« PreviousContinue »
this equivocal reputation, his summons to appear before Parliament, for his literary misdemeanours, contributed; and it assumed a hue of richer darkness, when the “divorcist” sublimated into the defender of regicide, and dared to apologise for what Cromwell dared to do. Then, unquestionably, Milton's reputation culminated, although his fame was yet following it haud passibus æquis. To literary England and Europe he seemed little better than a fierce, discontented scholar, whom disappointed personal passions, and soured pride, had driven to support indefensible measures and theories, by sophistry, declamation, and outrageous abuse, disguised all in noble Latin. Then, ere he had time to right himself by appearing more fully in his poetic character, came the Restoration, and his extensive, though uneasy and unsettled, repute went out like a shooting star for a season. With difficulty did even the great orb of Paradise Lost labour up against the obscurity which supervened, especially as it was
“ darkness mingled with blood.” Such poetry from a regicide was not expected, and, when it came, was looked at with suspicion, and deemed a daring monstrosity like the killing of Charles himself. In spite of suspicion and prejudice, however, the book made its way, and many who hated Milton the Republican and Divorcist, were compelled, perhaps with pale cheeks and gnashing teeth, to surrender their admiration to Milton the Poet. Then came the great man's death, and this, for a time, seemed to exert no perceptible influence upon his fame. The prejudice against his name, and the admiration of his poetry, continued to struggle with each other ; nor did even the long and elaborate encomium of Addison fully turn the balance. Indeed, we see the vibration of opinion nowhere so fully as in Johnson's Life, and in some of the notes of Thomas Warton. It was not till the prevalence of liberal opinions, at the end of the 18th century, had taught men not only to bear with, but to believe many of Milton's political sentiments, as well as to admire his genius, that the full tide of his glory set in, and that we may conceive the first smile of satisfaction beginning to break across the look of serene expectancy worn by his Mighty Shade.
It is, perhaps, ever thus in the world's conduct to men of lofty genius. At first they are treated as composites, and subjected to severe and varied analysis—their creeds, personal failings, and the painful incidents of their story, are considered apart from their genius, and judged of according to arbitrary and conventional standards. At this stage men say, “ What a pity Milton was a Republican, Dante on bad terms with Gemma, Burns born a peasant, and Keats bred an apothecary's boy! what different men and poets might they have become had it been otherwise !” But, by and by, the sublime unity of their Being becomes apparent, and we feel that (always excepting their voluntary vices) the position, circumstances, and callings of men of genius, are precisely what, for the development of their minds, the fulfilment of their mission, and the full impression of their full nature, they should have been. Milton, had he not been art and part in Regicide, would not have been competent to write Paradise Lost, or Samson Agonistes. Dante's unhappy marriage added the necessary acid and edge to his character, and fitted him to heat seven times hotter the furnace of his Hell. Burns' brawny nature took root and vigour from the homely soil where it appeared.
Keats' confinement in London aided him, when he did see the country, to form those fresh, deep, lingering impressions of Nature, which, in general, childhood only is able to feel, and which no poetry but his has fully expressed. Genius always appears in its own dress, whether sorry or splendid, and the wise will be ready to accept both the wearer and the vesture.
Now, we need not be afraid or ashamed to say, that we like Milton better for his Republicanism, and see in it, not a derogation from, but an expression of, his grand and peculiar genius. He was, indeed, that rarest of all beings--a Republican King. Endowed himself with a royal nature, and feeling himself the first of living men, he yet contended for the equality of mankind, and the sovereignty of nations.
Susceptible,” says Emerson, “ as Burke to the attractions of historical prescription, of royalty, of chivalry, of an ancient Church installed in cathedrals and illustrated by old martyrdoms, he threw himself, the flower of elegance, on the side of the reeking conventicle—the side of humanity unlearned and unadorned.” This (although we question the propriety of the terms “reeking and unlearned,” applied to churches where Owen, Howe, Charnock, and many of similar accomplishments ministered) is the truth. He left the “House called Beautiful,” its beauty having, indeed, to his eyes, somewhat abated, for the conflict with Apollyon in the Valley of Humiliation. It was not that he became a hater of the elegant and artistic, but that he became aware of a severer elegance, a sterner art, a higher beauty, connected with Conflict, Liberty, and Truth, and felt that to stoop is often to conquer, and that there are eyes to which a descent like that from Comus to Samson Agonistes seems a step in Jacob's ladder upwards. His deepening zeal in politics and religion was faithfully parallelled by his advancement in genuine poetic power.
