson, because he has made every effort to heighten the strictly tragic element, which requires that relief. His art, always serious, was never more serious. His Samson is not the incarnation of physical strength which the popular fancy embodies in the character; nor is it the simple and romantic character of the Old Testament. On the contrary, Samson has become a Puritan: the observations he makes would have done much credit to a religious pikeman in Cromwells army. In consequence, his death requires some lightening touches to make it a properly artistic event. The pomp of seriousness becomes too oppressive.
At length for intermission sake they led him
Between the pillars; he his guide requested
(For so from such as nearer stood we heard),
As overtired, to let him lean awhile
With both his arms on those two massy pillars
That to the arched roof gave main support.
He unsuspicious led him; which when Samson
Felt in his arms, with head awhile inclined,
And eyes fast fixed, he stood, as one who prayed,
Or some great matter in his mind revolved;
At last with head erect thus cried aloud:
Hitherto, lords, what your commands imposed
I have performed, as reason was, obeying,
Not without wonder or delight beheld;
Now of my own accord such other trial
I mean to show you of my strength, yet greater,
As with amaze shall strike all who behold.
This uttered, straining all his nerves he bowed,
As with the force of winds and waters pent
When mountains tremble, those two massy pillars
With horrible convulsion to and fro.
He tugged, he shook, till down they came, and drew
The whole roof after them, with burst of thunder,
Upon the heads of all who sat beneath,
Lords, ladies, captains, counselors, or priests,
Their choice nobility and flower, not only
Of this, but each Philistian city round,
Met from all parts to solemnize this feast.
Samson with these immixed, inevitably
Pulled down the same destruction on himself;
The vulgar only scaped who stood without.
Chor. O dearly bought revenge, yet glorious!
Living or dying thou hast fulfilled
The work for which thou wast foretold
To Israel, and now liest victorious
Among thy slain self-killed,
Not willingly, but tangled in the fold
Of dire necessity, whose law in death conjoined
Thee with thy slaughtered foes, in number more
Than all thy life had slain before.
This is grave and fine; but Shakespeare would have done it differently and better.
We need not pause to observe how certainly this deficiency in humor and in the delineation of ordinary human feeling is connected with a recluse, a solitary, and to some extent an unsympathizing life. If we combine a certain natural aloofness from common men with literary habits and an incessantly studious musing, we shall at once see how powerful a force is brought to bear on an instinctively austere character, and how sure it will be to develop the peculiar tendencies of it, both good and evil. It was to no purpose that Milton seems to have practised a sort of professional study of life. No man could rank more highly the importance to a poet of an intellectual insight into all-important pursuits and seemly arts. But it is not by the mere intellect that we can take in the daily occupations of mankind: we must sympathize with them, and see them in their human relations. A chimney-sweeper, quâ chimney-sweeper, is not very sentimental: it is in himself that he is so interesting.
Miltons austere character is in some sort the more evident because he possessed in large measure a certain relieving element, in which those who are eminent in that character are very deficient. Generally such persons have but obtuse senses: we are prone to attribute the purity of their conduct to the dullness of their sensations. Milton had no such obtuseness: he had every opportunity for knowing the world of eye and ear;12 you cannot open his works without seeing how much he did know of it. The austerity of his nature was not caused by the deficiency of his senses, but by an excess of the warning instinct. Even when he professed to delineate the world of sensuous delight, this instinct shows itself. Dr. Johnson thought he could discern melancholy in LAllegro;13 if he had said solitariness, it would have been correct.
The peculiar nature of Miltons character is very conspicuous in the events of his domestic life, and in the views which he took of the great public revolutions of his age. We can spare only a very brief space for the examination of either of these; but we will endeavor to say a few words upon each of them.
The circumstances of Miltons first marriage are as singular as any in the strange series of the loves of the poets. The scene opens with an affair of business. Miltons father, as is well known, was a scrivener,a kind of professional money-lender, then well known in London; and having been early connected with the vicinity of Oxford, continued afterwards to have pecuniary transactions of a certain nature with country gentlemen of that neighborhood. In the course of these he advanced £500 to a certain Mr. Richard Powell, a squire of fair landed estate, residing at Forest Hill, which is about four miles from the city of Oxford. The money was lent on the 11th of June, 1627; and a few months afterwards Mr. Milton the elder gave £312 of it to his son the poet, who was then a youth at college, and made a formal memorandum of the same in the form then usual, which still exists. The debt was never wholly discharged; for in 16501 we find Milton asserting on oath that he had received only about £180, in part satisfaction of my said just and principal debt, with damages for the same, and my costs of suit. Mr. Keightley supposes him to have taken many a ride over to Forest Hill after he left Cambridge and was living at Horton, which is not very far distant; but of course this is only conjecture. We only know that about 1643 he took, as his nephew relates, a journey into the country, nobody about him certainly knowing the reason, or that it was any more than a journey of recreation. After a months stay, home he returns a married man, that went out a bachelor; his wife being Mary, the eldest daughter of Mr. Richard Powell, then a justice of the peace for the county of Oxford. The suddenness of the event is rather striking; but Philips was at the time one of Miltons pupils, and it is possible that some pains may have been taken to conceal the love affair from the young gentlemen. Still, as Philips was Miltons nephew, he was likely to hear such intelligence tolerably early; and as he does not seem to have done so, the dénouement was probably rather prompt. At any rate, he was certainly married at that time, and took his bride home to his house in Aldersgate Street; and there was feasting and gayety according to the usual custom of such events. A few weeks after, the lady went home to her friends, in which there was of course nothing remarkable; but it is singular that when the natural limit of her visit at home was come, she absolutely refused to return to her husband. The grounds of so strange a resolution are very difficult to ascertain. Political feeling ran very high; old Mr. Powell adhered to the side of the king, and Milton to that of the Parliament: and this might be fancied to have caused an estrangement. But on the other hand, these circumstances must have been well known three months before. Nothing had happened in that quarter of a year to change very materially the position of the two parties in the state. Some other cause for Mrs. Miltons conduct must be looked for. She herself is said to have stated that she did not like her husbands spare diet and hard study.14 No doubt, too, she found it dull in London: she had probably always lived in the country, and must have been quite unaccustomed to the not very pleasant scene in which she found herself. Still, many young ladies have married schoolmasters, and many young ladies have gone from Oxfordshire to London; and nevertheless, no such dissolution of matrimonial harmony is known to have occurred.
