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The name of Milton is his monument. It is venerable, national, and sacred; and yet, with whatever glory invested, it is inscribed, and not unworthily, upon this volume.
To her great poet England has done justice. His renown equals his transcendent merits. His name is a synonyme for vastness of attainment, sublimity of conception, and splendour of expression. A people profess to be his readers. His poetry is in all hands. It is in truth a fountain of living waters in the very heart of civilization. Its tendency is even more magnificent than its composition. Combining all that is lovely in religion, with all that in reason is grand and beautiful, it creates, while it gratifies, and at the same time purifies, those tastes and powers that refine and exalt humanity. It is almost of itself, not less by the invigorating nature of its moral than of its intellectual qualities, sufficient to perpetuate the stability of an empire. Constituting a most glorious portion of our best inheritance, his poetical writings are, emphatically, national works; and as such, long may they be revered and esteemed amongst us! They are of power,” to use his own words,“ to inbreed and cherish in a great people the seeds of virtue and public civility.” They will be lost, only with our language :— the tide of his song will cease to flow, only with that of time. Having won, he wears, the brightest laurels; and by the acclamations of ages, rather than the testimony of individuals, his seat is with Homer and Shakespeare on the poetic mount. To apply again his own language to his own achievements, he has sung his “elaborate song ;"-he has performed the covenant of his youth,
to offer at high strains in new and lofty measures ;"—his 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 to touch and purify the lips of whom he pleases,” has been heard and answered !
“Oh! what great men hast thou not produced, England ! my country!" might we exclaim with one of the first of modern poets and philosophers, when contemplating these and similar works. And a thorough Englishman this great poet was! Prelates, and tithes, and kings, were not the burthen of his song, and therefore the poetry can be praised even by those whose souls are wrapped up in these things. While he soared away “in the high reason of his fancies,” and meddled not with the practical affairs of life, his enemies can be complimentary, and undertake to bow him into immortality. They would fain suppress all other monuments of this Englishman :-it remains for us to appreciate them. Let us never think of John Milton as a poet merely, however in that capacity he may have adorned our language, and benefited, by ennobling, his species. He was a citizen also, with whom patriotism was as heroical a passion, prompting him to do his country service, as was that“ inward prompting” of poesy, by which he did his country honour. He was alive to all that was due from man to man in all the relations of life. He was invested
with a power to mould the mind of a nation, and to lead the people into “the glorious ways of truth, and prosperous virtue.” The poet has long eclipsed the man ;-he has been imprisoned even in the temple of the muses; and the very splendour of the bard seems to be our title to pass an act of oblivion” on the share he bore in the events and discussions of the momentous times in which he lived. Ought not rather his wide renown, in this capacity, to lead us to the contemplation and study of the whole of his character and his works ? Sworn by a father, who knew what persecution was, at the first altar to freedom erected in this land; he, a student of the finest temperament, bent on grasping all sciences and professing none, and burning with intense ambition for distinction-forsook his harp," and the quiet and still air of delightful studies;" and devoted the energies of earliest and maturest manhood, to be aiding in the grandest crisis of the first of hunan causes: and he became the most conspicuous literary actor in the dreadful yet glorious drama of the Great Rebellion. He beheld tyranny and intolerance trampling upon the most sacred prerogatives of God and man, and he was compelled by the nobility of his nature, by the obligations of virtue, by the loud summons of beleagured truth, in short, by his patriotism as well as his piety, to lay down the lyre, whose earliest tones are yet so fascinating; to “ doff his garland and singing robes,” and to adventure within the circle of peril and glory : and, buckling on the controversial panoply, he threw it off, only when the various works of this volume, surpassed by none in any sort of eloquence, became the record and trophy of his achievements, and the worthy forerunners of those poems, which a whole people“ will not willingly let die."
The summit of fame is occupied by the poet, but the base of the vast elevation may justly be said to rest on these Prose Works; and we invite his admirers to descend from the former, and survey the region that lies round about the latter,-a less explored, but not less magnificent, domain.
The recovery of a good book is a sure and certain resurrection. The envious deluge of oblivion cannot long settle over such works as these. The rainbow springs up, and we see it on the tempestuous aspect of these times,-a sign of the storm, and a signal of peace !
We are not now employed on ruins. John Milton's works have been long buried, but they are not consumed ;-long neglected, but they are not injured. Many of them certainly have to do with the interests of time, but all of them are impregnated with thoughts which, springing from the depths, shall partake of the immortality of the spirit, and outlive the world in which they were uttered. Though temporal they are not temporary. There is a breadth and grandeur of aim in them, which embraces the well-being of man both here and hereafter, and renders them interminably precious. “Books,” says their author, “ are not absolutely dead things,”—“ they contain a progeny of life in them to be as active as that soul whose progeny they are,”—“ the precious life-blood of a master-spirit embalmed and treasured up to a life beyond life.”—“They preserve, as in a vial, the purest efficacy and extraction of that living intellect that bred them.” It is astonishing that these books should not in our time have been appreciated by the people, and it is greatly to be regretted, not merely for the sake of their author, but for the general interests of truth, and the cultivation of learning, eloquence, and taste amongst us, that they should be so little read. Had they been lost,-had his enemies succeeded in their diabolical project of mutilating, or of annihilating the chief of thein,—had other priests than those in the neighbourhood of Leeds,” met in other places, over sacerdotal beer, to “sacrifice them to the flames,"* how we should have lamented over our irreparable loss! Having his poems, we should have learned that they sprung up out of the ashes of controversy ;-we should then“ imitate the careful search that Isis made for the mangled body of Osiris !" We should have remembered the era in which he lived, and we should have felt our loss as deeply as we sympathized with his party,
* See Richard Baron's note, in this edition, to his preface to the Iconoclastes.