Before speaking farther of Milton's own genius, we have a few words to say about his critics. A motley collection, verily they are! Addison comes first, in that very long and loving analysis of the Poet's principal work, which, poor and artificial as it now seems, did good at the time, and served as a plain finger-post quietly pointing up to the stupendous sublimities of the subject. Its criticism is cramped, but its spirit is fine, and the extracts it gives are, in general, selected on the principle that they are characteristic, and can stand alone. Johnson's critique seems the short-hand outline of a whole volume of admiration and hatred, respect and scorn, the materials of which had been collecting in his breast for a lifetime, and in its sour concentration lies much of its power. Whole articles have been written, to answer some of its separate dicta, or abate the force of some of its single sneers! Most of those who have replied to it, have weakened their cause by towering into a passion, and calling the old Polyphemus harsh names. But mere foam, although able to cover up for a short time, is not able to quench and obliterate any colossal injustice. Sir Egerton Brydges, and Percival Stockdale, make violent but ineffectual attempts at reprisals. More ludicrous is the aspect of the Wartons, who wrote ere Johnson's critical authority was lessened, and who just dare to peep out of their holes, and to mutter words of Lilliputian protest against this enormity of the "Man Mountain.” Todd, et hoc omne genus, who were still more decidedly legitimists than the Wartons, are, between their love of Milton and their sympathy with Johnson's political faith, placed in even a more lamentable plight. Coleridge and Foster first-echoed afterwards by Channing and Macaulay—took the true method in their rejoinder to Johnson. They pled from his bar to a higher—they said, Coram haud judice. They proceeded not to depreciate Johnson, but to distinguish him from the subject of his criticism. They stated—especially Channing—the broad and deep differences between Johnson's strong, coarse mind, and the ethereal ardour, attitude, and habit of Milton, and asked the unanswerable question, How could two such minds sympathise; and might not, probably, Milton's criticism on Johnson have been as worthless as Johnson's on Milton? Of the Wartons, Todd, &c., otherwise, it were useless to speak at large. Joseph and Thomas Warton, men of limited depth, but of refined taste, appreciated the beautiful in Milton's soul rather than the sublime—themselves minor men, they wrote best about his minor poems. To Todd's devotion to him, we owe the admirable edition we have. Bishop Newton did “ Tom's best," as Johnson would have said about him, although his criticism is often contemptible. The accomplished Sir Egerton Brydges came forth with chivalric zeal to encounter Johnson, and loud was the flourish of trumpets which announced his entrance on the lists, and sharp and clear the stroke of challenge he struck upon the Achillean shield; but whether from age, or weakness, or excess of desire to do what his power did not permit him to do, he reeled in the saddle, and dropped down helpless. With the best of causes, and the warmest enthusiasm for it, he is but a weak defender of Milton. Very different is our estimate of Channing's noble panegyric. Its great charm lies in the calm possession and command of an unanswerable argument; he knows the strength of his case too well to put himself to trouble and travail in maintaining it—he simply and clearly states it, and the statement is the proof. Channing's nature and creed, too, eminently fitted him to be the panegyrist of Milton. It is a Republican commending a Republican—a man of cultured classical taste, worshipping a Modern Greek-a man of seraphic spirituality, glorifying a more exalted specimen of the same race-a man who combined high moral qualities with certain heterodox sentiments, illustrating the character of a still sublimer Heretic. Possessed of less moral sympathy with Milton, Macaulay brought to the subject a richer scholarship, a more brilliant diction, and the fervour of a heart then in the “dew of its youth,” and palpitating with an enthusiasm of which he seems now somewhat ashamed. Latterly, Landor, Emerson, De Quincey, Professor Wilson, David Masson, and others, have scattered pearls of praise, and supplied splendid fragments of criticism.
Perhaps three words will go farther than long elaborate definition and discussion in expressing the genius of Miltonand these are Wholeness, Sublimity, and Simplicity. How much lies in that plain strong word “Whole!” Completeness, harmony, health, and purity are all included in the term. Milton was not a bright fragment, with yawning edges and fluctuating lustre,—he was in a minor sense a “Whole One.” Gifted originally with all natural capacities,—the Reasoning and the Imaginative, the Creative and the Mechanical, the Mathematical and the Musical—he gave them the highest culture possible in his age; he sustained and inspirited their operations by the exercise and careful management of a fine bodily constitution; and he baptized them in the streams of Divine Truth and of Gospel Morality-in
“ Siloa's brook that flows
Hard by the oracle of God." The result was, not a giant or monster of mingled power and weakness, wisdom and folly, such as we find in a Julius Cæsar, a Mirabeau, a Voltaire, or a Napoleon, but a thoroughly furnished, and compactly-built man—with strength and symmetry equal to each other—with head and heart bound together by the band of worship,—truly what Cæsar was falsely called, the foremost man in' all this world,”—only, shall we say, “ a little lower than the angels,” or than those surpassing mortals, who, in the days of the past, met with angels, or saw the Great I AM himself, and became their similitudes on earth, and their oracles to men. And what if this Whole