The fact we believe to be, that the bride took a dislike to her husband. We cannot but have a suspicion that she did not like him before marriage, and that pecuniary reasons had their influence. If, however, Mr. Powell exerted his paternal influence, it may be admitted that he had unusual considerations to advance in favor of the alliance he proposed. It is not every father whose creditors are handsome young gentlemen with fair incomes. Perhaps it seemed no extreme tyranny to press the young lady a little to do that which some others might have done without pressing. Still all this is but hypothesis: our evidence as to the love affairs of the time of King Charles I. is but meager. But whatever the feelings of Miss Powell may have been, those of Mrs. Milton are exceedingly certain. She would not return to her husband; she did not answer his letters; and a messenger whom he sent to bring her back was handled rather roughly. Unquestionably she was deeply to blame, by far the most to blame of the two. Whatever may be alleged against him is as nothing compared with her offense in leaving him. To defend so startling a course, we must adopt views of divorce even more extreme than those which Milton was himself driven to inculcate; and whatever Mrs. Miltons practice may have been, it may be fairly conjectured that her principles were strictly orthodox. Yet if she could be examined by a commission to the ghosts, she would probably have some palliating circumstances to allege in mitigation of judgment. There were perhaps peculiarities in Miltons character which a young lady might not improperly dislike. The austere and ascetic character is of course far less agreeable to women than the sensuous and susceptible. The self-occupation, the pride, the abstraction of the former are to the female mind disagreeable; studious habits and unusual self-denial seem to it purposeless; lofty enthusiasm, public spirit, the solitary pursuit of an elevated ideal, are quite out of its way: they rest too little on the visible world to be intelligible, they are too little suggested by the daily occurrences of life to seem possible. The poet in search of an imaginary phantom has never been successful with women,there are innumerable proofs of that; and the ascetic moralist is even less interesting. A character combined out of the twoand this to some extent was Miltonsis singularly likely to meet with painful failure; with a failure the more painful, that it could never anticipate or explain it. Possibly he was absorbed in an austere self-conscious excellence: it may never have occurred to him that a lady might prefer the trivial detail of daily happiness.
Miltons own view of the matter he has explained to us in his book on divorce; and it is a very odd one. His complaint was that his wife would not talk. What he wished in marriage was an intimate and speaking help: he encountered a mute and spiritless mate. One of his principal incitements to the pious necessity of divorcing was an unusual deficiency in household conversation. A certain loquacity in their wives has been the complaint of various eminent men; but his domestic affliction was a different one. The ready and reviving associate, whom he had hoped to find, appeared to be a coinhabiting mischief, who was sullen, and perhaps seemed bored and tired. And at times he is disposed to cast the blame of his misfortune on the uninstructive nature of youthful virtue. The soberest and best-governed men, he says, are least practised in these affairs, are not very well aware that the bashful muteness of a young lady may ofttimes hide all the unliveliness and natural sloth which is really unfit for conversation, and are rather in too great haste to light the nuptial torch: whereas those who have lived most loosely, by reason of their bold accustoming, prove most successful in their matches; because their wild affections, unsettling at will, have been as so many divorces to teach them experience. And he rather wishes to infer that the virtuous man should, in case of mischance, have his resource of divorce likewise.
In truth, Miltons book on divorcethough only containing principles which he continued to believe long after he had any personal reasons for wishing to do sowas clearly suggested at first by the unusual phenomena of his first marriage. His wife began by not speaking to him, and finished by running away from him. Accordingly, like most books which spring out of personal circumstances, his treatises on this subject have a frankness and a mastery of detail which others on the same topic sometimes want. He is remarkably free from one peculiarity of modern writers on such matters. Several considerate gentlemen are extremely anxious for the rights of women; they think that women will benefit by removing the bulwarks which the misguided experience of ages has erected for their protection. A migratory system of domestic existence might suit Madame Dudevant, and a few cases of singular exception; but we cannot fancy that it would be, after all, so much to the taste of most ladies as the present more permanent system. We have some reminiscence of the stories of the wolf and the lamb, when we hear amiable men addressing a female auditory (in books, of course) on the advantages of a freer development. We are perhaps wrong, but we cherish an indistinct suspicion that an indefinite extension of the power of selection would rather tend to the advantage of the sex which more usually chooses. But we have no occasion to avow such opinions now. Milton had no such modern views: he is frankly and honestly anxious for the rights of the man. Of the doctrine that divorce is only permitted for the help of wives, he exclaims, Palpably uxorious! who can be ignorant that woman was created for man, and not man for woman? What an injury is it after wedlock not to be beloved! what to be slighted! what to be contended with in point of house-rule who shall be the head; not for any parity of wisdom, for that were something reasonable, but out of female pride! I suffer not, saith St. Paul, the woman to usurp authority over the man. If the Apostle could not suffer it, he naturally remarks, into what mold in he mortified that can? He had a sincere desire to preserve men from the society of unsocial and unsympathizing women; and that was his principal idea.
