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temptation to jingling rhyme like that abhorred by Touchstone,
Jonson, who was held to excel in the elaborate turns requisite for complimentary verse, has left us specimens of raillery as lumbering and unwieldy as these Hobson epitaphs. At least they express kindly feeling towards the old carrier, and the reader of some contemporary efforts in the style therein attempted, will be disposed to admit that Milton's failures appear respectable in comparison. But of real humour he had no conception. Any one who may doubt the fact has but to turn to the jests of the scoffing spirits in Paradise Lost (VI. 609), or the comic Prolusion partly translated by Mr. Masson. And yet in the lines On Shakespeare, Milton pays homage to one whose humour is as deep as human nature itself. He there recognises the immortality and the immeasurable value of works which he never attempted directly to imitate, though their harmonious versification and exactitude of expression have perceptibly influenced the greatest work of this first period—the Comus.
The Shakespeare verses and those on May Morning enable us to appreciate the interval that still separated Milton from the precisians to whom plays and May poles were alike abominable.
In one species of composition the finer qualities of Ben Jonson's mind were called into especial prominence. This was the Masque. The comic portion drew to itself the rugged coarseness and clumsy buffoonery that mar so many of his dramatic efforts, and left freer scope for the exercise of his delicate fancy and the display of his varied learning.
Jonson's masques excelled all those of his competitors, and would have been unequalled in our literature had not Comus carried to a higher point of artistic and moral beauty the favourite pastime of the Court. Milton's first venture in this style, the Arcades, is already equal to Jonson's best. Personal compliment is its main intention, and in this view the beautiful speech of the Genius descriptive of his office is a somewhat disproportioned episode. Yet it is fair to remember that Arcades is but a fragment, a'part of an entertainment.'
Milton's residence at Horton extended over five years, during which England was suffering from the misgovernment of the King and his ministers Laud and Strafford. Though civil war was as yet far off, there were not wanting some presages of the coming conflict. With the healthy country life and the healthy external regard, all the faculties of Milton gather strength.
In Sonnet I. we have his reply to some Cambridge friend who had remonstrated with him for making little use of his time. Here is the beginning of Milton's proper vocation, his poetical coming of age. His self-questioning has in it nothing morbid, and is merged in the conviction that all the course of his life is ordered for his good,
'If I have grace to use it so
As ever in my great Taskmaster's eye.' This trust in a higher guidance than his own will is the best evidence that his life had not been tending to vanity, and would not end therein. In the accompanying letter he writes, 'the very fear of the punishment denounced against him who hid the talent restrains me, so that I take no thought of being late, so it give advantage to be more fit; for those that were latest lost nothing when the Master of the vineyard came to give every man his hire.'
We are now approaching the termination of that period during which were composed most of the little pieces that Dr. Johnson despatches without much anxiety,' if with much misplaced contempt. Among these little pieces the Doctor included L'Allegro, Il Penseroso, Comus, and Lycidas. The two former have been usually regarded merely as detached descriptive poems; but they are really parts of a series. They are the pleadings, the decision on which is Comus. In them Milton sets before himself the occupations, amusements, and associations of a life led in accordance with the cheerful traditions of merry England,' in contrast to those of an existence more thoughtful, refined and subdued.
L'Allegro certainly represents the Cavalier alternative, to adopt which, as before remarked, all the outward circumstances of his life would impel its author. His training, his accomplishments, his favourite pursuits, were all calculated to attach him to that section of Englishmen which was to be the strength of the King's party. He had indeed nothing in common with the roysterers and triflers, the Gorings and the Jermyns who disgraced and weakened it; but Falkland and his guests would have been companions congenial to the young poet who had saluted the setting star that in its zenith had shed auspicious influence on Spenser, and who was himself befriended by the kindly, undegrading patronage of the Egertons.
