Page images
PDF
EPUB

war on the barren systems of the schools; and while Europe was still admiring the grandeur and comprehensiveness of his views, Hobbes of Malmesbury appeared on the philosophical arena, armed with genius, and the subtlest spirit of sophistry, and prepared, in defiance of all who might oppose, to support the wildest and most dangerous paradoxes. Harrington, Algernon Sidney, Andrew Marvel, Clarendon, and many others destined to obtain a name in history, laboured contemporaneously with Milton ; and their ideas failed not to exercise a certain influence over the public mind, though, whether considered with reference to their own or to future ages, this influence was much less powerful than that of the great epic poet.

Hitherto, however, Milton has been since his own times chiefly influential as a poet ; his prose works having, as I observed above, been from that time to this comparatively neglected. Several of the accidental causes of this neglect have already been glanced at : they must now be more fully explained. By some ingenious writers the circumstance has been sought to be accounted for by alleging the elevated character of the works themselves. But this is unsatisfactory, for which of them is more lofty than Paradise Lost ? Besides, were this the true cause, all attempts at recommending them to the public must prove fruitless, since their tone can never be lowered, nor can the intellect of the generality ever be raised to the relish of compositions, which, according to this supposition, are to be considered above the mental reach even of literary

Indeed, the theory of this writer would, if true, wholly exculpate us as a nation from all blame for laying them aside, and betaking ourselves to writers more on a level with our capacities ; for, by what rule are we compelled to purchase and study the works of any man, if they be above our comprehension ?

If there be any culpability, it must, under this supposition, rest with the author, who, if he desired to be read, and promote the cause of religion and virtue-as most assuredly he did-should have reflected that it was his first duty not so to clothe his thoughts in the splendour and brightness of eloquence, as to render them, like the sun, too painful to be gazed on by any not gifted with the eyes of eagles. No one knew better than he that the greatest men have by art contrived to indue their most hidden thoughts with a transparent dress. He was familiar with those dialogues in which the abstrusest doctrines of ontology, the highest speculations on God and nature, and the spiritual essence of the mind, to which man's intellect has ever soared, are rendered not merely comprehensible, but absolute matter of amusement. He would have been aware, therefore, that though his ideas rise far indeed above the pitch of ordinary contemplation, they yet strayed not beyond the reach of such understandings as God has bestowed upon Englishmen.

Another fancy of the same writers is, that Milton having been a

men.

teacher, and the world, like a mitching schoolboy, not delighting to be taught, his fit audience must always be few. I hope better things or the world. For whoever is desirous of learning what is truth-and the number actuated by this holy desire is not small- is fit to be the auditor of him who teaches truth. And, to speak honestly, I have not yet learned to think so meanly of my countrymen, as not to believe that this island contains many myriads to whom truth, both in politics and religion, is precious as life itself. Let them only know in what secret or remote shrine it may be found, and the road thither, I ain persuaded, will be immediately trodden by the feet of innumerable pilgrims, full of hope, of courage to dare, of fortitude to suffer, of perseverance to obtain. Englishmen are still Englishmen. The love of freedom-which is based on truth-- is ever their ruling passion; and if, as in the case of Milton, they sometimes wholly or in part neglect their benefactors, and those who best would serve them, it is error, not ingratitude, or a sullen aversion to be taught whatever is for their good.

Every man who ably and honestly advocates the cause of freedom and good government is popular in England. For, naturally and of necessity, the people's sympaties are linked to those who prove themselves their friends, who labour to diminish their burdens, and diffuse among them a just and wholesome relish for knowledge ; to provide civil and religious instruction for their children, and elevate them to that mental condition in which they may, with safety to themselves, and to the state, exercise all the rights of freemen. For services of this kind the present generation is indebted to many distinguished commoners and lords, who daily, in the senate or at popular assemblies, urge forward the work of reformation

But, among those who most honourably distinguish themselves in the service of the people, advocating the cause which Milton advocated, and diffusing far and wide the principles that inflamed his mind, and rendered him eloquent above all who have written in English, the gentlemen who conduct the better part of the public press deserve most of the country. What the pulpit is in religion, that is the press in civil affairs. It is the weapon by the use of which liberty must ultimately stand or fall, with which she must hew down those stubborn prejudices that, at every step, obstruct her movements ; and, by inspiring a salutary terror in her opponents, command the leisure necessary for building up that vast edifice of political wisdom, within which she may for the future entrench herself.