His theory, to a certain extent, partakes of the same notion. The following passage contains a perspicuous exposition of it:
Moses, Deut. xxiv. I, established a grave and prudent law, full of moral equity, full of due consideration towards nature, that cannot be resisted, a law consenting with the wisest men and civilest nations: that when a man hath married a wife, if it come to pass that he cannot love her by reason of some displeasing natural quality or unfitness in her, let him write her a bill of divorce. The intent of which law undoubtedly was this: that if any good and peaceable man should discover some helpless disagreement or dislike, either of mind or body, whereby he could not cheerfully perform the duty of a husband without the perpetual dissembling of offense and disturbance to his spirit,rather than to live uncomfortably and unhappily both to himself and to his wife, rather than to continue undertaking a duty which he could not possibly discharge, he might dismiss her whom he could not tolerably, and so not conscionably retain. And this law the Spirit of God by the mouth of Solomon, Prov. xxx. 21, 23, testifies to be a good and a necessary law, by granting it that a hated woman (for so the Hebrew word signifies, rather than odious, though it come all to one),that a hated woman, when she is married, is a thing that the earth cannot bear.
And he complains that the civil law of modern states interferes with the domestical prerogative of the husband.
His notion would seem to have been that a husband was bound not to dismiss his wife, except for a reason really sufficient; such as a thoroughly incompatible temper, an incorrigible muteness, and a desertion like that of Mrs. Milton. But he scarcely liked to admit that in the use of this power he should be subject to the correction of human tribunals. He thought that the circumstances of each case depended upon utterless facts; and that it was practically impossible for a civil court to decide on a subject so delicate in its essence, and so imperceptible in its data. But though amiable men doubtless suffer much from the deficiencies of their wives, we should hardly like to entrust them, in their own cases, with a jurisdiction so prompt and summary.
We are far from being concerned, however, just now, with the doctrine of divorce on its intrinsic merits: we were only intending to give such an account of Miltons opinions upon it as might serve to illustrate his character. We think we have shown that it is possible there may have been, in his domestic relations, a little over-weening pride; a tendency to overrate the true extent of masculine rights, and to dwell on his wifes duty to be social towards him rather than on his duty to be social towards her,to be rather sullen whenever she was not quite cheerful. Still, we are not defending a lady for leaving her husband for defects of such inferior magnitude. Few households would be kept together, if the right of transition were exercised on such trifling occasions. We are but suggesting that she may shares the excuse which our great satirist has suggested for another unreliable lady: My mother was an angel; but angels are not always commodes à vivre.
This is not a pleasant part of our subject, and we must leave it. It is more agreeable to relate that on no occasion of his life was the substantial excellence of Miltons character more conclusively shown than in his conduct at the last stage of this curious transaction. After a very considerable interval, and after the publication of his book on divorce, Mrs. Milton showed a disposition to return to her husband; and in spite of his theories, he received her with open arms. With great Christian patience, he received her relations too. The Parliamentary party was then victorious; and old Mr. Powell, who had suffered very much in the cause of the king, lived until his death untroubled, and wholly to his devotion, as we are informed, in the house of his son-in-law.
Of the other occurrences of Miltons domestic life we have left ourselves no room to speak; we must turn to our second source of illustration for his character,his opinions on the great public events of his time. It may seem odd, but we believe that a man of austere character naturally tends both to an excessive party spirit and to an extreme isolation. Of course the circumstances which develop the one must be different from those which are necessary to call out the other: party spirit requires companionship; isolation, if we may be pardoned so original a remark, excludes it. But though, as we have shown, this species of character is prone to mental solitude, tends to an intellectual isolation where it is possible and as soon as it can, yet when invincible circumstances throw it into mental companionship, when it is driven into earnest association with earnest men on interesting topics, its zeal becomes excessive. Such a mans mind is at home only with it own enthusiasm; it is cooped up within the narrow limits of its own ideas, and it can make no allowance for those who differ from or oppose them. We may see something of this excessive party zeal in Burke. No ones reasons are more philosophical; yet no one who acted with a party went farther in aid of it or was more violent in support of it. He forgot what could be said for the tenets of the enemy; his imagination made that enemy an abstract incarnation of his tenets. A man, too, who knows that he formed his opinions originally by a genuine and intellectual process is but little aware of the undue energy those ideas may obtain from the concurrence of those around. Persons who first acquired their ideas at second hand are more open to a knowledge of their own weakness, and better acquainted with the strange force which there is in the sympathy of others. The isolated mind, when it acts with the popular feeling, is apt to exaggerate that feeling for the most part by an almost inevitable consequence of the feelings which render it isolated. Milton is an example of this remark. In the commencement of the struggle between Charles I. and the Parliament, he sympathized strongly with the popular movement, and carried to what seems now a strange extreme his partisanship. No one could imagine that the first literary Englishman of his time could write the following passage on Charles I.:
Who can with patience hear this filthy, rascally fool speak so irreverently of persons eminent both in greatness and piety? Dare you compare King David with King Charles: a most religious king and prophet with a superstitious prince, and who was but a novice in the Christian religion; a most prudent, wise prince with a weak one; a valiant prince with a cowardly one; finally, a most just prince with a most unjust one? Have you the impudence to commend his chastity and sobriety, who is known to have committed all manner of lewdness in company with his confidant the Duke of Buckingham? It were to no purpose to inquire into the private actions of his life, who publicly at plays would embrace and kiss the ladies.15
Whatever may be the faults of that ill-fated monarch,and they assuredly were not small,no one would now think this absurd invective to be even an excusable exaggeration. It misses the true mark altogether, and is the expression of a strongly imaginative mind, which has seen something that it did not like, and is unable in consequence to see anything that has any relation to it distinctly or correctly. But with the supremacy of the Long Parliament Miltons attachment to their cause ceased. No one has drawn a more unfavorable picture of the rule which they established. Years after their supremacy had passed away, and the restoration of the monarchy had covered with a new and strange scene the old actors and the old world, he thrust into a most unlikely part of his History of England [Book iii.] the following attack on them:
But when once the superficial zeal and popular fumes that acted their New Magistracy were cooled and spent in them, straight every one betook himself (setting the Commonwealth behind, his private ends before) to do as his own profit or ambition led him. Then was justice delayed, and soon after denied; spite and favor determined all: hence faction, thence treachery, both at home and in the field; everywhere wrong and oppression; foul and horrid deeds committed daily, or maintained, in secret or in open. Some who had been called from shops and warehouses, without other merit, to sit in supreme councils and committees (as their breeding was), fell to huckster the Commonwealth. Others did thereafter as men could soothe and humor them best; so he who would give most, or under covert of hypocritical zeal insinuate basest, enjoyed unworthily the rewards of learning and fidelity, or escaped the punishment of his crimes and misdeeds. Their votes and ordinances, which men looked should have contained the repealing of bad laws, and the immediate constitution of better, resounded with nothing else but new impositions, taxes, excises,yearly, monthly, weekly; not to reckon the offices, gifts, and preferments bestowed and shared among themselves.