He had followed the usual course of study, and had fought not ingloriously in the Academic lists. He had acquired much of that learning which the best men of both parties held in honour, and which each party, as it became profligate or fanatical, derided or condemned. He had twice signed willingly and ex animo' his adherence to the Church of England; and if it be objected that this was merely a formal act, it at least proved that as yet he walked in the beaten track of social prescription. No sectarian bias directed or confined his reading or his sympathies; he had made himself familiar with the literature of his time by following in the steps of its chief writers, but with a growing sense that he too was of the Muses train,' a sense expressed in his second Sonnet, which is redolent of the vernal freshness of the days of Chaucer, when power came upon men from the daisy and the nightingale. As far as we have gone, there is nothing to denote him as the future poet of the Puritans. To understand how he became so we must hastily glance at the history of Puritanism itself, and observe what there was in Milton's disposition coincident with the tendency of the nation towards ita tendency, in the years we treat of, becoming daily more pronounced.
In the earlier part of Elizabeth's reign, the Puritan was separated by no broad distinction from the body of his countrymen. He was a member of the Church of England who would have preferred a still wider departure from Roman doctrine and ritual than our reformers had deemed practicable or necessary. He desired a nearer approximation in some particulars to primitive simplicity by the abolition of certain usages retained by the Anglican fathers. On this question the opinion of Convocation in 1561 was so nearly balanced that its decision in favour of their retention was given only by a casting vote. But from that time the breach between Churchman and Puritan widened continually.
Elizabeth always mistrusted the Puritans. She regarded the exercise of private judgment as a step towards anarchy and the dissolution of that national unity which she strove so hard and so successfully to maintain. Their conduct seemed to her, if not rebellious, at least a limitation of obedience almost as dangerous as the foreign allegiance of the Papists. Her bishops were, it has been said, 'a few clergymen selected by the crown to keep the rest in order. This was done in order to prevent all ecclesiastical privilege or exemption from obedience to the laws of the land; and in this purpose lay the justification of the Royal Supremacy, But the expedient was disastrous to the Church of England. Bishops, to the utter detriment of their spiritual character, became the political agents of the court; and by their acceptance of that position, they shared the responsibility of those unhappy courses which brought ruin alike on mitre and on crown. The ground of the Puritan controversy was gradually shifted as the controversy itself became warmer. The one party now avowed not merely a preference for the ‘Geneva model,' but a conviction of the necessity of its adoption as the only Scriptural form. The other no longer contended for Episcopacy on the plea of its fitness and expediency, but asserted its divine right. This claim was not very boldly made by Elizabeth's bishops, and was discountenanced by the Queen. But when James, pursued by his haunting dread of presbytery, found the gap between Calvinist and Arminian tenets an easy leap, this pretension was revived as a useful support to his prerogative. Against this alliance of bishop and king the Puritans continued to fight out the religious quarrel in the House of Commons. The tactics of those who by slow and patient approaches were to undermine and ruin the fortress of prerogative were modified and partly determined
by the tactics of the besieged. James was, as we have all read, a pedant. He rested the justification of his obnoxious claims now on law, wherein he was sometimes technically in the right, now on reason, which nearly always proved him in the wrong. His law and his reasons, and his Scripture which he quoted to clinch his conclusions therefrom, were chosen in a narrow pettifogging spirit, with a single eye to his own personal and immediate interest. The Commons had to meet him in his own way, and quote precedent against precedent. When worsted in this encounter they tacitly acknowledged their defeat, and continued the ever renewed conflict in some quarter that promised a compensating advantage. Thus their opposition also was somewhat pedantic and fragmentary. It was but rarely that they could assert an important principle, and when they could and did, the rage and mortification of James shewed them how keenly the blow was felt.
It was the sustained purpose of Charles I. to carry into practice his father's theory of government. This purpose he executed with greater persistency and less caution than James had shewn. The basis of parliamentary resistance was therefore strengthened: for as he innovated in the interests of tyranny, his opponents were conservative in the interests of liberty. This is strikingly exemplified in Selden's offer to 'pawn his head' for the accuracy of his transcript of all the original Tower records bearing on a disputed point. The library of Sir Robert Cotton was the armoury whence these constitutional weapons were usually taken, until it was closed by the arbitrary command of Charles.
When the quillets of human law were adverse to their cause, the Puritans appealed to the recently translated Bible. In common with all Protestants they had rejected the claim of any external authority to furnish an infallible interpretation of Scripture, and their own was biassed by their peculiar circumstances. The leaders of the party had been obliged to consider political questions according to narrow legal maxims. They could not accept as a social embodiment of Christianity that national Church whose rulers were always on