And, in spite of inuch hostility and many untoward circumstances, how powerful is the influence of the press, and how all but complete the freedom we even now enjoy in England ! Here only, within the limits of the Old World, is it lawful to express an honest opinion, or to arraign, when truth requires it, the im.

policy, or improvidence, or lukewarmness of our rulers. Here only, when oppressed or persecuted at home, can the liberal and virtuous of other nations find a secure refuge. This is the place where, as at Athens in old times, men of all countries, of all parties, of all religions, take sanctuary when they need it. And the glory of England, which, in Milton's days, was thought to be enhanced by the crowding hither of strangers from distant countries, to be instructed in our learning and theological arts, is rendered doubly bright now, by the pilgrimage which all free and noble spirits, that spurn the universal yoke of the Continent, make daily to this favoured land.

And what but our freedom—though still far from perfect—and the virtues which grow out of it, causes the English name to be everywhere held in honour, and renders it a passport and a safeguard, as I have myself experienced, even among savages in rebellion against their native prince? to be associated as far as known—and where is it not ?--with highmindedness, generosity, and the pride that scorns whatever is mean and ungentlemanly? In every land whither Providence has led me, I have enjoyed the inexpressible satisfaction of hearing the name of my country pronounced with respect; of finding that, though excelled, perhaps, by one country in this, by another in that, England was universally supposed to surpass all in freedom, public virtue, religion, and those advantages of political strength and grandeur unrelinquishably possessed by the inheritors of those virtues.

To return, however, whence I have thus insensibly digressed, to the causes which have hitherto obstructed the popularity of Milton's prose works : it may be proper briefly to notice the reason assigned by D'Israeli ; namely, that having been written for the times in which the author lived, they naturally went, with the times, out of date. By the same reasoning, and with much greater probability, the contemporaries of Demosthenes or Cicero might have concluded that the speeches of those great orators would sink with the succeeding age into oblivion ; yet we find, after the lapse, in one case, of more than two thousand years, mankind still taking a lively interest in those compositions, while such as desire to exercise in their own day a similar influence, dwell on their polished and irresistible logic with rapture. This reason, therefore, unless we admit extraordinary inferiority in Milton, is still more unsatisfactory than either of the former. Other causes inust be sought, and history is at hand to supply them.

It has been shown that, in all his works, Milton stands forth the advocate of popular principles of government; and these principles having, at the Restoration, been abandoned both by the people and the aristocracy, who returned like animals devoid of reason to their old servitude under the Stuarts, no one felt disposed to take up books every sentence of which must have awakened pangs of conscience, by contrasting their actual servility with the manly condition from which they had fallen. It is, in fact, natural to shun whatever engenders a sense of humiliation ; and, to justify their conduct in so doing, men will discover reasons, good or bad, that, if they cannot stand well in their own eyes, they may at least seem to each other to be under the influence of some rational principles of action. Hence the lettered slaves who sprang up under the fostering patronage of Charles II., and his most dissolute and despicable court, whose principal aim it was to depose the Almighty from his throne in the hearts of their countrymen, laboured with all the earnestness of hirelings to dim the glory of Milton, and those other holy and magnanimous men, who, with high and honest views, had sought to command for themselves and their brethren the full enjoyment of liberty, religious and civil.