His dislike of this system of committees, and of the generally dull and unemphatic administration of the Commonwealth, attached him to the Puritan army and to Cromwell; but in the continuation of the passage we have referred to, he expresseswith something, let it be said, of a schoolmaster feelingan unfavorable judgment on their career:
For Britain, to speak a truth not often spoken, as it is a land fruitful enough of men stout and courageous in war, so it is naturally not overfertile of men able to govern justly and prudently in peace, trusting only in their mother-wit; who consider not justly that civility, prudence, love of the public good more than of money or vain honor, are to this soil in a manner outlandish,grow not here, but in minds well implanted with solid and elaborate breeding; too impolitic else and rude, if not head-strong and intractable to the industry and virtue either of executing or understanding true civil government. Valiant indeed, and prosperous to win a field; but to know the end and reason of winning, unjudicious and unwise: in good or bad success, alike unteachable. For the sun, which we want, ripens wits as well as fruits; and as wine and oil are imported to us from abroad, so must ripe understanding and many civil virtues be imported into our minds from foreign writings and examples of best ages; we shall else miscarry still, and come short in the attempts of any great enterprise. Hence did their victories prove as fruitless as their losses dangerous, and left them still, conquering, under the same grievances that men suffer conquered: which was indeed unlikely to go otherwise, unless men more than vulgarbred up, as few of them were, in the knowledge of ancient and illustrious deeds, invincible against many and vain titles, impartial to friendships and relationshad conducted their affairs; but then, from the chapman to the retailer, many whose ignorance was more audacious than the rest were admitted with all their sordid rudiments to bear no mean sway among them, both in church and state.
We need not speak of Miltons disapprobation of the Restoration. Between him and the world of Charles II the opposition was inevitable and infinite. Therefore the general fact remains, that except in the early struggles, when he exaggerated the popular feeling, he remained solitary in opinion, and had very little sympathy with any of the prevailing parties of his time.
Miltons own theory of government is to be learned from his works. He advocated a free commonwealth, without rule of a single person or House of Lords; but the form of his projected commonwealth was peculiar. He thought that a certain perpetual council, which should be elected by the nation once for all, and the number of which should be filled up as vacancies might occur, was the best possible machine of government. He did not confine his advocacy to abstract theory, but proposed the immediate establishment of such a council in this country. We need not go into an elaborate discussion to show the errors of this conclusion. Hardly any one, then or since, has probably adopted it. The interest of the theoretical parts of Miltons political works is entirely historical. The tenets advocated are not of great value, and the arguments by which he supports them are perhaps of less; but their relation to the times in which they were written gives them a very singular interest. The time of the Commonwealth was the only period in English history in which the fundamental questions of government have been thrown open for popular discussion in this country. We read in French literature discussions on the advisability of establishing a monarchy, on the advisability of establishing a republic, on the advisability of establishing an empire; and before we proceed to examine the arguments, we cannot help being struck at the strange contrast which this multiplicity of open questions presents to our own uninquiring acquiescence in the hereditary polity which has descended to us. Kings, Lords, and Commons are, we think, ordinances of nature. Yet Miltons political writings embody the reflections of a period when, for a few years, the government of England was nearly as much a subject of fundamental discussion as that of France was in 1851. An invitation to thinkers, to borrow the phrase of Necker, was given by the circumstances of the time; and with the habitual facility of philosophical speculation, it was accepted, and used to the utmost.
Such are not the kind of speculations in which we expect assistance from Milton. It is not in its transactions with others, in its dealings with the manifold world, that the isolated and austere mind shows itself to the most advantage. Its strength lies in itself. It has a calm and pleasing solitariness. It hears thoughts which others cannot hear. It enjoys the quiet and still air of delightful studies; and is ever conscious of such musing and poetry as is not to be obtained by the invocation of Dame Memory and her twin daughters, but by 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.
An ancient clergyman of Dorsetshire, Dr. Wright, found John Milton in a small chamber hung with rusty green, sitting in an elbow-chair, and dressed neatly in black; pale, but not cadaverous . He used also to sit in a gray coarse-cloth coat at the door of his house near Bunhill Fields, in warm, sunny weather;17 and the common people said he was inspired.
