Reference > Cambridge History > Cavalier and Puritan > Milton > His Latin writings
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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume VII. Cavalier and Puritan.

V. Milton.

§ 20. His Latin writings.

Glances have already been made, for special reasons, at some of Milton’s Latin works, but, when they are taken as a whole, their interest is very considerable; and it is unfortunate—with a misfortune not likely now to be decreased—that few people know them at first hand. Here, also, there is no comparison between the verse and the prose—in fact, the latter is worse off even than its English companion. A Latin Areopagitica would have given opportunity for that stateliness, which is almost as characteristic of Milton’s prose as of his verse, to show itself almost unhindered. There are flashes and glimmerings of it in the Latin pamphlets as it is. Even the dull and discreditable Billingsgate against Morus is relieved, so far as literary relief goes, by the passage on the consolations of Milton’s blindness and by the encomia on Christina and on Cromwell. But these things are almost perforce drowned in matter of a very different quality. The most enthusiastic devotee of the classics, if he retains any critical faculty, must pronounce the usual controversial style, even of Greek, but, much more, of Latin, to be deplorable; and the comparatively few people who have studied technical classical rhetoric know why it was so. The whole thing was conducted on more or less cut-and-dried rules, which were only neglected—and that not always—by irrepressible genius like that of Demosthenes, or by eccentric individualities of late date like that of Lucian. With Lucian, Milton had nothing in common: with Demosthenes, he had something, but not enough for the purpose. His models were Latin; and not so much the terser and more austere phrases of Tacitus of the vivid cleverness of Sallust, as the academic and parliamentary volubility of Cicero, largely adulterated with the ditch water of many of the renascence Ciceronians. The consequence is that the compositions are merely large themes, patched together with commonplaces of the stalest kind. With a perfect command of such Latin as he chose to use, Milton rarely, if ever, lets himself go into a sublime or eloquent passage such as those which lighten the darkness of the English polemic. The inability to carry the actual argument into any equal court is the same, or greater; but the purple patches of declamation are rarely present. There is a good deal of bandying of authority and of wearisome rebutting on particular points. But, on the whole, the two sentences “Salmasius is an old fool” and “Morus is a rascally and vulgar libertine,” represent the whole gist of the two Defensiones and their supplements, watered out into hundreds of pages, with floods of bad jokes, trivial minutiae and verbose vituperation.   71
  The verse, for the most part, is free from this great drawback:  14  and, though it has something of the same quality of pastiche, stock diction is more tolerable in poetry than in prose. Moreover, these pieces have the distinction of belonging to a body of composition which was the favourite literary exercise of good wits, and was cultivated all over Europe for at least three centuries, if not more, besides that of being written by the greatest poet who ever indulged in this exercise. Many of them are only schoolboy or undergraduate taskwork; but some, even of these, especially that entitled In quintum Novembris, Anno ætatis 17, have interest; and three of the later, Ad Patrem, Mansus, a graceful tribute to his old Neapolitan friend, and Epitaphium Damonis, an elegy on the companion of his youth Charles Diodati, have much more. Perhaps the unusual opportunity of comparison with Lycidas has somewhat enhanced the appreciation with which Epitaphium has been sometimes received; and one may not be quite sure that, if we did not know that diodati was really a friend, and King but an acquaintance, we could discover it from impartial reading of the poems. Perhaps, the extreme rarity of acquaintance with the voluminous deliciae of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries has also enhanced opinion of this piece among those who are competent to read it, but do not know much of the corpus to which it belongs. But it certainly has both elegance and pathos.   72
  What seems to have been Milton’s last Latin  15  verse of importance, though it is not exactly a success in itself, has extraordinary, and generally overlooked, interest of form.  16  Ad Joannem Rousium is an attempt (explained carefully in scheme by Milton himself) at a Latin strophic ode, in which the most singular liberties are taken with the construction and correspondence of the lines and, indeed, with the whole arrangement. His explanation leaves us a good deal in the dark, and, whereas he says that he has “looked rather at a method of convenient reading than at one of singing on old modes” it seems more like a sort of musical chase of a chain of motives through variations of metre. But it is very valuable for purposes of comparison with the choruses of Samson; and it could hardly be more so as an indication of Milton’s own interest in metrical experiment.   73

Note 14. One or two epigrams on the abhorred Salmasius and Morus are not important enough to form substantial exceptions; indeed, a broad, but rather neat, Martialesque distich on Morus seems to be not Milton’s at all, but some Dutchman’s. [ back ]
Note 15. He has left us a few Greek pieces of no value. [ back ]
Note 16. There is a MS. copy of this in the Bodleian which has been sometimes thought to be autograph. [ back ]

  Milton’s prose works Milton’s literary form  

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