By this horde of unprincipled sophists the defender of the people of England was maliciously confounded with that host of nameless fanatics that, during the troubles of the commonwealth, had issued forth from the crannies and dark places of society, filling the land, like locusts, with the unceasing murmur of their bigotry. The slanders of Salmasius, Morus, Dumoulin, and others of that stamp were re-ininted, and issued by royal authority. Every art which malice could suggest, or baseness invent, was put in practice to cover the memory of the commonwealth with obloquy; and Milton, as its most formidable defender,--though, by the interference of powerful friends, he escaped the king's axe, which was sharpened to deprive England of the Paradise Lost,-yet could not fail, both during life and afterwards, to be held up as an object of abhorrence by all whom the re-establishment of servitude supplied with dishonourable bread. Even Hobbes, himself a persecuted man, and one whom the consciousness of genius should have inspired with nobler thoughts, could not resist the promptings of his slavish temper, to inflict a paltry wound on the man OF THE COMMON

WEALTH.

Such, it appears to me, is the true cause why the prose works of Milton have so long been condemned to dust and cobwebs. For when once the spawn of the Restoration had heaped upon them, as on a brood of Titans, whole mountains of contumely and falsehood, and thus almost wholly concealed their existence from the public, a taste for a very different order of books was formed throughout the land ; for books filled, like Rochester’s, Sedley's, Wycherly's, with unspeakable coarseness and obscenity, with impiety, irreligion, and the most ignoble adulation ; and it is easy to imagine that among the admirers of bacchanals so gross and godless, an author such as Milton, in port and majesty like a prophet, and with garments scented by the sacred incense of the altar, must have proved an unwelcome guest. Vice rapidly relaxes and enervates the mind; and the public, growing daily more and more familiar with grovel

;

ling sentiments, and the licentious passions which, during Charles the Second's reign, constituted the breath of literary inspiration, soon became entirely incapable of deriving pleasure from compositions such as Milton's, where profligacy receives no countenance. Their religious character, therefore, once their passport to popularity, now stood in the way; for to quote a verse of Scripture seemed to smell of republicanism. And, although Sir Robert Filmer, and some few others, endeavoured to combat the advocates of democracy with their own weapons, by forcing certain mangled texts into the service of absolute power, it was upon the whole thought dangerous, at court, to make any reference to the great storehouse and armoury of the Roundheads.

Cast, by these means, into temporary oblivion, they were long suffered to remain in it. For most literary men are too intent on advancing their own reputation, to turn aside, with some risk of endangering it, to rescue from undeserved neglect the orphan remains of genius. They fear, at least in the service of the dead, to rouse the serpent guardians of prejudice; and with a worldly prudence, for which, according to their characters, men will blame or commend them, relinquish to others, bolder or less wise, the task of doing justice to those who can no longer actively vindicate them. selves.

But this policy, however laudable it may be considered by others, I can neither admire nor adopt. In the common intercourse of life we are grateful to whomsoever instructs or amuses us, much more to him who begets in our minds a love of the good and beautiful ; and if, in our presence, his character be misprised, or evil-spoken of by others, we would generously, in consideration of what we owe him, hazard something to vindicate his good name. The same course we should, I think, pursue when he who affords us instruction or delight is dead, and therefore no longer able to explain, develope, or defend his opinions, by the misrepresenting, perhaps, of which he suffers in the estimation of mankind. It seems to be our duty to labour with an earnestness proportioned to the benefits he may have conferred on us, to obtain for him, as far as our influence extends, a hearing. It signifies nothing to plead our inability. Love is fertile in expedients; and he who with honest enthusiasm, undertakes to serve the greatest man, when suffering from injustice, will find, like the mouse in the fable, that even the most distinguished for strength may be indebted to his weakness. And who can describe the delig with which the student bends over the page of Milton ? with which he witnesses the kindling of that impetuous spirit, when rousing all his energies to contend for his own glory, or the glory of his country? Who but must love him-who but must, in spirit, embrace him with tears of pleasure, when soaring, in the fervour of his eloquence, to a height of grandeur never surpassed by man, he pours forth his noblest sentiments in defence of

« PreviousContinue »