If from the man we turn to his works, we are struck at once with two singular contrasts. The first of them is this:The distinction between ancient and modern art is sometimes said, and perhaps truly, to consist in the simple bareness of the imaginative conceptions which we find in ancient art, and the comparatively complex clothing in which all modern creations are embodied. If we adopt this distinction, Milton seems in some sort ancient, and in some sort modern. Nothing is so simple as the subject-matter of his works. The two greatest of his creations, the character of Satan and the character of Eve, are two of the simplestthe latter probably the very simplestin the whole field of literature. On this side Miltons art is classical. On the other hand, in no writer is the imagery more profuse, the illustrations more various, the dress altogether more splendid; and in this respect the style of his art seems romantic and modern. In real truth, however, it is only ancient art in a modern disguise: the dress is a mere dress, and can be stripped off when we will,we all of us do perhaps in memory strip it off for ourselves. Notwithstanding the lavish adornments with which her image is presented, the character of Eve is still the simplest sort of feminine essence,the pure embodiment of that inner nature which we believe and hope that women have. The character of Satan, though it is not so easily described, has nearly as few elements in it. The most purely modern conceptions will not bear to be unclothed in this manner: their romantic garment clings inseparably to them. Hamlet and Lear are not to be thought of except as complex characters, with very involved and complicated embodiments. They are as difficult to draw out in words as the common characters of life are: that of Hamlet, perhaps, is more so. If we make it, as perhaps we should the characteristic of modern and romantic art that it presents us with creations which we cannot think of or delineate except as very varied and, so to say, circumstantial, we must not rank Milton among the masters of romantic art. And without involving the subject in the troubled sea of an old controversy, we may say that the most striking of the poetical peculiarities of Milton is the bare simplicity of his ideas and the rich abundance of his illustrations.
Another of his peculiarities is equally striking. There seems to be such a thing as second-hand poetry: some poets, musing on the poetry of other men, have unconsciously shaped it into something of their own. The new conception is like the original, it would never probably have existed had not the original existed previously: still, it is sufficiently different from the original to be a new thing, not a copy or a plagiarism; it is a creation, though, so to say, a suggested creation.
Gray is as good an example as can be found of a poet whose works abound in this species of semi-original conceptions. Industrious critics track his best lines back, and find others like them which doubtless lingered near his fancy while he was writing them. The same critics have been equally busy with the works of Milton, and equally successful. They find traces of his reading in half his works; not, which any reader could do, in overt similes and distinct illustrations, but also in the very texture of the thought and the expression. In many cases, doubtless, they discover more than he himself knew. A mind like his, which has an immense store of imaginative recollections, can never know which of his own imaginations is exactly suggested by which recollection. Men awake with their best ideas; it is seldom worth while to investigate very curiously whence they came. Our proper business is to adapt and mold and act upon them. Of poets perhaps this is true even more remarkably than of other men: their ideas are suggested in modes, and according to laws, which are even more impossible to specify than the ideas of the rest of the world. Second-hand poetry, so to say, often seems quite original to the poet himself; he frequently does not know that he derived it from an old memory: years afterwards it may strike him as it does others. Still, in general, such inferior species of creation is not so likely to be found in minds of singular originality as in those of less. A brooding, placid, cultivated mind, like that of Gray, is the place where we should expect to meet with it. Great originality disturbs the adaptive process, removes the mind of the poet from the thoughts of other men, and occupies it with its own heated and flashing thoughts. Poetry of the second degree is like the secondary rocks of modern geology,a still, gentle, alluvial formation; the igneous glow of primary genius brings forth ideas like the primeval granite, simple, astounding, and alone. Miltons case is an exception to this rule. His mind has marked originality, probably as much of it as any in literature; but it has as much of molded recollection as any mind, too. His poetry in consequence is like an artificial park, green and soft and beautiful, yet with outlines bold, distinct, and firm, and the eternal rock ever jutting out; or, better still, it is like our own Lake scenery, where nature has herself the same combination, where we have Rydal Water side by side with the everlasting upheaved mountain. Milton has the same union of softened beauty with unimpaired grandeur; and it is his peculiarity
These are the two contrasts which puzzle us at first in Milton, and which distinguish him from other poets in our remembrance afterwards. We have a superficial complexity in illustration and imagery and metaphor; and in contrast with it we observe a latent simplicity of idea, an almost rude strength of conception. The underlying thoughts are few, though the flowers on the surface are so many. We have likewise the perpetual contrast of the soft poetry of the memory, and the firmas it were, fusedand glowing poetry of the imagination. His words, we may half fancifully say, are like his character: there is the same austerity in the real essence, the same exquisiteness of sense, the same delicacy of form which we know that he had, the same music which we imagine there was in his voice. In both his character and his poetry there was an ascetic nature in a sheath of beauty.
No book, perhaps, which has ever been written is more difficult to criticize than Paradise Lost. The only way to criticize a work of the imagination is, to describe its effect upon the mind of the reader,at any rate, of the critic; and this can only be adequately delineated by strong illustrations, apt similes, and perhaps a little exaggeration. The task is in its very nature not an easy one: the poet paints a picture on the fancy of the critic, and the critic has in some sort to copy it on the paper; he must say what it is before he can make remarks upon it. But in the case of Paradise Lost we hardly like to use illustrations. The subject is one which the imagination rather shrinks from. At any rate, it requires courage and an effort to compel the mind to view such a subject as distinctly and vividly as it views other subjects. Another peculiarity of Paradise Lost makes the difficulty even greater. It does not profess to be a mere work of art; or rather, it claims to be by no means that and that only. It starts with a dogmatic aim: it avowedly intends to
assert eternal Providence,
And justify the ways of God to men.
In this point of view we have always had a sympathy with the Cambridge mathematician who has been so much abused. He said, After all, Paradise Lost proves nothing; and various persons of poetical tastes and temperament have been very severe on the prosaic observation. Yet, after all, he was right: Milton professed to prove something; he was too profound a criticrather, he had too profound an instinct of those eternal principles of art which criticism tries to statenot to know that on such a subject he must prove something. He professed to deal with the great problem of human destiny: to show why man was created, in what kind of universe he lives, whence he came and whither he goes. He dealt of necessity with the greatest of subjects; he had to sketch the greatest of objects. He was concerned with infinity and eternity even more than with time and sense: he undertook to delineate the ways and consequently the character of Providence, as well as the conduct and the tendencies of man. The essence of success in such an attempt is to satisfy the religious sense of man; to bring home to our hearts what we know to be true; to teach us what we have not seen; to awaken us to what we have forgotten; to remove the covering from all people, and the veil that is spread over all nations: to give us, in a word, such a conception of things divine and human as we can accept, believe, and trust. The true doctrine of criticism demands what Milton invites,an examination of the degree in which the great epic attains this aim. And if, in examining it, we find it necessary to use unusual illustrations, and plainer words than are customary, it must be our excuse that we do not think the subject can be made clear without them.
The defect of Paradise Lost is that, after all, it is founded on a political transaction. The scene is in heaven very early in the history of the universe, before the creation of man or the fall of Satan. We have a description of a court [Book v.]. The angels,
This act of patronage was not popular at court; and why should it have been? The religious sense is against it. The worship which sinful men owe to God is not transferable to lieutenants and vicegerents. The whole scene of the court jars upon a true feeling; we seem to be reading about some emperor of history, who admits his son to a share in the empire, who confers on him a considerable jurisdiction, and requires officials, with standards and gonfalons, to bow before him. The orthodoxy of Milton is quite as questionable as his accuracy; the old Athanasian creed was not made by persons who would allow such a picture as that of Milton to stand before their imaginations. The generation of the Son was to them a fact before all time, an eternal fact. There was no question in their minds of patronage or promotion: the Son was the Son before all time, just as the Father was the Father before all time. Milton had in such matters a bold but not very sensitive imagination. He accepted the inevitable materialism of Biblical (and to some extent of all religious) language as distinct revelation. He certainly believed, in contradiction to the old creed, that God had both parts and passions. He imagined that earth is
but the shadow of heaven, and things therein
Each to other like more than on earth is thought.18
From some passages it would seem that he actually thought of God as having the members and form of a man. Naturally, therefore, he would have no toleration for the mysterious notions of time and eternity which are involved in the traditional doctrine. We are not, however, now concerned with Miltons belief, but with his representation of his creed,his picture, so to say, of it in Paradise Lost; still, as we cannot but think, that picture is almost irreligious, and certainly different from that which has been generally accepted in Christendom. Such phrases as before all time, eternal generation, are doubtless very vaguely interpreted by the mass of men; nevertheless, no sensitively orthodox man could have drawn the picture of a generation, not to say an exaltation, in time.
Yet though Abdiels intentions were undeniably good, his argument is rather specious. Acting as an instrument in the process of creation would scarcely give a valid claim to the obedience of the created being. Power may be shown in the act, no doubt; but mere power gives no true claim to the obedience of moral beings. It is a kind of principle of all manner of idolatries and false religions to believe that it does so. Satan, besides, takes issue on the fact:
That we were formed then, sayst thou? and the work
Of secondary hands, by task transferred
From Father to his Son? Strange point and new!
Doctrine which we would know whence learned.
And we must say that the speech in which the new ruler is introduced to the Thrones, dominations, princedoms, virtues, powers, is hard to reconcile with Abdiels exposition. This day he seems to have come into existence, and could hardly have assisted at the creation of the angels, who are not young, and who converse with one another like old acquaintances.
We have gone into this part of the subject at length, because it is the source of the great error which pervades Paradise Lost: Satan is made interesting. This has been the charge of a thousand orthodox and even heterodox writers against Milton. Shelley, on the other hand, has gloried in it; and fancied, if we remember rightly, that Milton intentionally ranged himself on the Satanic side of the universe, just as Shelley himself would have done, and that he wished to show the falsity of the ordinary theology. But Milton was born an age too early for such aims, and was far too sincere to have advocated any doctrine in a form so indirect. He believed every word he said. He was not conscious of the effect his teaching would produce in an age like this, when skepticism is in the air, and when it is not possible to help looking cool on his delineations. Probably in our boyhood we can recollect a period when any solemn description of celestial events would have commanded our respect; we should not have dared to read it intelligently, to canvass its details and see what it meant: it was a religious book; it sounded reverential, and that would have sufficed. Something like this was the state of mind of the seventeenth century. Even Milton probably shared in a vague reverence for religious language; he hardly felt the moral effect of the pictures he was drawing. His artistic instinct, too, often hurries him away. His Satan was to him, as to us, the hero of his poem: having commenced by making him resist on an occasion which in an earthly kingdom would have been excusable and proper, he probably a little sympathized with him, just as his readers do.
The interest of Satans character is at its height in the first two books. Coleridge justly compared it to that of Napoleon. There is the same pride, the same Satanic ability, the same will, the same egotism. His character seems to grow with his position. He is far finer after his fall, in misery and suffering, with scarcely any resource except in himself, than he was originally in heaven; at least, if Raphaels description of him can be trusted. No portrait which imagination or history has drawn of a revolutionary anarch is nearly so perfect; there is all the grandeur of the greatest human mind, and a certain infinitude in his circumstances which humanity must ever want. Few Englishman feel a profound reverence for Napoleon I.; there was no French alliance in his time; we have most of us some tradition of antipathy to him. Yet hardly any Englishmen can read the account of the campaign of 1814 without feeling his interest in the Emperor to be strong, and without perhaps being conscious of a latent wish that he may succeed. Our opinion is against him, our serious wish is of course for England; but the imagination has a sympathy of its own, and will not give place. We read about the great general,never greater than in that last emergency,showing resources of genius that seem almost infinite, and that assuredly have never been surpassed, yet vanquished, yielding to the power of circumstances, to the combined force of adversaries each of whom singly he outmatches in strength, and all of whom together he surpasses in majesty and in mind. Something of the same sort of interest belongs to the Satan of the first two books of Paradise Lost. We know that he will be vanquished; his name is not a recommendation. Still, we do not imagine distinctly the minds by which he is to be vanquished; we do not take the same interest in them that we do in him; our sympathies, our fancy, are on his side.
Perhaps much of this was inevitable; yet what a defect it is! especially what a defect in Miltons own view, and looked at with the stern realism with which he regarded it! Suppose that the author of evil in the universe were the most attractive being in it; suppose that the source of all sin were the origin of all interest to us! We need not dwell upon this.
As we have said, much of this was difficult to avoid, if indeed it could be avoided in dealing with such a theme. Even Milton shrank, in some measure, from delineating the Divine character. His imagination evidently halts when it is required to perform that task. The more delicate imagination of our modern world would shrink still more. Any person who will consider what such an attempt must end in, will finds his nerves quiver. But by a curiously fatal error, Milton has selected for delineation exactly that part of the Divine nature which is most beyond the reach of the human faculties, and which is also, when we try to describe our fancy of it, the least effective to our minds. He has made God argue. Now, the procedure of the Divine mind from truth to truth must ever be incomprehensible to us; the notion, indeed, of his proceeding at all is a contradiction: to some extent, at least, it is inevitable that we should use such language, but we know it is in reality inapplicable. A long train of reasoning in such a connection is so out of place is to be painful; and yet Milton has many. He relates a series of family prayers in heaven, with sermons afterwards, which are very tedious. Even Pope was shocked at the notion of Providence talking like a school-divine.19 And there is the still worse error, that if you once attribute reasoning to him, subsequent logicians may discover that he does not reason very well.
Another way in which Milton has contrived to strengthen our interest in Satan is the number and insipidity of the good angels. There are old rules as to the necessity of a supernatural machinery for an epic poem, worth some fraction of the paper on which they are written, and derived from the practice of Homer, who believed his gods and goddesses to be real beings, and would have been rather harsh with a critic who called them machinery. These rules had probably an influence with Milton, and induced him to manipulate these serious angels more than he would have done otherwise. They appear to be excellent administrators with very little to do; a kind of grand chamberlains with wings, who fly down to earth and communicate information to Adam and Eve. They have no character: they are essentially messengers,merely conductors, so to say, of the Providential will; no one fancies that they have an independent power of action; they seem scarcely to have minds of their own. No effect can be more unfortunate. If the struggle of Satan had been with Deity directly, the natural instincts of religion would have been awakened; but when an angel possessed of mind is contrasted with angels possessed only of wings, we sympathize with the former.
In the first two books, therefore, our sympathy with Miltons Satan is great; we had almost said unqualified. The speeches he delivers are of well-known excellence. Lord Brougham, no contemptible judge of emphatic oratory, has laid down that if a person had not an opportunity of access to the great Attic masterpieces, he had better choose these for a model. What is to be regretted about the orator is, that he scarcely acts up to his sentiments. Better to reign in hell than serve in heaven, is at any rate an audacious declaration; but he has no room for exhibiting similar audacity in action. His offensive career is limited; in the nature of the subject, there was scarcely any opportunity for the fallen archangel to display in the detail of his operations the surpassing intellect with which Milton has endowed him. He goes across chaos, gets into a few physical difficulties; but these are not much. His grand aim is the conquest of our first parents; and we are at once struck with the enormous inequality of the conflict. Two beings just created, without experience, without guile, without knowledge of good and evil, are expected to contend with a being on the delineation of whose powers every resource of art and imagination, every subtle suggestion, every emphatic simile, has been lavished. The idea in every readers mind is, and must be, not surprise that our first parents should yield, but wonder that Satan should not think it beneath him to attack them. It is as if an army should invest a cottage.
We have spoken more of theology than we intended; and we need not say how much the monstrous inequalities attributed to the combatants affect our estimate of the results of the conflict. The state of man is what it is, because the defenseless Adam and Eve of Miltons imagination yielded to the nearly all-powerful Satan whom he has delineated. Milton has in some sense invented this difficulty; for in the book of Genesis there is no such inequality. The serpent may be subtler than any beast of the field; but he is not necessarily subtler or cleverer than man. So far from Milton having justified the ways of God to man, he has loaded the common theology with a new encumbrance.
Eves character, indeed, is one of the most wonderful efforts of the human imagination. She is a kind of abstract woman; essentially a typical being; an official mother of all living. Yet she is a real interesting woman, not only full of delicacy and sweetness, but with all the undefinable fascination, the charm of personality, which such typical characters hardly ever have. By what consummate miracle of wit this charm of individuality is preserved, without impairing the general idea which is ever present to us, we cannot explain, for we do not know.
Adam is far less successful. He has good hair,hyacinthine locks that from his parted forelock manly hung; a fair large front and eye sublime: but he has little else that we care for. There is, in truth, no opportunity of displaying manly virtues, even if he possessed them. He has only to yield to his wifes solicitations, which he does. Nor are we sure that he does it well: he is very tedious. He indulges in sermons which are good; but most men cannot but fear that so delightful a being as Eve must have found him tiresome. She steps away, however, and goes to sleep at some of the worst points.
Dr. Johnson remarked that, after all, Paradise Lost was one of the books which no one wished longer: we fear, in this irreverent generation, some wish it shorter. Hardly any reader would be sorry if some portions of the latter books had been spared him. Coleridge, indeed, discovered profound mysteries in the last; but in what could not Coleridge find a mystery if he wished? Dryden more wisely remarked that Milton became tedious when he entered upon a track of Scripture.21 Nor is it surprising that such is the case. The style of many parts of Scripture is such that it will not bear addition or subtraction. A word less or an idea more, and the effect upon the mind is the same no longer. Nothing can be more tiresome than a sermonic amplification of such passages. It is almost too much when, as from the pulpit, a paraphrastic commentary is prepared for our spiritual improvement. In deference to the intention, we bear it, but we bear it unwillingly; and we cannot endure it at all when, as in poems, the object is to awaken our fancy rather than to improve our conduct. The account of the creation in the book of Genesis is one of the compositions from which no sensitive imagination would subtract an iota, to which it could not bear to add a word. Miltons paraphrase is alike copious and ineffective. The universe is, in railway phrase, opened, but not created; no green earth springs in a moment from the indefinite void. Instead, too, of the simple loneliness of the Old Testament, several angelic officials are in attendance, who help in nothing, but indicate that heaven must be plentifully supplied with tame creatures.
There is no difficulty in writing such criticisms, and indeed other unfavorable criticisms, on Paradise Lost. There is scarcely any book in the world which is open to a greater number, or which a reader who allows plain words to produce a due effect will be less satisfied with. Yet what book is really greater? In the best parts the words have a magic in them; even in the inferior passages you are hardly sensible of their inferiority till you translate them into your own language. Perhaps no style ever written by man expressed so adequately the conceptions of a mind so strong and so peculiar; a manly strength, a haunting atmosphere of enhancing suggestions, a firm continuous music, are only some of its excellences. To comprehend the whole of the others, you must take the volume down and read it,the best defense of Milton, as has been said most truly, against all objections.
Probably no book shows the transition which our theology has made since the middle of the seventeenth century, at once so plainly and so fully. We do not now compose long narratives to justify the ways of God to men. The more orthodox we are, the more we shrink from it, the more we hesitate at such a task, the more we allege that we have no powers for it. Our most celebrated defenses of established tenets are in the style of Butler, not in that of Milton. They do not profess to show a satisfactory explanation of human destiny: on the contrary, they hint that probably we could not understand such an explanation if it were given us; at any rate, they allow that it is not given us. Their course is palliative: they suggest an analogy of difficulties; if our minds were greater, so they reason, we should comprehend these doctrines,now we cannot explain analogous facts which we see and know. No style can be more opposite to the bold argument, the boastful exposition of Milton. The teaching of the eighteenth century is in the very atmosphere we breathe: we read it in the teachings of Oxford; we hear it from the missionaries of the Vatican. The air of the theology is clarified. We know our difficulties, at least: we are rather prone to exaggerate the weight of some than to deny the reality of any.
We cannot continue a line of thought which would draw us on too far for the patience of our readers. We must, however, make one more remark, and we shall have finished our criticism on Paradise Lost. It is analogous to that which we have just made. The scheme of the poem is based on an offense against positive morality. The offense of Adam was not against nature or conscience, nor against anything of which we can see the reason or conceive the obligation, but against an unexplained injunction of the Supreme Will. The rebellion in heaven, as Milton describes it, was a rebellion not against known ethics or immutable spiritual laws, but against an arbitrary selection and an unexplained edict. We do not say that there is no such thing as positive morality,we do not think so; even if we did, we should not insert a proposition so startling at the conclusion of a literary criticism. But we are sure that wherever a positive moral edict is promulgated, it is no subject, except perhaps under a very peculiar treatment, for literary art. By the very nature of it, it cannot satisfy the heart and conscience. It is a difficulty; we need not attempt to explain it away,there are mysteries enough which will never be explained away. But it is contrary to every principle of criticism to state the difficulty as if it were not one; to bring forward the puzzle, yet leave it to itself; to publish so strange a problem, and give only an untrue solution of it: and yet such, in its bare statement, is all that Milton has done.
Of Miltons other writings we have left ourselves no room to speak; and though every one of them, or almost every one of them, would well repay a careful criticism, yet few of them seem to throw much additional light on his character, or add much to our essential notion of his genius, though they may exemplify and enhance it. Comus is the poem which does so the most. Literature has become so much lighter than it used to be, that we can scarcely realize the position it occupied in the light literature of our forefathers. We have now in our own language many poems that are pleasanter in their subject, more graceful in their execution, more flowing in their outline, more easy to read. Dr. Johnson, though perhaps no very excellent authority on the more intangible graces of literature, was disposed to deny to Milton the capacity of creating the lighter literature: Milton, madam, was a genius that could cut a colossus from a rock, but could not carve heads upon cherry stones. And it would not be surprising if this generation, which has access to the almost infinite quantity of lighter compositions which have been produced since Johnsons time, were to echo his sentence. In some degree, perhaps, the popular taste does so. Comus has no longer the peculiar exceptional popularity which it used to have: we can talk without general odium of its defects; its characters are nothing, its sentiments are tedious, its story is not interesting. But it is only when we have realized the magnitude of its deficiencies that we comprehend the peculiarity of its greatness. Its power is in its style. A grave and firm music pervades it; it is soft, without a thought of weakness; harmonious and yet strong; impressive, as few such poems are, yet covered with a bloom of beauty and a complexity of charm that few poems have either. We have perhaps light literature in itself better, that we read oftener and more easily, that lingers more in our memories; but we have not any, we question if there ever will be any, which gives so true a conception of the capacity and the dignity of the mind by which it was produced. The breath of solemnity which hovers round the music attaches us to the writer. Every line, here as elsewhere, in Milton excites the idea of indefinite power.
And so we must draw to a close. The subject is an infinite one, and if we pursued it, we should lose ourselves in miscellaneous commentary, and run on far beyond the patience of our readers. What we have said has at least a defined intention: we have wished to state the impression which the character of Milton and the greatest of Miltons works are likely to produce on readers of the present generation,a generation different from his own almost more than any other.
Note 1. The Life of John Milton, narrated in connection with the Political, Ecclesiastical, and Literary History of his time. By David Masson, M. A., Professor of English Literature in University College, London. Cambridge: Macmillan. An Account of the Life, Opinions, and Writings of John Milton. By Thomas Keightley; with an Introduction to Paradise Lost. London: Chapman & Hall. The Poems of Milton, with Notes by Thomas Keightley. London: Chapman & Hall. [back]